It’s no secret that traditional ideas of God are foundering in response to modern political and social realities. Religion itself is under heavy suspicion, and even perhaps has become the “scapegoat” of the modern world, as Karen Armstrong argues in Fields of Blood. It’s easy to blame religion wholesale for violence, especially when people who commit violence offer up religious reasons for doing so. In the words of Mark Juergensmeyer, the leading expert on religious violence, “Virtually every instance of terrorism in recent years has evoked a God who is perceived to be engaged in cosmic warfare.”
Yet even if we limit ourselves just to Western culture, all around us there exist understandings of God and religion that do not imagine a cosmic war. Nigel Leaves in The God Problem offers a different but perhaps complementary take on religion and violence to Armstrong. “People have moved on in their thinking and the Church is mired with thought-forms of a forgotten age,” he says (3). When a myth is transplanted from its original context into a new one, the original myth may “no longer hold currency.” He identifies four alternatives to fundamentalism: panentheism, non-realism, grassroots spirituality, and religious naturalism.
- Panentheists see God as an all-encompassing spirit, not separate from the world but surpassing the world we know.
- Non-realists see God as a human concept that remains a potentially useful metaphor when stripped of supernaturalism.
- Grassroots spirituality refers to the massive variety of new spiritual movements that have in common a disinterest in formal church or institutionalization.
- Religious naturalists use the word God to point to a view of the earth as sacred; that is, God represents whatever aspects of nature that are viewed by a person as sacred.
New Zealand theologian Lloyd Geering is a major contributor to the non-realist movement and, to some extent, the religious naturalist movement as well. His latest book Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic mingles Geering’s own dramatic personal story with a sweeping history of human concepts of God. Through vignettes of key thinkers, including Schleiermacher, Feuerbach, Jung, Teilhard de Chardin, and Robinson, Geering offers readers an opportunity to explore the regions where an individual’s intellectual and/or spiritual journey touches on human concepts of God.
Belief in God, as Geering understands it, “like all beliefs, is human in origin and expression, and not only do human beliefs and opinions continually change as cultures develop, but this particular belief has never been universal to all humankind” (26). Even though Geering understands belief in God to be entirely human, he does not simply abandon the concept. The concept serves an important purpose for human beings—as a marker for what deserves our reverence.
It’s tempting to jump away from the messiness of religion entirely by reaching for some form of non-religion, often described under the umbrella term secularism. This is not quite as simple an escape as it seems, however. “For [Geering] secularism is not, as usually portrayed, the opposite of religion,” writes Leaves, “Rather, it is his contention that secularism has evolved out of Christianity in the same way that Christianity evolved out of Judaism” (43).
Along the same vein, Armstrong cautions against fooling ourselves into believing we can just swap secular structures for the structures religion has offered over the centuries to help us cope with violence. This is especially visible in the attempt of the nation-state to take the place of the church. “Yet secularism has by no means been the end of the story,” she writes. “In some societies attempting to find their way to modernity, it has succeeded only in damaging religion and wounding psyches of people unprepared to be wrenched from ways of living and understanding that have always supported them.”
This is a complicated point. At least as I understand them, none of these authors is claiming that you can’t be secular. I don’t think they are saying it’s impossible to hold a non-religious point of view. Quite the opposite, in fact. Someone who holds a secular worldview (as I do) can feel a sense of continuity and even gratitude for the history that led up to it. We don’t have to throw out all that history, much of which contains valuable lessons. Christianity doesn’t belong only to the orthodox branch of its history; it can belong to its many other branches, too, including the four approaches described by Leaves above. We can own it, transform it, and carry forward whatever elements make the best sense of the world.
None of this excuses us from the fact that for innumerable human generations, religion was the tool we used to make sense of our very human discomfort with violence, even as we have succumbed to the allure of that violence. Call this our ethical imperative. That many of us now feel discomfort toward the word religion suggests it has acquired some of the very taint it was meant to direct into more productive forms. In response, Geering offers a vision of new religious rituals of the future that “will be based not only on our relationship to the natural world. They will also celebrate everything we have come to value in human existence, such as the importance of healthy human relationships and the rich inheritance of human culture” (230). These rituals are religious in the sense of assigning ultimate meaning to certain things; ultimate meaning, for human beings, need not depend on the actual existence of a supernatural deity.
This is one of two blog posts about the book Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic by Lloyd Geering, during the Patheos Book Club. There are several ways you can get involved in book discussions:
- Visit Patheos.com between November 1 and 15 for a free online book club with a variety of resources related to Reimagining God, including a full study guide.
- Use the comments section of this blog (below) to share your reflections on the book.
- For those fortunate enough to live in beautiful New Zealand, as Lloyd does, you can join the official book launch November 7th, 6:45 p.m., at St Andrews on the Terrace Church. More details here.
- There is also a study guide available for The God Problem, which you can download here.
Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.