When two or three are having an argument, it helps if all of the participants at least agree on what they are talking about. Alas and alack, this is not always possible; in marital rows, for example. In debates about religion, the mismatch between the parties is well-nigh catastrophic.
Some of the confusion is deliberate. New Atheists provide a particularly relevant example. They well know that when they sneer about believers imagining some kind of invisible friend called “God”, they are deliberately locating the debate in one type of faith context rather than in other, alternative, more complex ones which are readily available.
“God hates fags”
After all, the wilder shores of all three of the Abrahamic faiths provide enough purchase for the New Atheists on a beach which can be all too slippery for them. The New Atheists feast on stories about radical preachers and their disgusting and depressing claims. Cue the Westboro Baptist church and its outrageous certainties. We who are in a less clamant, less simplistic place in our religion have to wait, usually in vain, for the atheists’ heavy artillery to swing round and take a bearing on us.
I was thinking about this again at Christmas just passed, when again we found ourselves sharing midnight mass in an unfamiliar church. Perhaps ‘mass’ is the wrong word: the preacher, a well-known bishop from the evangelical wing of the Church of England, took centre stage and delivered the sort of sermon which illustrated again how irritating and challengeable evangelical memes can be. His central idea, that Christmas celebrates a divine eruption into our world, was well set out but soon got lost in the shallows of HTB Alpha sloganising: “Have you let Christ into your heart yet?” “God is waiting for you…” etc. God. You. Me.
“Some kind of chap”
This is the kind of religious discourse that Prof Dawkins and his ilk adore. They are charmed by its obviousness. It is intensely personal, focused on the concept of a personal, all-knowing, ‘grieving’ yet judgemental God. It is the stance memorably skewered by Terry Eagleton in his review of Dawkins’ book The God Delusion: “Dawkins speaks scoffingly of a personal God, as though it were entirely obvious exactly what this might mean. He seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized.” At its bathetic extreme, it is the kind of hyperrealism that produces statues of Jesus playing football. It is the religious equivalent of junk food.
In such a dispiriting landscape, imaginative religion endures, avoiding easy or crass classification and shrugging off accusations of wimpy, non-Biblical vagueness. We hold fast to the sort of truth that impels that self-described ‘unbelieving Christian’ Richard Holloway, for example, to point out that “all religion is metaphor.” If I say that God is this or God is that, I risk being blasphemous. I am scaling the concept down to personalised triviality and sterility.
God is beyond anything that we can imagine, said Aquinas. So if I want to meditate on the proposition that what we should really worship is existence itself – with the universe’s endless dynamic and our tissue of loves and hates and fears and promises – and all that is inherent in it, especially each others, then I know that I am free to do so; free to seek comfort from the Source, whatever that is; free to ignore those ignorant armies that clash by night; free to realise all that I am in being and all that I could be, within and outside my eternal self and for others, and worship accordingly.