A God to believe in

Annabel Miller meets a Catholic priest who claims to believe in God, but does not know if He exists—Reprinted from the 'Tablet', 29 June 1996.

The Sunday Express newspaper had a bit of a scoop a couple of weeks ago with the story of a Catholic priest, Fr Jude Bullock, who had - according to the Express - infuriated his parishioners by stating that there was no God "out there".

When I visited Fr Jude in his presbytery -- appropriately sited in Islington, London's heartland of radical thought - the story turned out to be a little more complicated than that. He is a member of the radical "Sea of Faith Network" and believes that what we call " God" is a human construct, created by ourselves to sum up the greatest of human aspirations. As to whether there is a being which exists beyond space and time, he believes that we can never know. But nor would he "deny the otherness".

Bearded and ponytailed, Fr Jude lives next door to St John the Evangelist, Duncan Terrace. In his room is a portrait of Wittgenstein, a statue of the Buddha and a faint scent of incense. He is warm, informal, and speaks his mind in a relaxed and enthusiastic way.

When I asked him whether he believed in God, he replied: "To believe there is a God is a mistaken question to which I would say 'no'. To say I would believe 'in God', yes". The difference, he explained, was that "to say there is a God makes whatever that term means into a being like anything else. Perhaps unseen, but like anything else. That is precisely what God could not be".

Fr Jude is a follower of the later Wittgenstein, and believes that language shapes our perception of the world, rather than simply labelling things. "I don't think that words correspond to reality, they create what we see", he told me. "What we mean by 'God' has to be, by definition, what we mean. It could not be anything else. 'God' therefore is used as a symbol for our highest aspirations." On the question of whether there is anything beyond that symbol, Fr Jude remains "stoically silent". "If there is a that which is outside human meaning, by definition that is unknowable". It is at that point, he said, that one enters what Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross called "darkness".

Fr Jude does not believe that his views are unorthodox. He could, he told me, happily sign his name to the Creed: it is just that he might interpret things differently. He denies that his parishioners are objecting - except for one, or that he is "under investigation" by church authorities, as the Sunday Express reported. He is "in conversation" with Cardinal Hume, but he is a great admirer of the cardinal and the talks are "cordial".

Yet Fr Jude's beliefs about the nature of that which we call "God" have knock-on effects for his understanding of prayer and the sacraments. If we could not know that there was a "God" out there, a separate being, I asked him, what would happen to the idea that God can answer prayer? "He wasn't massively quick about Ethiopia and Auschwitz", he replied. "The idea that as a response to prayer God will whiz down and heal grandma's leg while being peculiarly deaf to the cries of the murdered Jews seems to me to be almost obscene."

For Fr Jude, the Eucharistic sacrifice is a symbol in a "sacred drama". The soul, he argues, is an outdated concept. I began to wonder, with beliefs like these, how Fr Jude could relate pastorally to people in the pews. Sometimes, he said, the Catholic faithful were "treated like five-year-olds". He thought there was need for more intellectual curiosity in the Church, to heal the divide between theologians and ordinary practising Catholics.

I asked why he found his home in the Catholic Church, when so many of its central doctrines, such as transubstantiation, cannot fit into his philosophy. For Catholics, he said, religion was understood as a way of life. "People don't go round asking themselves about the metaphysical quest for God, they kind of get on with it." He admires the universal quality of the Catholic Church, its academic traditions, its dynamic theology, and its capacity for grand gestures. "In 1986, the Pope invited the leaders of world faiths to Assisi", Fr Jude recalled. "Catholicism can do that."

While the Church could be "rigid, authoritarian and blatantly stupid", it could also be "the most enriching place". He believed the Church had the capacity to reform itself, so as to be more inclusive of different opinions. "One of the problems we have at present", he said, "is that the world is moving so fast that people see the Church as a rock of security. It should be perpetually challenging, inviting people to live the Christian life as an outpouring of love."

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