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Quest for God 5

As is always the case along the quest for ‘God’, I soon come across the footprints of other, better writers and thinkers who have got there before me.  I wanted to think about the way in which metaphor and symbolism reinforce the language of any faith system when I accidentally came across the following paragraph by a theologian writing late in the 19th century:

“Symbols are the only language suited to religion.

It would be an illusion to believe that a religious symbol represents God in Himself, and that its value, therefore, depends on the exactitude with which it represents Him. The true content of the symbol is entirely subjective: it is the conscious relation of the subject to God, or rather, it is the way he feels himself affected by God.

From this point of view we may see in what religious inspiration psychologically consists. Neither its aim nor its effect is to communicate to men exact, objective, ready-made ideas on that which by its nature is unknowable under the scientific mode; but it consists in an enrichment and exaltation of the inner life of its subject; it sets in motion his inward religious activity, since it is in that that God reveals Himself; it excites new feelings, constituting new concrete relations of God to man, and by the fact of this creative activity it spontaneously engenders new images and new symbols, of which the real content is precisely this revelation of the God-spirit in the inner life of the spirit of man.

The greatest initiators in the religious order have been the greatest creators of symbols.” (August Sabatier.  Outlines of a Philosophy of Religion based on Psychology and History.  1910. Chapter 4, Section 6 Symbolism)

If we accept that metaphor and symbolism help faith, not hinder it, then certain parts of scripture and Christian teaching become easier to understand.  A good example is provided by Jesus’ parables (the purpose of which is set out in Matt 13:10-17).  Like drama – which is another art – they provide us with the means pictorially and helpfully, to discern the truths and frailties of human behaviour.  As such, they should be treasured as windows through which we can see and evaluate aspects of that interaction between ourselves and ‘God’ (any concept of which) and modify our beliefs and stance accordingly.

This is all very well, but – to speak only about Christianity – the more we scan scriptures for the lodes of meaning running through the parables, sayings and incidents we have inherited, the more difficult it becomes to subject the great narratives of our faith to such examination without seeming to undermine them, and thus our faith, in some cases (not others) quite disturbingly.

The first of these great narratives, however, is the one least likely to cause this kind of offence.  About the Nativity, the late Marcus Borg wrote “the stories of Jesus’ birth are myths in this sense [that is, “symbolic narratives and not straightforward historical reports”].  Along with most mainline scholars, I do not think these stories report what happened. The virginal conception, the star, the wise men, the birth in Bethlehem where there was no room in the inn and so forth are not facts of history.  But I think these stories are powerfully true.  They make use of rich archetypal religious images and motifs to speak of Jesus’ significance.” (The God we never knew. 1998. Pp101-102).

Similarly, on another of the great narratives, Borg said that “Easter need not involve the claim that God supernaturally intervened to raise the corpse of Jesus from the tomb.  Rather, the core meaning of Easter is that Jesus continued to be experienced after his death, but in a radically new way: as a spiritual and divine reality.” (op cit, p93).   I intend to return to this particular trope at a later date.

I assume that these ideas formed part of earlier theological teaching of Biblical demythologisation, by Rudolf Bultmann and others.

Another of the great narratives of Christianity, Pentecost, celebrating the Holy Spirit’s gift of tongues 40 days after Easter (in Acts 2), seems to me to be a quasi-symbolic depiction of the apostles’ realisation that their mission now was to go out and spread the Good News.  The story is written in a highly theological register but with persuasive touches of realism which must have been experienced during an actual incident and recalled later by eye-witnesses (Peter’s insistence that he is not drunk, for example).  Again, here, there is nothing in the interplay between symbolism and ‘what really happened’ to cause us to doubt or reject the basic meaning of the story and so lose the message.

With the Passion, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Salvation narratives, however, we enter altogether more difficult terrain, where the allocation of story-telling editing here and meaning-laden metaphor there, realism and symbolism, has to be set out with exceptionally careful handling.  Here the quest for God is really put under pressure. [To be continued]

 

 

Quest for God 4

So it is that in the quest for ‘God’ – or for any other meanings to explain our multiple predicaments – the arts discharge a major role (wittingly or not) deploying metaphor with which to do so.  “A poem, a play, or indeed a great painting has the power to change our perception in ways that we may not be able to explain logically but that seem incontestably true” (Karen Armstrong. The case for God.  London, 2009 p17).  In fulfilling this mission, artists can draw upon vast stores of symbols, each embodying its own meanings.  This happens on many different levels and intensity of emphasis.

I’m aware, of course, that large landscapes of philosophical enquiry into these phenomena have already been explored, most notably in France where semiology and connected ideas have long predominated in the academy.

We don’t need semiotics, however, to tell us that religions, always striving but chronically unable to achieve total connectivity with ‘God’ through art and language (See Quest for God 1-3), have particular need for analogy, metaphor, simile and symbolism to fall back on. An observable fact in the world today is that so many people refuse to believe this.

Yet it is obvious.  Religious discourse – scripture, elucidation and commentary – is saturated with metaphor.  As an example I have used before, let’s stipulate that when Christians talk of the ‘Lamb of God’, they are not referring to an actual sheep. They mean a person who has been, and is, treated symbolically as a sheep (Isaiah 53:5).  Similes abound in the Bible: “I am become like a pelican in the wilderness” (Psalm 102:6).  Like other poetry, word pictures like these blur the line between the real and the analogous.  Under pressure by science and technology, with its hunger for precision and realism, the modern age has largely – but not altogether – lost sight of this principle.

Literalism or ultra-realism in religion is, at best, an irritant; at its worst, it can be a curse.  According to Keith Ward, fundamentally “it is a rather modern movement that only really began to exist after the rise of science in the sixteenth century” (What the Bible really teaches (2004) p100).  It’s a frame of mind, or paradigm that holds onto the idea, based on the certainty allegedly achievable by scientific enquiry, that the more realistic something is, the closer it is to its truth or actuality.  It’s a way of seeing that privileges the logos (enthralled by facts and predominantly masculine) over the mythos (more obeisant to emotions and predominantly feminine).

Failure to recognise symbolism for what it is can be highly misleading.  It’s fundamentalists’ biblical literalism that sends explorers up Mount Ararat looking for the remains of Noah’s ark, or arranges museum displays that show human beings anachronistically cohabiting with dinosaurs.

Previous generations have had comparatively little problem in recognising the ambiguity and nuance inherent in metaphor and symbolism. In Judaism, this willingness to tease out multiple meanings is a familiar and fruitful approach called midrash.  It is a stance that is not just permissible but essential.  How can we evaluate the various meanings sure to be found contained within a given piece of scripture if we insist that there is always only one?

Fundamentalists abhor the appearance of ambiguity in all this (hence their insistence that the Bible nowhere errs).  They fail to see that contesting literalism does not mean diluting the message.  Reinterpretation of the ancient texts and recognising the layers of symbolism in them is a never-ending exercise of testing of our assumptions and perspectives about “God”. It is not damaging the inherent meaning of the material, but the opposite.

Nevertheless, as theologians have long recognised, there are serious problems with this approach. [To be continued]

 

 

Quest for God 3

Every religion allocates space and time to the exercise of the spiritual.  Right across the worship spectrum, from hermits fleeing from the ordinary demands and offerings of daily life, to the crowded charismatic gospel halls in every megacity, the desire to make a connection, however inchoate, with the divine is given full rein.

This quest, rooted in the community and its experiences, is fuelled by the prevailing Weltanshauung of the group. How does it feel?  How does it express how it feels? The sociocultural element provides the worshipper with emphatic access to the archetypes and rituals embedded in the community’s collective unconscious.  This enabling is continually and imaginatively pressed into service in the creation, deployment and renewal of its art.  This, whether in painting, sculpture, costume, music, poetry, drama, other literature or ritual, takes many forms.

Art is powerful.  At its best, it discloses, explains, warns, chastises and moves us. It clarifies in special ways: Clive James describes it as the coal of truth compressed into diamonds.  It also makes demands, and reflects back to the viewer. This is true of all art, religious or not, but it embodies and reinforces the spiritual experience and perception in particular.

In religion, art commands respect as a multifaceted medium in which to undertake and sustain the pilgrimage. But it is not always easy.  Some believers find it literally unbearable, which is why the austere Doppers, for example, have no music in their worship and Islam forbids the depiction of living creatures.

There is indeed a spectrum of intensity here.  Christianity occupies only a part of it but that segment ranges from the anodyne to the mighty.  Some simple religious art does little more than illustrate stories; think of pictures in family bibles.  More ambitious art functions as a portal to the reality beyond (“A man that looks on glass, on it may stay his eye…”: George Herbert’s version of 1 Cor 13); this I take to be the function of the iconostasis in Greek Orthodox churches, about which I have written before.

Other sacred art makes statements that reinforce doctrine and refresh elements of belief; Caravaggio’s Christ at Emmaus is a good example.  emmaus

At the top of the range stand the masterworks of Christian belief, where faith intersects with art-bearing truth to ignite something magnificent in the soul: the Bach cantatas, Brahms’ German Requiem, Michelangelo’s Pietà; the first few verses of St John’s Gospel.

The list is endless. In each case, the two components, art and faith, amalgamate with lived experience and detonate.  The product is a new way of ‘looking’ which equips the onlooker with the means to encounter and relate to a spiritual dimension impossible to avoid.

This is not to suggest that art can be a substitute for belief but rather that we should see it as a channel for the exercise of belief, one that authentically combines and enhances the elements of our transaction with whatever lies ‘beyond’ or ‘within’.

If, as we have seen, our language is inadequate to the task of connecting with ‘God’, and art can help us but only so far and no further, then we still have recourse to analogy, metaphor and simile.  [To be continued]

 

Quest for God 2

At this point in my continuing search for ‘meaning’ in the concept of ‘God’, I am sympathetic to the proposition that, strictly speaking, God does not exist.  That is to say that, in the context within which we assert that a given something is or is not, subject to our understanding of – and judgement of – any scientific proof, the concept lies outside this domain of existential realism.  ‘God is’ is not a scientific statement or hypothesis.  It is not real to us in the way that the planet Mars is.  To argue differently is to be victim of category error.

I take this to be what Thomas Aquinas meant – and which Kant and others modified – by the idea of God being beyond anything that we can imagine.

For me, this is the surest foundation for deploring anthropomorphic depictions of ‘God’ as a personality, active in our world of time and space, as essentially unreliable, misleading and ultimately, even blasphemous.  What kind of God is it that we can locate and describe in human terms; seemingly the only terms available to us?

The problem with this is, where do we go from here?

If we reject divine anthropromorphism as illogical and unhelpful we are left in a ‘baby and the bath, situation where it seems that, at the very least, we have no language with which to articulate the ‘god concept.’  It is literally beyond words.  Doesn’t this mean that we have no proper conceptual framework with which we can define any sort of ‘interim’ deity at all?  Is there no way available to us to connect and interact with a ‘divine other’?

It is tempting, but ultimately unsatisfying, to suggest that ‘God’ is a dimension of all our experience and quest for meaning.  I want to return to this point later (in the full knowledge that this conundrum has been covered much more thoroughly by the great German theologians of the 20th century).

If there is a problem here, however, it has been one that has been thought about by human beings for millennia.  History shows that getting the answer to this question ‘wrong’ has all too frequently entailed dislocation, social unrest, power politics and bloodshed.  This is why through the ages organised religion has had as its reason for being the gatekeeper role tasked with the search for a concept of the divine, and a convincing account of how humankind can encounter the ‘divine other’ in diligent, fruitful ways.

One of the most important of these ways has been, and always will be, the arts. [To be continued].

 

Quest for God 1

Who or what “God” is doesn’t matter; how we interact with the rest of creation matters a great deal.

I am always moved by the signs of belief which from time to time appear in some of my local co-religionists. Four or five of them are currently urging me to make the pilgrimage to Walsingham with them. I appreciate their enthusiasm but I do not share it.  Adoration of the BVM is not a feature of my belief-world.  That kind of pietism is not something I can easily relate to.  I don’t feel I need it.

What should I believe?  What do I believe?  What can I believe?  My search for meaning in the concept of “God” – meaning that I can believe in – has gone on for some years now.  Not all have been productive.  My attitudes over that period have changed.  It’s only recently, for example, that I have begun to wonder whether the very terms of the search are undermined by a failure to discern in it the possibility that it is essentially a male perspective: alive to all the logos involved but insensitive to the female one, the mythos, whatever that may be; head, not heart.

Similarly, am I unconsciously trapped in a series of attitudes and assumptions inherited inseparably from being an educated well-off Westerner, let alone a member of the Church of England, slumped in the pew every Sunday?

Another concern is that I’ve also allowed myself to get too bothered by the fact that there are swathes of theological writing and thinking, going back millennia, that I have not properly examined, or even heard of.  Although I read widely in the subject, it must be obvious that many of my questions could have been answered years ago had I made greater efforts to study the likes of Spinoza, Kant, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Jung, Tillich, Bultmann, the two Niebuhrs, Barth, Kung, Rahner, Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, Adorno, Lonergan, Merton, Hick, Cupitt, Schillebeeckx and Bonhoeffer, let alone Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo.  All I really know about the work of all these masters is that each, in his own way and in the light of so many of the insights discovered over generations, has had an impact – positive or negative – on the Christian belief system.  This must be common coin in seminaries.

I am not, however, a theologian in the academic sense.  I do not have to have read all that the masters have written as long as I am aware of it and them.  This is why I refer to them without citing references.

This is why it’s always something of a relief to find someone addressing the same difficulties that I have.  A recent obituary written by the late Dennis Nineham puts one aspect of my position rather well: “It was refreshing to find an Anglican bishop accepting that there are many things in traditional Christianity that are impossible for a modern westerner to believe in a literal sense, and saying so plainly.”

On the other hand, some sources have palled.  After listening to some of Bishop John Spong’s lectures on YouTube, I’ve found myself disagreeing with him too often to keep him on my list.

But what a list remains!  There must be, I am sure, many others.  In the absence of their insights, all I can realistically hope to do is think through the questions and doubts that any ordinary churchgoer would have and come up with some tentative conclusions of my own. Some of them are painful. Many of them must surely conflict with church doctrine.

But I need not worry too much. It’s the journey that matters, after all; one or other destination will appear in due course.   I remind myself that it is not as if I am writing for publication.  This is for myself alone. This is me thinking aloud, as it were. Like anybody else, I can think what I like about “God”, the right to privilege experience over against any number of thinkers such as those I have listed.  In our civilisation, that right has only been achieved by schism and bloodshed.

Let me proceed.  In my postings after this one, I start laying out what I believe so far.

 

Snide Romanism

A local retired priest lets me see copies of the Catholic Herald when he has finished with them (I get the Church Times from another source).  As a liberal member of the Church of England I find the experience both fascinating and appalling.

The news items and factual articles are interesting enough but the tone of much of the theological explanations and contributors’ pieces, and especially the letters page, seems to lose no opportunity to denigrate Anglicanism with frequent well-chosen sneers.

The overall impression is one of beleagurement, a siege mentality shaded with vindictiveness; altogether disheartening.  Why is this?  “Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus” taken all too much to heart? Why is Rome so strident?

‘Twas ever thus.  I am reminded of the Trotskyite I met in the Horn of Africa who claimed that cradle Catholics grow up to make the best communists, whilst Church of England babies eventually adhere to nothing better than woolly liberalism.  In Hilary Mantel’s novel Fludd the parish priest reports that his village community has no Christians, only Catholics and heathen.  Or, as Oscar Wilde remarked, “The Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone. For respectable people, the Anglican Church will do.”

Theology now

Much in tune with my current explorations of modern theology, the Church Times recently ran a series of articles on where this branch of knowledge now is.  I found its coverage and detail enlightening but disheartening.  I had not realised how much there is out there, and how much I still have to read in the subject.  One particular assertion, set out in more than a few of the contributors’ pieces, brought me up short.

According to these, much of twentieth century theology is now little regarded and ‘is to be left on the shelf.’ This includes the ‘God is dead’ trope particularly associated with the Divinity School at Cambridge in the mid-1960s.  That is when I was reading theology there (I graduated in 1968) and attending lectures given by most of the following: great names in their day who in 1967 were younger than I am now, which becomes clear when their dates of birth are also listed:

J S Bezzant (1897-1967)

Alec Vidler (1899-1991)

C F D Moule (1908-2007)

Geoffrey Lampe (1912-1980)

Donald MacKinnon (1913-1994)

John A T Robinson (1919-1983)

Harry Williams (1919-2006)

Dennis Nineham (1921-2016)

John Hick (1922-2012)

Maurice Wiles (1923-2005)

Richard Holloway (1933-  )

Don Cupitt (1934-     )

Books or papers by at least eight of these eminences (and others) are within arms’s reach as I write this.  Not only these, too, as my director of studies was Stephen Sykes, who could not conceal his disappointment when I told him, all of 48 years ago, that I would not, after all, be putting myself forward for ordination.

I have never regretted that decision but, keeping in touch, I have found insights in the writings of all these thinkers, which is why I am puzzled about the notion that they have all supposedly been superseded.  By what?  Whom should I be reading now?