Historical questions about the Bible can be very specific. What did Jesus really say? What date should be given the book of Acts? But when it comes to “God questions”—the meaning of God, the existence of God, the future of God—the ground shifts from critical history to metaphysical quandary. Where does one even begin? Yet a Seminar on God cannot be dismissed lightly, for there is an important sense in which God is every bit as historical as Jesus was, perhaps in a certain sense even more so. God is historical in the sense that God is rhetorical—the product of the language used to speak about God. Language contains its own history and is the witness to an era’s concerns and outlooks. God-language is embedded in history and is the archaeological evidence of theological systems.

Westar founder Robert W. Funk described God as the oncoming future. The inspiration for the Seminar on God and the Human Future is the question of the oncoming future of religion with humanity after the historical Jesus. Scholarship today largely assumes that religion and religious dogma are human creations arising from culture, language, and tradition. It is this basic assumption that allowed for the study of Jesus and the Bible as historical phenomena independently of religious traditions and beliefs. The question concerning God studied independently of belief is indeed a very different kind of task from that of the historical Jesus, but this seminar maintains that such a study can be undertaken with two key insights: that God-language is a phenomenon of history, and that the question concerning God is a question about the human understanding of life. To see both these questions as “the oncoming future” is to raise the need to address the future of religion and its value for humanity.

The Historical God

The concept of God is historical because, like any concept, God is mediated through human language. Language not only holds the form of thought, and thus outlines or sketches the horizon of thinking, but language also actively influences human thought as the mode of its production. These two aspects, holding thought and producing thought, are the “anticipating” (prolepsis) aspect of language and the “structuring” (episteme) aspect of language. Every era of history anticipates and structures ideas by way of its linguistic activity. In this sense, when it comes to an abstract concept like God, the concept in question is still very much a historical element of the human cultural experience packaged within the operations of language.

Language is not or should not be limited to the spoken or written word. Since language has an anticipating element and a structuring element, the sense of “language” includes architecture, political relationships, social stratification, governmental and private offices, profession status, etc. Any social location—such as an office that issues a Presidential Decree—through its power can produces an anticipating and structuring influence on reality. Such power is effectively “language.”  Every era and particular culture in human history expresses its activity of language, which is its form of power and knowledge.

Archaeological evidence, in this respect, is also significant. The physical traces of past cultures highlight the “normal” experience of the time, that is, the way in which reality was anticipated and structured. Caesar as a Son of God was part of normal experience in Roman imperial society. The power of the imperial cult shaped, if not produced, the major cultural experience, but it also made peculiar minor movements in religion and philosophy. When Christianity became the normal expression of Roman imperial power, it also cast (produced), in its form of anticipating and structuring reality, stigmas on minor movements now regarded as deviant before the normative language of orthodoxy. The idea of God in this respect can be seen as a social function, operating within both normal and transgressive forms of language.

The historical God, then, is both a linguistic and social function. This key insight is the foundation for the first considerations of the Seminar.

The Philosophical God

The idea that God is a creation (an event) of human language and culture emerged in the nineteenth century when God and religion became academic subjects of philosophy separate from the Church. Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72) and other so-called Left Hegelians (which included David Friedrich Strauss, 1808–74) were among the first to propose systematically, and not merely anecdotally, the way in which the concept of God, and by extension the rise of religion, is a human creation. They employed the best critical information of their time from technical science and literary studies to reach this conclusion. They were also among the first to understand that antiquity housed a fundamentally different concept of the universe and that when ancient people thought about God they thought about something different from what modern people think.

The second aspect of the Seminar on God and the Human Future is the introduction of modern concepts of science and the universe into the consideration of what God means and what the future of religion may hold. Religion might become obsolete as a value for human experience or it might undergo dramatic transformation. The Seminar will be open to both possibilities and even possibilities not presently anticipated when it addresses philosophy, God, and the history of philosophy with God. As the philosophical understanding of humanity and the cosmos has changed through empirical science (evolution and physics), positivistic philosophy (experience and logic), and hermeneutical philosophy (language and interpretation), so has the thinking about God changed. The Seminar will address new formations in theology and the philosophy of religion in light of dramatic changes in human understanding.

God and philosophy form a second foundation for the Seminar when it considers transformations in modern philosophical thought and what these transformations may imply for the future.

The Goal of the Seminar

The goal of the Seminar is to arrive at a comprehensive understanding of the history of God with humanity and then to explore the future of humanity with God. Several questions result: what is the value of religion for humanity? Does God have a future; if so, in what changed or altered way? How is theology changed in light of the new approaches to “the historical God” and “the philosophical God” outlined above?

To do its work, the Seminar will proceed through a series of phases presently expressed as follows:

Phases of the Seminar on God and the Human Future

Phase I
Social History and the Idea of God

Phase II
The Enlightenment and the Trouble with God

Phase III
The Death of God as the Death of Metaphysics

Phase IV
The Historical Jesus and Post Metaphysical Gods

Phase V
God Language in a Post-Religious World

Phase VI
Post-God or Re-God: What Lies Ahead?

Reports

The Seminar on God and the Human Future meets twice annually, with additional work conducted online. Reports from the Seminar appear in Westar's magazine for members, The Fourth R.

You can also read more frequent but informal reports on the Westar blog.

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