Reflections from a progressive agnostic Christian stance about meaningful god talk.
8 pm Dec 8, 2015; Atheists Society, Unitarian Church, Melbourne
Disbelief in God is nothing new. The term ‘atheism’ has been in use for over 400 years. But a new door opened when some Christian believer first denied belief in a theistic god. This development lies behind my address tonight. We need to examine what theism means and whether there are alternatives that make sense.
It is a commonplace to note that atheism can mean either the belief that there is no god, or simply the absence of belief in god. For our purposes I draw attention to a third meaning, namely disbelief in a theistic notion of God, which I call a-theism. A-theism differs significantly from atheism since it leaves space for a different kind of belief about god. This is the space I occupy.
I offer this lecture as an appreciative enquiry into what members of the audience think about god talk and how they think it functions for people who indulge in it.
The opening sections of this paper treat three key underlying matters, namely
This lecture arises from my interest in the heritage of ‘god talk’ perpetuated by religions generally and in the question whether talk of god has any enduring meaning for human life in a pluralist, secularized society. I believe my approach to this question is highly nuanced and I elaborate it here.
My interest in these questions has been life long since
i) my birth in NZ and my parents ensured that I was formed in a Christian culture, and
ii) my own experience from the age of 11 has been one of self-conscious doubt and enquiry.
Inevitably, my encounters with admirable and altruistic people of many worldviews, both faith and freethought, has engendered an enquiry as to what elements of my own faith worldview, if any, may be sustained in the light of all evidence. In particular, is talk of god still meaningful?
I am assuming that talk about god arises with the good intention to articulate the true essence of human and earthly life. Key elements of talk of god aim to articulate what is universal and enduring and transformative in human experience. The development of atheism indicates that many people think such god talk is superfluous to this intention. I would like to argue that a certain kind of god-talk is at least useful.
For 2000 years, Christianity has presented itself primarily as a belief system. Enormous internal struggles emerged around fine points of belief in the realm of Christology and fractured the Christian community in every way. However, prior to the creedal emphasis upon beliefs about Jesus was the emphasis on faith in Jesus, expressed in a way of life rather than in a set of beliefs. On this foundation, while I have become deeply agnostic with regard to formulated Christian beliefs about Christ, Christmas and Easter, I still have faith in the Way the Truth and the Life demonstrated in the gospel stories of Jesus. I call this my faith stance.
With this background, talk of god
is not primarily a matter of whether I believe in God or not. Rather it
is a question whether life experience shows me some meaningful way of talking
about god or about the divine as an element of lived human experience.
Is there language I can use to carry forward the essence of what I have
been offered within my Christian tradition? It remains an open question
how or whether my faith stance will embrace some kind of faith in god.
Like many religious people, I experience a tension between aspects of Christian belief that have enduring meaning for me and those that remain perplexing. However, I do not easily dispense with the latter, since I cannot make myself alone the judge of truth, and meaning may emerge out of paradox. Nevertheless, it is valuable to reflect here on why some traditional beliefs about God are not meaningful. The difficulties I face are of two kinds, first intellectual issues of understanding claims made about God and second, issues that arise in the practical realm of expressing my faith.
With regard to god talk, it seems to me that Christians have had far too much to say about God. The truth claims of the creeds and the entire dogmatic tradition of Christian theology far overstate what I find is needed for living out a Christian faith following the Way of Jesus. Since these claims are expressed in the categories of Greek philosophy they are no longer meaningful to many people. So my journey is to deconstruct and reinterpret god talk in ways that are meaningful to me.
A classic example of the difficulty of Christian theism is the idea of God as omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient. The omnipotent God is one who has unfettered agency in the world. This is a major difficulty with the foundational stories of Exodus and Easter that are presented as acts of divine salvation in history. In contemporary experience, the problems of undeserved suffering and unanswered prayer challenge this view of god. However, the sense of an omnipresent spirit may still be meaningful to the modern mind.
Similarly arguments about first cause and origins, and the supposed conflict between creationism and evolution seem to me an unhelpful distraction. It is logically impossible, useless and silly to posit explanations for the origin of a functioning closed system such as the universe in which we are bound; these questions are appropriately left in the realm of mystery and the unknown, to be dealt with poetically.
Some of the difficulty touched on above arises from the fact that creedal affirmations reflect the particularities of a Greek worldview and its dualistic nature that seems to be a way of thinking no longer meaningful. This is especially true regarding the concept of Trinity and the two natures of Christ. Sadly, three hundred years of debate over fine points of belief have left the church with creeds which structure theism into a straitjacket of definition of a metaphysical kind, rather than affirming truths related to life that were the essence of the teaching of Jesus.
With regard to expressing faith, in traditional paradigms of religion the devotee is envisaged as the object of God’s love and will, but not as a freely acting subject. With increasing levels of emancipation in our culture, the idea of living by a predetermined divine will no longer appeals. The concept of god as a supervising authority who manipulates human life is not meaningful.
Equally difficult to me is the central
idea of Christ as a unique individual who spans a gulf between humanity
and God. This idea is not welcome to someone who does not feel alienated
from the divine. Moreover, it creates a gulf between the ordinary me and
the special Jesus of Nazareth that undermines any incentive I might have
to follow in his way, since I do not have his divine capacities to bear
suffering and be self-giving. Fortunately a different attractive model
appears in the story of the disciples who left their nets when they met
Jesus in all his charismatic humanity without the burden of later theology.
My talk of god will reflect a sense of the divine in the disciples response
rather than in cosmic intervention.
One of the welcome fruits of the enlightenment has been the democratization of knowledge and belief, something that the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah envisioned 600 years before the common era (‘No one will need a priest ..’ Jer 31:31). Now the default of contemporary society is that each individual is entitled to and expected to weigh for herself the truth claims of various worldviews. A parallel development but perhaps less remarked, is that interest in truth claims per se has greatly diminished. I do not expect that a set of beliefs per se, let alone a fourth century creed, will provide meaning for living.
Within this changed mind-set, my aim is to establish a minimal theological understanding that works for me, but hopefully may be of use to others. What is the least that need be said in the realm of god talk. This means that I take an agnostic stance towards matters of Christian theology that do not appear relevant. This stance frees one to think and imagine in fresh ways.
My exploration of the idea of god is very much in conversation with contemporary thought and the postmodern stance that does not take any prior authority for granted. First, I readily acknowledge the social construction of reality, not least in the field of religious ideas. However, I do not consider that social construction totally explains or relativizes, let alone nullifies religious discourse. Rather, I remain open to the idea that underlying particular, socially constructed conceptions in the realm of religion we may find universal and timeless verities that sustain life and will always be worth our consideration.
Second, I accept the Humanist Society affirmation that there is only the one natural order. In other words, my reflections about god talk are not predicated on the notion of a distinct supernatural realm, although traditionally that has been considered the realm of God. Rather, my project is to enquire about god talk as it may be meaningful within the natural world that is directly accessible to human sense and enquiry.
I see my approach as bottom up, based on lived human experience. It is existential and inductive, what I call discovery channel philosophy. By way of contrast, in Jewish and Christian traditions there is a strong top down element of divine revelation about the will of God. Claims to divine revelation appear to me to be special pleading and cannot be entertained unless there are means of testing the affirmations involved. However, I still think the idea of revelation is valuable, since through lived human experience, over centuries, nature discloses its essential truth to those who look for it. Humanity finely tunes its agreed understanding about the nature of human experience and the best way to live. If there is any meaning in god talk, the discussion must refer to human experience that is accessible to empirical enquiry.
The existential and inductive modes of my enquiry contrast with, but are not repugnant to, rational and deductive enquiry, which is often favoured by both orthodox Christian and Atheist alike, although based on different premises. However, it is my belief that while the empirical and the rational are necessary methods of enquiry, they are not sufficient. It is natural and fruitful and wise for human beings to consider also the witness of another person, one who is trusted for some reason and influences one’s own beliefs. The court system and trial by jury are a particular example of this method. Witness may be seen as an indirect empirical method but it is not amenable to the strong empirical method of proof by replication. This is particularly true of witness in the form of god talk and related truth claims.
Clearly the role of the great prophets of various religions was one of witness to insights that transcended conventional thinking. This is evident in the case of Jesus where the story tells how neither his family members, the common people, his disciples nor religious scholars in conversation with him understood his message but they were clearly amazed at him. This aspect of the story invites us to be open to the counter-intuitive elements in the witness made by others.
The attention we give to the witness of another person, as a response to their special experiences, their charisma and compelling impact indicates to me that we do not assess the truth claims of god talk by the test of comprehension alone – a cognitive method. A witness invites us into the realm of apprehension, meaning encounter, which is characterized more by its affective impact on our thinking. For example ‘wonder’, which is both a thoughtful and a feeling response to phenomenal experiences such as the intricacy of the atom or the vastness of space, or the personal experience of the birth of a baby, being forgiven a great hurt, or the suicide of a friend or our own death. It seems to me that both cognitive and affective elements are essential to our assessment of truth claims about godness.
In the previous section I noted some challenging beliefs at the heart of Christian theism. Since I do not believe they can in any way be ignored, my question is how to read these traditions in a way that may salvage some enduring aspects that remain meaningful. I am happy to understand this process as one of deconstruction. This includes the understanding that our reading of ancient narratives and theologies may differ from what the writers or editors intended. This may seem a bridge too far to those committed to the orthodoxy of creedal belief. However, I believe this deconstruction is legitimated on the basis of a different sense of orthodoxy, the orthodoxy of continuing attention and authority to the ancient texts, although without being bound to any way they have been understood at particular times. Similarly, I would like to advance an approach to god talk that is continuous with fundamental elements of the biblical view of God, even though it differs in major ways.
One of the liberating methods of contemporary reading is exploring narratives and theologies as metaphor rather than as historical or metaphysical reality. The historicity of events described in scripture may be no longer decisive where the truth of a text or story, like that of Aesop’s Fables, is based on its meaning. The value of a text or tradition is determined by whether it is meaningful to the reader. This applies especially to the figure Jesus of Nazareth, who like Mary and Abraham and other biblical figures was inexorably elevated in the tradition, finally becoming something quite other than an extraordinary human being.
In the re-focus from truth to meaning,
we have to reckon with the fact that whether a biblical story, a novel
or a film is meaningful to an individual is an highly subjective matter.
The re-focus represents a movement in concern from the objective towards
the subjective. This transition is congruent with the movement from
the merely cognitive towards the affective aspects of thoughts.
Moving beyond the difficulties of theism, a-theism denotes an outlook that has similar interests around the question of god talk. A-theism allows for an enquiry into the essence and purpose of life as it is, whether there is universal and timeless essence to the natural order that we would acknowledge as a transcendent or spiritual quality inherent within nature. Such an inherent essence would be a given, prior to the particularity of each individual and prior to the social constructions of every culture and worldview. For a particular and temporal being such as I am, the reality of such an essence offers perspective and purpose and meaning and motivation for living. It would be a quality at the heart of life to be discovered, to be apprehended.
Since the enlightenment, debate has ensued around the question does God exist. This is no longer helpful because the term God is multivalent. What kind of God is in view? For this reason I am introducing the term godness to represent the idea of a universal and enduring and transformative essence within the natural order, that I think of as spiritual and as transcendent within nature. I use the term godness for two reasons. First, I intend to maintain key elements conveyed traditionally by the term God and to link to the historical discourse regarding the divine. Second, I wish to speak of the divine not as a being but as a quality and essence of the natural order.
The term godness I think also represents the most fundamental distinguishing aspect of people of faith, namely their acknowledgement of the given and their sense that the good life is not so much about taking initiatives as about tuning in to and responding to this given. In my view god talk explores aspects of living that have universal appeal and enduring relevance. It asks what may be said about the essence of lived experience that speaks for us all. There is an ontological aspect to this talk. Within this discourse about the universal and enduring aspects of life, the meaningfulness of god talk may be tested by its effects, in terms of connectedness and fruitfulness.
Etymologically, the word religion refers to reconnection. Connectedness is a fundamental aspect of religious belief and devotion. So a key indication for the meaningfulness of god talk is whether it expresses a sense of connection in human experience. I have in mind two aspects of connectedness. First is the inner connectedness that is essential to the integrity of an individual. Second is the connectedness of the individual in mutual respect to other persons and to the natural environment, which Martin Buber expressed in terms of the I-Thou relationship. This way of connecting implies a deliberate recognition of the other and of the relationship as sacred or holy. I wonder if these three terms can serve a discourse across faith and freethought worldviews.
As for fruitfulness, I expect meaningful god talk to sustain and motivate and give rise to ethical and transformative living. For me these criteria are the marks of a true religion or philosophy, regardless of the language, categories and metaphors by which ideas are expressed. With regard to my understanding of life, I am sustained by my sense of godness as an inherent quality of human existence because it places my own particular, temporal life in the context of what is universal and enduring. I have a sense of identity and belonging that transcends the particulars of my life and a perspective to sustain me when those particulars are troubling.
The quality of godness is well expressed by St Paul as an essence "in which we live and move and have our being". In living out my life, my sense of godness as an enduring quality of life endows every moment and every encounter with the possibility of connectedness and of fruitfulness. By this essence we are connected to all life and nature. This sense of connection motivates me to creative and self-giving action. My sense of the givenness of life and the privilege of living as over against a sense of entitlement motivates an altruistic ethic.
What is attractive about A-theism
A sense of the godness (the divine) of human spirituality within human life (John)
A sense of the godness of the natural order in which we live and move and have our being (Paul)
A freedom to be agnostic about the constructions of language that may express this element of life.
An openness to the mystery of the numinous unencumbered by propositional freight.
A motivation to remain open to the
transcendent element of both contemporary lived experience and the ancient
traditions of human cultures and religion
Examples of Theism in Judaism and Christianity where God is presented as an agent who intervenes in the realm of human life and nature
in nature eg Red Sea, holding the sun for Joshua, military conquest, creation
in salvation history – Exodus, Sinai,
Historical critical studies enable us to trace the development of attributes attached to the theistic God. But these also are open to different readings.
– Jacob demanding to know The Name – projected onto Abram
- Abram and his father’s idol house,
Transcending sun and moon
Arguments with God pressed by Moses, Jacob, Abram
Creation within nature Gen 2 – breath of life
Creation of the universe – Gen 1 – humanity in the divine image
Loving God – care of the stranger Deut 10
Knowledge of Good and Evil – consequences
Self giving God
We note that theism in various forms is a characteristic of the three Abrahamic faiths as it is of some natural religions which reflect a belief in divine powers affecting human life.
Polytheism is an alternative
to theism that on the surface suggests a number of divine agents active
in the world. Ancient Babylonian myths envisaged conflict between these
agents and the need for humans to take sides and perhaps to appease particular
gods. However, contrary to the prejudice of Christian missionaries, polytheism
in some cultures, expressed in recognition of holy places, may be a valuable
acknowledgement of the sacred nature of all life.