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Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

The people we worship with are at different places along the orbit round the divine.  It doesn’t matter.

Every Thursday morning, a dozen of us – mostly retired folk – meet to take communion with each other and to stay behind afterwards for coffee and a chat.  This morning, one of our number, a pious elderly lady shared with us her horror on discovering “from a TV programme” that there are many people in the world who do not know, let alone accept, that Jesus appeared on earth and was crucified.  She was visibly bewildered and upset at hearing this. We sought to comfort her and suggested that the right thing to do was to pray for such people.

It is difficult not to be condescending. But I tell myself that it does not matter where she and I are on the spectrum of belief.  Whatever encyclicals say, there is no hierarchy of faith which claims that one sort is ‘better’ than another.  We kneel together at the same altar rail knowing that any valid picture each of us has of ‘God’ is that of a concept that doesn’t care where we are in religious terms, accepting us as we are; and that, as Socrates put it, “All men’s souls are immortal, but the souls of the righteous are immortal and divine.”

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My personal search for “God” inevitably involves going over ground long since tilled by others.  Some of them and their findings I am aware of; many others, not.  That’s not a problem.  This is not an academic paper.  It is merely an opportunity for me to track my own ideas about this mystery, feeding on others’ work where it seems right to do so. (more…)

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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]

 

 

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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]

 

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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].

 

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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.

 

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Not long ago I opined that the clergy, in the Church of England at least, were no longer preaching any doctrinal material likely to be uncongenial for average churchgoers.  Now an editorial in the Guardian this week says much the same thing:

“The people in the pews have always been heretics with only the vaguest notion of what official doctrines are, and still less of an allegiance to them. The difference is now that they are outside the pews, even if they still hold the same vague convictions about a life spirit or a benevolent purpose to the universe.  These theological or metaphysical convictions are connected with more firmly held values: contemporary humanists, just like the Christians of previous generations, believe in reason, fairness, freedom and decency. But they no longer have a set of religious stories and rituals with which to justify these beliefs, and charge them with emotion.”

The same point is made at book length in Don Cupitt’s After God (1998), to invoke just one of a number of theologians who have published in this field.

 

 

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