High Leigh Conference Centre

‘Seeking The Sacred’ was the title of last week’s annual conference of Modern Church together with the World Congress of Faiths.

We heard speakers from a wide range of different faith traditions, and in some cases representatives of different traditions in dialogue with each other.

At one point it was suggested that the word ‘God’ is misleading because it means so many different things to different people. This is a problem it shares with abstract nouns in general. ‘Courage’ or ‘honesty’ can mean different things to different people. These days, as we all know, so does ‘marriage’.

Western Christians can agree about certain propositions about God – like the ones in the Creeds – while still thinking of God in very different ways. I keep coming across people who don’t believe in God because the God they were taught to believe in is a monster whose existence can only be deplored.

Then there is the sectarianism. At various times some enthusiastic young evangelicals have tried to convince me that Allah is not God . I explained that Allah is the Arabic word for God, used by Arabic-speaking Christians, but they preferred to believe that Muslims worship a false god.

When it comes to comparing the Abrahamic faiths with eastern traditions the matter gets trickier still. The tidy western mind asks whether Buddhists believe in God: but which Buddhists, and what would count as their equivalent to ‘God’? I spent one session listening to a Jain describing his faith. He told us that Jains don’t believe in gods. But that didn’t stop him talking about ‘divine spirit’. What’s that, if it isn’t God?

I am no expert in eastern faiths but I think the overall historical development was something like this. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors knew they had to interact with forces they did not understand. They thought of them as agents with wills of their own, and tried to relate to them, with prayers and sacrifices. The sun, the moon, trees and rivers had a numinous quality. They thought they could relate to them. Behind these spiritual entities, anthropologists have found, there was often a sense of an ultimate unifying force holding together all the disparate forces. It was often identified with the sky god and often had no cult (because there was no need to plead with it) and therefore could easily get forgotten.

Knowing which god to approach for what was a complicated business. In historical Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece there was a trend to simplify by incorporating all the gods into one. Over time, though, this trend was overshadowed by a more radical idea coming from the Jews, that there is only one god. So all the different forces of nature were the direct actions of the one God.

Further east this monotheistic development had no equivalent. The forces of nature and society continued to be expressed as a variety of different gods, but, as in the west, over time the idea of relating separately to each one lost popularity. Whereas the west put all its eggs in the basket of one god, whom they then exalted to supreme universal status, the east allowed the significance of all its gods to decline.

To a westerner this may look like atheism. However it may just mean that with their different history they divide up spiritual reality differently. The Chinese use of the term ‘heaven’ and concepts like ‘nirvana’ are different from what easterners would normally mean by a ‘god’, but they still appeal to that underlying transcendent unity that makes the universe function as it does.

To me, the western usage has the advantage of affirming that we can relate to this transcendent spiritual reality. We are not alone in the universe. The eastern usage has the advantage of reminding us that we do not understand what it is we are relating to. It is beyond our understanding. Imagining that we are competent to understand it has far too often led to conflict.

Our relationship with God is like the relationship of a domestic cat to its owner: we appreciate being fed and enjoy the cuddles, but we haven’t got the faintest idea what our owner is up to most of the time.