The language of God as love, not monster

Retired solicitor and "Unitarian Universalist" David Dulley wrote this essay for Sea of Faith and has published it in his latest book, 'Still More Feline Conversations'

The heavy-handedness of traditional religious writing, and of traditional religious behaviour generally, is doing more to destroy organised religion than any of its more obvious enemies.

When God was Michaelangelo's God in the Sistine Chapel, the personal Creator, omnipotent and omniscient and supremely though mysteriously benevolent, anyone who took the idea seriously was his dedicated servant; or his dedicated enemy pointing out that all this was hopelessly irreconcilable with the pain and misery of the world, and that attempts to reconcile these irreconcilables were shallow or dishonest.

"God is Love" is now a more acceptable description of the kindly aspects of whatever ultimate mystery may enfold us and it is free from gaping logical absurdity. But it involves the abandonment of most of the attributes generally associated with Michelangelo's God. Love can take forms that disturb not only the pious. It is untidy and not always easy to disconnect from hate.

Love may be ecstatic, cheerfully enjoyable, tragic, depressing, compassionate or humdrum, but whatever form it takes it cannot be expressed verbally except in the very simplest terms: as a monologue, "I love you". Even in a dialogue there is only the old Punch joke: "Darling!" "Yes, darling?" "Just darling, darling". Beyond this, attempts at expression stray into symbol, metaphor and the domains of all the arts. It is much easier to discuss God as Monster than God as Love.

Whether its object is the most seductive creature or notion in the universe or some disgruntled old nuisance who arouses compassion, love does not lend itself to the linguistic modes natural to the old theology, written and preached in days when an assumption of authority did not seem ridiculous: the exhortatory, the instructional and the loftily but evasively emollient. It is often funny. Aldous Huxley's "bouncing buttocks" continue to haunt the romantic lover; and judging by his letters John Keats, who knew much about love in its most romantic and tragic aspects, was given to the sort of jokes which in NAAFI canteens and other places where the sexes met were a coarse but comforting reaction against that apotheosis of hate which is war. And the efforts of the compassionate to help the cantankerous can be entertaining indeed, at any rate to third parties.

Wittgenstein thought that religion did not lend itself to intellectual discussion and was essentially hostile to it. Genuine religious feeling could express itself by example, in practical training, in the arts, and in almost any way except argumentation.

The problem of finding the right vehicle for the exploration of theological or philosophical issues worried people before Wittgenstein. A E Housman thought there were only two ways to the truth, the way of science and the way of the arts. Matthew Arnold wrote "Most of what now passes with us as religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry". Later poets say that love is what turns prose into poetry, and that poetry is what turns existence into life. This brings us back to "God is Love" and to the way one lives one's life as the most significant form of religious expression.

What does religion itself mean now that our understanding of God is changing? What activities, thoughts and feelings does it now cover? We return to the elementary connotations of the word: first, the fear and fascination of whatever fills us with awe because it is beyond our control and may govern our destiny - the mystery of why anything should exist at all and, less philosophically, the alarming uncertainties lurking in our personal futures; secondly, the human tendency to huddle together for support and reassurance in the face of the awe-inspiring. This tendency is as much a mystery as anything else in the universe, but an entirely comforting one. Anyone who denies that there is a mystery here and says that genetic inheritance and the drive for the survival of the species account for our feelings becomes involved in an infinite regress beginning with "Why these genes?" "Why this drive?" which is as insoluble as the mystery it was supposed to solve.

Many people accept the physical universe and our existence in it as a "given" and think it futile to look further. Most such people, I suspect, would regard the impulses towards awe of the uncontrollable unknown and towards altruism as natural rather than irrational. This seems to make them religious in spite of themselves, ready to accept "God is Love" if "God" is given its newer meaning, however much they may dislike the word. It is also enough to dethrone God as Monster and to wed religion to humility and tolerance. One must be humble before an ultimate mystery, and such a mystery leaves no room for the certainties needed to justify intolerance.

What happens if people do not accept the physical universe as a datum? If they are not slaves to dogma or in the grip of some mental malady which makes them use God as a weapon, they often seem to climb a staircase of religious intensity: from the thought that there's kindness among us and could be more; to the feeling that a beneficent presence somehow survives all the world's miseries and is always on the side of kindness; to the attribution of personality and even capacity for development to this presence; perhaps to the acceptance of more than one such presence and, finally, to the recognition that all these personalities and one's own human personality can happily lose themselves in the Eternal Peace of which Krishna spoke in the Bhagavad Gita.

People on any of the treads of this staircase must be humble and tolerant, and if they use the word God at all, they use it as an archaic version of goodness or love. Sceptics reject such staircases as fantasy. But in the face of the unknown we all need our reassurances, religious or secular, acknowledged or unadmited, and they are stronger if they are shared, recurrent and dependable, as these "fantasies" seem to many to be.

If love in its widest sense, in all its anarchic untidiness, is humanity's lifeline but is lethally threatened by traditional religious behaviour and language, what can we do? Religion in England today is formally disintegrating but informally integrating. The human and physical apparatus supporting God as omnipotent monster is crumbling, while an increasing quantity of this apparatus, in various denominations, is becoming available for the support of a God so innocent of dogma and grandiose claims that he, she or it is just love. We can fairly encourage this transfer of assets by voting with our feet and our purses.

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