Radicals miss the point about God

...by Keith Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University. From the Guardian's 'Face to Faith' column, October 1993.

The message of radical Christianity is clear and simple—too clear and simple. God is not an all-powerful causal agent, interfering occasionally in the natural order. God is an ideal image of our highest values, constructed by human minds, the projection of our aspirations. This is a conscious revision of the Christian tradition, a new interpretation of Christian language, and why should it not exist?

It is a pity, however, that it offers only a caricature of Christian orthodoxy, that it offers a more anthropomorphic idea of God than anything the tradition ever managed, and that it entirely omits consideration of what is perhaps the most noticeable need of our age, the hunger for a real but non-dogmatic experience of spiritual reality.

The idea of God as an interfering person is itself a product of the Enlightenment trivialisation of religious concepts. Much more traditional is the idea of a Divine being which "hides itself in thick darkness" (1 Kings 8:12), of whom no image can be made, whom even the highest heaven cannot contain, whom no human can see and live, the infinite source of all finite forms, both good and bad. This God, the Biblical God to be sure, is as far beyond personhood as the infinite is beyond the finite—yet it is not less. It is impossible for this God to "interfere" in a cosmos which has no independent, self-sufficient being, but which exists only as the expression of the Divine majesty and glory—though the cosmos finds its fulfilment in becoming a consciously realised sacrament of that glory. This God is, as Plato put it, "even beyond being", in that it does not exist as one finite thing among others—yet it is not simply non-existent.

What radical Christianity lacks, in short, is a sense of the infinity of God, of the utter incommensurability of all human thoughts with the reality which is God. Precisely because of this lack, it has no place for the classical idea of revelation, as a disclosure of the eternal in time, to which no words or images can ever be adequate. Revelation does not come as a clear message from an invisible person. It comes as a transforming insight into the transcendent mystery which is present in and through finite forms.

One root of living religion is, in Schleiermacher's words, "a sense and taste for the Infinite", not a theoretical belief in a disembodied cosmic person. This view of God as infinite, which is that of the major early Christian theologians, is like the radical view in denying an arbitrary supernatural meddler. Yet it is radically unlike it in insisting on the goal of Christian life as a transforming experience of this unlimited ocean of being, which cannot be grasped by knowledge, but only by love.

"To be one with the infinite in the midst of the finite"—that is not the speculative attempt to have a theory about what caused the universe. It is not the moralistic attempt arrogantly to write our highest values in the sky. It is the experiential quest to find in finite beauty a sacrament of infinite Beauty, to find within the cave of the heart a source of Infinite Love, to find in our mental constructs an image of infinite Truth.

There is a widespread reaction against literalist images of a God who seems to be a male tyrant and who damns everyone to hell unless they join some little society and believe in Jesus. But this is a reaction against a naive form of religion which treats the Bible like an engineering text-book. The orthodox Christian view of God is that God cannot be literally envisaged at all, but that a temporal manifestation of God as self-giving love can be found in the Church's understanding of Jesus as the one who unites human life to the eternal Divine life in a paradigmatic way.

The Christian Church is meant to be a sacrament of the mystery of love; and if it did not have people like me in it, it would be that. As it is, it is a community of those who seek, and partly find, true human fulfilment in a love which is given from a source beyond comprehension, which we name "God". Without that experienced reality and the hope of its fulfilment in all human lives, orthodox Christianity has little of interest to say.

The radicals are right; we do not want Michaelangelo's bearded busybody God. But I doubt if we want the deification of our own moral opinions turning the church into a club for earnest moral endeavour, either. Is there not something else—the overcoming of self by experience of an inward power which draws us to itself as the fulfilment of our deepest potential?

From the viewpoint of an ancient Christian tradition, radical Christianity misunderstands the poetry and mystery of Biblical language about God. It moralises, and with supreme irony, anthropomorphises the idea of God, making it a pale reification of human social regulations. It misses the unique form of reality which is God, the one whose name is ineffable, from whom all words fall back, but in whose presence of dark mystery is the fullness of joy, for whom hearts long with unquenchable, if often unrecognised, desire.

Aquinas wrote: "revelation ... joins us to God as to an unknown." Union with that which cannot be said, but which words continually and inadequately seek to point towards, is the goal of the Christian life of prayer. If this is so, perhaps radical Christianity can, for some who have been repelled by false images, open up again the way to that God, the God of orthodox theistic faith.

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