Why God is a god, not just an idea

...by Rt Revd Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford. This article first appeared in the Guardian's 'Face to Faith' column on 25th September 1993.

One of the weaknesses of the Sea of Faith group of Christians who argue that God exists only in their minds is that they fail to respect atheism. Disbelief in God is a view of life—to which people can be converted. Edwin Muir describes such a moment in his autobiography. While he was working in a bone-processing factory in Glasgow he travelled one day on a bus. Suddenly the passengers opposite him seemed nothing but animals, no longer made in the image of God, stripped of all spiritual grace. Muir was totally devastated and it took him a lifetime's spiritual pilgrimage to recover his earlier sense of the eternal in us. Some people never have or never recover this sense.

Bravely, the best of such people develop a sense of pity for their fellow suffering, struggling human beings. Such atheism deserves our prayer and respect. These are people who believe that life is devoid of any over-arching meaning, who think that existence, despite its shafts of beauty, is in the end tragic, and yet who simply choose to live for others rather than themselves. It is a noble stance, well conveyed in Louis Macniece's poem Wolves:

Come then all of you, come
closer form a circle,

Join hands and make believe
that joined

Hands will keep away the
wolves of water

Who howl along our coast. And
be it assumed

That no one hears them coming
the talk and laughter.

Human companionship, affection and pity are all affirmed, defiantly asserted against the backdrop of a menacing world. Yet Christians and other theistic faiths believe something different from this. We believe that such human values go with the grain of the universe; that compassion echoes the heartbeat of a spiritual reality who is behind, beyond and within all things. Values are not a courageous bridge desperately thrown over a chasm of meaninglessness but a reflection of that God who moment by moment holds all things in being and who in the end will be "all in all", as Paul put it.

It is generally recognised that the main influence behind the Sea of Faith group is Don Cupitt. Mr Cupitt is a highly accomplished presenter of television programmes on religious belief. One of his favourite ploys has been to make ringing statements like "modern philosophy has taught us that we cannot believe this... or that... or the other." A few years ago he was making these assertions at a time when four out of five of the major chairs in philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge were held by either Christian believers or a traditional type of non-believer perfectly prepared to concede that the Christian faith was actually asserting something to be the case, even though they themselves could not share that conviction.

Some of the Sea of Faith's utterances, which dress up moral values in religious clothing, feel philosophically naive and untutored. To insist that nothing exists outside language is a hangover of the logical positivism that was already fading in the 1960s. The fact is that a great deal of sound work has been done in the philosophy of religion over the last three decades. Whereas it was once roundly asserted that statements of Christian belief were only expressions of personal preference or commitment to a way of life, now it is widely acknowledged that claims about the nature of reality are being made.

Nobody who has ever rubbed two theological thoughts together has ever been in the slightest doubt that God is a mystery, who can never be fully encompassed in human language. Furthermore, the language which we use to refer to God is, like all language, a tissue of metaphor and it is never easy to work out exactly what it is that these juxtaposed metaphors are affirming. Nevertheless, the Christian faith stands or falls on the basis of certain assertions. I was privileged to learn my philosophy of religion at the feet of Donald Mackinnon at Cambridge. It was his rigorous wrestling which refused to let us off the hook. He never allowed us to evacuate Christian affirmations of all factual content: the Resurrection was an event in the world and to confuse God with moral precepts is to blur the issue.

There is a clear difference between atheism and theism and atheists quite properly force us to choose between them. To dress up our human ideals and values and call them God, as the Sea of Faith people do, simply fails to respond to the character of the world as we know it.

It is grossly insensitive to the tragic dimensions of human life, the suffering and evil always ready to engulf us but which, Christians insist, are not the last word. A Christian holds on to faith because of the conviction that God shares in the agony and travail of the world, because of Christ's Resurrection and the hope that springs from that.

But we know what atheism is and we can often be pulled into its orbit. When George Eliot lost her faith in God she did not lose her sense of duty. On the contrary, the voice of duty spoke to her more insistently. But she was quite clear that this was a moral idea and not a new name for a God in whom she had once believed. Respect atheism for what it is, a brave and often profoundly moral response to the world. We only cheapen it by calling its human values "God".

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