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Faith for the Post-Christian Heart: A Conversation with Francis Spufford

Francis Spufford's first book—The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings: Lists in Literature—was published in 1989, the year he turned 25. "Not surprisingly," Spufford wrote in the introductory essay, "the first response to a good list is often one of undifferentiated delight at the apparently universal reach displayed, at the pyrotechnical aspect of a device that can marshal so much so concentratedly." Much the same could be said of Spufford's subsequent career as a writer: each book a surprise, unpredicted by its predecessors, yet the whole hanging together, defying probability.

His latest book, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, was published in the United Kingdom in 2012 and in the United States in the fall of 2013, earning a 2014 CT Book Award in the Apologetics/Evangelism category. On his U.S. book tour, Spufford visited the offices of CT for a conversation with Books & Culture editor John Wilson.

When CT editors first suggested this conversation, it was framed as a debate between American apologist William Lane Craig and you. I was happy to moderate, but my reaction was, "What are they going to debate about?" It seems to me that you and he are doing different things. There are people whose job it is to get up and debate Richard Dawkins and such; that's a good thing to do, and Craig does it superbly. They're bringing a certain toolkit that's different from your toolkit, but you're not saying to them that their brand of apologetics has passed its sell-by date. Was I right about that?

Yeah. I'm not here to say, "From now on, apologetics shall be conducted in this wishy-washy language of art." Had [Craig and I] had that conversation, we would have turned out to be more complementary than competitive. But we do have disagreements, some of which can be explained by the different settings in which we're situated. So, for instance, Craig's Reasonable Faith talks about reason offering a rational justification for the truth claims of religion. In my setting, I see reason as having an important but slightly different and smaller role. It's just not the case in Europe that large numbers of people are up to argue about the truth claims of religion.

What we need in Europe is to push back against the idea that religion is so farfetched that it's not worth talking about. For me, the job of dialectical reason is to cut up—lightly, suavely, and wittily—the claim that that the center point of probability in the discussion isn't even agnosticism anymore; that all sensible people have to be atheists; and that the burden of proof is entirely on religion, because it makes such freaky and bizarre claims that believers have all the credibility of the tooth-fairy mob.

I want the center of the argument pulled back toward agnosticism, so that it's possible to say that atheism and faith are both necessarily leaps into the dark. I'm not saying we're stuck with fideism—you just make your choice, and you know nothing. I'm saying knowledge can't take you all the way on either side. Which is why I would respect a deep, emotional conviction of the absence of God in an atheist, and why I would hope an atheist [would] respect my deep emotional conviction of the presence of God.

I don't really believe that the truth of Christianity can be demonstrated in public by logical tools. What can be done is for false claims about the improbability of Christianity to be pushed to one side, so that we have, once again, a clear space in which the conversation can happen.

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