Religion on the Level: #1
What is the Use of God? [Continued]
W H Auden said of E M Forster that he was a person who was so accustomed to the
presence of God that he was unaware of it. If God is the author Being, then to
be is already to be in God, so it is the fact and the being of Being that is the
sacred thing, not how we interpret it.
So the paradox could be true that those atheists who live
life gratefully, kindly, unselfconsciously, may be closer to the mystery of
God than life denying theists who are more concerned with making it safely
to the life beyond than in enjoying the life they already have. There may be
something of this sense of the anonymous or latent presence of God in the
gracious living of life itself in the parable of judgment in Matthew chapter
25, where Jesus describes the surprise of a group of people who had lived
their joyful and generous lives completely oblivious to the fact that they
were living them in God and serving God through them; whereas the ones who
had carefully charted their life according to a system that claimed to be
from God discover that their religion is the very opposite of living truly
It would appear to be the case, therefore, that it does
not much matter whether one believes in God, but that it matters a great
deal how one lives and how one responds to life; so the paradox remains that
some apparently godless yet celebratory ways of living may turn out to be
further in to God than much that passes for official divinity.
If we accept, if only for the sake of argument, that all
religious systems and all language about the mystery we call God are, as far
as we are concerned, fixed inescapably on the human side of the equation, so
that we can only see and be in touch with it through our own life and the
life of the universe in which we are set; then one way to use what we might
call the great guesses about the mystery of God, the religious narratives
and traditions, is to give them human meanings, apply them to our own lived
experience, and see what they teach us, what discoveries we might make
through them, what guidance we might derive from them.
The best way to use the God mystery, the great question of
the meaning of Being, is to allow it to overwhelm us with wonder in the
presence of life itself.
This is what believers call Worship, acknowledging the
worth of the mystery of Being. One way to get into this attitude of worship
is to contemplate the extraordinary fact of the universe and of our place in
There were two remarkable stories this year that
overwhelmed me with the kind of wonder I am talking about. One was about the
sun, not the newspaper, but the vast thermonuclear reactor in space whose
unbelievable heat makes life possible on earth. To us the sun appears the
largest and brightest of the stars, but it is actually the smallest and the
The illusion arises because of its comparative nearness -
it is only 93 million miles away, while the next nearest star is nearly 300
000 thousand times as far away, more than four light years. To get some idea
of how far that is, consider that light traverses the 93 million miles from
the sun to the earth in only eight and a half minutes. In four light years
it travels more than twenty trillion miles.
Our sun is a dwarf star, lying in a region of our galaxy,
the Milky Way. Our galaxy contains about a hundred billion stars, ranging in
mass from a few percent to a hundred times the mass of the sun. And that is
only our galaxy. There are many billions of galaxies in the observable
Our planet earth is a puny object in a violent,
unbelievably vast and expanding universe, yet it has remained hospitable to
life for at least a half billion years. Our very existence is a consequence
of the stability of the sun, which has been burning long enough to allow
life to flourish on our planet.
Earlier this year we caught a glimpse of the violence of
that great star that makes our life possible. Scientists detected a shock
wave on the sun. Solar flares that eject vast sheets of radiation more than
300 000 miles out into space leave behind seismic quakes of unbelievable
If you think of ripples that are created when you drop a
large rock into a pool of water, you can begin to imagine solar ripples, two
miles high from the surface of the sun, accelerating in the course of an
hour from 22 000 to 250 000 miles per hour before becoming lost in the
flames. Scientists have mapped great tornadoes whipping around the sun at
more than 100 000 miles per hour.
And it is that violent and blazing star whose light and
heat come to us from 93 million miles away that allow us to sit here today
thinking about it all.
And that act of thought is a great wonder in the universe.
We are a sub-microscopic dot in a tiny corner of a small galaxy in a
universe containing billions of galaxies, but in us the universe has become
conscious, has started thinking about itself.
The sun is not thinking about itself as it burns; the
universe is not thinking about, not conscious of itself, as it explodes in
space; but we are. Something is going on in us that is as wonderful and
miraculous as the universe itself.
And it brings me to my second story.
At the end of May a man called Tom Whitaker reached the
top of Mount Everest after a climb of 29 028 feet. By any standard, to reach
the summit of Mount Everest is an extraordinary achievement; what makes Tom
Whitaker's success even more spectacular is that he lost his foot in a car
accident more than 19 years ago.
His climb in May was his third attempt. In 1989 he got up
to 24 000 feet before abandoning the climb because of frostbite and altitude
sickness. Six years later he was forced to stop at 27 500 feet when his
oxygen supplies ran low. At the end of May he did it. It was an act of
extravagant recklessness as awe inspiring in its own way as the fury of the
sun whose explosive constancy makes our life possible.
There is something in our universe that calls us to such
recklessness and extravagance. We see the same passion at work in great
artists and composers, in great explorers and scholars, in the great social
reformers. A burning love and passion kindles them into life, into thought,
into heroic achievement, into poetry and art, into love and compassion, into
daring and laughter and glory.
When we let ourselves, we too can be ignited by the same
creative recklessness that lies behind the universe, challenging us to live
adventurously, to live up to the reality of things, not to be held back by
our own fears and limitations, but to burn with joy that we are rather than
that we are not.
Meditating on the wonder of Being challenges us to live up
to the measure of the universe and the mystery that called it into explosive
existence. It would be hypocrisy to open our hearts and minds to the
vastness of the universe and the heroic possibilities of human nature, if we
ourselves became narrow and mean-spirited, if our hearts remain closed
towards our neighbour. Meditation on the majesty and energy of the universe
and our place in it should increase our love for humanity; it should widen,
not narrow our hearts.
This extravagance that characterises the universe may be
one of the keys to faith. For us God botherers it is not easy to believe in
anything. If only the meaning of things could be made more obvious; if only
the logic of faith were worked out to an inescapable conclusion; then we
might have faith.
But it is never like that.
There is a yearning, unresolved quality to faith. In my
own case, I do not so much possess faith as long for it, am haunted by its
possibility, by the sense that there is a mystery in the universe that calls
me to the quest for meaning.
But who can afford such extravagance of effort for
something so elusive and wind-flung? Who can afford to give up even part of
their one life to the celebration of such glorious uncertainty? Why waste
time on such a search?
Well, given the way the universe is, some of us just can't
The reckless, extravagant wonder of it draws us to want to
live up to it, to want to give ourselves to the great themes and
possibilities, even to the possibility of God. It won't leave us alone; it
draws wonder, tears, laughter and the strange, troubled passion of faith
The whole thing is bloody marvelous and something in me calls
4 November 1998
� Richard Holloway: This publication may not be reproduced
in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author