David Baddiel, Godward desire and everybody’s search for the transcendent

Last week, The Times carried an interesting interview with David Baddiel. In it, he made two interesting comments. Firstly, he said this:

“I wish there was a God. I’m desperate for that comfort. I’m desperate because at heart I’m a wailing load of need, like all human beings. I am a baby at heart. We’re all that at heart. We’re all helpless children. And I know that some atheists would deny that, but that’s just macho posturing.”

This is an interesting admission. It isn’t quite the Romans 1 claim that we all know there is a God really, rather just an admission that there is an innate desire for there to be one. Aside from any of the rational, philosophical arguments for God’s existence, it isn’t hard to see how such a desire for a genuine belief in God might come up when the world around us seems so chaotic. If one position on offer (broadly speaking) is that this is all just chance, there is no purpose to it and so when it sucks there’s nothing you can do about it, it is all but impossible to live your life consistently under the unerring pointlessness of it all. Alternatively, if the chaos is actually more directed than we might imagine and serves a greater purpose, I can see entirely how such message is attractive. I similarly recognise, however, that what is attractive and what is true are not always the same thing. A desire to believe is not the same as evidence it is so.

But that admission is interesting because it speaks into something we see in wider society. There is a Godward desire in people. We are often looking for purpose, meaning and something transcendent. We long for something that is beyond ourselves. Something eternal, unchangeable, reliable.

Interestingly, long before this interview came out, my wife observed the public reaction to the death of Queen Elizabeth II seemed to be the closest thing to some transcendental, eternal and unshakeable thing we have. She believed much of the deference owed much to a lack of belief in true transcendence and similarly a dearth of shared community. It was my more blunt observation that at least the Japanese don’t pretend they view their monarch as anything less than a descendent of a god. These observations were similar to the second that Baddiel makes:

He thinks he spotted something of the innate God desire in the nation’s mourning for the Queen. “I’m interested in the idea that what we’ve done is create an object of worship out of this human being by projecting all sorts of ideas onto her. I met her a couple of times and she seemed very nice, but I found the reverence at times quite disturbing, at times a little bit Orwellian.”

It is interesting that Baddiel made exactly the same instinctive observation of the outpouring of grief as we had from several hundred miles away.

I suspect much of this sort of thing explains why our politics has become so fractured and polarised too. At least, in part. Without God, if this life is all there is, then what we can achieve in the here and now politically becomes pretty much the most important thing we can do. Decisions taken at General Elections become vital. It is why anti-oil campaigners can go gluing themselves to roads and vandalising artwork. The impulse is that this is the most important thing and nothing else is even nearly as important. Whatever our view on the value of their particular political position may be, we all have a view on what the most pressing issue is that faces us as people, countries and humanity. Unless what you perceive to be the ultimate good puts controls on the means by which you pursue that good, we are all a hairs breadth from gluing ourselves to roads and worse besides.

It was a discussion I was having last week with some friends in the pub. We all go to the same church and believe the same gospel but it was pretty apparent we all have fairly wildly divergent political views. But there was nevertheless an understanding that, despite our differences, the ultimate good was not our political aims. We have to believe in kingdom before politics. Even as we do that, there will inevitably be some things on which we will agree. We may disagree over the best means to achieve them, but we agree they are things to be pursued.

Interestingly, however, we have to accept that our belief that there is a God, and in the gospel of Jesus Christ, means the way some of my friends viewed the climate protestors is exactly how most of the world view us. We have (according to the world) some crackpot beliefs that – even amongst those of us there chatting – have taken some of us around the world to live in weird and wonderful places that most people in their right mind wouldn’t choose to live in, all tied up with (in their view) nutbar ideas about the Bible being true and the gospel being a matter of life and death. The only difference between us and anybody else is, because the highest good we reckon with is God’s glory, God himself puts limits on the means of how we are to pursue that. Without God to control the means, we are going to run into a lot of people who believe in a lot of vital issues that are deemed so important by them very little is off the table in their pursuit.

The push towards that mode of thinking, I think, comes from this innate Godward desire. We are looking for something transcendent. Something that will bind us together. Some purpose behind why we are here. We are all looking for belonging, acceptance and a cause. Something bigger than ourselves, unchanging and reliable, that will give us some real meaning. It might be the monarch. It may be climate activism. It could be something else altogether. None of these things provide any ultimate meaning or purpose. Important as they may be on a temporal level, they are rarely ultimately satisfying or significant. They make for a poor imitation god. But as G.K. Chesterton famously put it, ‘when we cease to worship God, we do not worship nothing, we worship anything.’