The God Problem - Alternatives to Fundamentalism

'The God Problem - Alternatives to Fundamentalism 'by Nigel Leaves. Published by Polebridge Press (Santa Rosa, USA). 2006. 98 pages. 8.50. ISBN 0944344984—Reviewed by Michael Morton. Michael is a Catholic parish priest and a SoF trustee

Because Australia is so far away, most people rely for information about it from television soaps and other dramas. Then there is the advertising campaign from the Tourist Board, which features empty beaches, tasty barbecues and an attractive girl in a bikini, alone on a beach, asking prospective visitors 'so where the hell are you'? Ozzie theologian Nigel Leaves seems conscious of these images because more than once in this short book he mentions the fact that Australia and New Zealand are regarded as the most secular societies in the world. But then his work belies this image. Leaves has already written two books about Don Cupitt and he relies heavily in this present work on the venerable New Zealand theologian Lloyd Geering. Throughout the text he demonstrates a pastoral concern that people should be offered theological reflections that are in keeping with post-modernity. Within the limitations of his present book he does very well indeed.

The subject of The God Problem is the proposal that the existence and the notion of God have now to be rigorously debated. In other words, what does 'God' mean for the 21st century? The danger from Fundamentalism is that the question of belief in God has become not a proposition to be debated, as even Aquinas did in his most Christian age, but one to be defended at all costs. Once rationality deserts religious faith, it becomes a menace even to its own adherents. As far as religion is concerned, Leaves believes, the world is simply ablaze with bad ideas. So although problems about God can be many and varied, he wants to ask whether we can justifiably adopt a non-realist understanding of God and view God as the symbol of our ultimate concern for life and the continuation of the world where nature is the locus of the holy.

The argument of the book follows the structure given by its origin as a series of six talks. In the middle four chapters, between his introduction and concluding lecture, Leaves discusses the work of Bishop John Spong, the writings of Don Cupitt and Lloyd Geering and an appreciation of that popular appearance of spirituality wherein people move away from historic religions and find a matrix of creative and artistic spiritualities, yoga and meditation. His fourth study is of religious naturalism, which means a religious and emotional response to the wonders and complexity of the world around us. The question of what it means to be 'religious' in the 21st century is not just confined to activity in the mainstream churches.

Although he confesses that he finds non-realism the most intellectually authentic and compelling reading of Christian faith, he does worry that it will be hard for people to abandon belief in the Supreme Being that has sustained society for so long. It is an important matter, for non-realism can only be taken seriously if it can identify itself as a continuation and interpretation of traditional faith. The religious faith of the 21st century needs to be the child of what has gone before it. Yet the reader will look in vain for any reference to St Thomas Aquinas, St Augustine, the Cappadocian Fathers, David Hume and other masters who have wrestled with the problem of God. Maybe Bishop Spong is not the best or sole candidate to stand as a 'template of realism'.

By contrast, when he writes about Don Cupitt and Lloyd Geering, Leaves is authoritative and illuminating. He evidently understands the thought of these two writers very well even though, for the Sea of Faith Network, his treatment may just be covering old ground. He offers an interesting diagram, taken from Cupitt's Cambridge lectures, of what 'non-realism' might entail and explains how his thinking raises issues for the future of Christianity and for the Church. Lloyd Geering, he argues, is more global and historical in his presentation of non-realism than Cupitt as he celebrates humanity itself and looks forward to a new kind of society that realises a 'new heaven and a new earth' in the here and now.

As is often the case with theology books nowadays, the price seems a bit steep for such a short work. Yet brevity is one of the book's strengths. Leaves writes clear and easy prose. He is able to present difficult notions lucidly and although the book does suffer from being in essence transcribed lectures, it is a good read for the non-specialist and we may look forward to more writing from Nigel Leaves and a country that may well become, theologically, a new world.

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