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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Like most human constructs, what is generally called Realism has changed considerably over its history. It is approached here with some caution because the term has gained new life over the last 40 years or so.

The Realist approach was born and then dominated Christian thought in the West from around 1200 to around 1350 [1]. As fundamental change took hold through what we now know as the Renaissance, thinkers began to take the via moderna or "modern way". In philosophical jargon this early form of the via moderna is often known as Nominalism - later often termed Idealism [2] and sometimes Anti-realism [3] or Non-realism.

The two systems argue about what is real and how we know reality. Very different castles are built upon each foundation. Which system is adopted has become important in today's ongoing debate about the existence and nature of God. This is at the very core of many of the pressures pushing churches towards conservatism and even fundamentalism.

Realism  The Realist experiences the world, as we all do, as a series of "contacts" with objects, people and ideas. Her or his sense of self is, in a way, also the experience of some-thing called "me". As the Realist sorts through these some-things, she notices that they often exhibit what seem to be common elements. 

For example, she usually thinks of her husband as a human being. She realises that he shares some characteristics with all other human beings. She concludes that these characteristics are common to all of that class of beings we call human. To use another piece of jargon, the word "humanity" is a "universal".

So also some physical objects share certain characteristics. Colour is one. All coal is black, for example. It turns out that blackness is also a universal which can be applied to a particular class of objects. "Realism" is itself another universal, one which is applied to a particular assemblage of human concepts or mental constructs.

Individual humans, for instance, are just specific examples of that basic reality we call humanity. And so with all other some-things we experience. According to Realists, without universals we would not be able to live in the world. There would be too great a confusion of unique individual objects to deal with.

Thus, says the Realist, reality consists of more than just individual objects, people and ideas. There is a sense in which universals are the basis of all reality. While we can't experience universals except in their specific instances, they nevertheless exist as part of reality.

Similarly, we can't experience God except through specific instances of God's presence in the world. God nevertheless exists independently of the world just as universals exist independently of the things to which they apply.

Non-realism  The Non-realist also recognises that the real world consists of some-things "out there" which we experience. But, he says, there is no need to suppose that there is anything else besides the individual some-things we experience. 

Universals such as "human" and "black" are mere linguistic conveniences, according to the Non-realist. Take mathematics as an example. It is an abstract way of thinking. It can be applied to individual physical some-things and universals if we so choose - or not, as the case may be. 

A Non-Realist slogan might be, "All cognition is judgement." We experience everything through the filter of our human perceptions. The question, "How long is a piece of string?" can only be answered, "However long I decide it is." Whatever is known is relative to the person who knows it. We will never know what anything "really" is. We know only what we perceive and no two perceptions are the same.

The point is, says the Non-realist, that it is false to say that constructs such as "human" or "black" have some sort of supernatural reality apart from the individual examples we come across in real life. It is wrong to suppose that when we assert that 2 + 2 = 4 there is a "real" 2 and a "real" 4. These are just conventions. They have no reality apart from their usage. Their "realness" is fundamentally different from the "realness" of the flowerpot a wife throws at her husband.

Christians have fought on this battleground for centuries. The bitter struggle continues to this day. The reason for this intellectual fratricide is "God".

To explain: A central question which Christians (and many others) have always asked is, "Does God exist". Answers are as varied as those asking the question. But the answers of Realists and Non-realists turn out to be incompatible with each other.

Just as "humanity" has a reality over and above individual humans, says the Realist, so also is God real. God is the universal which includes all universals. God's existence does not depend upon human experience. God "is" regardless of our experience of the world around us. To be unable to demonstrate that God exists does not mean that God does not exist. As R J Hirst puts it:

... if it were true that things could not exist apart from a person's consciousness of them, neither, presumably, could other persons ... [4]

- the implication being that nobody can in real life afford to deny the existence of those with whom they spend so much time relating.

Not so, says the Non-realist. What we term "God" is really a catch-all word without reference to anything "outside" our experience - in effect, "outside" the universe. There is no point in praying to a God "out there" because we have no way of verifying God's existence.

Indeed, modern physics and systems theory propose that what we call the universe is a closed system without an "outside"[5]. By this definition we can know nothing of a some-thing "outside" the universe. This, says the Non-realist, is a more accurate way of describing the world.

In other words, "God" must be equated with the universe in the sense that we can know nothing of God except through the universe. Our experience of things, people and concepts is all we'll ever know about God in this life.

The above summary is short and simple - unlike the highly complex highways and byways built by philosophers. John Macquarrie, for example, proposes that Realism consists of a new Realism, which can be contrasted with the old Realism of the scholastic period. He writes that Realism nowadays

... may be taken to stand for the view that we have knowledge of a real world which exists quite independently of our cognition of it. Realism is regarded as opposed to idealism, for which the world is in some sense mind-dependent. [6]

Macquarrie proposes that European Realism should be distinguished from that of England, and both from Realism in the United States.

Some other sub-sets are

  1. Critical Realism in which we are unable to demonstrate with complete certainty that the world "out there" actually does exist. But we nevertheless intuitively accept that it is there.

  2.  Dialectical Realism  Some suggest that we experience the universe at various levels. The highest of these is that of spirit. The other levels must be interpreted in terms of this. This sub-set allows theism. Hardly surprisingly it was a favourite of William Temple (1884-1944), one-time Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury. But it also allows the definition of the "highest" reality as that imposed by human ideology through social controls - the form of realism beloved of demagogues, tyrants and absolutist political groups.

  3. Thomistic Realism is similar to the Dialectical type. It is often described as a "moderate" Realism. The real world is solid enough - but in essence it is not fully actualised. That is, the universe is still at a potential stage, not fully itself. Only in God is it fully actualised. God is "pure act" and completely realised potential - and is therefore the supreme reality.

  4. Naive Realism was perhaps best typified by John Locke (1632-1704). He was "naive" or over-simplistic because he assumed that we experience the real world through our senses and that our senses correspond with what's out there. He failed to realise that a sensation doesn't necessarily guarantee the existence of the some-thing out there, never mind communicate what it "really" is. I may experience a man shouting as "angry" and then discover he is merely trying to make himself heard. My initial sensation turns out to have been wrong in the sense that it did not correspond to reality. The many visual and auditory illusions to which we are all subject from time-to-time witness to the same possible gap between experience and reality.

John Hick points out that one need not be a Realist in relation to everything. One can, for example, split one's religious awareness from the scientific. I can apply Realism to physical things but not to morality. I can maintain that the chair I'm sitting on is really there and is part of a greater "chairness". At the same time I can insist that moral rules exist only in the human mind, that such rules are a human creation. He writes:

There are in fact probably no pan-realists who believe in the reality of fairies and snarks as well as of tables and electrons; and likewise few if any omni-non realists, denying the objective reality of a material world and of other people as well as of gravity and God. [7]

An important aspect of modern Realism relates to the various attempts by governments to impose a particular reality on a society. Perhaps the most important of these were the contemporary ideologies of Fascism and Communism. The former was relatively short lived and succeeded in persuading millions that the "Volk" or German people were destined to rule the world and, in the end, replace the mass of mongrel humans with a pure Aryan race. In other words, the external reality was what the State declared it to be.

Communism in the person of Josef Stalin was more successful and long-lasting. The "Man of Steel" seems to have realised that it was not enough to engineer the daily lives and actions of the mass of citizens through mass propaganda and rhetoric. The State had also to engineer the very minds of its subjects. As a result, Stalin spent much energy on trying - without great success, it must be said - to ensure that all aspect of the arts and sciences were subject to revolutionary ideology. The very thoughts of people from cradle to grave were to be dictated by the State and its unquestioning (and therefore utterly ruthless) servants.

At this point, it's appropriate to step around the mare's nest of the many and varied versions of both Realism and Non-Realism. Waiting at the other side is an interesting debate concerning the "existence" of God.

In 1984 Don Cupitt, then Dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England, published The Sea of Faith [8]. It caused an immediate furore. Many Christians accused Cupitt - who is also an Anglican priest - of atheism. Others saw in his views a way towards a God they could accept. The controversy rumbles on still.

In summary, Cupitt has offended many of his fellow Christians by promoting a Non-realist deity. He maintains that the personal God of the ages is no longer available to guide us and to direct world events. That God is dead. A personal God is no longer available to prop us up. Christians, says Cupitt, must give up this crutch. 

The time has come for humanity to grow up, take charge of itself, and become whatever it decides to be. God is not "there", just as the universals of blackness or roundness are not "there". To accept this, says Cupitt, is not easy. First, there is a sense in which we must now make our own God. Second, God will not intervene to either punish or rescue us. One implication is, for example, that the environment may collapse if we choose to let it. Nuclear weapons will proliferate if we allow that to happen. A third of the population of southern Africa will die of AIDS if they continue to live as they now choose to live.

This dead God of Realism was considered personal, in the same sense that you and I are personal. We relate to other persons; we communicate with them; we form emotional attachments; we love others. The God of tradition is a "person" and therefore personal in just this sense. God cares for us. Although we can't fathom what seem to be uncaring aspects of God's creation, we must accept that a personal God has good reasons for having made the world this way.

In contrast, Cupitt offers a definition of a Non-realist God as

... the sum of our values, representing to us their ideal unity, their claims upon us and their creative power ... Just as you should not think of justice and truth as independent beings, so you should not think of God as an objectively existing super-person. That is a mythological and confusing way of thinking ... The meaning of "God" is religious, not metaphysical ... 

Realists accuse Non-realists of constructing their own private reality when they say that universals are human constructs and when they deny the objective nature of the world we experience. It is individualism gone out of control. But Cupitt counters that it is no longer valid to suggest that the Non-realist vision of God is 

... simply a humanly constructed ideal, such that when there are no human beings any longer there will be no God any longer ...

This is an "improper" way of looking at things because we now know that all human reality is constructed. God is man-made only in the sense that everything, all our knowledge of the world, is man-made. This accounts, says Cupitt, for the hard fact that humanity's vision of God is in constant flux.

This is a good and necessary thing, because there is no task in life more important than that of working out our own personal vision of God, a task which each person must undertake for himself.

Cupitt's stand in this respect upsets traditional Christians, if only because their Realism is put to the test in organisational terms. For if Non-realism became the position of the Church at large, Christianity would be much more inclusive, more dynamic, more changeable than Church authority can at present allow.

What I mean by this is that Realism is by definition more stable and solid than Non-realism. Just as "blackness" represents something real, so also is it possible to discover and establish real, objective truth. 

Those who find they don't experience a personal God cannot understand or agree with the Realist stance. They are (if Cupitt is correct) released to discover God in their lives. They are free of creeds, loosed from imposed beliefs and rigid moral codes. They leave the Church, or hover at its margins, in order to seek out who God is for each of them. There the Church authorities have no hold on them. They cannot be persecuted for heresy, or condemned for breaking rules of behaviour. They do not have to accept a one-size-fits-all God.

Realists might say that Non-realists create their own idols. Whatever the case, the institutional Church no longer has any grip on them. They are free to creatively construct or frame their lives as a spiritual project. Nothing, according to Cupitt, could be more life-giving than that.

Non-realists would say that those who stay with traditional theism tend to become impoverished. Because the Church as a Realist institution "knows" what lies behind appearances, it is able to proclaim absolute truths. It follows that Christian theists can re-interpret and restate them from time-to-time to meet social changes, but can't change their essence. The fundamentals are for ever.

My guess is that the debate will never cease. We will always argue about the nature of the world and the possibility of a personal God.

However, we appear to be able to influence the environment more and more as our grasp of the physical world extends. That is, whether we like it or not, we are increasingly able to decide what to do with our lives. 

Insofar as that is the case, it is not surprising that a Non-realist worldview seems to be gaining ascendance outside the Church. It is less and less easy to imagine an external, personal Being "out there" who can (but usually doesn't) manage our world. It is becoming easier to imagine that we are the architects of our lives, that life itself on this planet is to a great extent in our hands.

Nor is it surprising that Realists harden their attachment to a reality other than the physical, and remain firmly attached to a personal God "out there" (yet "in here" also) who cares for each and every one of us. They are by far the majority in the churches. It may be that as Non-realism becomes the approach of so many outside the churches, Realists will retreat into a more defensive position.
[1] Christian Theology, A E McGrath, Blackwell, 1994
[2] See Idealism
[3] Theological Realism and Antirealism, Roger Trigg in A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, Blackwell, 1999
[4] In The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Macmillan & The Free Press, 1967
[5] If there was a Big Bang event from which the universe developed, and if that beginning derived from an infinitely small "singularity", then we can know nothing before (and therefore "outside") that singularity.
[6] Twentieth Century Religious Thought, SCM Press Ltd, 1963
[7] Quoted by Trigg
[8] A British Broadcasting Corporation publication

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