God is no Thing by Rupert Shortt
A compelling case for the Christian faith from the Religion Editor of the Times Literary Supplement
God is no Thing
By Rupert Shortt
C Hurst and Co
ISBN 9 781-1-84904-637-4
Reviewed by John Rackley
Rupert Shortt has written a welcome addition to the growing number of books taking on the new Atheists and presenting a coherent version of the basis of Christian faith. He does this by offering his version of ‘if that’s the God you can’t believe in, neither do I.’
He does this by re-planting the rationality of Christian belief in Thomist soil (the philosophical school that arose as a legacy of the work and thought of Thomas Aquinas), without forgetting that this belief system is in fact a way of life, not an organisation of ideas.
“What’s the book you’re reading?"
My thoughts are interrupted by the carpet fitter who has taken his brew out into the garden where I am sitting. I try to talk about the weather.
He persists, ‘What’s the book about?"
I tell him it is about God and how it is possible to believe in him. He sits down beside me. “Let me have look. Yeah, I believe in God. I went to church. I was a choir boy. The problem is war, isn’t it? It’s all been started by religion. Get rid of religion, I say."
With that he leaves his cup on the stool and goes in to finish his work.
And there in a nutshell you have it. He had a background. He was prepared to talk about it. He had an opinion; a knock-down argument which he thought won the day.
Shortt would agree: religion is back on the agenda and not just because of the use of theological ideas to back up violence.
Shortt would disagree: religion must stand up for itself. It will lose any credibility if it becomes no more than yet another self-regarding, inoffensive variety of spirituality which backs away from any engagement with social justice, the myth of redemptive violence or self-referencing consumerism.
So Shortt and the carpet-fitter are living in the same world, just drawing very different conclusions. But Shortt addresses the issue of ‘religion and war’ twice in the book. He is recognising that this issue is replacing or is a variant of the ‘how can an all-powerful god allow such suffering?’ question which has flourished since the early years of the last century and is the burden which people of faith and no faith carry. But I don’t think Shortt was writing for post-modern carpet-fitters, or at least not in this book. So what is he writing and who is he writing for?
He is, as one would expect being the Religion Editor of the Times Literary Supplement, very well read. So the book could read as a series of succinct, clever reviews of recent writing by those who argue against Christian belief and others who have re-constructed old defences and set-up new ones. Although he admits that a coherent Christianity cannot be built on philosophical grounds alone, the majority of these mini-reviews are in the area of theological philosophy. He couldn’t avoid this, for that is where many detractors hide and need to be taken on. If there is a reader who wants an overview of contemporary scholarship around the question of the existence of God and the consequences for one’s confession of faith – then this book will help.
His first paragraph contains the surprising assertion that ‘the Christian faith is the only world faith apart from Judaism to have weathered the storms of modernity’. The rest of this book is an explanation of how this has been so. But he does not take hostages.
He tackles what to think about living a faith, the Bible and its use, prayer, the environment, the person of Jesus (an admirable precis of contemporary insight, but maybe that’s just because I agree with him), the cross and resurrection. He has wonderful quotations from the likes of Frank Skinner, John Haught, Rowan Williams, Ignatius of Litakia, Jonathan Sacks and Donald Nichol. He is not afraid to call up the spirit of recently forgotten defenders of the faith like John Habgood. If there is a reader who wants to discover whether there is a way of belief that is not dependent on allegiance to a particular Christian tradition then he will find material here.
With an interesting discussion into the theological foundations of the Magna Carta a little late for its commemoration, but right on the ball for our Brexit World and future relations with Europe, he reflects on the need for a strong-minded Christian social ethic. If there is a reader who wonders whether formation in Christian discipleship can ever get beyond personal behaviour and devotion, then this is your primer.
So the carpets were fitted and with a cheerful farewell the confident deist packed up his van and went on his way. I was grateful that he did not scurry off when he discovered I was reading about God. But I realise I was tongue-tied in the face of his challenge. Two reasons: I have spent too long thinking church before belief and creed before faith and I have internalised the modernist lie that no one wants to ‘do God’ these days and so was unprepared. I will read this book again for encouragement and know better how ‘to be ready to make my defence to anyone who demands of me an account for the hope that is in me’ – the words of a New Testament fisherman who Shortt might have mentioned.
A postscript: Yes, I was puzzled by the title too and might have been put off if I had to buy the book. It’s too clever by half. It’s something to do with God not being ‘spectator evidence’ but it doesn’t mean God is nothing. Get it?
Let Rowan Williams have the last word speaking in an interview extract which Shortt includes in his chapter on God is no thing but not nothing:
God is first and foremost that depth around all things into which, when I pray, I try to sink. But God is also the activity that comes to me out of the depth, tells me I’m loved, that opens up a future for me, that offers transformations I can’t imagine. Very much a mystery but also very much a presence. Very much a person.
John Rackley is a Baptist minister. He blogs at windingquest.com