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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Head to Head

One of the most troublesome aspects of modern theology is the idea that God and other similar ideas are inventions of human beings. Not until we accept this, say some radical theologians, can we attain true maturity of faith. Here Mick and Rick debate some aspects of the way we form our beliefs.

Rick: The term construct is used in religious and philosophic discussions. In our debates it is often employed. As I understand it, a construct is a concept devised by the mind to set parameters for discussion and analysis of a particular subject. It constitutes the basis and conditions for elaboration of the subject at hand.

Some claim the idea of God to be a human construct. Frankly I don�t know what source of constructs there can be other than the human mind. Is there any other being that has the mental capacity to make constructs?

Because God is a human construct there are those who automatically dismiss God or an immaterial reality as a fiction, a mere figment of the imagination. This assertion automatically disqualifies any further arguments in favor of the potential reality of God or a Divine Creator.

What other portal exists to the human experience but the mind? Is it not possible for God to penetrate the mind to disclose His nature? It seems to me that if one takes the position that the mind devises a construct of God, it is therefore not a real proposition. This is a circular and self-fulfilling argument. Mick, can you help me clarify and better understand this problem?

Mick:  I�m unsure what you�re getting at. George Kelly produced his definitive work on constructs in the mid-1950s. He suggested that from birth we all actively test our environments. From the feedback we construct mental maps of the world. His fundamental postulate was: "A person's processes are psychologically channelised by the way in which he anticipates events".

I know Kelly�s work only slightly, so I don�t know if he ever wrote about the construct �God�. But I suppose he might have said that it derives from individual attempts to anticipate certain life events. One such might be the certainty of death, for example.

So perhaps your questions boil down to this: Does my construct �God� derive from and correspond to something �out there� in the same way that the construct �my father� derives from and corresponds to an actual person?

Am I getting close?

Rick:  You are getting closer. Kelly�s concept of constructs fits nicely into my construct of cells of consciousness I described in our debate on Meaning. They both have dimensions of past, present and future. Kelly�s constructs are a construct within a construct. A Kelly construct develops as experience (present) builds a repository of information (past) that in turn projects into the future to predict events and behavior. Huge numbers of constructs conglomerate to make up a unique persona or cell of consciousness. We are all complexes of constructs.

As I mentioned earlier, some scientists and others of materialist bent, dismiss the idea of God simply because it is a human construct. I suppose they assert this because they consider our mental processes as solely the result of chemical processes. They might argue that a vehicle moves because of power from the engine and leave it at that. One could take it a bit further and argue it was the designer of the engine that caused the movement. I am suggesting there are principles and plan that exist outside any organic representation in the brain.

Constructs are neutral regarding their derivation from a purely material point of view or from a transcendental origin. Saying God is a human construct tells me nothing about the genuineness or reality of the construct. It is the ideas embodied in the construct that are decisive.

Freud suggested god-seeking was due to a search for a benign yet powerful earthly father figure. Perhaps he was right for some people but probably not for all. Countless people possess constructs of God as the ultimate reality of their lives. How do we decide which constructs are genuine and valuable to the individual who holds them?

Mick:  I think we agree that what we call constructs are sets or sequences of electro-chemical events and established patterns in our brains. My mind is the totality of such constructs, as is yours.

However, every human is a unique biological system. It follows that no two people have the same constructs in response to their life experiences. If God is a construct, then no two people have exactly the same God. There may be similarities, derived from common cultural backgrounds. But my God is not your God and I can�t value your God as I value mine.

Another question is more basic: Is there a �real� God out there, independently of our constructions? And if so, is it possible for you and I to construe that God in exactly the same way? If we can�t, then how can we agree that �God� is really out there? You say God is forgiving; I say God is vengeful. I say God is unknowable; you say God can be related to personally. Which of us is correct?

To illustrate: I have a father. I construe him one way, you another. I say he�s strict; you say he�s lenient. You say he�s short; I say he�s tall. But we both agree that despite our differing constructions, my father exists independently of either of us. And so with everything else. Without such agreement we could not live.

But is God in the same category as my father?

Rick:  I quite agree every person is unique. Each one occupies a finite place in time and space where no one else resides. Likewise we all see our realities differently because of our unique physical and mental perspectives. However, despite nuances and variances of perception, a consensus evolves around certain categories. For example, there are as many views of God as there are people but a number of attributes concerning him (or her or it) are commonly held. Consensus within categories allows diverse people to gather around things like clubs, political movements and churches etc.

No, God is not the same category as earthly fathers. Earthly fathers are concrete physical objects. God is not. Here again we encounter the wide chasm between materialism and non-materialism.

Large numbers of people believe there is a God out there. They believe his existence is not dependent on their existence. He is the divine creator of all things and presides over the continuing evolution of the universe. If this faith provides sustenance and meaning for life�s difficult journey why should they not embrace it? Can and should all believers engage in deep philosophic and ontological discussions before they sign on to their belief constructs?

Mick:  I wonder if our differing constructs of God derive from our differing constructs of the world, the latter being primary and the former derivative [1].

Let me illustrate: Way back in early 1960s a group from my college went off to debate Christianity with secular university students. After hours of interesting and combative discussion, all the Christians could say in the end was, �We can�t convince you. All we ask is that you try Christianity out.� Christian and secular construct systems were apparently incompatible.

I seek to harmonise them. My starting point is that the universe is all I have to draw on if I want to fill (construe) the empty word �God�. If there is a metaphysical �reality� it lies outside my range of constructs. Or at best it is a provisional construct, like life after death.

I don�t know if my overall construct system derives from my culture or if it comes from thinking and experience. I suspect that it derives from a complex interaction of all three. But I do maintain that my constructs are closer to reality than those of traditional Christianity, just as Galileo was closer than the Pope.

Rick: I continue to wonder how some people come to create positive constructs of God while others do not. In a previous debate we discussed a similar issue. You said above and I reiterate,� my overall construct system derives from my culture or it comes from my thinking and experience.� I wager there are people raised in similar cultures with similar experiences and similar norms of thinking who may have very different views of Christianity than yours. I am also aware that among my friends who reside in a similar cultural and ethnic milieu a number have attitudes about God and an immaterial reality that are quite contrary to mine. It is a conundrum. 

I believe people make the choice of believing in an immaterial reality and God. Likewise others make the choice of not believing. But what motivates these choices? I would like to suggest that in part it is the result of pain or pleasure.

If experiences associated with God symbols such as religion and church are painful the construct is likely to be filled with negative impulses leading to the choice of dismissal. If pleasure and comfort are experienced in a similar context, a positive construct of God  may be chosen.

Is the pain or pleasure in the eye of the beholder, a matter of interpretation? Maybe the pain is brutal and God does not seem to answer prayers for relief. Did a loved one die despite pleading with God to intervene? Did someone representing the Church act hypocritically or cause humiliation?

One could go on and on with similar examples of how circumstance and events can shape constructs of God. Personally, I retain the belief that God can speak in quiet and subtle ways to shape my positive construct of him even in the face of calamity and disappointment.
[1] Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson go on a camping trip, set up their tent, and fall asleep. Some hours later, Holmes wakes his faithful friend.
"Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see."
Watson replies, "I see millions of stars."
"What does that tell you?"
Watson ponders for a minute. "Astronomically speaking, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, it tells me that Saturn is in Leo. Time
-wise, it appears to be approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, it's evident the Lord is all-powerful and we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, it seems we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you?"
Holmes is silent for a moment, then speaks. "Watson, you idiot, someone has stolen our tent."

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