Friday, 17 August 2012

God continued

The problem of talking about an infinite being in terms comprehensible to finite beings like myself remains. We're very good at imposing our own categories on God, seeing himself as a projection of something in ourselves, and I've long found it impossible to avoid the impression that all these people who seem so sure about what God is are doing exactly that.

There was a time, some centuries ago, when people must have felt completely powerless. Life was poor, nasty, brutish and short. God decided when and where we were going to be born, to die, and all the bits in between. Most people were subsistence farmers, living from hand to mouth; there were regular famines and outbreaks of disease; now and then God might get a bit upset and zap the sinners (and everyone else for miles) with plague or whirlwinds or something equally nasty. Even when we died, God would be sitting there with his little lists. Made before creation, one named those who were predestined to heaven, the other those predestined to hell. But if your name was on the second, it wasn't anything to do with God. Don't blame him; it was your own fault for sinning.

It's not an attractive picture of God, but in an age before bacteria or viruses were invented, when eating during the early spring depended on a good harvest the year before, something of the sort was probably inevitable. There had to be some explanation of it all - European culture has a bit of an obsession with lining everything up, making it all consistent, and explaining it -  and an arbitrary, all-powerful deity supplied it.

Slowly, things moved on. The 18th Century saw the introduction of new agricultural techniques which increased the food supply; by the following century, better ships and the growth of empire enabled the import of large quantities of grain. People driven off the land fed the army, navy and the factories; wealth flowed in from slavery and colonial exploitation. As the cities grew, the introduction of piped drinking water and sewers slashed the child mortality rate, and the population exploded. People began to feel more powerful, more in control of their environment, and this impacted their understanding of God.

At the same time, the old Calvinism was crumbling. Wesley's Methodism popularised Arminianism, the idea that God gives us free choice in salvation, if not much else. In the same period when Samuel Wedgewood issued his anti-slavery medallion with the inscription 'Am I not a man and a brother?', moving on from seeing black people as the descendents of Ham, predestined to servitude, the Methodists proclaimed that anyone could be saved, not just those on the right little list. In the face of increasing exploitation and social dislocation, and the beginnings of 'scientific racism', which declared that black people were little better than the great apes, some people, at least, began to value our humanity a little higher than before.

At the same time, God shrank a little. Salvation still depended on his grace, but it was our choice to accept it or reject it. The language of omnipotence was retained, with little thought given to the fact that there was now a hole in that divine potency; something had been ceded to mere humanity. It worked, for that society, at that time, when everybody was familiar with the Christian story, and virtually everyone believed it. The problem wasn't lack of belief, but theologies which no longer worked, combined with an enormous social upheaval, and a church which was failing to adapt to the changes. When John Wesley and his friends went out to preach to the Kingswood miners, they weren't preaching to atheists or pagans. The audience was made up of Christians who found themselves cut off from the church.

Since then, of course, the world has changed again, and, if declining church attendance is anything to go by, our discourse about God is failing to strike much of a chord in our potential audience. The big problem I see is that the world has got bigger. In Wesley's day, the idea that we all had the freedom within God's grace to respond - or not - to the Gospel was a reasonable one, since it could safely be assumed that everyone would come into contact with the message. That no longer holds true.

To take an extreme case, an illiterate villager in some remote part of Saudi Arabia - where over 20% of the population is illiterate - is extremely unlikely ever to come into contact with Christianity. So what chance do they have to 'choose' salvation? Similarly,  what of a child growing up in Britain, in a family with no contact with the church? We can no longer pretend that everyone has the opportunity to accept the Gospel, so what we have, in effect, is predestination by the back door. If God gives a child to a devout Christian family, then, in a classic Arminian theology, they have every hope of heaven. If he gives that child to a devout Muslim family in an Arabian backwater, then it's almost inevitable that they're 'going to hell'. That God is no more just than the Calvinist deity with his little lists. We need to rethink.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

What about God?

Tony Jones has issued a challenge to progressive bloggers to do a post about God. He thinks, perhaps rightly, that progressives/liberals/call them what you will don't talk about him much compared to evangelicals.

I'm sure he's right, but the trouble is, some conservatives know - or think they know - altogether too much about God. He wants this, he rejects that - usually some people the conservatives don't approve of, like publicans and sinners in ancient Judea - he can't do this and he can't do that. The latter really worries me. How can you use the word 'can't' of omnipotence? Surely the word implies that God can do anything he likes, even turn lead into gold or tell the tide to go back out when it's only halfway in. If he doesn't do things like that, maybe we be should be asking some awkward questions, which won't be settled by your favourite prooftext. I've even heard a preacher say that God 'always' wants to heal, and if he doesn't it's probably your fault for not having enough faith. I'll hold my nose and pass by that one as fast as I can before I write a naughty word. Not many of them manage to plumb such depths.

What we 'know' about God is mostly what tradition tells us, and we think we read out of the Bible. That's one of the big problems with a conservative approach to the text; you can make the Bible say anything, if you just find the right prooftext. It never seems to say anything they don't want to hear. We all 'know' God is immanent, which is a big word meaning he's with us. In our hearts, in a favourite conservative term. He's also transcendent, an equally big word meaning he's out there. Somehow, we have to square the circle and make him both at once, since that's what tradition says, and sure enough, there are well-known prooftexts for both. At one and the same time, he's sitting on his throne somewhere up in the third heaven, and he's also in our hearts. Tradition, of course, also says he's omnipresent, which is a nice way out of that one. He's everywhere, all at once.

He's clearly not one of us, whatever he is. Allegedly, he's both one and three at the same time, which we clearly aren't. I'm not going to get into that one; last week I was accused of heresy for (supposedly) denying the Trinity, and once a month is enough for that sort of thing. And he's the Creator, which means he's not a created being. In some way, he has to be utterly different from us.

We however, subsist within creation; we can't imagine anything outside it. That implies that whatever we think about God, it's likely to be wrong. Language is a created thing; it can't describe God any more than the finite can comprehend the infinite. Maybe that's why liberals (I prefer the term to 'progessive'; people think they know what it means) don't write so much about God. We're not so confident about our prescriptions; it's more a case of 'O let us never, never doubt, what nobody is sure about'. That's Hilaire Belloc, by the way. A great writer of doggerel, even if he was a fascist. The one thing we can say for definite about God is that he's like nothing we can possibly imagine. That's a lot less comfortable than anything you hear from conservatives!

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Reading Genesis literally?

Jim McGrath brings up a point I hadn't thought of. In Genesis, Adam and Eve are literally 'one flesh'. They're one individual who's been cut in two to make a sort of prototypical human community. In Mark 10, Jesus is made to say that a man will leave his parents, be united to the wife, and they will become 'one flesh'. The passage has to be metaphorical, since Adam and Eve start as one, and become two, while any other couple start as two and (hopefully!) become one. So the use of the story in Mark is rather more sophisticated than you normally get from the sort of fundamentalist preacher who I remember banging on about 'leaving and cleaving'.