God, down to earth

by John Wijngaards in ‘The Tablet’ 6/13 April 1996.

In 1860 John Henry Newman described belief in God as the central concept that integrated and unified his entire thought. “I hold belief in God from a long and intimate familiarity with it so that it is part of my rational nature to hold it; because I am so constituted and made up upon the idea of it, as a keystone, that not to hold it would break my mind to pieces.” Few of our contemporaries could echo his conviction. For most people today, God is much more an enigmatic, controversial and, all too frequently, peripheral reality.
Newman’s testimony demands attention also from another point of view. He speaks of belief in God as a key concept, holding a central place in his rational convictions. But many people in the Church today have abandoned any attempt to underpin belief in God with rational arguments. This shortsighted attitude arises from many factors: unease with the classical Thomistic arguments for God’s existence; a feeling of inadequacy when faced with scientific explanations of the world; the mistaken sense that `defending one’s belief’ has no place in an age of ecumenism and dialogue; and a mental fatigue resulting from genuine confusion. It leaves the field wide open to forces that undermine our belief in God.
Last month I conducted a workshop for pastoral leaders. Among the participants was an intelligent young man, a student in biology, who helps prepare children for first communion. He told me that he was reading Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker with great interest. The book, for those who do not know it, is a brilliant and well-argued treatise on evolution which, among other things, demolishes the need for any involvement of God in the universe. While our younger generation are studying militant atheists like Richard Dawkins, for whom `God’ is no more than `a virus in our collective thought’, what coherent, logical, rational and convincing argumentation do we supply to show that God is real?
On the other hand, since revealed truth cannot contradict truth found in nature, the younger generation studying evolution with Richard Dawkins may well be closer to God in some respects. Like the Cardinals of the Inquisition who condemned Galileo Galilei but refused to look at the planets through Galileo’s telescope, it is we who may be obscuring God by hanging on to outdated concepts and images.
When I reflect on my own study about God over more than twenty years, I notice a growing awareness of the need of a new apologetics, of a reasoned defence of Christian convictions based on present-day knowledge. Work among college students in India in the 1970s still resulted in my presenting the classical arguments in two books: God or no God? and Thinking about God. My spiritual journey then moved me to explore alternative images of God such as are found in Taoist, Hindu, Sufi and Christian mystics (God Within Us). During the last four years I focused on the apparent `absence of God’ I find in myself and my secular contemporaries. I consulted widely and scanned all relevant literature. I listened, talked, read, thought, agonised and prayed. The outcome is How to Make Sense of God (Sheed & Ward 1995). It presents a very personal apologetics: the reasons why someone like myself who passionately holds to the value of science, personal autonomy, human rights and other modern values, holds at the same time that it only makes sense through God.
Reflecting again on my own search, I see a gradual, but irreversible shift in my perception of God and in the images that speak to me of God. I am convinced that I have not lost in any way the essence of my Christian faith in God or of my being held by God in Christ. But many of my concepts have changed and are changing, my focus is being adjusted, priorities are moving, new images support my vision, I have reformulated my reasons for believing what I do. It seems to me that without this `loosening of old constructs’, my faith might well not have survived. But, as a priest and lecturer in theology, I have been very privileged, indeed. Without proper support, how can faith survive?

The death of old ideas

Sure, the notion of God has not totally perished. Many still acknowledge God’s presence, somehow. But the views of a believing minority may not be taken as the norm. We are inclined to interpret social statistics optimistically, to massage the facts in favour of faith. But what does such faith amount to in hard terms? Rather than take consolation from the tenacity of the religious instinct, we should swallow the unpalatable truth that the traditional idea of God has worn thin. And what is the use ofa vague idea where God is concerned?
As Miguel de Unamuno pointed out, we have to distinguish the idea of God from God as a lived reality. “Those who believe in God, but without passion in their hearts, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, without an element of despair even in their consolation, believe only in the God idea, not in God himself.” But as the European Values Systems Study shows (1991), God is hardly a lived reality for many. Two in every three persons do not think God is crucial to their living a meaningful life. Seventy per cent fail to link God to their dying a meaningful death. Four in five say belief in God does not help them resolve problems with suffering and sorrow.
For the vast majority of people, God is no longer a central reality around which life is constructed. People are confused about who or what God is. They question God’s credentials. They do not know how to relate to God. They find God awkward, mysterious, even irrelevant; if they think of God at all.
I am aware that scores of studies have been done to analyse the causes of secularisation. The increasingly impersonal nature of relationships in modern society erodes belief in a personal God. The disappearance of natural community undermines the traditional systems of meaning. Industrialisation, urbanisation and the rise of science have established new social, economic and personal values. Morality has been replaced by emotivism. Common responsibility has made way for the seeking of self fulfilment. All this has widened the gap between real life and God as God was formerly understood.
People of our time find it more difficult to find God because they still look for God in traditional niches – from which God has disappeared. Gone has the supernatural interventionist God who rules the world day by day from a throne high up in heaven. Gone is the lawgiver God who imposes arbitrary do’s and dont’s to test our obedience. Gone is the God of the Psalms whom we can rouse from his slumber to come to our aid. But that does not mean that the reality of God is no longer there, or that we cannot know God with certainty and conviction.

Rediscovering our depth

Suppose, for example, that the top-down view of God presents a misleading image. A bottom-up approach, if correct, would make God far more accessible to our contemporaries. It would also throw new light on the source of morality and offer an interesting model for authority in the Church.
The traditional image of God is firmly tied to the two-tier world view: above our own, earthly world lies the world of God. God is imagined as enthroned in his palace, high above the blue sky, surrounded by angels and heavenly beings who form his court. God is the architect who designed and created the earthly world. As its immediate ruler, he frequently leaves his mark on our earthly world by revealing messages and by dispensing grace or punishment. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament use this imagery. It is still the language handled in worship. God is addressed as the Almighty Father, Creator of heaven and earth, whom we beg to cast his eyes on us, his earthly children. God is thought to protect us from evil and shower us with blessings. He cares for us from his exalted position above.
Now the use of such language is quite legitimate as long as we remember that it only expresses an image of God, not the actual reality. But until the beginning of this century most believers took the two-tier world and its presiding God literally, as if they expressed factual entities. The super world of heaven was assumed to be a real place outside and above earthly space. God was accepted to be a real supernatural Person, like us except that he was infinitely greater than us in every respect. But the image was the byproduct of the philosophy and empire building of the ancient Middle East. It cannot be reconciled with our present knowledge of the universe and our grasp of social power. The image does no longer fit. And if it is taken as an accurate description of God as many people still do, it sticks in the brain and the heart as a lump of contradiction. As the case of Anthony Freeman shows, it is concepts like this that are largely responsible for our generation’s reluctance to accept God.
On the other hand, the fact that the supernatural, interventionist God is dead in our technological age, does not mean there is no God at all. Evolution explains relationships within the universe, not the universe itself. Why this universe, this set of laws, this arrangement of matter and energy? Why anything at all? Since every phenomenon needs an explanation outside itself, the physical universe understood as all physical existence, needs an explanation that is not physical, a reality we call God.
This argument, which obviously needs much more refinement than I can express in one paragraph, is related to the proofs offered by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. It was the centre piece in the classical debate between Father F.C.Copleston and Bertrand Russell. In essence it is still valid today. No universe, or string of universes, can explain itself. But the argument should no longer be allowed to shore up the concept of the two-tier God. Rather it should make us realise that it makes us meet God as the all-pervasive, all-supporting creative force, the mysterious Ground of Being, the God beyond all human gods, to borrow some of Tillich’s terms.
Lack of space prevents me from working this out in all its implications. Instead of regarding God as just an outside legislator, we can find God as the source of our own moral responsibility, as the power that validates our freedom and autonomy, as the force in us that makes us an individual and that drives us to fulfil our obligations. Following the lead of the process theologians and the evolutionary theology of Karl Rahner, we can see revelation itself and incarnation as eruptions of divine awareness and the divine presence “from the Beyond within”, rather than as external intrusions into our world.
Many of these ideas have been explored and discussed by theologians for the past four decades, but they have not appreciably affected the majority of people, whether inside or outside the Churches. Priests and ministers keep using the old terminology as if there is no question of a cultural mismatch. We fail to present God in ways that speak to the imagination of the scientifically-minded and freedom-conscious people of our time.
The image of God as the “Beyond Within”, for that matter, is not unbiblical. “A person’s spirit is the lamp of God searching his deepest self” (Prov 20,27). Paul says: “The Spirit reaches the depths of everything, even the depths of God. After all, the depths of a person can only be known by his/her own spirit, not by any other person. In the same way the depths of God can only be known by the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 2,11). But the most telling argument is Jesus himself who is, after all, the image of God. He called himself `the Son of Man’, the Aramaic equivalent for “the ordinary human being”. In Jesus who could say: “Who sees me, sees the Father” (Jn 14,9), God showed himself to us from within a human psyche and from within the human race.
There are people in the Church who, with Andrew Greeley, blame the lapse of many Catholics to the Church’s stand on sexual ethics. They obviously have a case. Demands that appear to conflict with one’s own rational judgment has become a breaking point for many responsible Catholics. But here too the real mismatch lies deeper, as comparisons show with Churches that are spared the sexual directives emanating from Rome. Moral demands there must be, but these should be seen to arise from one’s own God-given autonomy and from one’s own Christian sensitivity.
God does not change, we do. God’s reality remains the same, but the way God figures in our world view needs to be adjusted. We will have to use concepts and images of God which make sense to us in our time. This is not an attempt to please contemporary seekers at the expense of truth. It is rather a re-assessment of the way we understand and express the truth.
It is sometimes naively thought that the Christian message about God cannot be separated from its original formulation. God has made himself known through inspired Scriptures and through his incarnation: Jesus Christ. The word of revelation is fixed. All we need to do is to insist on the ancient truth, whether people grasp it or not. If people do not accept the message, it is because they have closed their ears and hardened their hearts. But such a view is a travesty, as the history of the Church shows. Communication requires that we pay attention to how people interpret what we say. The meaning of a message is in the hearer, not in the speaker. And the hearers of today cannot find God in what we say.
More than a hundred years ago Friedrich Nietzsche accurately predicted the cataclysmic effect which taking God from his privileged slots was to have. He makes a madman seek God with a lantern by open daylight. “Where is God gone?”, the man calls out. “We have killed God, you and I. But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun?” Nietzsche goes on to conclude that the only way out is for ourselves to become Gods. But that would be madness, except in the way intended by Scripture.
“You are gods”, Christ said, quoting from the Psalms (Jn 10,34; Ps 82,6). The most exciting prospect for secular people like us is to detect God in all those places where we never expected to find God: in our inmost consciousness, in our ambition for self fulfilment, in the love of our family and friends, in the energy that drives our universe and that unfolds its myriad wonders, in the suffering and death of our brother Jesus Christ, in a community of meaning and grace which is the Church, and in a thousand other forms. In all these ways we may come to see that, though we are not gods in a literal sense, we are actually full of God. We are children of God, images of God, dreams of God. And it may then dawn on us that what John Henry Newman said, applies to us as well. God is the key stone of our world. Without God we would break to pieces.