Where does God sleep?

All in the Mind
June 11, 1999

When I first engaged with Ludovic Kennedy over his new book on Start the Week I chided him with being a literalist. Returning to the book again I can see that here is a person of strong spiritual feeling who somewhere along the way has been badly served in his religious quest.

The literalism, alas, is still there, as it is with so many people who reject religious belief. As a child he was disappointed to go to church and find "that God had nowhere to sleep or wash". This desire to find something tangible seems never to have left him, and he finds it impossible to give meaning to Christian concepts except as empty metaphors.

"For most of us God is either a larger than life, separate, sentient Being or he is nothing. God as myth or metaphor, as existing within us or as a ground of our being, is beyond most people's understanding." What he ignores here is an understanding of religious language as symbolic realism. The ultimate mystery to which religious language points is real, objective, not just a projection of our imaginations: but this reality cannot be described, only suggested by metaphors that always have to be qualified, discarded and remade.

The starting point for anyone serious about religion must be a statement of the 7th-century theologian John of Damascus, the quintessence of Christian orthodoxy. He wrote: "It is plain that there is a God. But what he is in his essence and nature is absolutely incomprehensible and unknowable."

The function of religious language then is not to describe ultimate mystery but to help us relate to it truly: that language is of course metaphorical. An objector may very understandably respond that normally when we use metaphors there is at least one non- metaphorical proposition to which we can all assent. We may talk about "the little white rose of Scotland/that smells sharp and sweet - and breaks the heart", as Hugh MacDiarmid does and to which Kennedy responds, but we know Scotland exists, as does the heart that gets broken. We cannot in the same way say that "God exists", for the word existence can only be used of God analogically. God does not "exist" in the same way that we do. We have to explore ultimate mystery without any assured and non-metaphorical statements. But that is precisely what happens at the cutting edge of science, as the Cambridge philosopher Janet Martin Soskice argued in her important book Metaphor and Religious Language (1985).

Kennedy lambasts the record of the churches - the Spanish inquisition for example murdered 10,000 innocent people over a period of 30 years. But what standard of comparison is he using? The Soviet communist party at periods in the 1930s managed 10,000 murders a week. He also traces the history of atheism, though here again his history is very much open to question. Despite all this it is clear that Kennedy is not an atheist at all but an agnostic. Discussing whether the universe has a divine creator or not he writes: "We have to say we do not know and do not think we will ever know. Whether it came about as a result of a purposeful act, a physical evolvement or something accidental must remain a mystery beyond human comprehension."

In the last chapter, "Touching the transcendent", Kennedy makes it clear that he is a person of strong spiritual feeling. Both nature and art move him deeply. Indeed he acknowledges personal experiences of a kind of nature mysticism, quoting Wordsworth with approval: "A motion and a spirit, that impels/All thinking things, all objects of all thoughts/And rolls through all things."

From a Christian point of view this is a perfectly orthodox expression of the immanent aspect of God, which of course has to be expressed metaphorically. The sound of bagpipes in the Scottish hills and great works of art are for Kennedy indeed touches of the transcendent, and like C. S. Lewis in his atheistic days he seems particularly to respond to the metaphysical and other Christian poets. In relation to this Kennedy writes:

"If you want to attain the kind of mystical experience of nature which Wordsworth and Jefferies and I and others have had the good fortune to enjoy, you must also open your heart to the possibility of it: the readiness is all."

If we can assume that Kennedy's heart is also open to finding the source of these experiences in a purposeful love at the heart of the universe, then we have to ask how he has been so turned off traditional religious beliefs. On the account he gives here his parents must carry some of the blame. Without serious belief themselves, they only mocked his childish questions, rather than taking them seriously. Also he seems to have had less help from his chaplains at Eton than I know pupils there receive now. Reflecting on the fact that I believe and Kennedy does not, I recollect that I have met and read people who have struggled with the religious quest much longer and profoundly than he or I have and who have emerged with a belief. As W. H. Auden, one of the best Christian poets of the century, urged, I won't spit on my luck. I am only sorry that Kennedy has been so unlucky.

Kennedy's love of nature brings to mind the poetry and prose of R. S. Thomas, who has written more terrible things about God than either Kennedy or I dare. From time to time the poetry of Thomas acknowledges a touch of the transcendent, yet still: "The one eloquence/To master is that/of the bowed head, the bent/knee, waiting, as at the end/ Of a hard winter/for one flower to open/on the mind's tree of thorns."

The Rt Revd Richard Harries is bishop of Oxford and a fellow, Royal Society of Literature.

All in the Mind

Author - Ludovic Kennedy
ISBN - 0 340 68063 6
Publisher - Hodder and Stoughton
Price - £18.99
Pages - 302

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