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.


  1. Questioning the route to salvation should not be seen as controversial but yet it is. Your blog post is a welcome one. I often wonder too about people who live in vast rural areas in places like Asia. how would salvation reach them?

  2. Concepts of salvation have changed repeatedly through the history of the church; no doubt they'll change again. Personally I think God is bigger than any of the religions we make about him. I think the church is probably moving towards some form of univesalism - we don't like talking about hell any more, for one thing. I wouldn't want to be dogmatic though.