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Archive for August, 2017

Oxymoron alert: my quest for God has thrown up an interim conclusion.  Where have I got to? There are several reasons for this lack of clarity 0r rather possibilities as to where we go to from here but let me single out two or three of them for closer examination.

The first interim conclusion is the obvious one: “God” does not exist in any sense available to us as humans.  The concept is not accessible through any of our processes of ratiocination, logic or philosophical enquiry.  This stubborn fact, which not long ago I heard enunciated in a sermon by a bishop, has been known for centuries, and in several traditions.  “The Tao that can be told [or spoken] is not the eternal Tao” is the very first statement in the Tao Te Ching.  Moses’ request to know God’s name is met with the enigmatic “I Am that I Am” (Exodus 3:14).  As Bonhoeffer puts it, “A God who lets us prove his existence would be an idol.”

So we are pushed back to the idea that everything in the multi-dimensional cavalcade we call religion is metaphor.  The ineffability of “God” leaves us no choice: we are compelled to acknowledge that everything in scripture is metaphorical, and should be accepted and read as such.

Where this leaves us with the need to parse seemingly related concepts such as ‘real’ or ‘true’ is for the moment unclear.

At first sight, this part of the interim conclusion is fatal to religion.  It seems to qualify, if not rule out, whatever we might think of as being the property of faith or belief.  It risks letting it become unbelievable, either instantly or over a period of slow decay into oblivion. But there are at least two ways round this objection.

The first one is to remind ourselves that what we seem to be asking for is something refracted through western, post-enlightenment concepts of actuality, including ‘science.’  But the problem fades away, as it were, eastwards from Jerusalem.  It is only the West that insists upon reification. The desperate demand for ‘reality’ in religion, which leads to such idiocies as the search of Mount Ararat for the remains of Noah’s ark, would be deemed absurd by any Buddhist, for example.  They would regard it as a pointless undertaking, mistaken from the start. This careering off the track, eventually ending up in crash ‘n burn fundamentalism we rightfully perceive, and rightly condemn, as crude ‘category error.’

This where logos and mythos become confused. It is the province of, on the one hand, believers who do not think about what they believe, and, on the other, non-believers who condemn faith as literally nonsense.

A second way round the metaphor difficulty is, paradoxically, to embrace it.  The Bible, after all, committed to enunciating ‘truth’, deploys galaxies of competing imagery. That inevitably incurs selection, preference and choice.  It also opens the door to a further recognition.  It is not difficult to find verses in the Bible which at first sight seem to be ‘better’, more ‘valuable’, than others.  Failure to understand this value-ranking of this or that scriptural text has potentially baleful outcomes: “The sacred literatures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all contain passages that, read literally, are capable of leading to violence and hate. We may and must reinterpret them“(Jonathan Sacks.  Not in God’s name.  London, 2015. Page 219)

Once you concede that each text, however puzzling, contains multiple readings and depths of interpretation (which is precisely what fundamentalists cannot accept), there is much to offer the modern pilgrim.  You don’t like talk of ‘Christ the King”?  Think about the Good Shepherd instead, or the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53.  Each of these formulations, like so many others, offers access to “God” through the various metaphorical portals in religion’s iconostasis.  Every believer comes to his or her own accommodation of this devout variety, irrespective of what others happen to believe.  I have no desire to dedicate myself to, for example, the cult of the Sacred Heart or the Assumption of the BVM, but have no objection to others doing so.

So it is that the breadth and range of biblical iconography – from straight reportage (Acts 2) through exegesis and on to mystical sublimity (John 1) – frees us to look upon its central messages from any number of angles or perspectives.  As I have noted above, some of these we will subscribe to as being valuable, to us at least; others will repel; in almost every case we will ‘know’, to use a modern metaphor, which channel we are tuned into.

Children have no difficulty with any of this.  My little grandchildren read books and watch TV programmes that feature talking rabbits, singing flowers or emotionally troubled cars.  They don’t bridle at any problem of ‘reality’ in any of them.  Deep into imaginative play, they think nothing of designating an empty carton a spaceship and expecting you to join the masquerade.  It’s important to note, however, that they know, soon enough, what they are doing; they are perfectly capable of interrupting the game in order to make sure that you realise that it is indeed ’just pretend’ or, as my grandson offering reassurance puts it, ‘we’re only playing.’

A third interim avenue of approach derives from the undeniable fact that metaphors compete; the most obvious reason being that religious beliefs, like others (including science), evolve over time.  This is because they have to.  They cannot get out of sync with their host societies, or face being condemned as irrelevant, or worse.  In England we are presently seeing this in the Evangelicals’ disparagement of same sex unions.  This sort of perception – belief mutating – may be anathema to the traditionalist cardinals presently haranguing Pope Francis about divorced persons’ access to the Eucharist, but is grounded in evidence not all that difficult to find.

As in my Quest for God postings in recent weeks, we – or more specifically, we Christians – come to an ominous fork in the road.  If we accept that the tensions between contending interpretations of scripture can be enlightening, even where the text is difficult to understand or even repellent, and if so we also accept the idea of evaluating text and assigning ‘value’ to it, then what are we to do about the central pillar of the Christian faith, that “the mass of people will all be put right with God as a result of the obedience of the one man” (Rom 5:19)?  [To be continued]

 

 

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Currently my favourite quotation is this one, by Denis Diderot, about the quest for God:

“I have only a small flickering light to guide me in the darkness of a thick forest.  Up comes a theologian and blows it out.”

Freely translated from

Egaré dans une forêt immense pendant la nuit, je n’ai qu’une petite lumière pour me conduire ; survient un inconnu qui me dit : Mon ami, souffle ta bougie pour mieux trouver ton chemin. Cet inconnu est un théologien.”

Diderot’s Addition aux Pensées philosophiques (1762) as quoted in the Macmillan Dictionary of Religious Quotations; ed M Pepper.  London, 1989. page 416

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