‘God: none, one, three or many?’ was the theme of Modern Church’s annual conference earlier this week, chaired by Jane Shaw and Linda Woodhead.
We were in the company of people who believe passionately in God and don’t believe in God at all; people who question what we mean by ‘God’, and whether we can possibly answer the questions; people who value their church but don’t see the point of God, and people who value God but don’t see the point of churches.
I came away at the end trying to separate out the issues. Here are three, connected but different.
- What does the word ‘God’ mean?
- Is there a god?
- What is God like?
Can we understand God?
I began my talk with the gods of hunter-gatherers. Our ancestors knew the forces of nature had more power than they themselves had. They attributed intention and purpose to them. They developed ways to relate to them. So every natural force, from what we now call the Big Bang to what we now call bacteria, was a god. There was also the idea of an underlying harmony behind all the gods.
For some purposes I find it helpful to think of God along these lines: the forces of nature know what they are doing, and provide for our lives to bless us.
In the cities of agricultural empires the gods took on individual personalities. Gradually their numbers decreased. It was possible to emphasise the underlying harmony as the main god, or the only god, and treat the others as different emanations of it. Hinduism is often described like this today.
Christianity inherited the belief in one supreme god who transcends human understanding. Our minds are designed to know what God wants us to know, but not to know everything. In this case it becomes debatable how much we can know about God.
Theologians explored this throughout the Middle Ages: what words describe God, in what sense we can understand the words, and with what degree of confidence?
This got inverted in the early Enlightenment. Thereafter, instead of arguing that human reason works reliably because God has designed it to, the argument went that God must exist because human reason deduces it.
So the human mind replaced God as the supreme judge of what exists. After that, it wasn’t long before it became clear that human reason cannot prove the existence of God.
On a theoretical level it didn’t last long. First the Radical Enlightenment produced theories of mental determinism, so that everything we think has a physical cause, quite independently of whether our thoughts are true. Later, evolutionary theory redescribed the human mind as nothing more than a bodily survival mechanism.
Nevertheless, in popular thought the reversal remains common. Many people believe that reason cannot establish the existence of God, so therefore God does not exist. Others believe reason can establish the existence of God.
This makes a huge difference which often isn’t noticed. Even if we accept the existence of God, as long as we accept it because it can be deduced by reason, we should expect reason to tell us exactly what we mean by God. So God becomes a being we can define. All the medieval debates about how much we can say about God, in what sense, and with how much confidence, disappear as God is obliged to fit within the mental concepts we already have.
In the same way atheists often presuppose that they know exactly what they are talking about when they deny the existence of God.
This has given talk about God a new character. It simplifies. For unbelievers, the divine being referred to as ‘God’ can be defined in a particular way, as someone who doesn’t exist. Their believing counterparts have cut-and-dried theories about God’s character and commands.
Coming away from the conference I found myself feeling that these different accounts of God cause confusion. We have two discourses which we often treat as the same.
The first is the earlier one. It accepts that divine reality transcends our understanding. It reminds us to be careful about our descriptions of God. Calling God the father of Jesus does not mean sexual begetting. It means something we mere humans cannot fully know; but as a description of God it is more meaningful than saying nothing. To say ‘God is love’ is to describe God’s love as something like the way we love each other. And so on.
This way of talking about God - humbly, always remembering that God transcends all our language – is still important in Christian circles. It is about that which transcends our minds. It does not reject reason; on the contrary, our reason tells us there is more to reality than our reason can explain.
The second is the more recent one. It expects human discourse about God to be more confident: either we know about God, or God does not exist.
Churchgoers today who have been brought up to think in terms of this second discourse often find that they cannot believe in the god described by their tradition. The Bible’s commands do not add up to a coherent set of rules for life; or they cannot believe in eternal Hell for unbelievers; or they remain unmoved by the idea that a wafer of bread is Jesus.
They can go one of two ways. It is easier to stay within the second discourse, because it characterises modern culture. If they do, they can redefine God as something else – their deepest values, or the universe, or whatever. This allows them to carry on talking about God, while meaning something different.
Alternatively they can switch to the first discourse and accept that we only get glimpses. We cannot define God: God defines us.
For Christians struggling with the versions of Christianity most popular today, these two discourses often seem much the same as each other. They both challenge the dogmas of overconfident church leaders. They both give permission to doubt.
In another way they are opposites. One tells us to be humbler about our beliefs because God transcends our believing. The other reinforces the prevalent over-confidence that nothing transcends our minds. One invites us to explore deeper into God. The other invites us to climb out, one step at a time, by means of redefinitions that reduce God to what we already believe in for other reasons.