Sunday, December 9, 2012
Now for THE big question
This may possibly be a little controversial. I am going to venture to say something about “God”. I remember as a young teenager, when we were asked to present a talk before the class, that I chose as my subject: Why I am not a Christian. This was based largely on a reading of the book of the same name by the English philosopher, Bertrand Russell. Of course, at the time – I would have been sixteen years old, I suppose – I wanted to stir up trouble! What I want to say today is not designed to stir up trouble. When people learn that I used to be an Anglican Minister, one of two (or sometimes both) things happen. First, many people assume that I must still be religious. They find it difficult to believe that someone could abandon their faith entirely. Others want to know what brought about the change. I have been through two conversion experiences (so to speak): one from non-faith to faith, and then back again, or so it would seem. Nothing, however, is ever as simple as it seems.
Only an entire autobiography would answer these questions in anything like a satisfactory way – and even then, probably not. For that reason, I am often reluctant to begin the conversation. Any partial answer is likely to lead to misunderstanding, in one direction or another. The same is almost certainly true of what I write here.
Here, today, I want to broach only one aspect of the issue; and it concerns the use of the word “God” itself. I love words; but this has to be one of the most problematic words of all time. If I am asked: Do you believe in God? the simplest and most straightforward answer is: No, I do not. To a large extent, this is because the word “God” has virtually no meaning. It has no meaning because it can mean virtually anything to anyone, and often does. It’s as though we were to take the word “table” and apply it to any man-made flat-topped object with four legs, or perhaps three, or perhaps even one. But we don’t stop there, because many chairs have four legs, and many other man-made objects have flat tops also. So perhaps the word table might apply to them, also. But why stop at inanimate objects? After all, many animals have four legs – perhaps “table” could apply to them also. Or to animals with more or fewer legs. Eventually the word “table” loses all usefulness. Thus it is with the word “God” – it has been, and is, used to mean so many different things that it no longer really means anything at all. You and I could both use the word in a conversation, but it might have quite different (and even contradictory) meanings for each of us. We might think we were agreeing, but far from it. Conversely, I might say “I don’t believe in God”, while you might say “I believe in God”, and we would think we were disagreeing; in fact, however, our beliefs could be identical. For example, I might believe in some kind of higher human consciousness – even a collective consciousness; but I would not attribute the word “God” to that, because I do not interpret it as any kind of transcendent or ultimate reality. You might believe exactly the same, but be quite ready to refer to this as “God”. I do not believe that any meaningful conversation can be held about God – certainly not without a great deal of preliminary discussion. Perhaps a lifetime’s worth of discussion.
So it is by far simpler to say that I don’t believe in God; because the chances are that I don’t believe in whatever it is that you happen to call God. Or, if I do believe in that, I don’t think that the word God applies to it. It is entirely possible that you, or some great theologian (perhaps you are one!), could come up with some kind of description/definition/concept of God to which I would happily give my assent. It would probably still not be the word that I thought best applied to that concept.
In a very brief nutshell, what I do believe is this: That a purely mechanistic and materialistic description of reality does not provide an adequate description of that reality in which I believe myself to be living. That probably, eventually, requires that I extend my understanding of reality, rather than seek an explanation for this “other” outside or beyond reality. Does this “other” require my devotion? Does it provide me with any moral guidelines? Can I have a relationship with it? No. It is fascinating. It fills me with awe, because it is mysterious. But I do not worship it. I owe it nothing. It does not “love” me. Basically, what this boils down to is the simple recognition that this is a weird bloody world, and that’s pretty cool. For some people, this might be exactly what they mean by “God”. For me, though, to call it that tells us – I was going to say, that it tells us nothing about it. But that isn’t the problem at all. It tells us far too much about it, most of which simply does not apply.