The Revd Jonathan Clatworthy is that rara avis, a priest who is concerned about life in the Church of England (he is General Secretary of Modern Church), as well as an academic theologian and philosopher, who, as an eminently human human being, wears and displays his learning with the lightest of gossamer touches.
As I had the good fortune to meet him at the Gladstone Library course on ‘The Futures of Anglicanism’, I can tell you that he is excellent company. But, for the second time in my life, I felt in the presence of a hippogriff. A conversation with Jonathan is:
…an exhilarating ride on a Hippogriff, alternately soaring to the heights before diving down to skim over the water. He challenges your preconceptions, nudges you out of your ruts and re-boots your cerebellum. No wonder it is a breathless experience, but he does it all with the most exquisite courtesy and consideration for other peoples’ points of view.
This is a slim volume, unassuming in appearance. The publisher’s blurb, while perfectly correct in its description, does not do justice to the scope of this work. Luckily for the reader, this is no simple logical thesis on the existence of God. In order to illustrate his points, and show how the various arguments arose at particular points in history, he incidentally gives a synopsis of the whole history of Western philosophy – metaphysics, moral philosophy, epistemology and logic. To do this, he has distilled the wisdom of the ages into 113 pages, like a master chef reducing a sauce to its essentials, a jus. For instance, on page 55, he offers nuggets summing up the philosophy of Kant, Kierkegaard, Bentham and J S Mill, all fitting seamlessly into his narrative.
The result would therefore be difficult to read at a sitting, as it needs time to digest. On the other hand, there is not a sentence in the book that I did not understand. I began at the beginning and continued to the end, but it might be an idea to read the introduction, followed by the conclusion (so you know where he’s going to), followed by the main part of the book (so you can see how he got there). As this is not a novel, there is no risk of spoiling the plot!
I offer you a sample paragraph, at the end of his preface:
‘I have finished writing this book at a time when world capitalism is in crisis…It may seem that analysing theories about God is an unnecessary luxury. I believe the opposite. If human minds are the only minds capable of working out what we ought to do, then the best humanity will ever do is serve the interests of the most powerful. If , on the other hand, a wiser, more benign mind is responsible for the way we have evolved, then it makes sense to hope that humanity can rise above self-interest and achieve a better way of living.‘
He has two comments on the search for a spiritual dimension outside organised religion which interested me. The first is that ‘people who deliberately engage on a spiritual search usually expect to remain in control of their own searching process‘. And the second is: ‘Faced with a choice between rejecting all spiritual awareness and rejecting modern scientific knowledge, it is understandable if many prefer to keep their options open. The result is a range of vaguely ‘spiritual’ practices and ideas which can be picked up and dropped with minimal commitment, in a culture reluctant to subject any of them to rigorous examination.‘
Both observations ring very true, to this reader at least.
One of the elements of ‘Making Sense of Faith in God’ is an exploration of the way people think. As he says, his analysis not a neurological one, but a philosophical one. I cannot resist the cartoon on the right, which I am confident he will forgive me for including as it illustrates very well one of the points that he makes. He is unimpressed with the claim of some atheists to have all the answers, and this illustrates why.
As you will have gathered, I much enjoyed reading this book. I took a week to do so from cover to cover, and would have like to spend longer (and will). It is not a book to be dipped into, exactly, as you need to keep up a certain pace in order to follow the argument. But it needs to be sipped slowly and with a degree of respect, like the finest vintage.
Author: Jonathan Clatworthy; ISBN 9780281064045; SPCK Publishing 112 pages Paperback (198 x 129 mm) Book series Modern Church £7.99
What SPCK says about the book: “Many people’s understanding of the world does not include God. A number of ‘new atheist’ authors – such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett – claim that science can explain how the universe works without any need for the divine, and this seems to have become the default position in modern Western culture.
But a great number of people are prepared to spend time and effort trying to establish some sort of spiritual dimension to their lives. Faced with the choice between rejecting modern scientific knowledge or all awareness of the divine, they choose from a range of vaguely ‘spiritual’ practices and ideas, which can be picked up and dropped with minimal commitment.
Making Sense of Faith in God , as the title indicates, offers a different alternative: to reject neither reason nor God, because believing in God makes sense.”
The Tyrannosaurus illustration comes from Pinterest, (via Nathan Isnumberone).