Monday, 1 July 2013

A complete philosophy of religion in 1000 words

From time to time, I find myself conducting a service with a lot of people who have no church or religious background at all, and very little knowledge of Christian belief.  Rather than say creeds that are full of jargon, I try to open up the world of Christian thinking about ‘life, the Universe and everything’ in as few carefully chosen words as I can.  Here’s the most recent attempt — slightly expanded.

When we talk about ‘God’ (capital ‘G’) we are not talking about something that may or may not be real, something that may or may not ‘exist’.  Indeed, to talk about God ‘existing’ doesn't quite make sense.  God is the word we use for the reason why anything ‘exists’ at all.  God is whatever causes reality as we know it.

So to say ‘there is no God’ is either to say ‘there is no Reality’ (but that would be stupid — wouldn’t it?) or ‘Reality has no cause’ (which seems a bit weird), or ‘even if Reality did once have a cause we will never know what that was so there’s no point talking about it’.  If that works for you, fine, but me, I’m interested in what Reality’s like so I can work out how to live my life — and die my death.  It seems more likely to me that whatever was the first cause of Reality is still holding existence in being, and will be at the end of the Universe (if there is one).

One thing we can definitely say about God — if we’re to use the word properly — is that God cannot (by definition) be a product of our imaginations any more than reality is a product of our imaginations (but see footnote).  Why? Because to worship something that our minds have conjured up or imagined is what the ancients called ‘idolatry’ — worshipping something you’ve ‘made’ — and that was absolutely forbidden.  If we’re worshipping a product of our imaginations, then by definition we’re not worshipping God but something else (and the Bible suggests that’s a dangerous thing to do).

In fact, because we’re human, we can only ever worship a product of our imaginations, but we need to recognise that that’s what we’re doing and keep ourselves continually on the alert for signs of false-god-worship.  (That’s why the first Christians were persecuted for being ‘atheists’.  They wouldn’t acknowledge the Roman emperor as one of the gods, which was nonsensical to a lot of people, quite apart from being traitorous.)

I suppose you could say, though, that whatever God is like, we and all of reality are a product of God’s imagination!

The key question, then, is not whether God ‘exists’ or not.  That is a meaningless question.  It’s rather like a fish debating whether water exists.  The question is — what is God like?  What is Reality like?  Here are some possibilities :

  • Is there only one Reality or many, for instance?  Is there a ‘this world’, and ‘another (spiritual or ideal) world’?  (Groups that believed that caused the early Christians a lot of trouble, and were eventually ejected from the Church).  The central affirmation shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims is, “Hear, O Israel : the Lord your God, the Lord is One”
  • Is Reality basically mechanical, and only understandable in terms of physics theory? (Bear in mind that physicists are having trouble finding a single set of theories that make sense of the whole Universe).  Are human beings the only point at which the Universe has feelings, and are those feelings just meaningless processes going on in our brains?
  • Is the Universe basically human-friendly or is it out to kill us unless we stop it?  Should we just accept whatever comes, or should we ‘barter’ with God, try to outmanÅ“uvre the workings of the Universe?
  • Does everything in the Universe sort of hang together in a balanced way, making sense; or is the Universe a chaos of different forces competing with each other, some horrible, some beautiful, with no overall purpose?

For most of human history, religion has probably been based on the last of these beliefs : that it’s chaos out there — that there are many competing ‘invisible forces’.  That the gods are cruel and fickle, always at war with one another and not basically interested in human beings.  And that we have to attract their attention with our rituals and buy them off with sacrifices.  (That doesn’t just apply to ancient civilisations.  The same sort of religion, for instance, is practised by those who think The Free Market  is some unchallengeable principle that must be appeased if society is to flourish — appeased with ‘human sacrifices’ if necessary.  It’s just that the language is different).

The Jews who later became known as Christians, however, had what they called a ‘gospel’ — meaning ‘Good News’ — which, they claimed, rendered this sort of religion redundant.

This Good News is there throughout the Bible, but it is revealed most clearly in the shape of a human being — Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus’s followers came to believe that in Jesus they were seeing what God is like.  (That is to say, what the one Reality is like, deep down.)

The Good News is that ‘God is One’ and ‘God is Love’.

This doesn’t sound very ‘news’, does it?  It sounds like a statement of the obvious.  Of course ‘God is love’!

Of course?  There’s absolutely no ‘of course’ about it!  When you look at Reality, where’s the evidence?  It’s a crazy claim to make — not least by people whose holy prophet was tortured to death — and the early Christians were understandably ridiculed for it.  Reality, surely, is harsh, chaotic?  ‘Life’s a bitch, then you die’.  Better burn a pinch of incense on an altar to ward the gods off, in the hope that they’ll be nice to us — or at least leave us alone.  Where’s the evidence that ‘God is love’?

The evidence is Jesus.  That is the reason why Christians dare to claim that the deepest Reality loves us.  How it is that Jesus is ‘evidence’ is another story.

footnote : Since we can only ever experience reality in our minds I suppose you could say reality itself is ‘imaginary’.  Whilst that might keep us humble by reminding us that everything is to some extent subjective — that is, that every person experiences and interprets reality differently — I'm not sure quite how far that gets us.  It’s quite good at challenging dominating single ideologies, but its danger is that we end up imagining that only ‘objective’ science can say anything sensible about reality, which is pretty much what we’ve ended up doing.

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