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
The true nature of reality is perhaps the greatest puzzle there is. We all live our lives out on the basis on the conclusions we come to about this puzzle. Here Rick and Mick debate whether reality includes the non-material.

Rick: From our previous dialog it is apparent we have widely divergent views of reality. I hope I have interpreted your position correctly, namely, that you believe only in material reality.

In contrast, I assert realities beyond the material domain including the idea of God or a first cause.

It is not my intention to dissuade you from your beliefs, but rather to try to understand how one comes to embrace either position. This is important, I think, if either side is to gain support and adherents. I have read surveys that indicate a majority of scientists - prototypes of materialism - support your position. I would point out that many eminent scientists also believe in a non-material reality.

It is ironic that you, based in a religious profession, are in the material camp whereas I, whose professional life was grounded in science, find myself in a dual position.

I respect the importance of materiality but at the same time find critical importance for living in believing in non-material things.

How did we come to such different views of life?

Mick: For much of my life I would have agreed with you. That is, I would have supported the proposition that the world we each experience is not all there is. I would have been hard-pressed to demonstrate that reality extends beyond the material. But I was nevertheless convinced that God is, as it were, the "ground of our being". I thought I would one day experience in full what I now experience in part.

I have never abandoned the possibility.

But it now seems to me that it is a possibility without conclusive evidence. Indeed I am unable to point to any convincing evidence at all. Many people tell me of a non-material reality. None is able to show it to me in any shape or form.

My mention of "evidence" is revealing, I suppose. Be that as it may, it seems to me now that there is no point in living as though there are any conclusive answers at all. I am convinced about some truths - but only as long as the evidence for those truths is sufficient. In my book, every truth is provisional.

I have often been pitied by those who "believe" in the non-material. It's true that I lose the sure and certain comfort they claim for themselves. But I gain much, much more.

Rick: "Evidence." That is a key word in this discussion. It brings to mind the words of St Thomas: "Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails and place my hand in his side, I will not believe" (John 20.25). Thomas was acting like a modern scientist. He set forth specific criteria to falsify the hypothesis that Jesus Christ was living having been resurrected from the dead.

Materialists say there is no "evidence" of a non-material reality. It follows to ask, what are the criteria or standards to be met for such evidence? How is the hypothesis, "There is no non-material reality," to be tested?

It is commonly argued that the presence of suffering and evil in the world is evidence of the absence of God. Since there is a mix of both bad (suffering and evil) and good (all sorts of things such as nobility, charity, love, hope, etc.) it is problematic to affirm the hypothesis there is no God or non-material reality.

Here is my question, Mick: What are your standards and criteria for "evidence" of the sort we are discussing?

Mick: I can't respond to the hypothesis, "There is no non-material reality".

First, it is impossible to produce conclusive evidence to support a negative. The assertion that "There are no six-footed mongooses" can't be investigated except by examining each and every mongoose. And even then, the last one might be missed down some hole or other.

Second, our debate is about the positive assertion, "There is a non-material reality". It is up to the person asserting this to supply evidence for its truth.

You ask what sort of evidence I need. This is a tall order for a few lines, so let me try some broad suggestions:

  1. I want to experience non-material reality. To be convincing it should be of the same strength and quality as my experience of the keyboard I'm presently typing on. Ultimately, I suppose, this boils down to the kind of evidence which supports the existence of a material reality. As philosophers have noted for a long time, it is possible to reasonably dispute even this sort of reality.
  2. Alternatively, I might be convinced if it were of the type of experience called "falling in love". That is, the vast majority of the human race attests to it. Only those who have never fallen in love might dispute it. But this is a wobbly sort of evidence if only because the vast majority just might be wrong.

Rick: Invoking a materialist argument to prove or disprove the existence of God or non-material reality is not appropriate. There is no experiment I can contrive that would be able to test the hypothesis. Nor can I envision any material manifestation that would convince a materialist even though it bore the label, "made by God in heaven."

Requiring materialist evidence serves only to dismiss the question.

The second line of evidence you cite is more congenial to the discussion. A consensus of shared subjective experience can be forceful support (for some) for a non-material reality. Such a consensus exists but it is not unanimous. It leaves the issue still undecided. It is an impossible argument.

What I want to try to understand is how each individual person adopts either side of the issue. It is my observation there are "tipping points" when either external events or other persons create conditions that tip the balance to either side.

I have only a few close friends. Whereas they all once identified with the church, most if not all no longer do. From what they have shared with me it seems it was the arrogance and hypocritical behavior of representatives and some members of the church that turned them away.

As for me I continue to have my doubts from time to time. But on balance I am still in the fold of believers. My balance has been tipped not only by family traditions but moreover by the wondrous group of people who have been my "spiritual" mentors. Examples of people seem more influential than doctrinal details.

I return to my introductory question: How did we come to such different views of life?

Mick: I don't know. Perhaps upbringing ("family tradition") is the clincher. Or perhaps unhelpful behaviour of Christians tips the balance for some. Maybe social pressures push some people into one or other position.

I have been influenced by non-Christian family and friends. I also recognise and honour fellow Christians who have very different conclusions about reality and yet have been kind, generous and accepting towards me.

I have tried over the years to stay with the hypothesis that there is a non-material reality. I find that neither reason nor experience allow me to do that any longer. In other words, I hope I have, by and large, thought my way to my present position. However, I will change that position if persuaded.

Rick: It is clear, Mick, we are both still on our separate journeys toward truth. We have quite different ideas of what lies beyond the door of death; and what, who or if anything has given form to the world and the cosmos. I think we have both used reason in our respective searches. Can reason alone clarify all the ambiguities and mysteries? I am not sure but I don�t think so.

It is suggested that the church is in trouble because it adheres to creeds that make no material sense as for instance the resurrection of Jesus Christ (as well as others). Waning identification with the church, particularly in Europe, is cited as evidence for this view. It suggests that reality is a zero sum game. That is to say, as material reality is progressively defined, so the church and religion in general will fade away.

As I have stated previously, I contend the human mind has two co-equal compartments, the material and the spiritual/aesthetic. Each has its own rules, vocabulary and imagery. Each compartment informs the other but they co-exist, side by side. I know this dualism causes you to bridle but that is the way I can best explain my life experience. As long as humans exist they will always require nourishment of the spiritual/aesthetic compartment no matter how thoroughly the material world is defined.

Mick: I'm personally more than content that you approach reality the way you do. As you mentioned above, I'm "based in a religious profession". So you can appreciate that most people around me have concluded much as you do.

I do experience a sense of isolation. Bishop Spong and others call it living in exile - an image with which I have considerable sympathy. I regard myself as a Christian. But given half the chance, many Christians would seek to drive me out because of my attitude to life. So you will appreciate why I take considerable care to avoid the deadly sting of the inquisition.

The clincher in daily life is that the practical requirements of love tower far above the petty squabbling of Christian factions about the map of a country which nobody living has ever seen.

As I have already suggested, I gain much from my approach to life. 

There is a sense of integration. The entire body of human knowledge fits together. There will always be mystery, always the unexplained. But I'm convinced that it all hangs together in a glorious system.

I am challenged to be autonomous. There is no need for parental guidance from heaven. A sapling can't grow in the shade of its parent tree. So I can, if I so choose, experience true adulthood as a Christian. 

A certain frisson of the risk which goes with adulthood keeps me feeling alive and challenged. My life has no certainties, no complete security. What I do, I do knowing that my choice may turn out wrong. What I know, I know only for now, not for ever.

The upshot is that a person who lives fully in this world can live a life of discovery and growth. Because nothing is finally settled, all is movement. I think I may have turned my back for ever on the idea that somewhere over the rainbow is a heavenly Land of Oz where all is perfect, all is peace.

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