Understanding God

Posted to Surefish 18th May 2004

This contribution of mine started a new threat of Understanding God in the Faith and Theology section of the Surefish discussion boards.


I have just been reading Graham Shaw, the Anglican who resigned his office but not holy orders, joining the Quakers, writing of humans creating God in their own image but that God then acquiring a life of its own and working back on us ('Can we Worship a God of our Own Creation?' in Time and Tide: Sea of Faith beyond the Millennium, 2001). It is based around generating and discovering the alter-ego, prayer, and is God after Freud and Jung. My own analogy is that I create a painting: it is mine but when done it makes its own statements. Graham Shaw links his view of God and seeking the Quakers to truth seeking, which must be crucial.
Some people say God is ultimate concern, after Tillich. Tillich though kept objectivity in God, so it is not just ultimate concern. I like this too, but there is also identification of God with narratives, and this is to do with oral and writing culture.
Karl Barth, the neo-Calvinist, wanted nothing to do with culture, so made his God of revelation completely one way (to us) and distant and he did this whilst accepting the usual biblical criticisms. The encounter was in the biblical narrative. The opposite to Barth is the Unitarian divine, James Martineau: if Barth was opposed to the projection of religion in theism, Martineau was opposed to making the crucifixion-resurrection events the projected central dynamic. The eternal theistic mystery of God lies beyond all such narratives, or incorporates them all into a higher level. John Hick does this, where the Real is the highest God of all, and incorporates explanations from the religions including contradictions.
In either case God is distant. In the Barth case there is a direct connection to Hans Frei's The Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative, where the biblical narrative informs us what God is without any reference beyond; and the equivalent in tradition (again God so defined) is John Milbank's - the Anglican who states that Church and Christian culture is normative and secular culture is something else and other, and wants no objective reference to that other culture.
Such high views of God also tie in with the Islamic view, of a God who reveals via his angel Gabriel (mainly), and has attributes, but whose relationship is one way. The collapse of God also relates to Buddhism, an agnosticism about God that means we just get on with doing the spiritual path. If, on the other hand, there is the breadth of God, this relates to Hinduism where God dissolves into all and everything with so many attributes, the highest the soul can achieve.
In my view culture must come into understanding of God, such as with God dying into writing (Mark Taylor). There is a distinctly Christian view here, in the symbolism of God who died on the cross, an image used by death of God theologians from the 1950s on. This involves tradition with contemporary understanding. God, as the highest of values, also must have something to do with self-sacrifice and service following on from biblical models.
People refer to the Trinity, in the developed Christian tradition (not in the Bible itself) but what they mean by Trinity has shifted over time. It is a useful image because it suggests the social and collaborative. The language of the Holy Spirit applies to religious activity, and God (the father) connects traditions to self understanding. God (the son) is about the necessary humanism (and worldly incarnation) of God, that is to say a connection with the stuff of life. Also important is the religius ritual as "the gift", a giving up in faith for something greater, as represented in religious ritual (like the eucharist), but also in market economics, sexual union and conversation. Religion is a space apart and ritual beyond ordinary life rituals in order to look and see and reorientate.
God is also after evolutionary biology (what is local and unplanned), after psychology and sociology, and within physics. Maybe God is a symbol of their creation, but we think after these powerful intellectual methods. Also God is after any Kuhnian revolutions in thought, including those yet to come.
God does inform from the Judaeo-Christian strands, and must be about culture and thought. It must be about self-giving and the religious act. But also we are creators of God, a God dying into culture, that then gives God the Holy Spirit a kind of active freedom through us. God has distance, but the Holy Spirit and the second person of the Trinity demands that God is also close and within, and is about us being human and the world-evolving (also possible through Hindu understandings, and Jewish too at the food table). There is always going to be something of the Buddhist in the understanding of doing religion, and God is going to be in that (understanding that God is not a part of Buddhism, but then I come at this through Judaeo-Christianity). God is always going to be contingent, and about truth seeking: God is a guide but also guided. God is in this life and for people in this culture, but God was in others. It is we who find cultural divides to be chasms, for example the strange immediate supernatural world that Jesus and Paul understood but may as well have been on another planet: we are just left with the texts that inform like a tradition. We must meet God where we are in coming to the ultimate questions and in acts of worship. God then encounters each one of us, and we are called to think again and to reorientate.

Posted to Surefish 20th May 2004

...the cultural natures of Buddhism appear by comparing Tibetan Buddhism with other forms, and some (like it) are richer in deities than others. I'm most familiar with the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, who are quite strong on making a distinction between the essentials (The Three Jewels - Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) and culture: they even put certain beliefs around rebirth into a cultural category.
I suppose an interesting area speculating about the Judaeo-Christian God is the effect of the Silk Road both ways, Buddhism into Christianity for example (we know something of Zoroastrianism into Judaism and its effect on Christianity). We do know about the Nestorian type Church that produced Taoist Christianity in China, a Buddhist and Taoist re-presentation of Christianity which died out before the missionaries arrived in China. There was the miracle birth, the chosen messiah, the less importance of resurrection, and God was there but modified by the host religious culture into which this non-dogmatic form of Christianity merged into. So I think there is a possibility of a a kind of God with Buddhism had the cultural conditions been there; it just happens that this did not take place and Buddhism does contain its deities. Theologically (in many approaches) I think the Judaeo-Christian God is also becoming contained within the tradition and its understandings.

Posted to Surefish at 20:45 on 20th May 2004

It's interesting that if you push the Jungian aspect too far, problems appear (at least for me) regarding archetypes as built up collective memories. I just do not think there is a biological mechanism for this. However, the more general idea of religious imagery, and a sort of free play of what we project, does make some good sense.
A psychologist I particularly like is William James. He was well ahead of his time, and introduced stream of consciousness which had literary impact. I think this also has religious impact too, where we can as individuals and collectives produce a stream of images and words that have meaning-significance and yet they seem to have some power over us as well as we generating them. Our minds can be in full flow and meaning is thereby generated. We are also creatures of habit. He also looked at devices by which body stimulation produce states of happiness and sadness - being happy follows a stimulation rather than causes it. James was able to see things the other way around (echoes of a certain Jesus).
Yes there is so little in the way of education in churches, and a lot of it is due to the State taking a fairly dire role in covering religion. I'm a qualified RE teacher (I don't teach it at present) and the syllabuses and text books are just terrible, making all sorts of sweeping statements as if children can handle nothing else. They create an alternative universe compared with all other subjects, and this must be wrong because it undermines the credibility of religion in their minds. When teaching this I refuse to allow sweeping statements through and attempt to tie in with other subjects.
The matter of God is complex and many layered. The first thing is to get away from is those images of a kind of a directing and controlling super human. When that anthropomorphism is removed, then the metaphors change and the matter becomes more interesting.

Posted to Surefish at 02:16 on 21st May 2004

RE syllabuses are local, based on gatherings of committees called SACRES, but there is an attempt by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to bring everything to one standard. They are available on local authority websites.
S says: "archetypes are predispositions to certain common kinds of imagery, based on recurring human situations and our basic biological similarity" - well that is what I am disputing, and I am sure these images are claimed to build and internalise and to become common and I am not sure this is so. Still, he was positive about religion and imagery unlike Freud.
The point here (I'd want to stress) is that something of the God resides here, as it does in Pagan polytheism, and there is no divorce between this and the monotheism of Christianity.
Talking about other faiths, one thing where I agree with the Sikhs is the Muslim's need to face Makkah, and the Ka'bah and Black Stone. We are told the story that Abraham or Ibrahim built the Ka'bah with Ishmael, his son from Hajar. But it does not tie in with the story that Abraham rejected the stones and carvings of his father in the pursuit of one God. Why was he suddenly handling a stone, a meteorite? There is, I suggest, Paganism right at the heart of Islam, not quite rejected, an oddity. I give no history at all to Abraham at Makkah, and I doubt this figure even existed anyway, but as a story it is just inconsistent. Nevertheless it is an example of continuity with Paganism whether or not the Black Stone is the symbol of one God or not. And the container of the stone is rather vulva like in shape, which is another oddity. Perhaps these symbols are rather too powerful for their complete rejection, so that gets us back to Freud and Jung, and to an understanding of God.

Posted to Surefish at 19:34 on 22nd May 2004

What you say Spacedog (Andrew) about Jung carries credibility about it, that he did not fix it up into a system. Most accounts present it as a system.
Paganism is not a term of abuse or near, it is the term for the religion or collection of religions or religious and magical practices. It means local religion. Hinduism is, but for its philosophical element, a form of Paganism. Feminist theology is influenced by Paganism, especially considering the input of people like Starhawk (Miriam Simos) and the ideas of networks of religion rather than pyramidal patriarchy.
Using the word Pagan is important, because it is used pejoratively, and like the word liberal (which I know you have commented upon) it is important to reclaim these words back to normal usage. So Paganism is descriptive, just as it is used by the Pagan Federation, and it should be regarded as a religious network in its own right. The point I have been making is that it is full of insights that other religions cannot and have not shaken off, and gives insight into understanding the term God.

Posted to Surefish at 01:01 on 23rd May 2004

Well for example a God who chooses what to do and what not to do as he pleases is certainly one model of God, amongst others. Think of what God does do and what he does not do (by this model). Suchis a deeply immoral view of God. This is the God who chose to do nothing during the holocaust, or the massacre in Rwanda, or the war across Yugoslavia, to save the victims. It is a God who may also have intervened so that unlikely events come true, if you believe in intervention rather than chance, and thus we have the rise of Ivan the Terrible, Lenin and Stalin, Hitler and so on. This is just to name large scale events, all human made, never mind those events of small scale, or those that are "natural" (although some of those have human origins). If God intervened in history in any sense at all, this God has failed its moral duty, or is incapable of acting out of moral duty. This God has done the wrong things, and has failed to do the right things, as well as whatever else this God has done or not done.
It is no good such a God producing a Gospel, or killing part of its own deity, and in effect putting on a show, if the continued result is human misery.
This is why there are many other models of God, and indeed even to death of God theologies where the metaphors are radically changed. My view is that God is a human projection where a certain amount of freedom follows, but that of a cultural object. That projection is part of traditions; the traditions define God rather than the other way around. This is the case with Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism - and we have been discussing the samsaric nature of deity in Buddhism and whether this does or does not include a different construction of God.
Every statement is a theological statement, and every one has implications. The suffering God is a far better model, one that derives from an interpretation of the Jesus events in the context of the Bible before, and related to claims of the earliest Christian communities. But there are necessary additions to such a God, in my view to remove the supernatural metaphors and bring them back to experience and understanding the stories we live by.
Clearly I do not think a God "acted" in history over and above us; God rather is a sum of meaning that derives from how we understood our actions. That God has suffered and that God has glimpses of hope.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful