Is the concept of God still viable for the future? What do we mean when we say "God"? In my last blog post I introduced four alternatives to fundamentalism from Nigel Leaves' The God Problem, among which Leaves placed respected New Zealand theologian Lloyd Geering among the non-realists and religious naturalists. In this blog post, readers respond both to Geering and to this problem of God language as part of the ongoing book club hosted by Patheos.com that ends November 15th.
It's not too late to submit your thoughts on Reimagining God by Lloyd Geering. You can simply respond in the comments section below or send us a message containing your thoughts on the Westar Facebook page. Comments will be highlighted in whole or in part in another roundtable next week.
Kicking us off, Jim High offers these comments on the problem of authority:
We live in the age of changing authority, and I believe this is why our language has and is changing. We no longer have a central place (The Bible) where all authority comes from. Our understanding of God is also undergoing drastic change because science and evolution shows us a quite different world and God from what we find in the old authority of the Bible. Within Christianity and all other beliefs there are many new ideas about Life, Oneness and our connections to all that exists in the Universe from which Life emerged. Maybe we will never again have a single Authority as we once did. Maybe that is a good thing, but for sure only we humans have control over what happens in the future, good or bad.
While the problem of authority doesn't come up explicitly in Reimagining God that I can recall, it certainly underpins the stories of theologians like Ludwig Feuerbach and Bishop John Robinson, whose work erupted in public controversy precisely because they cracked the authority-giving veneer of the reigning religious views in their respective eras. In his discussion of Feuerbach in chapter 4, Geering writes, "Even today ... those who are most convinced that God is an objective being external to them are the most certain that they know exactly what God thinks and desires on any issue" (69). At the end of chapter 7 on Robinson, he goes on, "The theistic image of God has got to go. It was too small, too human, too personal, and too objective. 'God' remains as a symbol, should we choose to use it, that both refers to all that transcends us and points to the unity of the universe we live in" (113). It is no wonder that the "too human, too personal, too objective" qualities of our concept of God has proven most devastating to the authority God traditionally held in Western culture.
A natural question from a specifically Christian angle in response to this authority issue becomes, "What about Jesus?" How does Jesus, both as an historical figure open to anyone and as a divine Christ figure of the church, appear in modern conversations about God? Gene Stecher says:
I’ve never quite understood how ‘no God’ or ‘impersonal God’ fits with the ‘human Jesus.’ What we’re really saying is that if Jesus lived today, when the three tiered universe and ‘spatial’ God has been rationally eliminated, God would not be part of his belief or language system. How would anyone know that? The thing is, if the gospels tell us anything about the human Jesus it is that his belief and language system included a personal God. Do we really know that in today’s world, for him, rationality would obliterate intuitive, revelatory, relational, and other forms of knowing what is ‘whole’ and ‘ultimate,’ ‘personal and impersonal.’ It’s just another case of making Jesus and God in our own image. Going along with this is the notion that Jesus ‘ teachings can somehow exist on their own apart from his deity orientation. His teachings re-present the kingdom of God. They are not isolated nuggets of wisdom raising rationality to its own level of divinity.
Stecher points to the problem of plucking Jesus out of his own era and dropping him into our own specifically as a way to support modern ideas of God. Karen King, in chapter 3 of What Is Gnosticism?, which we've also been reading on this blog, pinpoints this same problem in the highly influential theology of Adolf von Harnack. "Harnack appears to have done with paganism what the polemicists did in the Christian construction of Judaism," she writes. "[Harnack] appropriated all the positive characteristics of pagan thought (such as universalism, rational philosophy, monotheistic piety, and ethics) for true Christianity, while attributing all the negative characteristics (superstition, myth, polytheism, cultic practice) to his opponents, in this case Catholics" (68). Geering suggests an alternative that still carries forward what we find meaningful from the teachings of Jesus, not on the authority of his name but on its own merits: "The value of Christian teaching must be judged not by appeal to divine revelation but to its own inherent capacity to win conviction and obedience. ... Even such so-called teachings of Jesus as we find in the Sermon on the Mount must be valued not because they were spoken by Jesus Christ, but for their inherent capacity to convey to us the ring of truth" (161).
This problem in part arises from the situatedness of ideas in their cultural and historical context. Jamie Spencer, author of Fictional Religion (Polebridge, 2011), gives a nod to Geering's explanation of this phenomenon:
I have read Geering’s book with delight. Here are some quotes that particularly spoke to me. 1)“The modern world is no longer Christian …[but]… it holds in high regard the moral values, aspirations and social mores it has inherited from its Christian matrix.” 2) “We are all products of language-based cultures, and every religion is clothed in a specific language and expressed in a particular set of verbal symbols. This is one important reason why the medieval church was reluctant to allow the bible to be translated into the vernacular, and why Islam refuses to allow any translations of the Qur’an.”
Norman K. Bakken, Ph.D., retired pastor and professor of the Lutheran Church in America, offers up what might be called a panentheistic understanding of the divine for today, one that points us toward whatever it is that manages to transcend the particularity of time and space:
In our age imagining God is no option. What we can imagine is the creative spark of life that is present in all things, a life stream coming with every breath we take, every drop of moisture, every exposure to light, however dim or uncertain. Life is sacred, as are all things and all people. What we must search for is the distinguishing uniqueness of all that is, and every person we meet, so that together we may celebrate an evolving understanding of what life is all about, and what potential humans have in promoting its care and well being. Jesus was part of that "I AM", and we are part of that as well. Our problem arises when we forget who we are and who every other is and represents, more, much more, than we can imagine.
As with Bakkan, several respondents turned their attention to the practical ramifications of arguments about the concept of God, not the least of which is the basic question, "Does it even matter?" How far can such arguments take us? Dennis Dean Carpenter writes,
Gods are irrelevant. When fundamentalists realize you realize this and that you are just as inflexible as they are, the conversation turns to the more relevant and important things in life, like good barbecue and the garden.
Religion doesn’t need gods to abuse. It has people of other faiths.
I remember having several conversations with students when I was teaching community college courses on ethics, to the effect that the existence or non-existence of God could only carry a person's ethics so far before it was time to turn to the nitty-gritty details of decision-making. For Geering, ethics encompasses "the ongoing evolution of all cultural norms" (170). He roots ethics not in questions about the existence of God but in human life: "Values such as love, justice, truth, compassion and social harmony ... supply the raw material for ethics because they arise from the human condition" (180). In short, with or without God, we still have to grapple with ethics, and arguably it is ethics that has the greater impact on human relations, including those among the world religions.
Robert Rock visits this topic in this excerpt from a letter he sent to Lloyd Geering:
What I’m trying to do here is to point out, based on the surprising number of historical references in your book, the uncommonly great effect that even the smallest sense of interpersonal relatedness of love and honesty and trust between has on each of us when it comes to experiencing something perceivable as divinity—“God”—“self awareness”—“love”—“inner peace”. And I’m using the smallest, least noticeable (i.e., daily relations) because they appear to be at the core of Jesus’ teaching—a special quality in daily human relating. Example: the fact that you cared to respond to my initial inquiry—leaves me feeling more whole than if you ignored me. I could go on with endless examples of personal encounters that contribute to steady, mutual soul growth, and those that diminish it. I’ll end however with just one more—namely a typical church (Synagogue, Mosque) in which the lives of its people are too often permanently diminished due to ongoing unresolved emotional and intellectual conflicts regarding mutual human trust, respect, honesty, affection, love, misunderstanding—millions of tiny skirmishes—never resolved and festering away at souls, diminishing the otherwise spiritual maturation of its participants.
What I am not saying is to give up all other religious disciplines and concentrate only on human relations. I am saying that all the ways in which we presently attempt to create an atmosphere of “God”, of spirit, of things higher and greater than we—are important—liturgy, song, prayer, confession, meditation, Bibles, Korans, pot lucks, social events—all are important. But if we forget the importance of a constant courageous honesty (toward onesself as well as collectively)—trust, “love”, affection, in all of these, our individual and collective spiritual maturation remains stagnated. This is what I see you have emphasized through your many historical quotations in your book. Now how to more effectively define this special spiritual quality of human relatedness, (you have used the phrase “global spirituality”) and how to live it in community is the next needed thesis.
As you imply—it’s not so much that God is guiding us, as much as it is us, collectively, employing that which has been provided us. Do the words: "Wherever two or more are gathered ... " take on a new meaning?
Rose Keister carries this question forward in the form of a question about the future of the church, a common theme I've also heard raised at Westar events. She writes:
Lloyd Geering is a national treasure although the country is New Zealand. His talk to Christchurch on YouTube is almost a map of where Christianity should be heading at least in his opinion. He is speaking to a filled Church about beliefs that include a lack of a personal God, Jesus as wholly human, supernatural world and no afterlife. Geering still finds value in the church but I believe many people are recognizing that Christianity and religion, doctrine and dogma are not the core of what people find valuable there.
From tribal beginnings through agricultural fertility cults through the mythologies and first state religions and only then through Judaism and Christianity, the core has always been the community gathering for a meal, dancing, celebrations but also mourning. I keep thinking about a community gathering and what that might mean in a post-Church era.
In an interview on the radio program Religion for Life, Lloyd Geering responds to a question about the future of rituals and worship: "We need to celebrate togetherness, and I think the value of congregational worship is that it brings people together to form a community, a unity, a body of people who are sharing the faith they have. ... The other aspect I want to emphasize is that instead of focusing in our minds on some imagined picture of God and heaven ... we need to focus upon the universe itself and upon nature. It's interesting to note that our chief festivals, which were first of all Judaized and then Christianized, actually all began as nature festivals. ... Indeed, in many ways that's what we need to return to, but they won't simply be returning to what they used to be in the ancient world. They'll be doing it in a way which is consistent with how we see the world today."
This blog posts is part of the book club on Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic by Lloyd Geering, hosted by Patheos.com. There are several ways you can get involved in book discussions:
- Visit Patheos.com between November 1 and 15 for free online 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.
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.
Ancient Christians thought of God as an absolute, unchanging essence, based on the thought of the philosopher Plato. This underpins our concepts of the Trinity and even the salvation story of Jesus's death and resurrection. But with the rise in the Middle Ages of nominalism, a new philosophy that emphasizes language over substance, the ancient view of God began to fall apart. Christianity is still struggling to pick up the pieces. Here David Galston, Ecumenical Chaplain at Brock University and author of Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity, describes this problem in more detail. He explores different attempts to save or defend God against the problems presented by modern thinking, and introduces some ideas for moving forward with the historical Jesus.
David Galston presented the above talk during the Once and Future God Session of the "Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies?" conference, sponsored by the Westar Institute in October 2013. He refers a couple times to the God Seminar: this is a new project by scholars affiliated with Westar that is still in the planning stages. You can also watch a discussion of the future of Christianity from this same session.
The lecture is available as five separate video clips. You can watch all five continuously below, or visit the YouTube playlist to browse different topics.
The video above is an excerpt from the Once and Future God session of Westar Institute's Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies? Conference (October 2013). Westar Fellows David Galston, Joseph Bessler, Jarmo Tarkki, and John C. Kelly discussed with attendees topics including God language and the future of Christianity in post-modern society. Following an audience member's question about whether human beings are "hardwired" for spirituality, the conversation turned to why so many people are living more secular, "a-religious" lives. To learn more about The Once and Future God, you can visit a summary of the day-long session and explore the timeline of live updates from the session below.*
*Please note that while every effort was made to present the material of the session accurately, the Twitter updates above are compressed summaries and should not be interpreted as the speakers' exact statements.
What is the future of God? How can we talk about God, and what do we mean by that word in a postmodern, perhaps even post-atheist world? With these questions Westar Fellows Joseph Bessler, author of A Scandalous Jesus: How Three Historic Quests Changed Theology for the Better, and David Galston, author of Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity, kicked off the first day of Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies? with "The Once and Future God" at the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa, California. As Joseph Bessler said, "We are living without an end to the story" of what life means, individually and communally. Bessler and Galston, with insights from conference participants and presiders Jarmo Tarkki and John Kelly, tackled this very modern problem by exploring how earlier generations have confronted and explained God conceptually.
Christian Theology's Debt to Plato
Early Christians recognized that the significance of Jesus required a wider context than a simple narrative of his life and teachings. They cast the life of Jesus through the lens of the life of Socrates, which we can see in texts such as 1 Corinthians 1-3, in which Paul is confronted with the problem that the cross is a "scandal" - humiliation in the extreme - in Roman culture. He needed to give the cross a new meaning. To kill Christ was to kill a wise one, and this was something Hellenistic culture had done 500 years earlier, with Socrates. Even the condemnation of the State could not undo Socrates; so, too, the Christ.
It is important to understand that Plato, the student of Socrates, created a foundation for Christianity that lasted over a thousand years, so much so that Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) would later describe Christianity as "Platonism for the masses." Plato's theory of the Forms enabled Christians to articulate that appearances are different from reality. What seems like a scandal is in fact, the power of God. There's a sort of longing in Platonism that translates into Christianity, too - a longing, perhaps, for stability. While we can participate in ultimate reality from a Platonic perspective, it's "shadows all the way down." Without guidance, we cannot fully grasp reality. According to Plato, we can reach ultimate reality through reason, which is reliable with proper training. The Christian theologian Augustine would later argue differently, that we cannot reach ultimate reality (God) because of moral fault brought about through moral freedom. This necessitated a savior, the Christ.
God: The Modern Problem
The Platonic view of reality dominated until the 13th or 14th century, when the West shifted toward nominalism, a focus on words and the relationships among words. We have a concept of something not because we know the Form but because we experienced it: a horse is a horse because I saw one, experienced it, and named it. In a world like this, God is free of nature ... and nature is free of God. This shift in thinking about reality simultaneously opened up theology for Protestant revolutionaries and nature for scientists.
This transition didn't come without losses, however. We can no longer have a transcendental relationship with the universe anymore; we now experience the universe as all there is. What happens to the idea of Jesus if he does not participate in the eternal substance of God? We woke up to the notion that the historical Jesus is really very, very different from the Christ of theology. We are struggling in the wake of this transformation, brought about by modernity, to find the rhetoric for modern religious language.
Modern theologians have attempted to save God: they have explored God as the Word beyond word, God as a mystery in which we participate, God as pluralistic (liberation theology, feminist theology, queer theology), and God as the energy of becoming. All these models struggle with modern language about God. Buddhism offers some help in this situation, inasmuch as it expresses how the world arises all together in relation with everything else. All is defined by relationship, and this fact is experienced as liberating. But we have by no means resolved the issue.
God and the Quest for the Historical Jesus
As modern society gained historical consciousness, theologians like Martin Kahler set aside the historical Jesus as less important, less historic, than the Christ of faith. Theologians didn't do this arbitrarily; the various quests for the historical Jesus are marked by the sociocultural context in which each quest arose. While Kahler found the Christ of faith a better route, theologians like Reimarus and Strauss responded to the hostile environments of their times by appealing to the historical Jesus. The Christ of faith might be associated with princes, but the historical Jesus related with peasants and told parables that upended normal social expectations. The Christ of faith, which society embraced, stood for an important end; the historical Jesus spoke parables without aim, playful in Nietzsche's sense. This opened up the possibilities of Christian language.
Neitzche, too, found a role for the historical Jesus where he rejected the Christ of faith. Neitzche prioritized vitality, forging one's own path, as a direct response to the dominant Christian framework of his era. Neitzche's child, inspired by the historical Jesus, is the one who is open to experience and embodies the "eternal return." Jesus' parables break down the habits of everyday life in a similar way; the stories can be humorous, but they have an edge to them. They are critical. The child, too, is about creativity, critical imagination, seeing things differently. That is the challenge of theology today. Perhaps God as a metaphor has run its course. We need to reawaken our language. The historical Jesus succeeded at that.
A Way Forward
Conference participants asked a variety of questions about the way forward. What role can mystical and ecstatic religious experiences play in our language of God? How do individuals like David Galston and Joseph Bessler, who are both affiliated with particular religious communities, make new language "work" within those communities? What questions will be addressed by the emerging God Seminar?
Want to know more? You can see a video clip and Twitter timeline of live updates from The Once and Future God Q&A Session. Follow @WestarInstitute on Twitter to get updates about future Westar events and projects.
Westar Institute fosters collaborative, cumulative research in religious studies and communicates the results of the scholarship to a broad, non-specialist public.