Sofia #78 - Editorial by Dinah Livingstone

The title of this issue is ‘I AM. AM I?’ When God speaks to Moses from the Burning Bush and Moses asks his name, ‘I AM’ is what God calls himself (Ex. 3:14).

This issue opens with an article by Stephen Mitchell about God’s existence, in which he attacks what he regards as the weasel word ‘non-theism’. In the second article, Anthony Freeman asks in what way humans can say ‘I am’. He gives a brief history of the self and summarises the state of the question today with its dispute between ‘bundlers’ and ‘egoists’. He first gave this as a talk in March to the London SoF Conference ‘Is There a Me?’ Thus the issue title ‘I AM. AM I?’ refers both to God and to human beings (and, of course, the two are related; human beings would not speak of a God whose name is ‘I AM’ unless they had reflected on what it means to say ‘I AM’.)

Scholars have questioned what the divine name means. The Jerusalem Bible note says that it is ‘clearly part of the Hebrew verb “to be” in an archaic form.’ It could be ‘I am’ or ‘I will be’, or even causative: ‘I cause to be’, that is, ‘I create’.

Stephen Mitchell’s article questions David Boulton’s book The Trouble with God and Lloyd Geering’ s Christianity without God. As he says, Boulton uses the word ‘non-theism’ to mean that God does not exist independently of human beings, and this is what is commonly called ‘atheist’. Like others in SoF, Boulton thinks that God is a human creation. Mitchell goes on to say, ‘Whatever David is talking about, it is not the god Christians call God. Their God is from everlasting to everlasting, unbegotten and uncreated.’ Undeniably, this has been the orthodox Christian view, which Boulton and many other Sofers do not share.

But when Mitchell expands on the Christian view of God, his description of ‘traditional, orthodox Christian theology’, seems to include only half of it. Pascal wrote of his ‘night of fire’ on November 23rd 1654: ‘The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars... The God of Jesus Christ.’ Mitchell seems to prefer the ‘God of philosophers and scholars’. ‘God,’ he says ‘is beingness itself, existence itself, reality itself, life itself.’ I remembered the scene when Paul preached to the men of Athens in the Areopagus, saying that the ‘unknown god’, whose shrine he had seen on the way, was in fact the ‘God of Jesus Christ’ (Acts 17:23ff.). I imagined Mitchell as one of those men of Athens saying, ‘I think I’ll stick with the unknown god, thanks; it feels safer somehow.’ Surely – beginning with Paul’s speech in the heart of Athens – the theological work of the first centuries which forged Christian orthodoxy, was to unite the Greek ‘god of philosophers’ with the God of Jesus Christ, whom Jesus usually addressed as ‘Father’.

Mitchell says some have accused him of trimming ‘as an Anglican vicar striving to save my stipend and keep in with my bishop’. This accusation will not stand. In its half and halfness, Mitchell’s article has easily enough to spell trouble for himself if he had the misfortune to meet a basher bishop.

For Mitchell, as for most Sofers, the Bible stories are ‘simply stories’. ‘We agreed that the characters in the stories (including the character of God) had changed, but we agreed that they were characters in a story.’ This is what he sees as the positive side of ‘non-realism’, an approach to ‘texts’ which gave us a common language with other religious radicals and academic disciplines. (On the top deck of the 24 you could hear a postmodernist mutter: ‘A bus ticket is a text.’)

Mitchell picks his way through the quagmire of debates about ‘non-realism’, pointing out how slippery and squelchy the term proved to be, and what confusion it caused. As Ruth Scott says in her article on Conflict in this issue: ‘It is extraordinary how people can use the same term and mean something utterly different by it.’

Then we find that fascinatingly, although Mitchell thinks that the God in the Bible stories is not real in the ordinary sense of not real, i.e. he is a character in a story, a fiction, we made him up, this is not true of Mitchell’s ‘God of philosophers and scholars’. When he says that ‘God is beingness itself, existence itself, reality itself, life itself’, this clearly smacks of ‘a philosophy that had its roots in Platonism.’ He ontologises abstractions (or personifies them if he is thinking of God as conscious and personal, which he does not make clear). His list of abstract nouns – ideas – exist as God. So for Mitchell, the God of the Bible is fiction, a human creation, but the God of philosophers and scholars is not.

Others will hold that both Gods are fictions. Here I think it helps to consider those abstract nouns as verbs (and perhaps a Somerset dialect is more helpful for the first in the list). Beings do be; existing things exist; living things live. I was thinking about phrases we use for weather: ‘It is raining’, ‘it is thundering’. If we ask ‘what does “it” mean: who or what is raining or thundering?’, an earlier culture might reply; ‘God is raining, God is thundering’. (Incidentally Chac, the Mayan Rain God, was a benevolent, welcome figure, whereas although we now need it so badly, in England we tend to think of rain as a kind of grumbling.) But for most speakers of modern English the ‘it’ in the phrase ‘it is raining’ does not mean anything much. In fact we tend to omit it and say ‘ ’sraining’. If anything, rain is raining, i.e. rain is what it does. Being is what beings do. If we don’t want to say ‘God is raining’, ‘God is thundering’, why should we want to say ‘God is being’?

‘Beingness’, ‘Existence’, ‘Life’ are abstractions; we certainly can’t meet them walking down the street. When we personify (or ontologise) these abstractions, we are again making up stories, this time using poetic tropes like personification, metaphor and allegory. At the beginning of his ‘Mask of Anarchy’, Shelley does meet a personified abstraction, ‘Murder’, walking down the street. In using personification and allegory Shelley points out in the poem’s first verse that these are ‘the visions of poesy’:

I met Murder on the way –
He had a mask like Castlreagh –
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him.

Likewise, we can personify or ontologise abstractions and call them God. We can have a God who is Being, a God who is Life, a God who is Love (there is no particular reason why these should all be the same God – in some religions they are not.) We can also have a God who is War, a God who is Death...

These Gods are creations of the human poetic genius, fictions, ways of exploring ourselves and our world. Their poetic force derives from the fact that human beings on Earth really do exist, live, love, fight, die. Poetry is one of humanity’s defining features. Divine fictions are not supernatural; they are human with a long history and contain valuable insights, wisdom perhaps.

At the end of his article on the human self, Freeman considers the current debates between ‘bundlers’ who think an enduring self is an illusion because we are just a ‘bundle of sensations’, and ‘egoists’ who ‘do believe there exists an enduring self, or ego, of some kind’. The name God calls himself in the story of the Burning Bush is I AM. If humans create gods in our own image in order to explore ourselves, perhaps creating a god called I AM is a moment of historical self-awareness when the human being says I AM and claims an enduring self. Even if we drop the supernatural, it seems a pity to give up that hard-won insight about ourselves. Elsewhere (not in the current article), Freeman speaks of consciousness as an ‘emerging property’ and then of ‘God’ as an ‘emerging property’ in human consciousness, both individual and collective consciousness. If we construe the Burning Bush ‘archaic form of the Hebrew verb “to be” as future tense, God’s name is ‘ I will be’.

Mitchell ends his article with a plea: ‘The SoF network’s statement of intent leaves open the question of God. While some in the network may wish to close it, I believe the network’s future lies in leaving it open.’ While it will be clear from the above that Sofia editor’s position is that all gods are creations of the human imagination and poetic genius, I nevertheless agree with Mitchell that SoF and the pages of Sofia should be open to all intrepid explorers who are willing to engage in robust debate. However, when SoF explores religion, it must be religion for better or worse. In such a dangerous world we must be prepared to say sometimes: ‘I think that belief is silly or I think that belief is harmful.’ As many who believe that God exists and many who don’t would agree, the criterion is not killing, not wounding, not torturing, not starving, not stunting, not brain-washing, not destroying our habitat: the criterion is humanity.

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