The Deity and the deep blue sea

Chris Mordaunt is Secretary of the Bristol Council of Churches (UK). This article appeared in The Guardian in August of 1994.

The organisation Sea of Faith does a great service by bringing together—without any dogmas—people with a wide range of "non-realist" views about God. But the sea of faith is a broad one, with shallow patches on each side, and some deeper, more rewarding areas in the middle. Over on the "realist" side the variety is just as great. Let us try a little hydrography. You may recognise your own particular position or you may not. First, there is the naive-realist position depicted by Steve Bell [a regular cartoonist in the Guardian - eds] (and more kindly by Mel Calman): God is an old man on a cloud given to making arbitrary decisions known as miracles. It is not clear that anyone actually believes this, and it serves mainly as an Aunt Sally for those who want to argue against any realistic view of God. Other realistic views of God could be described as materialist. Some ancient Greeks thought that God might be a very fine gas. Physicists have suggested God could be, like consciousness, a quantum mechanical phenomenon unaffected by spatial distance. Other people, mainly romantics and environmentalists, take a pantheistic view and believe that God is either the whole of nature or is immanent in everything. If you identify God with the universe it makes it difficult to see him as its creator, or as taking much of a personal interest in us.

The next step into the briny is to say that God exists realistically but not materially. The traditional church view is that he is a disembodied, supernatural being. This all depends on your being prepared to believe that there are things—ghosts, angels, demons—which exist in the same sort of way as we exist but just outside our range of perception. Many people find that difficult nowadays.

On the non-realist side we have to start on dry land with atheists who say that the whole idea of God is meaningless and who refuse to talk about him. There is some atheism which is completely out of the water, such as the positivism of A.J.Ayer or Freud's rejection of religion as a harmful illusion created by the projection of our internal hang-ups. But there is also a more sympathetic sort of atheism which is found in shallow waters within the Sea of Faith. It involves saying, like the sacked vicar Anthony Freeman (and Feuerbach before him) that "God" stands for our values: when we talk about God it is just a way of expressing our finest hopes and aspirations.

There is a related view, very popular, which is purely pragmatic. A large number of people do not have any particular beliefs about God but simply think the church is a good thing. They like the services, they like the company, they approve of its social mission and they want to be on the same side. Such people, if questioned, might express their beliefs in traditional terms but at bottom they are sympathetic atheists.

The difference between the broadly realistic believers on our right and broadly atheistic fellow travellers on our left is obvious. For those on the right "Jesus is the Son of God" is literally true, while " God is Love" is a metaphor. For those on the left it is the other way round.

Beliefs in the depths of the middle allow for some uncertainty. Beliefs in the shallows have this in common: they treat religious statements as literally true or false. Beliefs in the middle are more inclined to say that the position is ambiguous or that a proposition may be true for me but not necessarily for everyone. For some people "God exists" may be subjectively true but still not strictly objective. Carl Jung came to believe that certain religious concepts were beneficial and intrinsic to mankind. The theologian John Hick has popularised the view that there is no such thing as an unambiguously religious experience: it is a question of choosing whether to describe an experience in God-terms or secular terms.

There is a widely-held view that you can escape from realism by reasoning that we can't know anything as it really is. All we know of anything is an idea of it in our minds. So if we have an idea of God, that is as real as anything else—at least to us, which is all that matters. This is not much use to anyone, and should definitely be marked with a lightship.

Finally there is the idea that it is possible to speak about God as an objective phenomenon, even though he is not there physically or metaphysically. God is an active principle that we observe in the world, like market forces (only different). Not an abstract value, but the best way of describing some aspects of our experience.

Few of us are entirely consistent, which is after all the mark of little minds. We shift about from one view to another. The underlying question which the Anthony Freeman affair brings up is the relative importance of inquiry over dogma. Is what you believe more or less important than how you got there? Many would say that it is the process that counts. For my money, a priest who shows that he is still passionately interested in these matters and sufficiently concerned about his flock to talk about them is worth 10 who are simply going through the motions. But there is an even more important issue. If we are not open to those of differing views within the sea of the Christian faith, how can we possibly be open to the ocean beyond?

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