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?  [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 in God.

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 it.

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 faintest.

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 universe.

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 proportions.

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 help ourselves.

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 from us.

The whole thing is bloody marvelous and something in me calls it God.

Richard Holloway
4 November 1998

Richard Holloway: This publication may not be reproduced 
in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author

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