Child of Evangelism

James Wood

  • The Quest for God: A Personal Pilgrimage by Paul Johnson
    Weidenfeld, 216 pp, £14.99, March 1996, ISBN 0 297 81764 7
  • Is There a God? by Richard Swinburne
    Oxford, 144 pp, £20.00, February 1996, ISBN 0 19 823544 5
  • God in Us: A Case for Christian Humanism by Anthony Freeman
    SCM, 87 pp, £5.95, September 1993, ISBN 0 344 02538 1
  • Robert Runcie: The Reluctant Archbishop by Humphrey Carpenter
    Hodder, 401 pp, £20.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 340 57107 1

My childhood was spent in the command economy of evangelical Christianity. Life was centrally planned: all negotiations had to pass by Jesus’s desk. Language was religiously inflated. When my bedroom was untidy my parents told me that this was ‘poor stewardship’, because it was not right to be careless with God’s things. Poor behaviour was ‘unworthy’ or ‘unedifying’. Sometimes it seems that my childhood was the noise around the hush of God. And at times an actual hush: I remember several episodes when my parents talked quietly about someone they knew who had ‘lost his faith’, and the solemn vibrations that would fill the house at these times, as if a doctor were visiting. Similarly, my childhood was marked by the deaths of friends of my parents who were members of their congregation, people for whom the full evangelical panoply – prayer, the laying on of hands, anointing with oil – did not seem to have worked.

Markings: my childhood was a carpet on which Christians walked and spilt things, and then tried to clear them up. My family was loving, but I have never felt the family of God to be especially loving. The church to which we belonged was part of the Church of England, but during the Seventies it had been ‘renewed’ and now considered itself ‘charismatic’. These code words seem dated now; at the time they meant that the church felt itself to have been visited by the Holy Spirit, and to be making fresh use of what St Paul called ‘spiritual gifts’ or ‘the manifestation of the Spirit’: speaking in tongues, dancing in the spirit, ecstatic worship, healing, miracles, prophecies. This movement had its roots in American worship. It blew through many parts of the Church of England during the Seventies, and was a casualty of its own explosiveness, for it broke up congregations into those who had been mildly renewed and those who had become fanatical. Eventually, the fanatics left the Church of England and established the ‘house church’ movement. This was an influential generation: George Carey, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, led a renewed church in Durham before his elevation to a bishopric.

Wonders occurred at the church I attended. I saw people shivering with ecstasies, clutching at God with their hands raised. I saw people dancing in the aisles, whirling and writhing. It was explained to me afterwards that these dancers were ‘taken with the Spirit’. One young woman was a persistent dancer, and I recall being disappointed that she was among the least attractive women in the congregation (at 13, this was important). The frondy dresses worn by Christian women in the late Seventies and the visionary intensity gave everything an odd resemblance to the film of Woodstock that I first saw at the age of 12 (Joe Cocker as rhapsode). I was disturbed at how many adults broke into tears during these services. One man spent entire services juddering like a machine. I never saw his eyes dry; he always looked as if he were painfully giving birth to something unwanted. I began to associate Christianity with crying, and with a form of sublime punishment. The sick were prayed for. Repentant sinners gave testimonials. A visiting preacher who brought his guitar into the pulpit with him – a strange Picasso-effect, this disjunction – told us that if we had not committed ourselves to Christ we were in terrible danger. For who could tell – we might walk out of the church and be hit by a car, and then where would we be? After the service, people came up to me and asked me how I had done in my school exams. If the answer was good, there would be an earnest hug, and a bellowed ‘Praise the Lord!’ Nothing was too small for the Lord’s attention.

There were many good and kind people in this church. Nevertheless, it was full of punitive hysteria. It was perhaps the wrong kind of religion for a child because it excited in me two childish responses: fear and slyness. I feared being called out to give testimonials to the congregation. At times, we would all have our heads bent in prayer, and the vicar – incongruously, a rather bluff man with the voice of a classics master – would announce that he was certain that there was someone here who ‘had not turned to Christ’. His message scathed me like a searchlight. With the self-consciousness of adolescence, it was always I who had not turned to Christ. The fear produced slyness, or suspicion. I noted that no sick person was ever healed of anything, despite the laying on of hands, the prayers. Indeed, one of the kindest and gentlest people in the congregation died of cancer, despite the enormous prayerful effort to save her. I was bewildered. My parents told me that God had called her. I concluded that prayer either did not work (for it could not be that people were not praying hard enough) or that God had decided not to answer this particular prayer. Either way, prayer seemed a fool’s game, and one of the cardinal promises of the New Testament – ‘If ye shall ask anything in my name, I will give it’ (John 14) – seemed not to be a promise. Faith might move mountains, but in an invisible mountain range. And I noticed that when people were speaking in tongues, instead of producing a nonsense version of English, they seemed to produce a tourist’s imitation of Hebrew – a throaty noise as if they were saying the Scottish words ‘Loch Shiel’ over and over again. The idea seemed to be that this was more ‘religious’, a small Jerusalem moment.

The theology tended towards literalism, but a literalism of the spirit rather than of the word: intelligent evangelicism – the church was in a university town. Nobody believed that Genesis was creation’s blueprint, but most believed that it was a divine story of its divine beginning. The Bible, in Protestant custom, could be argued over locally as long as certain general truths were not compromised. This nest of truths opened out thus: God made us; the Bible was God’s revealed word; Jesus was God made man; Jesus was resurrected, thereby conquering death; Jesus died for our salvation, and if we believe in him we will have eternal life. We will not always understand why some things are as they are, but we must have faith. Evangelicism is most impressive, perhaps, for the intensity which it bestows on our decision to choose, and the consequences that flow from this. If we choose to accept Jesus as the saviour, then our lives will be in sublime revolution, every molecule adance, every minute scrutinised. This is what such believers mean when they talk of ‘commitment’. It is like entering prison: you must turn out your spiritual pockets and hand over all your belongings, even your shoelaces. They take their intensity – fairly, it seems to me – from Jesus’s encounter with Nicodemus, as told in John 3. Jesus tells the puzzled Pharisee, Nicodemus, that to see the kingdom of God a man must be born again. Bemused, Nicodemus wonders how a man can be born twice, and Jesus replies that that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit.

What is both magnificent and oppressive in evangelicism is the apprehension of momentousness, and the belief in divine realities. It is an appalling contract. If you believe in Jesus’s claims, then everything flows from this, and your life has been changed. Nothing could be more important. And once you have signed this contract, then certain dividends follow: God’s love, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, eternal life, Christ’s active presence in your life.

The child of evangelicism, if he does not believe, inherits nevertheless a suspicion of indifference: he is always evangelical. He rejects the religion he grew up with, but rejects it religiously. He is perpetually rejecting it, just as the evangelical believer is perpetually believing. He has buried belief but he has not buried the evangelical choice, which seems to him the only important dilemma. He respects the logical claustrophobia of Christian commitment, the little cell of belief. This is the only kind of belief that makes sense, the revolutionary kind. Nominal belief is insufficiently serious; nominal unbelief seems almost a blasphemy against earnest atheism.

At the age of 15, I sat down with a notebook and tore myself away from belief in God. It is a process that brings great unhappiness to others, but not to oneself. It is like undressing: you are so quickly, so easily, free. You write down four or five objections to belief. Before you have read any atheist or sceptical philosophy you find that you have apparently invented for yourself the old objections to God – the problem of evil and suffering in the world, the senseless difficulty of faith, the cruelty of heaven and hell, the paganism of Jesus’s ‘sacrifice’, your own lack of religious experience. It is probably because these objections are so obvious and so old that atheism, as a philosophical tradition, is generally underpowered. Literary and philosophical atheism moves between a rather charming serenity and a spirit of naughtiness. The naughtiness produces personal defiances, disobediences and challenges – J.S. Mill saying: ‘if such a being can sentence me to hell ... to hell I will go.’ The serenity treats religion as if it were, almost self-evidently, nonsense – think of Stendhal, Russell, even Hume. For Stendhal, the priests are hypocrites, therefore religion is a lot of hypocritical nonsense. Nietzsche is the great wild exception to this, and Camus the great calm exception: both, in their intense dismantling, meet the true challenge of belief in God, and labour to kill it philosophically. More often, it is believers, such as Dostoevsky, who offer the deepest objections to their own belief. The parable of the Grand Inquisitor, in The Brothers Karamazov, is an unanswerable attack on the cruelty of God’s hiddenness. In my early twenties, it proved decisive. Kierkegaard writes, in Works of Love, that the true Christian preacher ‘should not hesitate, aware of the highest responsibility, to preach in Christian sermons... AGAINST Christianity’. He meant, of course, the better to protect Christianity’s hard challenges from the soft challenges of the established churches. But it was Kierkegaard’s devout mutilation of himself, his repulsive masochism, his belief in the absolute impossibility of imitating Christ, that, in my mid-twenties, finished off what I had begun for myself at 15, and finally rid me of religious belief.

This is a long route to declaring my interest in these books. Paul Johnson’s The Quest for God is part of a noble tradition in which laymen have written devotional treatises. The layman explains his love of God, and his fondness for his ecclesiastical tradition. The high point was reached more than three hundred years ago when Sir Thomas Browne published his Religio Medici, and Johnson’s indebtedness to this tradition is seen best in his borrowing of two habits common to such books: the sarcastic ridiculing of all secular opposition and a pious refusal to believe that atheism really exists. Sir Thomas Browne writes that religious sceptics do not ‘incline me to any point of infidelity or desperate positions of atheism, for I have been, these many years, of opinion there was never any.’

This seems to be Johnson’s attitude. Of the famous atheists he mentions, he exhibits a wary respect only for Hume. The rest are ridiculed. H.G. Wells, according to Johnson, ‘ended his life (in 1945)’ – it was in fact in 1946 – ‘in despair’; Bertrand Russell’s anti-religious work ‘leaves the reader who struggles through it – and there cannot be many these days – with an impression of total confusion; A.J. Ayer was ‘an engaging man ... in whose company I delighted’, but his work was unstable and confusing, and because he had a near-death experience, it is impossible to tell, says Johnson, if he died believing in God or not.

But how much better, in Johnson’s inferno, to be an avowed atheist than a religiously indifferent hedonist. See with what relish he valedictorises ‘my old friend and college contemporary Ken Tynan, another figure I described in my book Intellectuals’. Tynan is fuel for the religious engine because, according to Johnson, he believed in the religion of sex. ‘But the god he worshipped proved false and vengeful: his career, his private life, his health, all collapsed, and his end, at a tragically early age, was sad, lonely and hopeless.’ It is not Tynan’s god that is being ‘vengeful’ in this passage, but Johnson’s (the mock pity of ‘a tragically early age’ is particularly tasteless).

This is not a work of precise intelligence. Johnson boasts ceaselessly about being a historian devoted to ‘exact data’ while fluffing dates and caricaturing intellectual history. The Quest for God is written in the quasi-judicial style of conservative journalists, in which syntactical pomposity substitutes for the motions of true thought, and in which no sentence is slipshod, or alive.

For better and worse, the book gives a picture of a typical Catholic mind at the end of the century. Johnson’s Catholicism is most obvious in its pragmatism. He does not argue, in the evangelical way, that religion is true and that you should believe in order to win your salvation, though what is most simple and most attractive in his book is premised on this quiet certainty. Instead he argues for the strength of the Church against the weakness of its opposition. This is a part of Cardinal Newman’s argument, in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, that the Catholic Church is ‘a great remedy for a great evil’. Johnson is more sanguine than Newman about the fate of modern evil. He thinks secularism has come to naught, and that this is why Christianity, and especially Catholicism, is growing. He admires the current Pope, as a firm bulwark. It is all about holding firm, defeating evil, the correction of man. As in Newman’s book, the word ‘love’ hardly appears.

The medicinal idea of the Church as a remedy for evil is, to use Johnson’s favourite word, unstable. It makes religion a reaction. It raises the unwelcome question of whether, were evil to cease, the Church should not also cease. Johnson’s sanguine version of Newman’s pessimism seems not far from an apparent satisfaction that evil has not damaged religion and that therefore religion is a great good. The terrible evils of the century have precipitated not a religious crisis, but according to Johnson, a religious revival. Some people, he writes, after Auschwitz and the Gulag, will ask: ‘how can there be a God if such complete moral anarchy reigns? Yet experience shows that only a tiny minority asks these questions. Most people react to the horrors of war by turning to God for protection, solace and comfort.’ Since most of the benighted masses do not ask such hard questions, such questions do not really exist: this is Johnson’s implication.

His message is that religion has survived, in part, because the alternatives have failed, though he seems not to realise that the danger of this argument is that it makes religion one of those alternatives – an alternative to the alternatives. Above all, the two totalitarian religions, Fascism and Communism, have crumbled. He believes that the death of these two systems offers a testcase of the weakness of atheism, for ‘the death-camps and the slave camps were products not of God but of anti-God.’ Such clear demonstrations of the inefficacy of state atheism may well prove that without God people act badly. Clearly, he is right about this totalitarian Godlessness. But his desire to absolve Nazism of any Christian involvement is inaccurate, and undermines his testcase.

Did ecclesiastical anti-semitism have absolutely nothing to do with Auschwitz? Historians like Robert Ericksen (in Theologians under Hitler) and Wolfgang Gerlach (in When the Witnesses Were Silent) have documented the complicity, and sometimes the encouragement, that the Catholic and Protestant Churches in Germany lent to Nazi anti-semitism, and not merely to the idea, but to its practices. In December 1941, for example, Protestant Evangelical leaders from churches in Mecklenburg, Thuringia, Saxony, Nassau-Hesse, Schleswig-Holstein, Anhalt and Lübeck issued an official proclamation holding that the Jews were responsible for the war, ‘born enemies of the world and Germany’, that the ‘severest measures against the Jews be adopted and that they be banished from German lands’. Lone Christians made a stand, mostly privately. But this is Daniel Goldhagen’s conclusion, in Hitler’s Willing Executioners: ‘No explicit public word of sympathy for the Jews, no explicit public condemnation or protest against their persecution issued from any of the authoritative figures within the churches or from any of their ecclesiastical offices.’

Johnson’s book rests on the argument that when God is absent humans wither into confusion (as in atheism or humanism or socialism) or commit terrible evil (as in Nazism and Communism). In his chapter on why evil exists in God’s world, he equates secularism with moral relativism, and religion with what he calls ‘absolute morality’. But God was not absent in Nazi Germany where ordinary Christians did little to avert evil and in many cases furthered it. They chose Nazism, and then chose not to defy Nazism. Since religion, in this case, did not stop evil, why should we believe that, in another case, it would promote goodness? Johnson has a developed sense of the obligations of belief and almost no sense of the obligations of unbelief. He knows that if God exists, ‘our life then becomes a mere preparation for eternity and must be conducted throughout with our future in view.’ He is right about this. But he thinks that if we decide God does not exist, there are ‘no commands to follow except what society imposes upon us, and even these we may evade if we can get away with it. In a Godless world, there is no obvious basis for altruism of any kind, moral anarchy takes over and the rule of the self prevails.’

This, perhaps, is Tony Blair’s form of Anglo-Catholicism, in which right conduct becomes, in Arnold’s phrase, three-quarters of religion. Blair has said that he had some respect for John Major’s Back to Basics campaign. But the actual basics of religion must be belief rather than conduct. One-quarter of belief is a very slender thread on which to hang propriety, or proper politics.

Johnson’s inability to take unbelief seriously infects his defence of Christianity. Having consumed all the secular alternatives, he does not see the need to stir from his chair to prepare the religious feast: he lounges in the afternoon of argument. Since it is self-evident to him that all opponents of Christianity are mad, evil or silly, then it is also self-evident to him that Christianity is the opposite of this. And that, despite some final chapters on beauty and evil, is that. Though he defines, at the beginning of his book, the Christian choice as one of great momentousness, he does not seem to feel that this choice needs urgent defence. Hence his rather idle pragmatism, which, although he does not intend this, undermines what is not pragmatic in Christianity. He writes: ‘It is because sensible men the world over ... have recognised and accepted the inevitability of mighty death, that they have turned to God to explain its significance. Without God, death is horrific. With God, death is still fearsome, but it can be said to have a meaning and a hope. The great strength of Christianity has always been that it brings men and women to terms with death in a way which offers them comfort and an explanation.’

The great ‘strength’ of Christianity is not in fact that it offers medicines, but that it is true. Johnson’s ecclesiastical cynicism – where ‘strength’ means only ‘strength for the Church’ – suspends what is most powerful about Christianity: its claim to be true. Instead he offers the milder language of success: does it work for you? To defend religion’s success is not to defend it. It is to undermine it. David Hume knew this. In The Natural History of Religion, he attacked religion in exactly the way Johnson defends it – as a therapy offering consolation. He secularises religion and demonises secularism, and in doing so, makes Christianity vulnerable where it should be strongest. If Christianity can be defended as merely a set of advantages, then it can be attacked as merely a set of disadvantages by rival advantages, most of them secular. If Christianity is only a therapy-service, why not something more powerful – Prozac, love, literature etc? But Christianity does not merely promise you things, it also demands promises of you, the highest and hardest of which is that you imitate Christ’s absolute goodness. There is nothing ‘sensible’ about this, as deeper thinkers than Johnson have observed. Kierkegaard argued that he had never met a Christian (for none had ever truly imitated Christ) and added, in his Journals, that it was ‘quite literally lunacy’ to try to become one.

Richard Swinburne’s book demonstrates the dangers of speaking about God rationally, or of arming him pragmatically. Swinburne is a theist. He hardly mentions Jesus, who is little more than a topcoat to keep the believer morally warm. Swinburne, who teaches the philosophy of the Christian religion at Oxford, believes that God’s existence can be rationally argued for, and rationally believed. But rationalism and God are not friends. For it to be rational to believe in God, God must be rational, or we would not want to believe in him. Sure enough Swinburne sets about describing a God who resembles Richard Swinburne – cool, intelligent, decent, bookishly abstracted, and distinctly limited in power. Because his God is rational, Swinburne must make him limited in power, because God’s omnipotence is far from rational – it is literally incomprehensible. A God who could do anything could do evil things or order us to do evil things.

Swinburne makes up God’s mind for him. He tells him just what the extent of his powers is. He anthropomorphises God and then oppresses him with his own humanity. God is a source of moral obligation, he writes. He orders us to do our duty. ‘But God clearly cannot make things which are our duty no longer our duty; he cannot make it right to torture children for fun ... for it is wrong to command what is wrong.’ Well, yes, if Swinburne’s idea of what is ‘wrong’ happens to coincide with God’s. But why should it? What if God had an entirely different, entirely incomprehensible idea of right and wrong? It is interesting that Swinburne’s example of an incomprehensible command is torturing children, for he seems to be anxiously repressing a celebrated example of God’s power to command something horrible: Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, Isaac.

Swinburne’s book is scattered with phrases in which he tells God what he can and can’t do. God apparently has ‘the right’ to allow people to do evil to each other. But ‘it would, of course, be crazy for God to multiply evils more and more.’ ‘One might expect’ God to intervene in history every so often. Indeed, ‘it would be odd to suppose that God’ intervened only invisibly. Equally, although there is much good on earth, ‘it would be odd if God did not plan something greater and longer for those humans who want it.’ In other words, ‘it would be odd’ if Heaven did not exist. ‘It would be odd’: nothing stronger than that? If it were only ‘odd’ that Heaven did not exist, presumably, for Swinburne, it is only – what shall we say? – ‘not odd’, or ‘agreeable’, that Heaven does exist. Swinburne, busily constructing his own rational and agreeable God, a kind of Oxonian version of a golem, precisely conforms to the complaint of one of the greatest of atheists, Ludwig Feuerbach, that God is merely the nature of man seen objectively: ‘The consciousness of God is self-consciousness.’ Certainly, the spectacle of a God who could so easily be known and bossed around by Richard Swinburne is the best possible argument against the likelihood of his existence.

Only when Christianity is understood as a set of truths, with a set of promises and obligations dependent on those truths, does it retain uniqueness, and a command structure. The ‘great strength’ of Biblical Christianity is that we need it. We are told, unequivocally, that we need Christianity not only as comfort and consolation, but to save ourselves. ‘Oddity’ hardly comes into it. We need eternal life, or we are lost. Theologies which deconstruct this need eliminate Christianity’s uniqueness, hence its power, hence its existence.

This is apparent in the work of Don Cupitt, a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and an Anglican priest, whose books have been responsible for the growth of a movement in the Church of England called the Sea of Faith, in which about four hundred priests are enrolled. Three years ago, one of them, Anthony Freeman, a vicar in Sussex, became briefly famous when he wrote a book called God in Us. Freeman’s bishop put him on probation for a year, and then asked him to leave the Church. He was right to do so.

The Sea of Faith priests like to talk as if they have dealt with the problem of religious unbelief by deconstructing God’s existence. In fact, they are merely rationalists who have lost their faith and who are not as clever, most of them, as Richard Swinburne, and not as brave as that friend of my parents who admitted to losing his faith. It is difficult to keep pace with Cupitt’s changes of skin: he has been a post-structuralist, a Christian Buddhist, and now calls himself, I think, a Kingdom Christian – he believes that we must make God’s kingdom here on earth. Why we would bother to do such dark and lonely work is anyone’s guess, since Cupitt, like Freeman, assumes that we create our own God. For Cupitt, language is all, and there is no creator outside language, or outside our world. Truth does not come from the other room; we make it up. Freeman suggests that when we pray we practise a kind of meditation; Cupitt speaks of Christianity as something ‘recognised as the highest form of creative self-realisation’. ‘The task is to learn to practise religion just for its own sake, disinterestedly, and to become a creator rather than a passive recipient of religious meaning and value. A world in which people have become active creators of religious value is what I mean by the Kingdom of God.’ Every word in these two sentences is feeble or contradictory. If we are ‘practising a religion’ (whatever that means) for its own sake, who decides, other than Cupitt, that this is a ‘task’ we must begin? Orthodox Christian faith is precisely not a matter of being a passive recipient. Faith – the belief in what is not visible to us – involves a decisive activity of belief.

Cupitt is briefly mentioned in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Robert Runcie. Cupitt read theology at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, when Runcie was Dean of the college. According to Runcie, Cupitt raises theological questions more ‘acutely’ than an earlier liberal questioner, Bishop John Robinson, whose Honest to God was published in the early Sixties. It is characteristic of Runcie that he manages to praise both these radicals while attaching himself to neither. It is also consistent both with his style and with Carpenter’s method that he should be quoted in the following indiscretion: ‘I remember Hugh Monteflore saying to me, “My God, John Robinson’s written a book which is going to cause mayhem – he’s going to tell the world the sort of things we believe!”

Carpenter’s free-fall approach – his biography is little more than a book-length newspaper interview – confounds the naive, likeable, worldly Runcie. Some of the results of Carpenter’s interviews have been dropping onto Britain’s breakfast tables in the last few weeks. Actually, Runcie’s views on gay priests (not ideal, but permissible up to a point) or the Princess of Wales (unintelligent, personable, confused) are exactly what one would expect. Much more devastating is the portrait, amassed through hours of taped interview, of the former Archbishop of Canterbury as a man of shallow spirituality, mild conviction and establishment worldliness.

This is one of those books in love with its own pathology. Carpenter tells us of Runcie’s invitation to write the biography; he tells us of his mixed feelings; he offers the mixed results, complete with thickly blocked settings – the Lambeth Palace Interviews, the St Albans Interviews, the Canterbury Interviews; and finishes the book by quoting a letter in which, having read the manuscript, Runcie expresses his unhappiness: ‘There is much that I never imagined I would see in print.’ Carpenter appears to think that confession is its own absolution. But journalism is not biography, and if he misled Runcie into speaking to him off the record while silently transferring everything onto the record, this was not merely ignoble but unwise. For Carpenter’s method, which is to surrender page after page to edited transcripts of interviews, tends merely to reproduce the continuous present of the tape-recorder. Runcie’s persona, in other words, has the universal identity of anyone picketed by a microphone: evasive, over-talkative, ungrammatical, bound by the need to keep going, to seem garrulously in-the-world, and to that extent unspiritual. It is unwise to drown a life in the pettiness of speech, but that is what Carpenter’s interviews do.

Carpenter’s Runcie seems petty as a result; and despite the apparent liberation from biography proper, he is much more Carpenter’s creation than his own. In the un-Carpentered Runcie, one senses an archbishop of high intelligence but only moderate intellectuality, of real faith but doctrinal passivity, so diffident that he seems incapable of speaking in a charged or even sure manner about his religious devotion. His decision to train for the priesthood appears, on his own account, to have been largely opportunistic. At Oxford, he was influenced by logical positivism, and he has retained a sceptical attitude towards theological absolutes. A liberal in most theological matters, he describes himself as serene and unhaunted. What appears formative is his service in the Guards during World War Two. He was not yet a priest, and this context marked him. In his interviews with Carpenter, he shows an inability to relinquish the language of establishment urbanity. It is as if God must somehow be accommodated to this clubbable, genial, unruffled, unserious idiom; as if he must himself become a chum; or a college fellow. ‘So when Owen Chadwick came round and said, “I’m leaving Trinity Hall and some of the fellows would rather like you to succeed me” ... I was pretty convinced that Trinity Hall was the escape route that God wanted me to take.’

Carpenter quotes many critics of Runcie’s tenure: A.N. Wilson, who accused Runcie of ‘a slithery absence of principle’; Dr Gareth Bennett, who committed suicide after writing his critical preface to Crockford’s; others who speak of Runcie’s poor grasp of theology, his lack of spirituality, his fence-sitting. There is no doubt that the portrait to be had from this book represents the least admirable aspect of the Church of England – its mediocre, sceptical, vacillating, untheological, relaxed side. It is all a swirl of Oxbridge colleges, palaces, committees, synods, port and preferment. Runcie emerges as the last of a generation – a liberal, given one final chance to hold together the Church of England, a man from an age and a class (by education rather than origin) unable or unwilling to articulate religious beliefs without irony. Yet the criticisms of people like A.N. Wilson do no more than restate an objection to the historical condition of the Church of England, which has consistently avoided doctrinal inflexibility of the kind it thought it saw in Catholicism or in English Puritanism. The evangelical is infuriated by Runcie’s apparent cloudiness; the secularist, who would far rather live in Matthew Arnold’s benign country than in Cardinal Newman’s punitive one, comes to find Runcie’s liberalism brave rather than weak, and his humanity even an incentive to faith.

Cupitt and Freeman and the Sea of Faith priests have dismantled God but kept intact the language of religious obligation. Three years ago, I interviewed Anthony Freeman. He was gentle, earnest, confused about his loss of faith. We sat in his cold sitting-room, where he explained to me that his parishioners knew all about his book and his probation, but that this had not affected his pastoral work. I asked him how he could defend either the efficacy or the uniqueness of that work if a rival secular centre, offering massage, therapy, meditation and self-enlightenment, opened opposite his church. He floundered. Why persist with Christianity, I asked, if you have dismantled its truth-claims? He replied that Christianity was his inheritance. He had grown up with it, he could not imagine doing anything else. Cupitt, who is more arrogant than Freeman, though not as clever as he likes to think, replied to the same question: ‘Oh, there are all sorts of reasons why I’m attracted to the Christian liturgy, and so on ... it’s very precious to me.’ But why persist? Cupitt speaks the language of obligation; it is just that, like Swinburne, the commands are his own rather than God’s. ‘We need to cultivate an inner scepticism,’ he writes; ‘but Christianity still needs an inner discipline’; ‘we need to learn a kind of Buddhist inner simplicity.’ And his own beatitudes: at the end of his book The Word to Come, he asks how we are to live in a Post-Modern age, when God has been deconstructed away. ‘Four guiding principles become fundamental ... Truth, disinterestedness, creativity and love.’ But what is fundamental about these principles? This is not the door of command which is written about in the book of Revelation. We stand at Cupitt’s diminished lintel, being called by Cupitt. Just as Johnson’s pragmatism collapses into David Hume’s atheism, and Swinburne’s rationalism collapses into Feuerbach’s atheism, so Cupitt’s religion collapses into Camus’s atheism. Cupitt’s four principles remind me of nothing so much as Camus’s three guiding principles at the end of The Myth of Sisyphus: ‘my revolt, my passion and my freedom’. I prefer Camus’s stoicism to Cupitt’s disguised stoicism, because Camus’s stoicism seems to me to be based on an accurate assessment of the difficulty of living in a world without belief and without apparent purpose.

The problem of evil is, for many, the real affront to belief in God. People do evil things to each other and cause each other pain; equally, we live in a world of natural, uncontrollable pain and suffering – earthquakes, cancer, mental and physical handicap. This pain is an obstacle to belief because it seems either to limit God’s power or to qualify his goodness. Either God cannot control this evil (and is not all-powerful) or, in some way, he wants it to exist (and is not good). Theology has a number of answers, none of them satisfactory. 1. God’s ways are incomprehensible to us. This is Job’s message, and the gist of Paul Johnson’s humblest chapter. 2. We will be paid back in full in Heaven for everything we have lost on earth: Johnson speaks of ‘full and ample recompense in heaven’. 3. Connected to this is the less specific consolation that out of harm comes good; even if we do not know why we are suffering, it must be for a final absolute good. 4. The most sophisticated defence is that for us to act at all as moral agents we must have free will, and this must entail the freedom to do evil as well as good things. Doing good in a world in which we could not do evil would be meaningless; the light needs the shade.

Richard Swinburne borrows the free will argument but adds to it a twist. If free will is a good thing – and clearly it is, for it enables God to watch us grow morally – then to suffer is a good thing for it allows the person who is doing bad things to you to exercise the obvious good of free will. The Jews in Auschwitz were contributing to the good of Hitler’s free will to choose between good and evil. It is not that they should have felt happy about their suffering, but we know that it was, mysteriously, a contribution to good.

For Swinburne, free will is all. But such arguments are always premised on the idea that a world without free will would be more awful than a world full of pain and evil. But how on earth – literally – would we know? Would a world without free will be a poor, limited place? Johnson, in his discussion of why God bothered to give us gender, produces a variant of this assumption when he decides that God must have made men and women different because a world without gender, ‘even if it functioned, would be stale, flat and unprofitable. It would be a form of living death.’ Well, how would either Swinburne or Johnson know what these alternative worlds would be like? Suppose we had never known pain or evil. Suppose that for all recorded history humans had had the capacity to do only good things to each other? Would this seem to us like a place that was stale and flat? Of course, we could not possibly know it as such, because we could not know what the alternative – a world with lashings of sinful free will – would be like.

This objection to the free will argument seems decisive. It raises the most uncomfortable questions about why God bothered to create the world at all. If Heaven was not created on earth, then earth is a testing-ground for Heaven. But there is something more. For a world without freedom would be a world in which God controlled all our actions, it would be a world in which God spoke directly to us without the need of faith. We would all believe. Faith is, apparently, part of the test visited on us. I have always found Philip’s cry to Jesus in John 14, piercing: ‘Philip saith unto him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us.’ It seems obvious to theologians like Richard Swinburne that a world of limited freedom and absolute transparency of knowledge, in which not one of us was in any doubt about our creator, would be a limited, useless place. But it would not, presumably, be useless to God. It is what Heaven would be like; and why, before Heaven, must we move through this unhappy, painful, rehearsal, this desperate antechamber in which so few of us can find our way?