Rae Litting, New South Wales Regional Meeting
The soul must journey to God by knowing God through what God is not, rather than by knowing what God is (St John of the Cross).
At the Yearly Meeting in Melbourne, a Friend called for a dialogue between theists and atheists and humanists. If St John of the Cross is right, the atheists have something to teach us. When people say that they do or do not believe in God, one can ask, ‘What can you tell me about this God in whom you do or do not believe?’
I have actually heard people say that they are atheists because they do not believe in an old man who sits in the sky. I don’t know any theists who believe in such an entity either, but perhaps the idea is out there somewhere. It is wonderfully satirised by Arnold Bennett in his novel The Old Wives’ Tale published in 1908. The author describes a service in a Wesleyan
And there floated before them, in the intense and prolonged silence, the clear vision of Jehovah on a throne, a God of sixty or so with a moustache and a beard, and a non-committal expression which declined to say whether or not he would require more bloodshed, and this God, destitute of pinions, was surrounded by white-winged creatures that wafted themselves to and fro while chanting, and afar off was an obscene monstrosity, with cloven hoofs and a tail, very dangerous
and rude and interfering, who could exist comfortably in the middle of a coal fire, and who took a malignant and exhaustless pleasure in coaxing you by false pretences into the same fire, but of course you had too much sense to swallow his wicked absurdities.
Leaving aside this image of God as a vigorous sixty year old, we can pass on to some other conceptions of God which are more current. One of these is God as an author of sacred texts.
Of course different groups have different sacred texts, and people interpret these texts in different ways. However, the concept of God which they all hold is fairly consistent. This God speaks, on rare occasion, through chosen people. What these people write down is ‘The Word of God’, and it is a sufficient guide to living and understanding the world. The religions based on these texts can become very legalistic, and often it seems that their God has a peculiar interest in what people eat and wear at the expense of the weightier matters of the spirit. A lot of
effort is put into reading these texts in the original language, in which God was felt to be more comfortable, and translations are considered to be inferior.
You will gather that I am an atheist in respect of this God. I could argue against this view of the divine by pointing out deficiencies in the texts, but even if the texts were free from error I would argue that it is nonsense to regard them as the Word of God. All human languages are based on human experience and understanding. Many texts describe God as the creator of the world, and the experience and understanding of that creator must be totally different from ours, and the language of the creator could not be anything like the language of the created. Most of the great mystics find that they encounter God in silence, because in the presence of the divine our
language is inadequate. To try to fossilise our experience of the divine in a few sacred texts is to diminish that experience, and to diminish the reality which gave rise to it.
For other people, God is that which explains what we do not understand. This is sometimes called the God of the Gaps — God is used to explain those things which we don’t know, like the origins of the universe or the origin of life. The danger of this approach is that as we learn more, God is diminished. Of course to some extent as we learn more, we realise how much we don’t know. But many of these things which we don’t know (the number of species on the face of the earth, for example) are in theory knowable.
This God, as the explanation of the unexplained, is also the performer of miracles. By miracles I mean not just things which are wonderful, but things which are contrary to the normal laws for
the operation of the universe. The miracle-performing God may appear very powerful and wonderful, but unfortunately does not appear to be just. For every story of a good and pious person who prayed and was saved from a terrible illness, we can find plenty of stories of equally good and pious people whose prayers were not answered. We can even find examples of quite
impious people who suddenly recovered from illness without the aid of prayer. If God can perform miracles, why so few? In respect of this God also, I am an atheist.
By now it must be clear that when we talk about God, we are talking in metaphors. We have no language to describe the divine. I’d like to look at some metaphors which I find more helpful. The first is God as Creator. I am no scientist, and there are many better able than I to answer questions about conflicts between science and religion. My own rather simple way of looking at it is as follows. You could explain a work of art by describing the dimensions of the canvas, the chemical components of the paints, and the techniques whereby the paint is applied.
None of this would answer the big questions: why did the artist paint this picture? What does it mean? What are the qualities which make it great or worthless?
I see science as trying to answer the questions of process, theology as trying to answer the questions of purpose. The two disciplines may often proceed in parallel, but of course they may not actually contradict each other. So for example, if the painting is plainly one metre by two, it is no good producing documentary evidence that the painter intended it to be square.
In a similar fashion, we may not produce a theology which plainly contradicts the evidence of our eyes and ears. When I read about the Big Bang, I like to think this is the universe spilling out of the mind of God. Another image I like is that God is the page on which the universe is written.
The Hindus speak of the universe as a manifestation of God. God is not separate from the universe, but the sustaining power which makes it possible.
I think some people find the idea of God as creator rather alarming — they imagine a creator as a domineering and controlling force. But we all have some experience of creating something in this world — whether a painting, a cake, a bookcase or a piece of music. Without the creator these things would never come into being, and yet the finished product is seldom exactly what we had in mind when we started. As we work, we interact with the thing created, in some measure we are changed by it. If God is an artist, the universe is a work in progress. We can contribute in some small way to this act of creation.
Now for the tricky one — God as judge. I think we all, at a very deep level, desire the universe to be just.
We want to believe that our urge to make the world a more just place comes from a profound moral reality, and not from mere illusions and wishful thinking. On the other hand, we often attribute to God qualities seen in earthly rulers — an obsessive interest in their own dignity and
status, vengefulness, even cruelty.
The Eastern religions tend to see justice as a natural outcome — as ye sow, so shall ye reap. If you live badly in this life, you will suffer more in the next, but eventually you should get it right. But the Middle Eastern religions often depict God as punisher — sometimes God is said to punish in this life by sending calamities and wars; after death he is said to divide people into two
neat groups, one of which will be eternally rewarded and one eternally punished. Many people are rightly repelled by this idea. After all, most religions see God as not only just, but compassionate.
And this brings us to the concept of God in the New Testament — as the one who loves, the father of his people, the husband of his church. George Ellis in the Backhouse Lecture speaks of the world having a moral framework, and the essence of that framework is self-sacrificing love. This is not a statement subject to scientific proof, but living as though it were true seems to lead to a life that is joyful and meaningful.
Does it matter if we believe in God or not? In some ways it probably doesn’t. To me it is a bit like believing in gravity — what you believe doesn’t change the nature of the universe. If a person said they didn’t believe in gravity because they couldn’t get their head around the concept, that would be a reasonable and honest position to take. And the behaviour of people who do and don’t believe in gravity is much the same — they both avoid throwing themselves off high places, knowing they will fall downwards.
In the same way, people who say they do not believe in God may try to live by high moral standards, respond to beauty, and occasionally have a sense that there is something that transcends the reality of every day. Equally, many people who claim to believe in God may be self-righteous, petty, or cruel. It does not even follow that people with a more sophisticated concept of God always live better lives than those with a stunted or silly view of God. I have met some wonderfully compassionate people who believe God made the world in six days.
For me, the advantage of believing in some kind of transcendent and moral reality — even though I can’t really get my mind around it — is that it leads me to make time for spiritual practices, and at different times the belief can be both a challenge and a consolation. It also leads me to seek out a spiritual community which can support me and through which I can work for the good of others. But then again, we have atheists who come to Friends for very similar reasons.
I do not believe that God rewards us for believing, or punishes us for non-belief. We can only believe in the truth as we see it.