Posts Tagged ‘modern theology’

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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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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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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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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Much in tune with my current explorations of modern theology, the Church Times recently ran a series of articles on where this branch of knowledge now is.  I found its coverage and detail enlightening but disheartening.  I had not realised how much there is out there, and how much I still have to read in the subject.  One particular assertion, set out in more than a few of the contributors’ pieces, brought me up short.

According to these, much of twentieth century theology is now little regarded and ‘is to be left on the shelf.’ This includes the ‘God is dead’ trope particularly associated with the Divinity School at Cambridge in the mid-1960s.  That is when I was reading theology there (I graduated in 1968) and attending lectures given by most of the following: great names in their day who in 1967 were younger than I am now, which becomes clear when their dates of birth are also listed:

J S Bezzant (1897-1967)

Alec Vidler (1899-1991)

C F D Moule (1908-2007)

Geoffrey Lampe (1912-1980)

Donald MacKinnon (1913-1994)

John A T Robinson (1919-1983)

Harry Williams (1919-2006)

Dennis Nineham (1921-2016)

John Hick (1922-2012)

Maurice Wiles (1923-2005)

Richard Holloway (1933-  )

Don Cupitt (1934-     )

Books or papers by at least eight of these eminences (and others) are within arms’s reach as I write this.  Not only these, too, as my director of studies was Stephen Sykes, who could not conceal his disappointment when I told him, all of 48 years ago, that I would not, after all, be putting myself forward for ordination.

I have never regretted that decision but, keeping in touch, I have found insights in the writings of all these thinkers, which is why I am puzzled about the notion that they have all supposedly been superseded.  By what?  Whom should I be reading now?

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“Modern theology is not always easy reading.  It would be helpful if theologians tried to present it in an atttractive, accesible way to enable congregants to keep up with the latest discussions and the new insights of biblical scholarship, which rarely reaches [sic] the pews.”  Karen Armstrong.  The case for God.  London, 2009  p295.

My point exactly; though it is striking that her book does not even mention Marcus Borg, Richard Holloway or Richard Harries, to speak of but three.

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Throughout human history believers have looked to “God” to answer life’s great questions but also aware of the paradox that “God” does not “exist.” Christianity makes the boldest claim: that “God” became a human, but remains divine.  The mysteries and further questions persist. (more…)

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