“God is interesting.” It sounds like the most tepid theological declaration ever. A creed for hesitant Anglicans, perhaps; “We believe in one God, who’s rather interesting really, when you come to think of it…” Hardly very inspiring, and a bit lacking in theological rigour. (I certainly don’t let my students get away with the word “interesting” in essays…)
But I was recently asked to explain what specific thing about God people needed to know, and I chose the fact that God is interesting. Having started out mild, I hedged further: this isn’t the most important thing we could ever say about God, or the most urgent aspect of God for the world. God is love, God is truth, God is beauty – all these have a far more central part in our understanding of God, and in our grasp of what the world (and our lives in it) might look like in light of who God is. Still, God is interesting, and I think that’s not something which is said enough.
The Christianity I’ve been around over the last three decades has often avoided the idea that God might be interesting. The churches I knew as a youngster emphasized God as the answer – as loving, and powerful, and the answer to things. These could be small things like what I should do with my weekend, or big things such as why there is suffering in the world. But God was the answer, and a careful reading of the right part of the Bible would enable us to find that.
The sort of books we were offered in our teens by those churches – with titles like Burning Questions and The Chocolate Teapot – tended to support this general assumption. They were mostly about how to understand God as answer in various spheres: sexual ethics, school life, friendships, music, etc. Most of the emphasis was put on how to “translate” the answer in the Bible (provided by God) into situations which didn’t at first look as if they could be answered that way.
Worthy as this was, it sent me through my teens, and into university, with a sense that God was a way of ending the conversation satisfactorily. I tended to avoid religion as a topic in my literary studies, because I’d retained this idea that religion was simple and pinned down meanings. As a good student of literature, I wanted to explore ambiguity and complexity, which we all understood were the basis of literary value. Religion would only have dispersed these complexities, and settled the question, and left us with nothing more to say.
I don’t know how I maintained that assumption at university, given the tutors I was lucky enough to study with, and those years did give me some glimpses that it might be a lot more involved than I’d thought. But it wasn’t until I was a graduate student down in the West Country that I spent weeks reading my way through the shelves of church history and theology in the university library. I discovered that there was something more to say about God. It started almost by accident, as a senior colleague lent me her seminar notes for a week on Genesis in the first-year introductory literature course I was teaching. I started to read Biblical Criticism and became absorbed by it; my wife likes to joke that I am one of the few people converted to the worship of the living God by the Four Source Hypothesis.
I found my way back to the Church partly by reading and finding that God was interesting. There was more to say than finding the right answer in the Bible and “applying” it. A great deal more to say, if the library shelves were to be believed, not to mention the centuries upon centuries of history which they opened up. I hope it isn’t intellectual snobbery (or any other kind) to think that it matters that we can think and talk about God at length and in detail. Even within Christianity, I had previously developed a sense that God was what closed down or limited possibilities. Closed them down in a healthy and loving way, certainly, but the Bible marked out the areas beyond which it was pointless to wander.
This matters both for people (particularly young people) within Christianity, and for those outside it. I meet a lot of young people in my job at the university, and I am regularly astonished by how certain they are that they know all about God. I don’t mean that they’re mystics who enjoy regular communion with the essence of divinity, but that they think there’s not very much to know. They might regard church as a slightly eccentric hobby, Christianity as an oppressive force which held back minority rights, God as a character from a story book (all positions with some merit…), but they rarely have a sense that there might be much to think or say after that.
God, to them, is not interesting. You can be right about God, on one side of the argument or another, but for most of them there’s not much else to say. I frequently see the same attitude elsewhere: when I took part in a discussion about Shakespeare and the Bible on the BBC, lots of people had views, but I was struck by how often people didn’t see the point of talking about those two books together. Many of those who loved the Bible and those who abhorred it couldn’t imagine why you would discuss it in this way. As if it were interesting, essentially.
But it is interesting. Every week a handful of people meet at my university to read and discuss literature and Christianity. We’ve talked about George Herbert, Mary Sidney, The Hunger Games, the Gospel of Thomas, and various Biblical texts, and we can talk for ages on these topics. There’s always more to say – indeed, we usually run over time – and we’re not trying to find the right answer, just to explore the meaning and the possibilities of what’s there. One of the delights of that group is how little I feel we’ve “done” the text at the end of the hour: we’ve always gone off on a number of tangents, and there’re always myriad other avenues we could have taken but didn’t. We have various different views of God (and whether God exists), but there is always lots to say, and lots to listen to.
Christians (especially young Christians) are often advised to live a Christian life as a way of evangelising. Whether that means living in accordance with a set of principles, or holding themselves to a high ethical standard, or being part of a loving community, it is suggested that this will be “distinctive”, and make other people notice. After seeing that Christians life differently, it is explained, non-Christians will ask them questions. They will suspect that Christians have some “secret” that they would like to know, at which point the Christians can explain that anyone can know their secret, and share their faith.
I’ve come across this idea again and again in Christian writing, particularly in books and blogs aimed at young people going to university. I wasn’t a Christian at university, so I don’t know if it works. I strongly suspect it doesn’t work, certainly not in the way it is presented. I’m probably being very cynical but I can’t imagine many non-Christian undergrads noticing that someone doesn’t (for example picking things that would be very visible) drink alcohol or doesn’t have casual sex, and concluding that there is a secret here they want to learn.
That’s not because students who don’t practice Christianity are lacking in curiosity or spiritual interests – quite the reverse- but because most of them seem to think they already know what Christianity is and what it has to offer. I don’t think I’ve ever met a student, whether Christian or not, who didn’t have a strong sense of what Christianity’s basic tenets are, and what the religion means. I certainly haven’t met many. I might disagree with them on those subjects, but I can’t recall meeting one who thought they didn’t really know anything about Christianity.
Dorothy L. Sayers had a similar experience (always good to be in her company.) She remarked that most of her time as a writer on Christian topics was spent trying to persuade people that they hadn’t read the Bible when they were sure they had, rather than presenting it to them as an intriguing work they’d never heard of. In my (very limited) experience of talking about Christianity to people who don’t practice it, they haven’t been interested in “the secret”, they’ve been interested in the idea that it’s more complex than they thought. And “interested” is the right word: it piqued their curiosity, it appealed to their mind, they were excited by its strangeness and richness. They’re not impressed by Christian answers, but they are sometimes intrigued by Christian questions.
As I said above, I don’t think that finding God interesting is intellectual snobbery. I certainly hope not. It’s not a matter of needing to know that God is suitable for people with degrees, or of wanting to use God as a topic for cleverness. Rather, it’s being drawn into thinking and talking about God – along with the Bible, church history, philosophical theology, etc – as an activity which can change you. Just as prayer is a way of contemplating God, and of being drawn into a relationship with the divine, and so is singing hymns or worship songs, so is learning and thinking.
I know at least two people for whom those activities – learning and thinking – seem to be a major part of their spiritual life. They follow them as other people might practice meditation or attend a worship session. They don’t seem to study and discuss these things in order to find the right answer, or to extract ideas that they can “apply” elsewhere, but they do so in order to be present to God, and to be fully present to other people, as their truest selves.
Medieval philosophers described theology as “Queen of the Sciences”, a phrase I interpret not as meaning that it had the right to tell the other branches of knowledge when to stop or where to go (though it has been used for that purpose), but as suggesting that searching for knowledge of God was the archetype of all quests for meaning. The science (or “knowing”) which addressed itself to God was the most scienc-y, the most like what knowledge itself was. This is not the impression that a lot of people have of Christianity, whether they believe in Christ or not. That’s why I genuinely believe that God is interesting, and that this is the relentlessly mild notion it might be worth sharing with our society.