Is God Back on the Agenda?

Trevor Greenfield argues that religion is self-evidently a human creation, but that does not prove that its transcendent object is not real. Trevor Greenfield is the author of An Introduction to Radical Theology, published by O Books in 200

In recent years, as a secular mindset and scientific worldview have dominated the Western cultural perspective, many people have asked the question ‘where has God gone?’ They see little point in looking beyond science for answers to questions that were once the domain of religion. This has resulted in what some people refer to as deity becoming a god of the gaps, no longer the central focus of human thinking but more and more just a ready-made solution to answers that science can not as yet respond to. The inference, of course, is that as the scientific disciplines continue to understand more and more, then so do the gaps in which deity operates become smaller and smaller until they either cease to exist altogether or become so inconsequential they lose meaning for people. Maybe, but no matter how pervasive the secular mindset becomes, there will always be questions it cannot answer, questions that simply exist beyond the range of its own understanding. And while it is true that, for some, these questions will be sacrificed on an altar of materialism, for many other people they remain unerringly constant.

Perhaps a better question would be; ‘where is God going?’ If we can’t write off theological thinking as something that has all but come to an end it might be better to consider what prospects lie before it – what are its future possibilities? Christianity has been with us for two thousand years. This is certainly a long time in some respects and both the extent and triumph of Christianity in the West and the exponential rate of social and technological change that has occurred during that time add to the sense of longevity. It has been the dominant religion in Europe from the Iron Age to the Space Age. But in terms of the religious expression of the West Christianity is still just the latest trend, this year’s model, the way it seems here and now.

Our ancestors were practising religion forty thousand years ago, leaving an indelible legacy both upon the walls of the caves of Lascaux and, I suspect, upon the collective unconscious of humanity. The mindset and the mythology is long since lost to us save the apparent reverence of the female and the idea that religion is something that affects us, something that we believe but also something that we do, hopefully to our benefit. In that sense religion has never really changed. It’s still mythically expressed and it is still something we do, hopefully to our benefit. The personae dramatis have changed over time, stood down, been defeated, been replaced, and re-emerged like an exercise in supernatural re-cycling. In this respect the numerous worldviews of past and the present combine to show us that Christianity, like any other religion is of its time and place and within that context is, like other religions and systems of belief, a culturally conditioned lifestyle choice.

So, it seems we must consider a period twenty times longer than the life of Christianity to factor the relative success and failure of religions in the West. If we take the analogy of a clock and calibrate it so that twenty-four hours represents the forty thousand years of human religious activity, the time from the Palaeolithic cave paintings till now, then Christianity arrived about one and one quarter hours ago. So, is the Christian faith the apogee of religious expression or just an interlude in the forty thousand year history of Earth religion? Is the principle of a monotheistic God the final point in the evolution of belief, or a view that endorsed and was thus endorsed by the hierarchical societies that we developed? The concept of God, the father of the cosmos, is a relative newcomer in the ideas that we associate with the transcendent or the supernatural. Similarly the dualistic beliefs that support it neatly categorise human activity and belief. Heaven is above Earth like God is above man, like man is above woman. Evil, like good, becomes something objective something you can choose, a path you can follow.

As you trace the history of religion the mantra of the Sea of Faith becomes self-evident; religion is a human creation. Human beings painted the cave walls, constructed elaborate tombs, built temples, developed rituals and wrote books. But the dominant philosophy of the Sea of Faith goes further than tracing the history of the self-evident. In non-realism it finds a position that denies the reality of the object that religion is focussed upon, be it God, an ancestral other world or realms variously populated with spirits, sprites and demons. As a result the words religion and God become effectively interchangeable; God, like religion is also a human creation.

Non-realism has cornered a niche market in the wider atheistic worldview in that it has continued to find value in the practice and process of religion, providing it is understood in non-supernatural ways. But the non-reality of deity has had an extremely destabilising effect on the Universe. Just as deity is non-real so too are the other presumed external entities such as self and world, with our lives being re-interpreted as a transient ever-changing flow of existence brought into being, like all other elements of experience, by language. The Gospel writer John, it transpires, knew more than he realised when he declared that ‘In the beginning was the Word’.

In his recent lecture God: Creator or Created? (Sofia 82) Don Cupitt holds broadly to a non-realist view. God didn’t create us; rather, we created God through language. God is a fiction that we made up. However, as Dinah Livingstone so perceptively notes in her editorial discussion of the lecture, Cupitt’s former position on the primacy of language over experience is seemingly tempered by recognition of an imaginative element in the human mind that structures that which it experiences. Livingstone refers to this model as ‘half and half’. Instead of language creating experience, the human imagination responds to an objective world and uses language to structure it within a social context.

The possibility that humans experience a real otherness in their apprehension of the world presents particular problems for non-realism. How do we know, for example, that Palaeolithic cave painters, Minoan Priestesses, Celtic Druids, Christians or anyone else who expressed a belief in transcendence wasn’t experiencing exactly that? If there are categories of reality prior to language then how do we know that one of them isn’t deity, especially when we acknowledge that billions of people throughout history and across culture insist it is?

In the conclusion to An Introduction to Radical Theology I endeavoured to suggest that a non-realism which accepted the primacy of experience over language offered a model that validated transcendence and democratised the cultural expression of religion, each having equal worth and each accessing the same objective referent. Religion, through myth and symbol points to that which lies beyond it. Yahweh, Krishna and Brahma are not real in themselves but express a reality that by nature of our temporal and cultural condition we relate to imaginatively. Many people have reported an encounter with a transcendent reality. A non-realism that is open to the origin of such experience would be both inclusive and responsive whilst celebrating the breadth and depth of human culture. Human beings made up the words tree, sky and elephant not because they projected these ideas out onto the world but because they reflected the reality of their experience. Perhaps that’s why we made up the word transcendence as well.

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