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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The Absence of God
by Richard Holloway (broadcast in edited 
form on BBC Radio Four on 11 March 2009
under the title Crave for Less)

I love the story about the composer who played his latest composition for a friend. When he finished there was a brief silence; then, uneasily, his friend asked: "What does it mean?" The composer looked at him, said nothing, turned back to the piano - and played it again. 

The story points up two important matters. The first is the way we tend to privilege words in the sphere of meaning, something the composer challenged by refusing to translate one form of expression - music, into another - language. 

I have to confess that I suffer from this kind of prejudice for words myself. I find it hard to grasp the meaning of things unless they are worded for me, put into language. I take this prejudice into art galleries when I go to look at pictures. Not content with looking and letting the art disclose its own meaning to me in its own way, I dive immediately  for the label beside the painting to find out what I'm looking at. Until I get something in writing I am uneasy: picture has to become word before I know how to interact with it.  

This is a weakness I am trying to correct, but it is not easy after a lifetime addicted to words. I am learning to look, so that pictures can disclose their meaning to me unmediated by language. I find it hard, yet I know that some of the keenest human experiences are beyond any words to describe. 

That's why the American painter Edward Hopper said if he could say it he wouldn't have to paint it. Take the feeling of loneliness as an example. It's not easy to communicate it in words, but artists like Hopper have painted it with heart-breaking clarity. You look at a Hopper painting and feel the loneliness penetrate you like a sliver of ice. 

Music can do this as well. Take the experience of loss and sadness, and think of music you know that has swept over you like a wave of  sorrow. The unsayable, wordlessly expressed with almost unbearable intensity.  

So, even if we love language, as I do, and wonder at its ability to touch our souls to the quick; and even if we think it is still the best means through which  to express our most precious emotions and recognitions; we have to admit there is a problem with some of the claims that have been made for it, which brings me to the second matter. 

When they are thinking about the limitations of language, philosophers talk about the problem of equivalence, which goes something like this: because of the special position language holds in our culture, we think we ought to be able to put everything into words, make words equivalent to other realities. We think that if we can say it we can get it. 

But there is no exact verbal equivalence to even the most prosaic item. Words are the names we give things, the signs we create to point to them, but the things themselves are not what we say they are: the word water is not drinkable, nor is the word bread eatable. Writers who work with language as their chosen medium know these limitations better than anyone. All the time they are trying to get beyond the words to communicate the experience that lies behind them. That's why the guiding mantra for writers is, "Show, don't tell"; show me your hero is charming, don't tell me he is; demonstrate the courage of your heroine, don't tell me she's brave. Get as close as you can to giving the reader the experience you are trying to describe. Go beyond the words, get through them to the reality, the experience you are trying to communicate. 

The issue is this: if going beyond words is difficult at the immanent level, the level that is available to our senses, then it is infinitely more difficult at the transcendent level, the level beyond the physical where we locate the possibility of the mystery we call God. 

We experience a double difficulty here. Even if we accept the limitations of language for everyday things; even when we accept that the word water is not itself water, but is merely a token we have coined to enable us to describe or talk about it; we also know that even if words failed us and we lost the power of thought, we could at least go on drinking the reality we call water. The substance is available to our senses, even if we accept that no word can capture its essence and importance to us. 

Well, God is not like any other reality. Even for people who claim to believe in him, he is not available to their senses the way water is. Of course, you may be going through the desert without water, but even then you know that water exists somewhere, that you have drunk it, bathed in it, and now remember it with desperate longing. 

It is not like that with God and never has been - in spite of what has been said about him. As far as our senses go, God has always been absent, never been there in the way we know there is water somewhere, even if we happen to be going through a waterless wilderness. That's why we invented a word to express the possibility of an ultimate reality beyond anything we could touch or experience: the word is transcendent, which suggests the possibility of that which lies beyond any human understanding or experience.

The puzzle that gnaws at our minds is how to explain the fact that there are facts, that there is something rather than nothing. We can experience the physical universe, touch it, drink it, name it; but we cannot actually find words to account for where or how it came to pass, because there is no "there" to point at and name.  

Since we are not very good at living with uncertainties and mysteries, two attempts have been made to resolve the situation, neither very satisfactory. And since we cannot get outside the universe to account for it, we postulate possible solutions to the mystery of its existence.  

One answer, prominent at the moment, says the universe is self-created and popped out of nothing. Since it is hard to get your head round that idea, scientists offer a term to fill the gap, borrowed from mathematics, called a singularity. Singularities are unknowns that defy the current understanding of physics; infinitely small, infinitely dense somethings, from which everything has emerged. 

Being the indefatigable explorers they are, it is not hard to imagine that one day scientists will find out more about this vanishingly complex hypothesis; but even if they manage to nail it down and tell us more about it, they'll still have to account for it, say something about where it came from. We'll inevitably have to ask them this question: if the universe came out of this, where did this come out of? 

It was to avoid that infinite regression that we came up with another possible explanation, the one we coined the word transcendent to point to. Beyond the material realm, it is suggested, there must be a non-material, self-conscious intelligence that caused the physical universe to be: and "God" is the name we have given to that hypothesis. 

But even this apparently powerful causal option offers no escape from dizzying regression, because even God is open to the naive challenge: "Mummy, who made God?" This is actually a good question, and one to which no really satisfactory answer has ever been given. 

The classical answer is what philosophers would call meaning by definition: God, the reply goes, is self-caused and self-existent - that's what the word "God" means. God is the uncaused cause, the unmade maker, the uncreated creator; but by offering those modifiers you have not actually added any new information; you've just built the answer to the question into the definition of the term "God"; like the doctor in Moli�re who when asked how opium induced sleep replied that it contained a sleepy faculty whose nature is to put people to sleep. 

Nevertheless, since most people don't like sliding down the slippery slope of endless regression, they build ledges on which to stand with some confidence: either by opting for the possibility that the universe can account for its existence within its own natural integrity; or by opting for the supra-natural or transcendent agency of an intelligence that is outside nature but gives rise to it. 

In our time the arguments between these two possible explanations are being debated with increased ferocity, probably because neither side is able to deliver the knock-out blow to the other.

My difficulty with this debate is that if we have a problem with how to speak of or name what is available to our senses, how can we speak of or name what is beyond our senses? If it is tough enough talking about what we have seen, how on earth are we to talk about what we cannot see?  

This difficulty applies to both ends of the debate about what caused the universe, but recently I have had more trouble at the God end of the debate. I have felt glutted with the verbal promiscuity of religion and the absolute confidence with which it talks about that which is beyond our knowing. 

One of the biggest ironies here is that in one of the great Christian poems we are told that God, aware of the inadequacy of words, empties himself of language and becomes flesh, becomes that which is available to our senses, a life. Yet along comes poor little talkative Christianity and turns flesh back into words again, trillions of them, poured out incessantly in pulpit, book and on the airwaves, reducing the mystery of that which is beyond all utterance into chatter.  

I mind religious verbal over-confidence more than I mind its atheistic opposite, because atheists are not claiming to put ultimate reality into words. 

Speaking entirely personally, and without wanting to generalise or universalise my own struggles, I have to admit that religious language has ceased to be able to convey the mystery of the possibility of God for me, precisely because it confidently claims to be able to make present that which I only experience as absence, though it is an absence that sometimes feels like a presence, the way the dead - great writers, for instance - sometimes leave an unfading impression on the rooms they spent their lives in. 

I don�t want to go back to the days when I had to name that absence.  Even back then I felt insecure whenever I was called upon to offer a description of that great absence. The best I was able to do was to persuade myself and others to choose to live as if the absence contained a presence that was unconditionally loving. That possible identification, I thought, was surely worth betting my shirt on. It came as a relief when I was able to name my belief as an emptiness that I was no longer prepared to fill with words. 

But though I lost the explanatory words for it, probably for ever, sometimes that absence came without word to me in a showing that did not tell. So it is now the absence of God I want to wait with and be faithful to. 

In this determination I have been helped by the words of a thinker and mystic who herself mistrusted words about God, Simone Weil. Recently, an Australian poet called James Charlton sent me a poem he had written about a time in her life when she worked in a vineyard; the poem contains quotations from her notebooks and journals. Poets, paradoxically, use words to take us beyond words into a silence that can itself be the experience of absence. 

I want to end with his poem, because it took me beyond words into that absence that may even be a kind of presence.           

She bends in opaque light, in heat-blaze; 
picks grapes, prunes thoughts and words. 
A hare crouches near the vines: 
fully attentive, no muscular effort, 
no brow-wrinkling concentration.

            The vines' silent liturgy: stem, branch, 
stalk, leaf. Attend the planet's rhythm, repeat 
the Rhone Valley's quiet recitation of pure grape, 
nine hours each day.

            In borrowed cape and boots, Simone 
pursues her life's anomaly: to crave for less, 
achieve peace with loss of all sense 
of presence. Truth is conveyed by what is withheld.

            Attend, recite, repeat: stem, stalk, sap. 
She picks her way into autumn, 
the body's rhythm. Snip this tangle, 
snap tendril; shift away from words. 
A brace of ravens waddles down a furrow, 
lunges at each songbird.  Nature's daily work; 
truth of world as is.

            I'd rather be an atheist with passion 
for Earth than a consoled Christian. 

Give up self-questioning, abandon  
            the search. Relinquish the mind's  
            mythographic cast. Accept the void  
            of letting-be.  

            It is not for me to seek, or even to believe 
            in God. I have only to refuse belief  
            in gods that are not God.  

            Each pilgrim vine is circumscribed yet wayward;  
            each cluster blazing purple in light,  
            cold black in shade.  

            Only the lived reality has point.

Can trellises entwine the vine?  
            Then excise all belief: face emptiness.  
            Expose the mesh of long-held shibboleths;  
            defy the grid imposed upon  
            the world's real labour.


[1] James Charlton, Simone Weil at Saint-Marcel d'Ardeche
in So Much Light, Pardalote Press, Tasmania 2007, p.26.

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