Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

What does it mean to say ‘I believe in God’? As the modern phrase puts it, ‘It’s complicated.’  So why do so many people insist that it’s not? (more…)

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The things people believe ! A startling entry in the correspondence columns of the Church Times (25/01/2019 p 17):

“I am a regular churchgoer. [But] I do not believe in Original Sin, the Virgin birth, or that Jesus died to atone for the sins of the world, or in his bodily resurrection.  Am I a heretic, or are these views more generally accepted than acknowledged?”

After months of brooding on the bases of the Christian faith I have no quarrel with these questions.  For me, as a regular churchgoer myself, they represent the most obvious pieces of evidence supporting the argument that, as Richard Holloway puts it, ‘all religion is allegory’ and I am glad to see them in print.

If this aphorism is so, then a paradoxical but positive result unfolds. Not believing in most of the church’s ‘six impossible things before breakfast’ endows me with a freedom to take up the time and space to think through and challenge some of the most basic tenets of the Christian faith (with a sidelong glance at the other main religions).

The obvious rebuttal to this sort of claim says that this is nothing more or less than ‘pick ‘n mix’ religion, content to accept some of the principles of the faith and disdaining others.  This cavalier approach to tradition and scripture, however, is surely justified when so-called axioms of belief are so obviously encrustations created to head off some point of issue felt to be a threat demanding urgent action.  The Assumption of the NVM, for example, is a peculiarly unnecessary doctrine declared infallibly as late as 1950.  It has no footing in traditional Christianity and comes across as nothing more than a papal fix designed to emphasise Mary’s purity, to an absurd degree.

“Many Christians today admit they doubt the miracles of the Bible.  But they will happily recite the Nicene creed – a statement of faith that includes the physical resurrection of Jesus – and not feel they are lying or hypocrites.” (The Economist, 16/02/2019 p77)

Or as Porgy and Bess puts it,

It ain’t necessarily so
It ain’t necessarily so
The things that you’re liable
To read in the Bible,
It ain’t necessarily so.

The immutable teachings referred to by the questions listed in the Church Times are all, to a greater or lesser degree, of this nature. They purport to signal basic truths indispensable for the church but, as time passes, fail any of the believability tests we might deploy in each case.

The priesthood in large part acknowledges this but does not say so; I cannot remember the last time I heard a sermon which set out any of the Atonement doctrine. As I have mentioned elsewhere, this kind of dogma versus modern thinking contention has been fought out for two or three centuries (and in some cases right back to the first century of the Common Era). It must be common currency in any theological college or seminary in the West.

The battle continues.  A respondent in the Church Times (01/02/2019 p17) calls on bishops to admit what they no longer believe in: he suggests that such a list in each case would include “the actual bodily resurrection of Christ, or the uniqueness of Christ as the only way of salvation from eternal hell.” (Another correspondent describes how late in life he had come to realise that “for years he had never been a Christian, only a churchgoer.”)

Underneath its personality as a colossal work of art religion is like a river delta pumping the water of life through myriad channels towards the sea.  Some of those streams are deeper and wider than others.  All of them contend to provide us with the Answers to Everything.  All of them, at some time or other, fail.  I know which channel means the most to me and I rejoice in the freedom to choose it rather than others.

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The divine is latent in everything.  Its truths are brought forth through various media, not just devotional ones.  We acknowledge this when we participate, with others, in the sacraments. (more…)

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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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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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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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