Faith & Reason: The gulf between Radshop and Godshop

The tale of two neighbouring bookshops in Liverpool is a story of contrary cultures that make no sense on their own, and badly need knocking together, writes Chris Hardwick.
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The Independent Online
Hope Street links the two cathedrals in Liverpool. If you leave these Houses of God behind you and descend towards the Marketplace at the heart of the City you will go along Bold Street. There, within a few paces of each other, stand two bookshops.

Enter the first and purchase your copy of Gay Times, New Internationalist, or perhaps Troops Out magazine. As you rub shoulders at the counter with other customers sporting denim, braids, and the odd studded nostril, you can listen to the music of Joni Mitchell. Then enter the second. Stand at the counter waiting to pay for the Universe or the Tablet and listen to Gregorian Chant while noting the sculpted perms and autumnal knitwear of the customers flanking you.

But in reality you will visit either Radshop or Godshop rather than both. Though a book's throw from each other, they may as well be in separate cities for all the shared customers they will boast.

Yet neither makes sense on its own. The Word is in the world and must speak to the world. And since the world too has its wisdom, its reply must be listened to by the speakers of the Word. Word and world may quarrel but without contraries there is no progression. And without initial dialogue there is neither quarrel nor progression but only a silence which is sterile rather than pregnant.

The problem is that both Godshop and Radshop are too intent upon the business of converting the unbeliever to want to listen. They certainly don't want to listen to each other. But nor will they brook questioning from within. To question is to dissent. And dissent is treachery.

It was Jung who said that "the great sin of faith" is that it denies experience. Experience is a blessed irritant - the blip in the system, the fissure in the finished product. A faith which is blind ignores experience's instructive impediments. It pretends that its belief-system is all-encompassing, that one bookshop stores all the answers. This is the lie which takes us to Jonestown, Waco, and the Aum Shinrikyo. It converts Church to Cult by claiming a monopoly on truth. But truth is mobile and plural. There are more things under heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the most overarching philosophy. To deny this is to deny mystery. Yet philosophical and religious systems frequently tend towards this denial because, as Thomas Love Peacock observed:

All Philosophers who find

Some favourite system to their mind

In every point to make it fit

Will force all nature to submit.

Devotees of either shop will tend to think that, taken as a whole, the pages on their shelves offer a comprehensive User's Guide to Life. But they don't. Each Guide has whole chapters missing. Radshop has sections on "Gay Lives" and "Racism". Godshop has nothing on either. Yet it does have sections on "Death" and "Bereavement". And Radshop has nothing on either. But each shop is barred to the other. So neither can utilise the other's stock to plug the gaps. (I've only ever seen one title shared by both shops. That was a collection of Martin Luther King's speeches.) When it comes to Sexuality all hope of dialogue between Radshoppers and Godshoppers seems to disappear. No- go areas abound. Homosexuality is one, abortion another.

With Evangelium Vitae published, with the ink barely dry on Veritatis Splendor, Godshoppers need only collect their prescriptions on such matters. But in the sphere of sexuality Radshoppers sign up for compartmentalised dogmatics too. They are prone to sloganise and demonise. The blurb on a Radshop text tells me that the writer "exposes the misogyny at the heart of Christianity". But, though recurrent in Christianity, misogyny can be no more at its heart than any other abstraction since at its heart is Jesus.

Yet each camp could find in the other's perspective a useful corrective. Godshop could tell Radshop that its literature tends to de-spiritualise sex and divorce its personal context from any broader social one. And Radshop could tell Godshop that its literature tends to disembody sex and obfuscate honest consideration of its mechanics while laying down diktats and prohibitions.

What is to be done? How to break the sterile silence and quarrel and progress? Buy up the intervening properties between the two shops. Then knock the walls through. Then jumble the two stocks of books together. Let Kate Millett jostle beside Juliana of Norwich, and Hans Kung rub spines with Germaine Greer.