Briefly Noted: On Human Emotion & Christian Apologetics: Or, Why Friedrich Nietzsche Has Something to Teach Christians
In a recent edition of the Times Literary Supplement, Theo Hobson reviews Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense.In the book, Spufford pushes back against the arrogance of the New Atheism and seeks to demonstrate the emotional, and thereby rational, intelligence of Christian faith. Hobson notes that Spufford’s book is interesting precisely because Christians have long wrestled with how to make their claims attractive to a doubting majority, especially since unbelievers often do not respond well (at least, immediately) to authority claims and rational syllogisms.
Spufford speaks to this point precisely. In the introduction, he notes that his purpose is to show that he is a Christian because he “feels” it. He writes, “‘the feelings are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas.’” The next chapter describes, from an emotional angle, the reality of sin. Spufford calls it the propensity of people to err (this is a redacted version of Spufford’s more “colorful” description), a propensity that “lurks in all our desiring.” Subsequent chapters look at Jesus–“the dusty drama of the gospels is nicely evoked,” says Hobson–and the church. Each chapter contributes to the larger point: Christianity is emotionally reasonable and reasonably emotional and, therefore, not an easy “punching bag” for the New Atheists . (If I may speak out of turn for a moment: The New Atheists’ mockery of Christianity displays an almost-encyclopedic ignorance of Christian theology. Whenever Dawkins, for example, meanders into theological territory, one wants to say, “If what you don’t know can’t hurt you, then you’re nearly invincible.”)
As Hobson summarizes, “The book’s theological weak spots are in a sense beside the point. The point of apologetics (which this book is, though it rejects the term) is to show those on the fence that belief need not mean the abandonment of intelligence, wit, and emotional honesty. In this, Francis Spufford succeeds to an exceptional degree.” For those with an interest or calling in apologetics, this book, while not a manual as such, may provide an inspiring if not controversial read.
In response to Hobson’s question and Spufford’s answer, I’ll limit myself to two points. First, God created humanity in his image and likeness. Many theologians have viewed the image of God as being “seated” in the rational dimension of our humanity. However, as I see it, this is not quite right. It seems to me that the “whole person” is the image of God. We are not so much image-bearers as we are imagers, and we image God though all of who we are, including our spiritual, moral, rational, creative, relational, and physical capacities. The rational and cognitive dimension of our humanity is important, but so are the other dimensions. For this reason, it makes sense that our gospel witness (in word and deed) would draw upon each of these dimensions.
Second, and tangentially related, I think there is a lesson to learn from some of the Continental philosophers (at this point, you think I’m certifiably insane, don’t you?). Unlike the Anglo-American analytic tradition, Continental philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus drew upon the whole range of human being in order to make their arguments. Nietzsche philosophized by means of aphorisms and apothegms that were intended to strike the reader like a hammer, evoking both the intellectual and emotional dimensions of the reader. Sartre and Camus wrote not only hefty tomes (e.g. Being and Nothingness), but also plays and novels (e.g. No Exit). Kierkegaard likewise.
American philosophers might be well-served to become “bi-lingual,” in the sense of being able to do philosophy both in the analytic and continental veins. Eleanore Stump put it well in Wandering in Darkness: “Philosophy as it is practiced in the Anglo-American tradition (a tradition to which I count myself an adherent) prizes lucidity, analysis, careful distinction, and rigorous argument—all unquestionably worth prizing. Nonetheless, those more sympathetic to other traditions in philosophy have regularly complained about what they call ‘the aridity’ or ‘the narrowness’ of Anglo-American philosophy; and in my view, this reproach is not altogether unjustified. To the extent to which one prizes rigor, one will eschew or even disdain breadth, since it is obviously easier to achieve rigor if one limits one’s focus. And so Anglo-American philosophy sometimes looks like a species of the lapidary’s art” (23-24).
I am not saying that analytic philosophy is unhelpful. It is deeply and profoundly helpful. Instead, I am making the very limited claim that a robust theological anthropology sets us free to take a page from the Continental “playbook” once in a while, and make our case via narrative, film, poetry, and song. In so doing, we’ll be more likely to engage the emotional and aesthetic dimension of human existence rather than merely the logico-syllogistic dimension. Atheistic philosophers such as Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus did this well. Christians such as Pascal, Kierkegaard, Lewis, and Schaeffer did this well. And by God’s grace, we, in this day and age, can do it well also.
 Theo Hobson, “States of Tangled Wanting” review essay of Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (Faber, 2012), in Times Literary Supplement (Sep. 21, 2012, p. 28).