I have just finished a stimulating book called Unapologetic by Francis Spufford. Published by Faber and Faber at £12.99, it relates the author’s decision to be “unapologetic” about his newfound Christian faith. Sub-titled “Why, despite, everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense”, it is the story of Spufford’s journey into the Christian fold (he is an Anglican) after 20 years as an atheist.
In his conclusion he remarks that “virtuous and idealistic atheists are at work all over the place, but it is observable that a surprisingly large number of believers are to be found among those who volunteer to work with the dying, the demented, the addicted, the institutionalised and the very impaired and afflicted, where the best that can be done is to love for the sake of it, and to keep sorrow company.”
I agree with him. To love without hope of response, encouragement or progress of any kind, and often in the face of great suffering, is very hard. I don’t say that virtuous and idealistic atheists can’t or don’t do it, but it is difficult for them to make sense of lives that are seemingly “useless”; hence the atheists’ temptation to bring in euthanasia or “mercy-killing”, as the kindest thing to do under the circumstances – and the fight to keep it at bay by believers whose faith teaches them that there is more to life than this world can offer.
Martyrs also challenge those of no faith. Why lay down your life for something nebulous that can’t be proved, when you have the chance to live? The only answer to that, to paraphrase Julian of Norwich, is that “Love is the meaning”. I think Spufford would have understood the witness of the least-known of the seven new saints, canonised last week by Pope Benedict XVI. This is Fr Jaques Berthieu, a French Jesuit, martyred in Madagascar in 1896 aged 58. The RomeReports news agency relates that his kidnappers gave him a choice: to renounce his faith and live – or suffer immediate death. They tempted him by saying, “We will make you our counsellor. We will make you our head.”
The priest simply replied, “My son, I’m sorry; that I cannot do. I prefer to die.” He was killed there and then and his body was thrown into a river. Before being captured, Fr Berthieu had several opportunities to escape. But his faith and his love for the local people made him choose to stay with them.
This kind of heroic witness is very rare, even among Christians. As I said, to an outsider it can look absurd, illogical, a waste. But Christianity, as Spufford discovered, is not about being “holier than thou” or do-good social work or being a member of a particular political party. It is about making sense of life when you are “sad, miserable, sick, poor [and] lonely”. As Spufford points out, the bus advertisement that encouraged people to “enjoy” their life because “there is probably no God” is insufferably patronising to those whose circumstances, unlike the comfortable lives of the metropolitan elite, have given them a heavy cross to bear. His book, persuasively and beguilingly written, is a worthwhile and thought-provoking contribution to the on-going debate about belief or non-belief.