“A warm welcome to Zingcreed, the only religious blog that has more questions than answers. The church is in a ferment: there’s some crazy shit out there and the average churchgoer hasn’t got a clue what’s going on – mainly because it’s complicated, and they don’t want their views challenged anyway, thank you very much! The purpose of this blog is to prepare readers for a post-Christian world, and to chronicle the changes that are shaking the ground under our feet.
More and more clergy have come to realise that, in the words of Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson, in his ground shaking book ‘Honest to God‘ in 1963 “Our Image of God Must Go!” That’s what this Post is about.
I hope you find it helpful!”
Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.
IS GOD A MIRAGE?
According to Christian writer and theologian Marcus Borg, millions of Christians have dropped out because they can no longer believe in a supernatural God, intervening in our lives from some place ‘up there’. Borg can’t believe in such a being either. In his preaching he emphasizes the immanence/presence of God rather than his transcendence. I shall be describing this belief system, panentheism, in a future Post. It is very widespread, indeed it’s the kind of faith I held before I became a lapsed Anglican a few decades ago!
Borg, interestingly, goes on to quote a number of thinkers, Christian and non-Christian, on what they mean by the term ‘God’. Like the Bishop of Woolwich (see above) who is influenced by Paul Tillich, one of the two greatest protestant theologians of the 20th century:
“if, when you think of the word “God”, you are thinking of a reality that may or may not exist, you are not thinking of God”. (Tillich)
For him, the word “God” does not refer to a particular existing being, that’s the discredited world of supernatural theism. Rather the word “God” in the western world means our ‘ultimate reality’, or ‘the ground of our being’.
Personally, I do not find Tillich convincing. He’s scraping the barrel, like Borg himself, and is replacing an ‘up there’ metaphor with a ‘down there’ one. I prefer the smile of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat, there one minute, gone the next. A will o’ the wisp, a flimsy mirage on which one can place no reliance whatsoever – so why bother with it at all?
Borg doesn’t help his case by then going on to quote contemplative Thomas Keating:
“God is the name we use for ‘isness without limitations’ ”
What? “isness”? I know I’m a bit thick, but that doesn’t convey anything to me whatsoever.
I can respect the idea in the next quote:
“The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao” (Lao Tzu)
Meaning the sacred (Tao) is beyond all words, beyond all language; but that doesn’t connect with my emotions in any way; I just feel ‘Why bother?’
“We must speak, yet we cannot speak without stammering….[Language about God] stalks the borderline of the limits of language, using speech to confound speech, speaking in riddles, calling us to humble silence in the presence of mystery.” (Belden Lane)
Well, it’s a riddle all right. Could it even be self-delusion, or a giant hoax, started by some clever priests in the past and now grown out of control? Is God a con?
I quite like John Dominic Crossan‘s view:
“All human beings are hard-wired to seek out some form of ultimacy in their lives and that once they have found that which holds such meaning for them, they name it and can then relate to it.”
i.e. we are each responsible for seeking out our own sense of ultimacy, what some might call our ‘spiritual quest.’ But if it’s physiological or even anatomical (‘hard-wired’) then it’s got nothing to do with the Judaeo-Christian “God”. Crossan’s slipping religion into a secular issue by sleight of hand.
Presbyterian minister Jim Dollar in his book ‘The evolution of the idea of God’ says
“We don’t need another doctrine of God to add to the pile. We just need to torch the pile.”
That’s more like it! We must be careful not to get it down just pat. We need to leave room for creativity, for space to feel a different way of god, a new way to speak of our experiences.
Now I must quote Rev. Gretta Vosper at length from p. 235 of her 2008 book. Like Tillich before him, John Robinson, an Anglican bishop whom I met at Oxford in 1963, decided to stop using the word “God” because it had too many connotations in peoples’ minds and was a hindrance to clear understanding. Vosper says:
“I’m going to try to stop using the word god altogether. Robinson suggested that way back in 1963. That we didn’t take him up on it has cost us decades of exploration time…..you and I know that every time I use that word, try as you might, you’re going to go back to some sort of idea of god as a being or some otherworldly person. From now on I’m going to use some other word – maybe breath or love…..”
Altogether she lists 101 words for God. Before I copy them all out by hand on my keyboard I want to quote Quaker librarian Jim Pym:
God is silence. God is also an infinite number of other things. One of the great discoveries of Quakers is that in that deep stillness where there is a profound unity, differences of words and concepts no longer matter. God will be there for us in the silence in a way that will meet our needs, both as individuals and as a community.
Other Quakers talk of Inner or Inward Light; of the Source, the ‘still small voice’, the Seed, the Guide.
In the nineteenth century, William James in ‘The varieties of religious experience’ described God as ‘the More’, that something extra in life that our senses cannot detect directly, that ‘ghost in the machine’, as it were.
Who knows who’s right? Surely there is no one answer. For me the question in the title should be answered with a ‘yes’ – God is indeed a mirage; but what you believe is surely up to you. Everyone is unique – even identical twins differ in many ways, I’m told – therefore your relationship with God, if you want such a thing, must be unique too. We can all learn from others, but at the end it’s our life we are living, not anyone else’s.
Vosper’s list of 101 names for God will be in a future Post.
(i) Borg, Marcus “The heart of Christianity. Rediscovering a life of faith” Harpercollins (2003)
(ii) Vosper, Gretta “With or without God. Why the way we live is more important than what we believe” HarperPerennial (2008)
(iii) Pym, Jim “Listening to the light.How to bring Quaker simplicity and integrity into our lives” Rider (1999)
Related Zingcreed Posts:
(i) Radical Christian attempts to define God
(ii) More Jesus, less Christ, no God!
(iii) A Quaker talks about God
(iv) The 4 philosophical ‘proofs’ of god’s existence
(v) Images#5: the only hands God has are yours!
(vi) Is God the fifth force in the universe?
(vii) The realist and non-realist views of God