Godtalk: The Case for God


A Tree at dusk used from unsplash.com

Most people think that the concept of God should be easy and that religion ought to be readily accessible to anybody. But in fact, it is hard to think about God.  Many find this puzzling. Surely everybody knows what God is: the Supreme Being, a divine Personality, who created the world and everything in it.

They look perplexed if you point out that it is inaccurate to call God the Supreme Being because God is not a’ being’ at all, and that we really don't fully know what we mean when we say that he is 'good', 'wise' or 'intelligent'. People of faith know in theory that God is utterly transcendent, but they seem  to assume that they know exactly who 'he' is and what he thinks, loves and expects.

We tend to tame and domesticate God's 'otherness'. We regularly ask God to bless our nation, save our  Queen, cure our sickness or give us a fine day for the picnic.  Politicians quote God to justify their policies, and terrorists commit atrocities in his name. We beg God to support 'our' side in an election or a war, even though our opponents are also God's children and the object of his love and care.

There is also a tendency to assume that, even though we now live in a totally transformed world and have an entirely different world-view, people have always thought about God in exactly the same way as we do today. But despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our religious thinking is sometimes remarkably undeveloped, even primitive.

In some ways the modern God resembles the God of remote antiquity; a theology that was either jettisoned or radically reinterpreted because it was found to be inept. Many people in the  pre-modern world knew that it was very difficult indeed to speak about God.  Some of the greatest Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians made it clear that while it was important to put our ideas about the divine into words, these doctrines were man-made and, therefore, were bound to be inadequate.

They devised spiritual exercises that deliberately subverted normal patterns of thought and speech to help the faithful understand that the words we use to describe mundane things were simply not suitable for God. 'He' was not good, divine, powerful or intelligent in any way that we could understand.

We could not even say that God 'existed', because our concept of existence was too limited. Some of the sages preferred to say that God was 'Nothing' because God was not another being. You certainly could not read your scriptures literally, as if they referred to divine facts.

In most pre-modern cultures, there were two recognised ways of thinking, speaking and acquiring knowledge. The Greeks called them mythos and logos.  Both were essential and neither was considered superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary.

Each had its own sphere of competence. Logos (science)  was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function effectively in the world. It had to correspond accurately to external reality.   

Logos was forward-looking, continually on the lookout for new ways of controlling the environment, improving old insights or inventing something fresh.   Logos was essential to human survival. But it had its limitations: it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life's struggles. For that, people turned to mythos or 'myth'.

Today we live in a society of scientific logos and myth has fallen into disrepute.  In popular parlance, a 'myth' is something that is not true. But in the past, myth was not self-indulgent fantasy; rather, like logos, it helped people to live creatively in our confusing world, though in a different way.    

A myth was never intended as an accurate account of a historical event; it was something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time. Yet a myth would not be effective if people simply 'believed' in it. It was essentially a programme of action. It could put us in the correct spiritual or psychological posture but it is up to us to take the next step and make the 'truth' of the myth a reality in our own life.

“No one has seen God: it is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”  John 1.18   The Good News is that in Christ Jesus we have the incarnation of God.   He shows us what God is like and what we can become with his help.  Through him, with him and in him, we find the fullness of life we were created to enjoy.

Peter Knott SJ