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Archive for the ‘Modern theology’ Category

If we understand God to be, not a Thing but rather a dimension of our humanness, the ultimate meaning, a dynamic of the universe, a force revealed in various ways, we need not be afraid to reimagine the givens of our faith, test the truths and structures of our beliefs and invigorate the familiar tropes and practices of our religious life. (more…)

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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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My musings about God and Jesus Christ in my recent Quest for God series of postings must surely strike a chord with many other people.  But this sort of thinking gets short shrift in the Easter 2017 edition of the Catholic Herald.

The theme is resurrection from the dead. In attacking the belief “that the Resurrection was only an event in the faith consciousness of the disciples, however real, rich and radical that might be imagined,” Fr Ron Rolheiser stipulates that “to believe in the Incarnation is to believe that God was born into real physical flesh, lived in real physical flesh, died in real physical flesh and rose in real physical flesh.”

Fr Julian Large agrees: “The Ascension indicates that heaven is not merely some disembodied state of spiritual bliss but a real place where bodies exist.” (Where does that leave Job 19:26?)

I find these assertions fascinating.  They assume that the laws discovered by science these many centuries can be and are circumvented by divine fiat.  Where in our universe, for example, is a physical heaven to be found?  And where does this leave St Paul when he explains that the dead “are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies” (1 Cor 15:44)?

As such these statements of fact in the Herald are literally incredible in the post-Enlightenment sense.  To be precise, they are nonsense.  But they do not mean that the Resurrection and the Ascension didn’t happen.  They did, I believe, but in a metaphorical, symbolical way (I take this to be a valid layer of meaning in Article 6.660 of the Catechism) that represents an authentic article of faith.

I am comfortable with that, and shrug off Richard Ingrams’ remark in the same issue: “Anyone hoping to take comfort in [the explanation of the Gospel story as some sort of beautiful poetic “myth” which was not intended to be taken literally] is more likely to find it in the writings of progressive theologians or the sermons of renegade CofE bishops.” Ouch.  The renegades have my sympathy.

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If, like all scripture, the New Testament is soaked in allegory and metaphor, we are entitled to question a number of propositions, including the atonement theory, and their dependence on an anthropomorphic view of “God”. (more…)

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Who was Jesus?  That question, put by friend and foe, has been discussed, sometimes violently, for two millennia.  Despite Catholic doctrine, there is no easy answer.  The question comes up again and again.  Its difficulty lies in how we should regard the person at the central reference point of our faith. (more…)

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At this point in my personal search for a “God” to believe in, I need to stop and review briefly where I have got to.  It’s the equivalent of ‘the story so far’; an opportunity to pause, take stock and look ahead.  What is becoming increasingly evident is that whatever I think I have discovered up till now has implications.  Some of these are bound to be trivial; others, not so.

This is the moment when the law of unintended consequences kicks in.  It is all very well coming to the provisional assessment that the “God concept” is too ineffable, too far beyond all our frames of reference to aver even that “God exists.”  If we couple this finding with the other one arising from this series of posts – that religion and faith need copious infusions of metaphor, allegory and symbolism in order to work properly – then we have to ask how far this can be taken before it poses a threat to core principles which we assume (if we are religious in any way) are essential components of our belief system.  To look at how this works in Christianity for example, we have only to compare the essentiality of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception with that of the central tenet of the Christian faith, that Jesus Christ died for our sins.  The one of these is, in my view, something we can take or leave; the other is very different indeed (to be continued).

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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]

 

 

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