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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Religion on the Level: #1
Richard Holloway

What is the Use of God? What is the Use of God? [Continued]
The logic is easy to describe, if impossible to justify, and goes something like this. Only Christians can be saved; we know that this group, though it claims to be Christian, is not really Christian, because it does not conform to our definition of Christianity, which is the only true version; therefore those who cleave to this version of Christianity cannot be saved unless they repent and conform henceforth to our understanding of the faith.

I have actually had something like that said to me on several occasions. Recently, for instance, I was accused by a Christian leader of leading people to Hell, where I was probably heading myself, because I was not warning gay and lesbian people that if they engaged in same-sex practices they would be punished eternally for their sin.

The difficulty with all absolute systems is discovering some criterion by which one might choose between them. An amusing item from the Internet illustrates the problem perfectly.

"A thermodynamics professor once wrote an exam for his graduate students. It had one question: 'Is Hell exothermic (gives off heat) or endothermic (absorbs heat)? Support your answer with proof.'

"Most of the students wrote proofs of their beliefs, using Boyle's Law (gas cools off when it expands and heats up when compressed) or some variant.

"One student, however, wrote the following: 'First, we need to know how the mass of Hell is changing in time. So, we need to know the rate that souls are moving into Hell and the rate they are leaving. I think that we can safely assume that once a soul gets to Hell it will not leave. Therefore, no souls are leaving. As for how many souls are entering Hell, let's look at the different religions that exist in the world today. Some of these religions state that if you are not a member of their religion, you will go to Hell.

"Since there are more than one of these religions and since people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that all people and all souls go to Hell. With birth and death rates as they are, we can expect the number of souls in Hell to increase exponentially.

"Now we look at the rate of change of the volume in Hell, because Boyle's Law states that in order for the temperature and pressure in Hell to stay the same, the volume of Hell has to expand as souls are added. This gives two possibilities:

#1: If Hell is expanding at a slower rate than the rate at which souls enter Hell, then the temperature and pressure in Hell will increase until all Hell breaks loose.
#2: Of course, if Hell is expanding at a rate faster than the increase of souls in Hell, then the temperature and pressure will drop until Hell freezes over.

"So which is it? If we accept the postulate given to me by Ms Theresa Banyan during my freshman year: "It'll be a cold night in Hell before I sleep with you", and take into account that I still have not succeeded in having sexual relations with her, then #2 cannot be true, and so Hell must be exothermic'.

This student got the only A."

Each of the exclusivist religions mentioned in this parable would claim that they had received the particular knowledge of their own absolute truthfulness from God through some form of revelation.

How are we to discern between the rival claims? What makes discerning between them impossible is that all we can see is the human end of this revelatory mechanism. The scriptures they point to as evidence of the divine status of their faith are themselves clearly human creations. The most obvious evidence of this is they are written in a language and language is a human invention - there is no language we know that is not something we have ourselves created - so it is impossible to get behind the human telling or setting forth of these allegedly divine claims to the divinity as it is in itself, divinity neat, divinity unmediated.

This is the frustration of all language, of course, not just language about God. Things are not what we say they are. The word "water" is not itself drinkable. Words point to things, but they are not the things they point to. This may seem too obvious to waste time on, but it is a truth that is often ignored in religious circles.

All theology is, ultimately, a frustrating attempt to express the inexpressible. God is the elusive mystery we try to capture and convey in language, but how can that ever be done? If the word water is itself not drinkable, how can the words we use to express the mystery of God be themselves absolute? They are metaphors, analogies, figures of speech, yet religious people have slaughtered and condemned each other over these experimental uncertainties.

Our glory and agony as humans is that we long for words that will no longer be words, mere signifiers, but the very experience they are trying to signify; and our tragedy is that we can never succeed. The words themselves can never slake that thirst.

But there is something that comes close to it.

There is a human experience that sometimes captures the mystery of otherness that haunts us, becomes co-equal with it, almost becomes it. Music is normally held to be the experience that does this best. It is what George Steiner called "the perfect tautology of form and content". It evidences itself, it is the experience we experience and not just a sign or symbol for something else.

All great art does this. It breaks through the frustration of language and unites us with that which language only usually signifies. I say, "only usually", because there is a language that, like music and art, is also capable of this same perfect tautology, this mysterious equivalence between the longing and the thing longed for. I am, of course, talking about poetry.

Art, music, poetry are all priestly in their ministry, because they unite us with transcendence, place us in the very midst of otherness, rather than talk unceasingly and ineffectively about it, which is what religion usually does.

It is a useful working assumption, therefore, that the presence of the mystery of Being that haunts us may in some sense be  experienced through language, but can never be contained or defined by language.

It follows that any claim that a particular way of talking about or defining the mystery that besets us is equivalent to or a perfectexpression of it, so that the words are the reality they point to, must by definition be false.

Language, even the most sublime language, is only language. It is the way we try to describe or express our perception of what we see before us in the universe; it is the way we order our understanding of what is in front of us; but it is not the thing itself.

Even if we do believe in the reality of God, our language about it, however prompted by or responsive to the divine reality it may be, is still our language, our creation, our thing, so absolute claims on its behalf have to be wrong. They are worse than wrong, they are silly.

And the fact that there are many absolute systems with no infallible method, beyond the world, beyond human language, by which we can finally judge them, would suggest that it is better to assume that they are all human constructs or projections of our own angle on reality.

It follows that, while understanding how they work and having some sympathy for the need in humankind that has given rise to them, we no longer have to be scared of them as though they were actually what they claimed to be.

One of the things we have created by much of our religious language is a mistrust of life itself, a sense that it is not something to be enjoyed and celebrated, but a mournful prelude to something else, a testing place, a sinister game in which the participants have themselves to discover the rules.

From time to time some group claims that it has found the only valid rule book and secures a following to play the game of life according to its particular system. "Play it this way", they claim, "and you'll make it home to where you really belong". So we can spend our lives not in living, but in trying to interpret our lives, according to some system of belief that points us away from the life we are actually having to an entirely hypothetical life about which we can know nothing.

A better way to approach the business is to begin by accepting that this life is it; that this actual being that we have and the universe in which we have it, no matter how it arose, is IT, so that this is what we must get on with.

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