Posts Tagged ‘belief in God’

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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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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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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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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Religion seems to be having rather a hard time in Oxford, according to a recent article in the Catholic Herald (05/06/2015 p21) by Jill Duchess of Hamilton.  In it she quotes Charles Vaughan of the Oxford Union as claiming that many students now at Oxford describe themselves as only ‘culturally religious’ to some degree, and do not practice any religion; “real belief in an interventionist supernatural being – particularly the Catholic conception of God – is viewed with deep scepticism and sometimes contempt.”

I daresay that such an attitude has been commonplace at Oxford since the days of Newman and Matthew Arnold, if not before, and held by many,even, who later became ordained.  The obvious tagline is “And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief (Mark 9:24).”  I would also not be surprised if it was ever discovered that it is a stance privately held by many in the pew. Doubt is real – a permanent challenge to belief.

I have no problem with that.  Nowadays we are all individually entitled to hold our own convictions, secretly or not, and it shouldn’t be any of my concern that any fellow congregant of mine believes this or that, even as I kneel with them at the communion rail. 

The last time any fellow worshipper whispered such doubts to me was during a First Communion mass in a church in Rome. But who or where doesn’t matter. We were not there to worship.  We were there to witness the first faltering steps along the way of belief. “In the midst of the congregation I will praise you (Psalm 22:22).”

Back home in Hanslope it is enough that twice a week I am there at the communion rail, as an agnostic Anglican bearing witness to what I believe to be a profound truth about the human predicament.  It is enough. I know what I believe, and God knows it too. He helps my unbelief.

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So the Archbishop of Canterbury says that he sometimes has doubts about God.  So what?  If God was knowable, He would not be worth knowing.  The Most Reverend is intelligent enough not to have to be told this and I am sure that he is aware of all the latest thinking on the subject, including the wrong-headed ideas of Prof Dawkins. As Andrew Brown says, the revelation shows that he is human. But would other congregants of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) agree?

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About God: a verse from the Hindu scriptures:

His form cannot be glimpsed,
None may see Him with the eye:
Whose should know Him with heart and mind
As dwelling in the heart, becomes immortal!

Svetasvatara Upanishad 20
from Hindu scriptures; trans. R C Zaehner. London, 1992 p267

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Blaise Pascal

Except for the usual famous quotations, none of the writings of the great French philosopher, mathematician and born-again Christian apologist Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) has ever come to my notice until now.  On a whim, I’ve bought a copy of his Pensées and have been dipping into it at random, coming up with gems like this (French first, then my attempt at a very free translation into English):

Il n’y a que trois sortes de personnes: les uns qui servent Dieu l’ayant trouvé, les autres qui s’emploient à le chercher
ne l’ayant trouvé, les autres qui vivent sans le chercher ni l’avoir trouvé.  Les premiers sont raisonnables et heureux, les derniers sont fous et malheureux.  Ceux du milieu sont malheureux et raisonnables. Pensées 12:160

There are only three sorts of people:  those who having found God serve Him; others who set out to look for Him but have not found Him; and the rest who live their lives not having looked for Him, let alone found Him.  The people in the first group are sane and happy, and those in the last group are crazy and unhappy.  Those in the middle are unhappy and sane.

No doubt the great man had in mind the question the Bible asks, “Canst thou by searching find out God?”  Job 11:7

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The hand of God

The reason I keep writing about whether “God” exists, and if so, how, is that I am thinking aloud, following a certain train of thought and its implications.  I meet it often in the writings of others, such as Karen Armstrong, Timothy Radcliffe OP or Keith Ward.  It is the observation, ever clearer than before, that some of those who believe that “God” is, in Terry Eagleton’s memorable phrase, “some kind of chap” are more likely than the rest of us are to think that they know ‘what God wants.’ (more…)

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My recent reading is bringing home to me what I should have realised long ago; that successive attempts to ‘define God’ or ‘prove’ that God exists, or do the opposite, are pursued only by people whose mindsets are steeped in the materialism and individualism typical of Western culture.  Were it not for the rise of radical Islam since 2001, this essentially sterile debate would have run out years ago, for want of fuel and under pressure from new concerns and ideas. (more…)

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