God talk

For October 2011 “Messenger”

Last month in this space I wrote of being a discerning community listening for God's direction.

Now let's talk a bit about “God”.

A new strain of militant atheism is out there, typified by Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, a book in which the biologist argues vociferously against the idea that 'there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.”

Dawkins has his critics, including the atheist Michael Ruse, as well as philosophical theologians like Nicholas Lash, whose book Theology for Pilgrims I picked up at the Durham Cathedral bookstore last Wednesday.

The latter theologian brings a lifetime of careful work in theology to bear on Dawkin's claims, zeroing in on what he considers the fatal flaw in Dawkin's argument. That flaw is in Dawkin's definition of the word God quoted above.

Where the grammar of the word 'God' is concerned, Dawkins is ignorant of centuries of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic reflection on the 'naming' of the holy and utterly transcendant mystery on which the world depends, persists in taking for granted that 'God' is the name of a non-existent thing, a particular, specifiable, fictitious entity.

Lash also addresses and handily dismisses Dawkins' claims that faith consists of “belief without evidence”, and that believers in God are committed to a policy of not thinking about their belief.

Lash argues that we are mistaken if we follow Dawkins and presume that God is one more thing – albeit a big thing over other things - and then argue whether or not that “thing” exists.

Lash maintains that God is the way we name “the holy and transcendant mystery upon which the world depends.” In his essay he reminds readers that Christian theology down through the centuries acknowledges the truth we inherited from the Jews, which is that all language to describe God is provisional and inadequate. He quotes John Henry Newman, who acknowledges that in speech about God “we are forced to transfer to a new meaning ready made words, which primarily belong to objects of time and space. We are aware, while we do so, that they are inadequate. We can only remedy their insufficiency by confessing it.”

Speaking personally, I've always found that insight liberating and joyful. Also we, we don't have anything to fear from the new atheism. It seems designed to address only Christian and other forms of that new-fangled attitude we call fundamentalism using the same kinds of arguments that fundamentalists use.

The thing we have to fear is our propensity not to attend carefully and lovingly to the incomprehensible mystery we know in Creation, in the revelation to the Jews, in the Word of God made flesh in Jesus. That mystery, although hidden, we do experience and can know through worship and prayer. That mystery we call God calls us to trust in God's graceful forgiveness of us, to care for one another, especially the “other”. The act of trusting that mystery we call belief. Belief is never unquestioning, neither is it to be arrogant in the face of mystery. To believe is to trust; to set your heart on following this mystery.

We call that form of attending “love”, as in the summary Christ gave of Holy Teaching: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” This is the only way we can approach God with any sort of enjoyment and ultimate benefit for us and for the world.

I'm glad to be amid a congregation that seeks and loves God in this way. Let's continue.