Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Faith in Search of Understanding
2. God
by Anthony Freeman

The first half of the first of the 39 Articles of Religion, which define the official historic stance of the Church of England on matters of faith and practice, runs like this:

There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible.

It was composed as long ago as the year 1533, but it still usefully summarises what most people understand by the term "God", be they fervent believers, militant atheists or nominal Christians.

To turn this general statement into an expression of the classic Christian doctrine of God, we need only add the second part of the same Article:

And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

This is the starting point here, but it was not the starting point for the human exploration of the divine realm and concept of God in the Western part of the world. The character described in this Article has a history. Various earlier ideas combined to produce it, and various subsequent ideas have further developed it.

My intention is to illustrate how the term God (or its equivalent in other languages) has been used over the centuries for many different things. I will argue that it needs to go on changing if God-language and the practice of religion are to continue playing a guiding role in human affairs.

As with my previous discussion of the Bible, my standpoint is that of a minister in the Church of England. But I hope that what I write will be helpful to those of other religious traditions, or those who come from outside any religious commitment.

The Greek background
One major influence on the Christian concept of God was ancient Greece. As in the case of Roman and Nordic religion, the Greeks worked with the concept of a pantheon. Divinity was envisaged as a "race" with different individual gods who behaved much like humans.

They had personalities like humans and could interact with humans. Although themselves immortal, they could liaise with humans to produce offspring (known as heroes), such as Perseus, slayer of the Gorgon Medusa. He was the son of the god Zeus and the human princess Diana.

Such images of divine beings cavorting with human lovers would, of course, never have been sanctioned by any official Christian teaching on the nature of God. Yet many modern attempts to defend the doctrine of the "virgin birth" of Jesus come perilously close to casting God the father in the role of Zeus, Mary as the hapless Diana, and Jesus a latter-day Perseus who defeated not just the monstrous Gorgon but death itself.

The really scary thing, from my point of view, is that most of those in authority in the churches appear to be less worried by such travesties as this than by serious attempts to come up with an authentic contemporary doctrine of God.

Returning to the ancient Greeks: In their imagination and legends the gods on Mount Olympus came to personify different aspects of human life and experience - Aphrodite for love, Athena for wisdom, Demeter for the harvest, and so on.

Here again there seems to be more than a passing similarity between this aspect of ancient religion and the still active cult of patron saints in the Church. Nobody suggests that these saints are gods. But when a devotee of St Anthony prays to him for assistance in finding some item she has lost, I doubt whether the psychology is much different from an ancient Greek farmer praying to Demeter for a good harvest.

Greece, however, contributed even more significantly to our story than I have indicated so far. The same society that worshipped the pantheon and celebrated its members in its poetry, also developed the critical faculties for questioning the received religion.

As early as the fifth century BCE the pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes (d.480 BCE) insisted that the Olympian gods were socially constructed rather than divinely revealed. Indeed, as he told his fellow-Greeks, all humans create their own gods in their own image. So that Ethiopian gods are "snub-nosed and black" while those of the Thracians "have blue eyes and red hair".

Under the guidance of even greater minds, Greek philosophy came to understand divinity as the unifying principle behind the universe. For Plato, God was the creator of the world out of formless pre-existing material. For Aristotle he was the unmoved originator of all motion in the universe.

Here were ideas that were to play a profound effect on the Christian understanding of God. Many is the time, when staying at convents and monasteries, that I have sung the following hymn at the afternoon office:

O God, creation's secret force,
Thyself unmoved, all motion's source,
Who from the morn till evening ray
Through all its changes guid'st the day.

This is pure Aristotle. And Plato's vision of the divine mind behind the universe, bringing order out of chaos, is still alive and well in North America (and not only there) with theories such as the Anthropic Principle and "intelligent design" (of which more later).

But above all, perhaps, we have the Greeks to thank (if that is the word) for the idea that God is perfect and therefore unchangeable, since any change in perfection must by definition be for the worse.

Again the hymns say it best, as in:

We blossom and flourish, as leaves on the tree,
And wither and perish - but naught changeth thee.

Any minister will tell you that trying to persuade a congregation to change its hymn book is the simplest way to bring out in them this divine attribute.

The Hebrew background
Even more apparent than the Greek influence on Christian ideas about God is the role of the Hebrew tradition, to which all the original Christians belonged. An insistence on there being only one God is the most obvious legacy here. But a close reading of the Old Testament shows that other elements, not dissimilar from the Greek ones, are also present.

Later editors of the Hebrew scriptures read back the monotheism of later times, and interpreted or rewrote earlier texts in the light of it.

Note the following examples of where the stitching still shows:

  • There are traces of a suppressed pantheon in Psalm 82.1 ("God standeth in the congregation of the princes: he is a judge among gods") and at verse 6 ("I have said, Ye are gods: and ye are all the children of the most high").

  • The commonest word for God in the Hebrew Bible is Elohim, the plural form of Eloah, which is also used, but much less often. The grammatical plural does not mean that the God of Israel was himself thought of as being multiple, but it is evidence of an earlier tradition with a council of gods.

  • Different names for God are sometimes associated with different shrines or people, especially in Genesis. There we find God referred to as the Shield of Abraham (15.1), the God of Bethel (31.13), the Fear of Isaac (31.42), God Almighty (El Shaddai, 35.11). These might once have been separate gods.

  • The fact that the worship of other gods is forbidden could be interpreted as an acknowledgement that they exist. The shift from monolatry ("You must only worship one god") to monotheism ("There is only one God") is made explicit only in part of the Book of Isaiah - that part normally dated to the time of the Babylonian exile (sixth century BCE) It makes the one God responsible for both good and evil fortune (Isaiah 45.7).

  • In later parts of the Old Testament we find that attributes of God (Word, Wisdom, Spirit and so on) are personified, implying some sense of their once having had a separate existence.

  • Finally, both the King and the nation of Israel as a whole are at times addressed as God�s "Son". This might hark back to an earlier time when a relationship more like that of the Greek heroes was envisaged between the God of Israel and its King.

The establishment of monotheism is not the only development discernible in the Old Testament. Another is the gradual distancing of God from earthly contacts, which paved the way for an assimilation of Israel�s original "hands on" God to the later abstract God of the philosophers.

Here are some examples of this tendency:

  • There is a shift in the meaning of the term "Angel of the Lord". Originally it indicated the presence of God on earth - "the angel which is the Lord". But later it referred to a heavenly being bringing a message from an absentee God - "The angel who is the Lord's messenger".

  • There is a shift from direct revelation through prophecy (God speaks directly to his people through a prophet) to the rabbinic study of scripture (to discern God's will now from what he had said previously).

  • There is evidence of Greek philosophical influence in those later parts of the Jewish scripture known as the Wisdom Literature. Some of these later books were written in Greek rather than Hebrew.

A third development that we can trace in the Old Testament is the introduction of moral dualism from Persian Zoroastrianism. This introduced the idea that everything in the universe is caught up is a cosmic battle between good and evil, between the children of light and the children of darkness.

This trend is especially interesting when seen alongside the increasing stress on monotheism, to which it acts as a kind of counterweight. All the time you believe in lots of gods, you can blame someone else's god when things go wrong. But if there is only one God, then responsibility for everything - good and bad alike - falls on his shoulders.

Some Old Testament writers accepted the full implication of this. I have already alluded to Isaiah 45.7, where the prophet at the time of the Jewish exile to Babylon wrote in the name of his monotheistic God: "I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe. I the Lord do all these things." But not everyone had the stomach for such strong meat.

A symptom of both encroaching dualism and of the distancing of God from direct contact with humans came in the development of character of Satan. The name means an "adversary" in the context of a law court.

Those caught up in a legal dispute will see the defence and prosecution lawyers as being on opposite sides, although within the overall Western judicial system they are both on the side of justice. Both are needed to make the system work. Thus Satan was not originally God's enemy, but his servant, the prosecuting counsel in the heavenly court in which God was judge. He plays this role in the opening chapters of the Book of Job.

Perhaps the best example of Satan being God's loyal instrument is in a comparison of the two accounts of King David's census of the people. The earlier account in 2 Samuel 24.1 reads: 

Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying: Go, count the people of Israel and Judah.

The later account in 1 Chronicles 21.1 says, 

Satan stood up against Israel and incited David to count the people of Israel.

The hands-on God of 2 Samuel now uses his legal prosecutor to do his dirty work. But it is still God's work.

By the time we get to the New Testament, however, Satan is identified with the Devil (Revelation 12.9; 20.2) and has been transformed into God's mortal enemy - almost (but not quite) a second god, available to take the blame when things go wrong.

The Holy Trinity
The distinctively Christian doctrine of God as Trinity will be dealt with in the fourth of this series, which deals with the Creed. I want now to skip straight to the period from the seventeenth-century enlightenment to the present day, and look at more recent developments in the understanding of God.

1. Natural and Revealed Theology
We have said that the traditional idea of God is of a supernatural person, beyond space and time, who is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good, the creator and sustainer of the universe, and the proper object of human worship and obedience.

For any believer in this sort of God there is a dilemma which cannot be avoided. By definition, God is beyond time and space, while we are constrained within time and space. How then can we know anything about God?

There are two approaches to this problem of gaining knowledge about God. Both have been used in compiling classical Christianity.

The first, known as Natural Theology, says that we cannot reach God direct, so we must look for clues to God's nature in the world around us. 

The second, known as Revealed Theology, says that we cannot reach outside time and space to God, but the divine does reach inside them to speak to us, if only we will listen.

The relative merits of these two approaches have been argued about for hundreds of years. But it seems to me that in the end they are both confronted by the same problem - human limitations.

As we noted in the first of this series, which dealt with the Bible, even if it is more than just a humanly produced book it can never be less than a humanly produced book.

Whether or not the Ten Commandments, for instance, originated from heaven or from earth, we cannot actually trace them back beyond the point at which they entered human consciousness. And at that point they were necessarily constrained by the limits of human understanding and expression.

And the same is true - in various ways - of all claims to have received or experienced a divine revelation.

The importance of the human dimension in all religious doctrine became an issue of increasing importance in the seventeenth century and the Age of Enlightenment.

2. Post-Enlightenment Developments
The changes in philosophy and the natural sciences associated with the Enlightenment in Europe led to an increasing gap in the minds of educated people between God and his creation. For the entire Christian era to that point there had been an acceptance of theism - the belief in a God who is prior to and outside his creation, but who still intervenes to a greater or lesser extent in its day to day running and sustains it by his love and power.

But with the discovery of the natural laws of physics by Isaac Newton and others, which replaced the older science of Aristotle, the daily course of the universe could be explained without recourse to an interventionist God.

As Alexander Pope playfully and memorably put it:

      Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night:
      God said, Let Newton be! And all was light.

So it was that among forward-looking religious thinkers of the time, traditional theism gave way to deism - the belief that having once made the world and set it in motion, God was content to leave it alone to run by itself. God might have reserved to the divine an occasional miracle - the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus, for example - but daily intervention was not needed.

With so much of God's traditional role already conceded by the religious leaders of the day, it was but a short step for the less religious to move from deism to atheism - the belief that there is no God at all, and never has been. 

The classic spokesman here was the French philosopher and scientist Pierre Laplace. Asked by Napoleon where God fitted into his scheme, Laplace replied simply, "I have no need of that hypothesis."

These moves towards atheism have been countered by a number of arguments.

  • The most traditional and persistent is the argument from design, put most memorably by the late eighteenth-century archdeacon, William Paley, in his Parable of the Watchmaker.

    Suppose I am walking across the heath, he wrote, and find a stone. I might reasonably suppose that it came there by accident. But if I find a watch, with all its intricate cogs and wheels and mechanisms, I can only suppose that it was designed and made by an intelligent mind.

    The universe - as we observe it - is more like the watch than the stone. It "works" and therefore must have been planned and executed with a purpose. The watchmaker is God.

    The doyen of militant atheists today, biologist Richard Dawkins, has countered this argument in his book The Blind Watchmaker. He argues that Darwinian evolution by natural selection can explain away the apparent design in the universe. 

    He in turn has been challenged - unsuccessfully in my view - by the proponents, chiefly in America, of the "intelligent design" of the universe, whose claims are often related to the so-called "Anthropic Principle".

    This is the scientific claim that if the initial physical conditions at the Big Bang had been even fractionally different, then the universe would not have evolved in a way that could support human life - and that therefore there must have been a God to achieve those optimum conditions.

  • A rather different approach is represented by Process Theology. It is associated especially with the names of Teilhard de Chardin and Charles Hartshorne, and was based on the philosophy of A N Whitehead (1861-1947).

    He saw God not as "an imperial ruler" but as working "slowly and quietly by love" in and through the natural order. God's perfection is seen not so much as an unchanging essence as an evolving process guided by love and leading toward what Teilhard called "the Omega Point", the goal of the creation.

    On this view there is no contradiction between the scientific doctrine of evolution and the Christian doctrine of God.

  • Yet another twentieth-century attempt to reconcile modern science and philosophy with religion was the "existential" theology of the American Paul Tillich, the German Rudolph Bultmann and the British John Macquarrie (I was taught by the latter).

    Traditional theology had seen God as a being standing outside the natural order. Process Theology saw God as working in and through the natural order. Existential Theology, developing out of the existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger, saw God not as an individual being at all, but - in Tillich's famous phrase - as the "ground of being", what Macquarrie calls "Being with a capital B", that which "lets-be" all individual beings.

  • A fourth approach, and the one which in recent years I have myself found most useful, is known as Constructive Theology.

    This is the belief that religion is part of our humanly constructed culture and that all theological ideas - including the concept of God himself - are part of a wholly human undertaking to structure and make sense of our lives.

    The idea that God was made in man's image, rather than the other way round, is commonly associated with the nineteenth-century thinker Ludwig Feuerbach, who made it a reason to stop believing. More recently the Cambridge theologian Don Cupitt, Lloyd Geering in New Zealand, and others, have embraced this viewpoint without giving up their Christian faith.

    In the so-called "post-modern" world, many have come to believe that moral and religious values once thought to be absolute and "handed down" from on high have in fact evolved within human society, and are none the worse for that. God is now understood in a similar way.

My understanding of God
About fifteen years ago - under the combined influence of these various ideas, especially existential and constructive theology - my own ideas about God reached the stage where to speak about God's independent existence seemed just as much picture language as to speak about God's right hand.

We can go on using the words - especially in worship - but we must be clear that they are picture language and not literal description.

It is obvious that things such as love, loyalty and duty are human values. Although we have personified them - and spoken as if they existed independently of us - we now see that in fact they exist only where men and women exhibit them.

That does not deny their importance, but it locates them firmly in the human sphere. In the same way, so it now seemed to me, God is also a personification of human values. In the words of Don Cupitt, God "...  is the sum of our values, representing to us their ideal unity, their claims upon us and their creative power".

As such God does not exist independently of the humans who relate to those values and live by them.

This is not quite the way that Paul or Aquinas understood God. But I venture to suggest that it is no more different from either of them than they are from each other, or than they both are from the God of the Jephthah and Gideon in the Old Testament. It is a way of thinking about God which has been around now for well over a hundred years.

But what is new is that it is now appealing to practising Christians and not just to opponents of religion. Its appeal, speaking just for myself, is that it provides a way of thinking about God which enables me to say with integrity, "I believe in God".

It allows me to practise my religion without switching off my brain.

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