God and Me
This is a transcript of an
address given to the Pitt Street Uniting Church in Sydney, Australia, in
cannot remember when I was first introduced to God. The family in which
I was brought up was not one that went regularly to church. It is true
that from age five to twelve, I was sent by my mother to the nearest
Presbyterian or Methodist Sunday School, and I simply accepted this as
part of the process of growing up.
I was not aware of any sense of holiness in all this. I was aware that
there were different kinds of churches: a girl of my age, for example,
from the Catholic family living next door, told me with pride that in
her church, God was kept locked up in a box on the altar. Well, of
course, I had already absorbed sufficient Protestant prejudices to know
that that was a piece of superstition, and I took little notice of it.
That was in Victoria, where I was brought up for some four years. And
when my family moved back to New Zealand for me to start high school, my
Sunday School days were over then, and I had no further connection with
the church of the next six years.
In 1936 I started university, and I happened to find board and lodgings
in a Roman Catholic home. The landlady had a son who was a priest, her
only daughter had already entered the closed order of the Carmelites,
and I was much impressed by the devoutness of this home � so much so
that I was quite happy to eat fish with them every Friday.
At the end of the year, a fellow student of mine, who had gone all
through high school with me in every form, invited me to a Sunday tea at
his home. And after the meal, he said �we as a family usually go to
church in the evening � would you like to accompany us?� So this I did.
And I still remember thinking, during the course of that service, that
it actually wouldn�t cause me any harm to go to church � and perhaps I
might even learn something from the sermons.
So when I returned to university the next year in 1937, I began to go to
church. Before long, I found I had already joined a bible class, I was
going to church twice a Sunday, I was singing in the choir, and was even
teaching in Sunday school. So you can see that this year � 1937 � was
one in which I changed direction and style of life quite dramatically.
Now, some people would call that a conversion. But what had it to do
with God? It never occurred to me to say I had �found God�, or that God
had found me. Insofar as I thought of God at all, God was simply part of
a total package. The Christian story, and everything associated with it,
provided me all of a sudden with a framework of reference. It helped to
give me some direction in life. I was not aware of any special
relationship with God, of the kind I sometimes heard my fellow
Yet I did submit myself during that year to a program of personal
devotional exercises: reading the bible, praying. I assumed that that
was the way to get some experience of the reality of God. However,
nothing particular came, except one thing � which was eventually to
change my life. It was this: during that year, I had a growing (if
somewhat uncertain) conviction that I was being called by God to enter
the Christian ministry.
So at the beginning of 1938, I applied to the Presbyterian Church to be
accepted as a theological candidate. Actually, I was secretly hoping I
would be rejected as unsuitable because of my lack of church background
� because if so, that would have told me quite clearly that my
conviction of being called by God was simply a psychological illusion.
However, the Church, with its all-too-frequent lack of wisdom and
insight, accepted me � and that shaped my life from then on. I was now
living, I felt, for some particular purpose, and I delighted in that.
So then, when I commenced my three-year theological course, I still
continued to accept whatever I was told � after all, my teachers were
supposed to know all about the Christianity I had decided to embrace,
and I was only a novice, I was not in a position to question that. But I
found systematic theology rather boring. It seemed to me to be
over-theoretical, and not to have much to do with life.
My chief interest in theological studies was in the study of the bible,
particularly when approached through the original languages of Greek and
Hebrew, which I loved. This appeared to me to be a much more solid base
onto which, as it were, to build one�s understanding of the Christian
tradition. The Christian message could be expounded and defended, I was
taught, by appealing to the historical testimony to it.
The liberal Protestantism in which I was being trained affirmed that
Christianity, unlike many religions, is the historical religion par
excellence; it is built into history, and its foundation was not to be
found chiefly in revealed truths, but in historical events.
It was in historical events such as the exodus of the Hebrews from
Egypt, the resurrection of Christ � as well as, of course, the
crucifixion of Christ � that divine revelation was to be found, rather
than in any dogmatic system, or in the exact words of the bible. And its
central figure, Jesus Christ, was a historical figure, testified to by
historical reliable testimony. The Incarnation was a historical event,
which divided history into two: into B.C. and A.D., so that the God
worshipped by Christians could be called �the Lord of history�.
But how did I relate to God in all this? As I look back now, after sixty
years, I realise I was still simply accepting the being of God as part
of a total Christian package. It certainly seemed to make some sense to
say that God was the Creator of the world, but this God was distant,
beyond all human understanding.
I realise now that I was more of a deist than a theist � to distinguish
between the terms of a God who is simply the Creator, and a God who is a
personal being with whom one communes. Indeed, in those days I was
rather suspicious of the evangelicals, who loved to ask me �do you
believe in a personal God?� � for they seemed to treat God as a kind of
friendly protector. But I never thought of God in that way.
So thereafter I was happy to leave God simply as the name of the
ultimate mystery of life. I rarely ever preached about God as such in my
ministry; I always felt I was on much more solid ground preaching about
Jesus Christ as portrayed in the Gospels. And even then, I steered clear
of al the so-called miracles � they didn�t make much sense to me, nor
did I find them historical.
But I found plenty of material in the Bible as a whole, in both Old and
New Testaments, that I had sufficient to draw upon for all the preaching
that I ever did. For I saw my task as one of expounding the Bible in a
way that provided insights on how to live the Christian way of life.
Well, it was my desire to keep up my theological study during my
ministry. I had already found much in the parish ministry that was
deeply satisfying � but at the same time, I was finding myself
frustrated. After all, I hadn�t entered the parish ministry by choice,
but only under a sense of inner compulsion that I was called to do it,
in spite of what I wanted to do.
So when I spotted an advertisement in the church paper, that the
Presbyterian Church of Queensland was calling for applications for a new
Chair of Old Testament Studies, I submitted my name. I held out little
hope of being successful � but successful I was. And that proved to be
another turning point in my life: I could now devote myself full-time to
the study of the thing that interested me most.
Well, there was nothing very controversial about the Old Testament in
those days. There had been earlier, but nearly all the great battles
about who wrote the first five books of the bible � and it wasn�t Moses
� had all been fought out in the 19th century.
And so now, as a student of the Old Testament, I was quite free to study
and explain the Old Testament as a set of human documents. They
reflected the limited beliefs � and even the prejudices � of the people
who wrote them, and you had to look at them critically in order to get
the best out of them. Of course, this wasn�t yet the case with the New
Testament, because even liberal scholars at this stage still mostly
accepted the New Testament as a reasonably authentic record of the
history and words of Jesus.
Now, having learned already to reinterpret the myths and the legends
that are in the Old Testament � particularly in the book of Genesis � I
felt quite free to approach the New Testament, if necessary, in the same
I was attracted to Rudolf Bultmann�s assertion that the New Testament
message has for too long been �imprisoned� � imprisoned in the
mythological worldview of the 1st century � and that to make it relevant
to the 20th century, it needed to be �demythologised�, a word that he
created. And by the word �demythologising�, which no doubt many of you
have heard, he meant that it had to be radically reinterpreted to fit
the way we view the world in modern times.
So without realising it perhaps at the time, my interests then (while I
was still teaching Old Testament) were beginning to move beyond the
limits of the Old Testament, to the wider biblical field � and later, of
course, wider still.
So on my return to New Zealand, to take up the Chair of Old Testament in
my alma mater, I began to read some other very significant books,
outside the scope of the Old Testament � books that influenced my
thinking on the subject of God. One of them was the three-volume
Systematic Theology of Paul Tillich.
And here at last, I found a theologian who, like the biblical scholar
Rudolf Bultmann, was aware that he was living in the 20th century and
not the 19th, and certainly not the 1st century. And from Tillich, I
learned that when one talks about God, one is talking about whatever it
is that concerns you in an ultimate way. Or sometimes he said God is
�being-itself� � although I wasn�t quite sure what he meant by that.
And a second influence was that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German
theologian who � imprisoned by Hitler in a Nazi prison, and had plenty
of time on his hands to meditate there � began to realise why it is no
longer possible for people in the 20th century to be religious in the
way they had been in earlier centuries. And while in prison, he sketched
a way of what it means to be Christian in the modern secular world.
Then third, I excitedly read the magnum opus of the Jesuit scientist
Teilhard de Chardin: The Phenomenon of Man. I read this book over
one weekend, hardly putting it down. Because here was a vision of the
evolving universe which put into one developing, continuous story all
that we have come to know about physics, and astronomy, and chemistry,
and biology, and theology. I was simply awestruck.
This visionary sketch of an evolving universe, which eventually produced
the human species, was much more convincing as a description of God than
Tillich�s rather enigmatic phrase �being-itself�. God was to be seen not
so much as the maker of the world, or even as the cause of this
evolutionary process. The evolutionary process itself, of an evolving
universe, was in fact the ultimate mystery that could be called God.
It was just at this time that there appeared � and the year was 1963 �
the publication by Bishop John Robinson Honest To God. Now, this
was far more radical than the Protestant liberalism I had been brought
up in. Of course, those who had been reading Paul Tillich and Dietrich
Bonhoeffer didn�t find a great deal new in Bishop Robinson�s little
What this little book did was to alert masses of people � often people
outside the church � to what was going on in academic circles. Indeed,
it became one of the most widely-read theological books of the 20th
century. However the rising tide of Christian conservatism was already,
by the 60s, beginning to challenge the now-declining era of Protestant
liberalism. And I was destined personally to encounter this rising tide.
It came about through another little book of John Robinson�s called
The New Reformation. Now, the editor of the Presbyterian journal
called The Outlook had invited me to write an article for
Reformation Sunday. So taking the lead from John Robinson, I discussed
why a new reformation in the church had become necessary.
I asked: Is the Christian faith inextricably bound up with the worldview
of ancient humankind? Or can the substance of it be translated into the
worldview of 20th century humankind? I then went on to point out that
some of the things asserted by the 16th-century Protestant reformers
were just not true. For example: the Bible is not literally inerrant. It
does have errors in it, of all sorts of kinds. I said the Bible is not a
simple guide, setting forth what every Christian in every generation
must believe and do, because it belongs to the ancient world.
Now, this article raised a few eyebrows. But it would have been quickly
forgotten if the editor of The Outlook had not � foolishly, I
suppose � invited me to write another article for his Easter edition. So
in this, I raised the question of what it really means, within the
modern worldview, to assert that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended
And to do this, I drew upon a statement from Professor Gregor Smith of
Glasgow, in his just-published book called Secular Christianity
� largely based on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And in this book Gregor Smith
said, �We may freely say that the bones of Jesus lie somewhere in
Palestine. Christian faith is not destroyed by this admission. On the
contrary�, he said, �it�s only when this has been said that we are in a
position to ask about the meaning of the resurrection as an integral
part of the message concerning Jesus�.
This time my article raised a veritable storm. The next issues of The
Outlook were filled with letters to the editor � some in praise,
some in violent and angry disagreement. Then the newspapers reported
that the Auckland Presbytery had met in private in order to discuss some
controversial article, and that its members were bound in secrecy to say
nothing about it.
Well, you couldn�t ask more for a journalist, could you? So the news
reporters were now anxious to find out all about it, and to meet public
demand, the offending article was now published in all the metropolitan
So what started as a Presbyterian debate now quickly became a public
debate. I tried to pour some oil on troubled waters by writing four more
articles explaining the background of the debate. I rather naively
thought that it was only necessary to bring people up to date with a
short course in current theological thinking, and they would all quickly
see it in a different light.
Alas, the articles were like throwing petrol on an already-blazing fire,
and the public debate went on apace.
Only three months later, in March 1967, I was invited to preach at the
annual inaugural service at Victoria University (I wasn�t there then, I
went later) and I chose to speak about the Book of Ecclesiastes.
I have found that this book is one that reflects many of our modern
theological problems. You see, it was written by a Jewish author,
probably in Alexandria, about two-to-three hundred years before the
Christian era. And he was pondering about his Jewish heritage, living in
a Hellenistic context where it just didn�t seem to fit at all. In the
course of this sermon, I happened to utter the words, �Of course, man
has no immortal soul�.
Well, an enterprising
journalist in the congregation, sensing another radical departure from
orthodoxy, seized upon this one sentence, headlined it in the next
morning�s paper, and then proceeded to telephone all the various church
leaders to ask them what they thought.
And of course they mostly
appeared terribly shocked. Obviously they had not been keeping up with
their reading, because in academic circles it had been recognised for
some twenty years that the idea of an immortal soul didn�t come from the
Bible at all � it came from the Greek philosophers, and particularly
Plato. After all, what the New Testament says is that �Only God is
immortal�. (I do quote the New Testament sometimes.)
My sermon was subsequently published in all the newspapers again, and
then followed widespread discussion on the sensitive issue of what
happens to us when we die.
There has probably never
been a time in New Zealand when so many people were all thinking at the
same time about the question of life after death. There seemed to be
something in the newspaper every day, for weeks on end. News of it of
course reached Australia. The Sydney Morning Herald devoted an
editorial to it, and then followed it up with a full-page article in
their weekend magazine, on whether we humans have immortal souls.
The newly-established Laymen�s Association called for a special meeting
of the General Assembly, to defend what they took to be the unchangeable
Christian truths. This request was declined, and it was left to the
normal meeting of the General Assembly to deal with the issue.
But the debate went on. It
didn�t stop the daily newspapers, the church journals, the Catholic
newspapers, along with many secular journals, from continuing to publish
numerous articles and letters to the editors on the subject.
And I found myself being referred to in the most extreme terms � from
�the devil incarnate� to �the new Galileo�. In most of this I didn�t
recognise myself at all. It was as if some new mental image of me had
been created by the collective consciousness of New Zealanders, an image
which some hated and others honoured.
Well, around me there swirled a storm. And it made me realise that a
very sensitive nerve had been touched, both in the church and in
society. I just happened to be the person who did it � it could have
been anyone. The Christian tradition was clearly at a crossroads,
because the gap that had been opening up between traditional and popular
Christian thought on the one hand, and academic enquiry on the other
hand, had now so widened that it had reached breaking point.
And it was the recognition
of this that encouraged me to accept the invitation of the publishers
Hodder and Stoughton to write a book about it. So over the next six
months, I wrote a chapter every fortnight. I didn�t write about the
Resurrection or immortality � that book was to come later.
I thought it was first
necessary to explain, in non-academic language, what lay behind the
whole controversy. And that�s how I came to write my first book, called
God in the New World. Little did I realise then that this was
destined to be only the first in a series of books I�ve written, several
of which include the word �God� in the title.
Now, this book had to be finished by October, when the General Assembly
was going to meet in order to hear charges that had been laid against me
� charges of doctrinal error. Two Presbyterians � one a minister with
good theological training, another a layman who had a very simplistic
view of Christianity � had laid charges separately.
And so on Friday, November
3rd 1967, I was called to the Bar of the House � the General Assembly
turns itself into a court of law at this stage � where I heard the
charges being expounded by my accusers.
There was an electric air of
expectancy. More than a thousand people had packed into the church, with
an overflow into the hall. The lamps of the television crews served only
to increase the heat. On Monday I answered the charges, addressing the
Assembly for an hour and a half. After lunch came the debate.
But before there had been
very much time for any adequate discussion of the real issues, a motion
was put to the House, and later carried firmly on the voices � and it
said that �The Assembly judges that no doctrinal error has been
established, dismisses the charges and declares the case closed�.
But although the Assembly dismissed the charges, there was no easy way
to heal the divisions that had now become public. Robert Wardlaw, the
layman, resigned from the church and established one of his own. A
number of individuals in the church transferred their allegiance to
The various metropolitan
dailies once again devoted editorials to the subject. The trial even
rated a mention in the London Times. A Catholic newspaper The
Zeelandia was rather impressed by my defence, and likened me to
Martin Luther � but then went on to say, �Where does this leave the
Presbyterian Church, now it has sold Christianity down the river?� Well,
that of course was yet to be found out. The New Zealand Weekly News
had a leading article on it, which declared,
�The Church will never be the same again�.
And in many ways it was
Just thirty years after I had embraced the Christian faith, the year
1967 became the second religious turning point in my life.
You see, with many others
over these thirty years, I had come to regard the Church as a holy
society, manifesting a very special quality of life. And it came as a
great shock to me to find that behind its benign face, it could also
harbour poisonous thoughts and sheer hatred.
At one stage I was under
police protection. And all this came from people in the Church who
regarded themselves as its most zealous guardians. It made me feel shame
for the Church. The sad realisation came to me that although there are,
of course, many fine people in the Church, and that the Church as an
institution is just as human as any other human institution.
In April 1968, my book God in the New World was published. And on
the same page of one newspaper there were two reviews. They were polar
opposites. One of them said, "This explains the real nature of the
Bible". The other, written by the Editor of the Catholic Tablet,
said, "This book sweeps away all Christian belief". My chapter on God in
that book ends with these words:
By God-talk, we are pointing
to the deepest reality we can encounter. We are pointing to that which
concerns us ultimately � but we do not know what it is. The God that
is known is an idol. The God who can be defined is no God. Because it
is of the essence of human existence that we live not by knowledge,
but by faith.
Of course, what had gone
before the publication all helped to make the book a best-seller. As I
had now become a public figure, I was invited to contribute to a series
of monographs being prepared for seventh forms in schools.
Mine was to be entitled
God in the 20th Century. And there I spoke of the history of the
word "God" � why it had to be treated as a symbolic word. Just as in
mathematics, for example, we have to learn how to use � and how not to
use � the symbol for infinity, so in religion, we must learn how to use
� and how not to use � this marvellous symbolic word "God".
Apart from that, life went on for me pretty much as usual during the
next three years. I set about researching and writing a book on the
topic that started it all off: The Resurrection.
But before this book was
published in 1971, I had already left my position in the theological
hall. I realised I had become a kind of marked man. Conservative forces
in the church were ready to pounce on the slightest provocation; almost
anything I said was taken up � and sometimes wrongly. Because of remarks
I made on a television interview that I gave in Brisbane in 1970, these
conservative forces proceeded to persuade the General Assembly of that
year to dissociate itself from my views � without specifying what views
Many in the Church heaved a
sigh of relief when three weeks after that Assembly, the Victoria
University of Wellington announced that they had elected me to be the
first Professor of Religious Studies in any New Zealand university.
Then I entered an atmosphere of intellectual freedom and calm that I
hadn�t felt for quite some time. And this also was an opportunity that I
welcomed, to return to the wider field of the study of religion
generally � including, of course, the study of all religions.
Because of the theological
controversy in which I had been involved, I chose as my chief area of
research the phenomenon of religious change in the modern secular world.
And in my second year, I instituted a new course called "Religion in
Change". And as a result of the work for that course, I eventually wrote
a textbook for it, which was published in 1980 as Faith�s New Age.
In this book, I concluded that in modern times, humankind has entered a
vastly different cultural world from that which obtained when the great
religious traditions of the world were being founded. And so the major
part of that book traces, step by step, this change from the late Middle
Ages right up until the 19th century.
The book itself is set in a
model, or paradigm, of three successive cultural periods through which
humankind has lived., and in which the diversity of human religious
experience can be more clearly understood. And I found the paradigm I
had constructed � of three great cultural periods � so illuminating and
helpful that it is implied in all my later books.
The first cultural period I call the "ethnic phase" because during it,
the many independent cultures around the world evolved out of their own
ethnic identity, and served to perpetuate it. And in this phase, there
is no distinction made between religion and culture, or between morality
and ritual. People saw themselves as living in a world controlled by the
gods and spirits that personified the forces of nature. And these forces
were often very fickle and quite immoral � but they had to be obeyed,
and kept in good humour.
And then came the second cultural period, which I call the
"trans-ethnic", because at this point, ethnic identity is relegated to
second place. Religion and culture now came to be distinguished from
each other. Ritual and morality came to be distinguished from each other
� even the Israelite prophets decry sacrifice, but put all the emphasis
upon social justice. And of all these traditions, there were three that
were most successful in crossing cultural/ethnic boundaries. And they
were: Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. So that by the year 1900, they
had carved up the world among them: the Buddhist Orient, the Islamic
Middle East, and the Christian West.
But already, before 1900, a third phase of cultural evolution had
emerged, one that I call global and humanistic. Whereas the first was
ethnic and polytheistic � or many gods � and the second was trans-ethnic
and theological � i.e. some form of theological understanding of an
ultimate � the third is global and humanistic.
The modern humanistic culture is now spreading around the globe � much,
of course, to the annoyance of the traditional religions. And this form
of modern global culture is undermining the traditional forms of
religion, including Christianity � out of which, of course, it came.
And it is also, therefore,
giving rise to reactionary religious movements trying to stem the tide
of the third phase of culture. And these reactionary movements we know
as fundamentalists � Christian fundamentalists, Muslim fundamentalists,
Hindu fundamentalists. They are all trying to stem the tide of
humanistic, secularistic culture.
In Faith�s New Age, I tried to show that while the modern world
is sounding the death-knell of traditional religious forms, it is at the
same time heralding new ways of what it means to be religious.
Religious thought and
endeavour must now fasten attention upon this world, rather than upon
the other-worldly goals. And that is why religion in the third phase can
be called secular � not meaning non-religious, but meaning this-worldly.
In the new cultural age, we
are becoming aware of the fact that we are all humans, irrespective of
our class or race or gender or religion or age. We are developing a
growing concern for human rights. We have come to see that what used to
be regarded as divine or transcendent absolutes are actually simply the
human judgements made by our forbears in the past.
A few weeks ago, I delivered a lecture to the Royal Society of
Scientists in Wellington, in which I explored what lay behind the words
of a German physicist called Friedrich von Weiz�cker. He said that
modern science would not, perhaps, have been possible without
Christianity. And we do well to ponder that, because he said (going on
from that) that the Church is blind to the true nature of modern times,
and the modern world is equally blind to its own nature. Both are blind
to the significance of the secularising process. The modern world is the
result of the secularising of Christianity.
Of course, the modern world is no longer Christian in the traditional
sense � but neither is it anti-Christian. The modern world, at its best,
holds in high regard the moral values, the aspirations, and the social
goals it has inherited from the Christian tradition. It is the logical
development of the doctrine of the incarnation of God in human flesh.
Only a fortnight ago, I was delivering a lecture to some two hundred
alumni of Auckland University � most of them medical graduates. I had
been given the title "Playing God".
By this is meant the fact
that we humans have now reached the point in our cultural and religious
evolution where we are now required to make decisions that previously we
assumed were the exclusive province of God. Of course, in all activities
of animal breeding, we�ve been doing that for quite some time. But now
we are gaining such control over the forces and understanding of nature,
that we have some decisions to make about the creation of new life, and
over questions of life and death, contraception, in-vitro fertilisation,
euthanasia, genetic modification, and cloning.
And we are determining �
often unthinkingly � what species should survive, and what should become
extinct. We are already playing God without knowing it. And are we
humans ready for these responsibilities? Probably not. But these
responsibilities are now on our shoulders, whether we are ready or not.
And that is all the more reason why we must all do our best to gain a
clearer understanding of the cultural situation in which we live on this
globe today, and to understand how we got to be where we are. Second, we
must strive to search for whatever wisdom we can glean from the past
that will help us make wise decisions in the choices we now have to make
in our playing God.
In my latest book Is Christianity Going Anywhere?, I contend that
we have come to the end of traditional Christianity, and I point to the
new phase which it has already entered. Indeed, if we look around us in
the modern, secular world, we find already there many of the elements
that Jesus talked about when he spoke of the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God has been
coming, and we haven�t even noticed it. It�s becoming when we asserted
human rights for everybody. It�s becoming when we emancipated women from
male domination. It�s becoming when we freed the slaves. And it is
coming as we still painfully try to give fairness to homosexuals. And
this book further suggests that we have discovered sufficient of the
footprints and the voiceprints of the original Jesus, to help us and
inspire us in the path ahead.
To conclude: During my lifetime, I have seen and I have experienced
great religious change. And that is why � first in my preaching, and
then in my teaching, and finally in my books � I have tried to interpret
that change as clearly and as honestly as I could. While finding myself
living in an ever-changing world, I have strangely discovered that much
that I have learned from the Christian past unexpectedly lights up with
new meaning for today.
And so I conclude this story
of God and me with some words of the medieval Christian mystic Meister
Eckhart. He said, "The eye with which I see God, and the eye with which
God sees me, are one and the same eye".