On several occasions on this blog I have attempted to describe my religious beliefs. I describe myself as being religious and as being a non-theist. I describe myself as a Quaker but not a Christian. However I still find “God language” useful and meaningful to me. For myself, God is a metaphor, or perhaps more accurately an envelope that holds those ideals I value highly – fairness, compassion, social justice, kindness all rank highly. However, someone else may value obedience, adherence to rules, an eye for an eye, conformity. Whatever values one holds as being most important, that is what is contained within the envelope I choose to call God.
As an aside, I would argue that in fact even those who wish to believe in God as a supernatural being, also do exactly what I do, except they have come to believe that the envelope is the all important bit, worthy of worship itself – something beyond themselves. By doing so, they see the contents contained within as characteristics of the container. The outcome is that the contents are no longer open to question or revision.
What many of my readers may not be aware of is that Christianity today is less liberal than it was a century ago or even in my youth. Theological Liberalism remained the driving force of Christianity in Aotearoa New Zealand until the last quarter of the twentieth century. Since then, Liberal Christianity, along with it’s younger relative Progressive Christianity have faced a greater challenge from conservatism, Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism..
Those same forces have had a 50 year advantage in the USA, having gained momentum in the first quarter of the twentieth century. It is presumably why some comments from Americans regarding my attempts at explaining a non-theistic approach to God are so antagonistic, especially from avowed atheists. Most seem to be unable to conceive of God in non-theistic terms.
Complicating matters, is that here in NZ only one in three people claim a christian affiliation, whereas in the US three out of four people claim to be Christian. So the context in which my beliefs developed are radically different from that which most Americans experience. The result is that that neither the American Christian nor American atheist has much in common with the Kiwi form of liberal religion that shaped my world view.
So rather than attempt to use my own words to explain what I believe, here is part a presentation made by Sir Lloyd Geering around 9 years ago (he’s 101 now, and he was 92 at the time of the presentation).
This particular part of the presentation was an afterthought. He was asked to explain the backgound behind his book Christianity Without God. It’s essentially “off the cuff” as he hadn’t made preparation for this part. I’ve included a Youtube clip. As often happens with the Kiwi accent, Youtube’s inbuilt transcript doesn’t do a particularly good job, so for those who find our accent a little difficult, I’ve transcribed it below keeping as close as I can to his actual words.
Well, Christianity Without God came about in a funny way, you know. I don”t know if you have heard anything of the Sea of Faith movement. It is associated with Don Cupitt, the radical theologian in Britain, and now it’s a movement in New Zealand as well. At one of the conferences, I offered a little workshop called Christianity Without God. I did it with a bit of tongue in check really, because it sounds a bit absurd – how can you have Christianity without God?
However, it aroused so much interest that somebody put it on the Internet. Then somebody in America found it on the Internet and drew attention to Polebridge Publishers about it. So Bob Funk who was at the head of Polebridge Publishers and the Westar Institute said “Couldn’t you write a book about it?” and I said “I don’t really know about it. I’ll have a go”. So I wrote Christianity without God.
Now, in the course of this it was really tracing to my own thinking about God, because when I came into the church, they all talked about God. I didn’t know quite what to make of God. I knew the image of an old man in the sky was just an image, and I was content, really, to feel I knew nothing about God – that God was the supreme mystery about life. And then I gradually came (as a result of reading a good deal of theology) to refine that.
So in this book, I have tried to show that in Christianity without God, I mean Christianity without a theistic view of God. Now, theism is the term which means you think of God as personal being – of course infinite compared with us, but nevertheless, one who thinks, and plans, and performs miracles, and answers prayers. That’s theism.
Well, all I want to say is that that view of God no longer gels for me – no longer gels for a lot of people. Now it doesn’t mean to say that I’m casting the word God away. No, If I use the word God at all, I’ve got to use it in a different way from that.
Indeed, one great Roman Catholic scholar said right back in the ’60s we have to learn to speak of God in a radically new way. So Christianity without God means Christianity without that old idea of God, but it leaves God language free.
Of course we don’t have to use God language. God language is a symbolic language, and theology has much more in common with poetry than it has with science because it has to do with that highest dimension of human experience – what sometimes we call the spiritual dimension, because we haven’t got adequate words to describe it otherwise.
That’s why it links it up with poetry and the arts – the visual arts, and the dramatic arts, the storytelling arts. There where we have mediums through which which we can use in order to reach out to that which is beyond us. So if I use the word God at all, though I’m more careful now because, you see it’s ceasing to be a word that you can use without explaining what you mean by it. Otherwise people assume you’re meaning the theistic God, so in some ways it’s better not to talk about God at all. But I do I do so in the way a theologian, Gordon Kaufman (from whom I’ve learned much), suggested.
The word God has played a very important role in the Western world. Not simply because of that image which has to go, but because of what it did. It was a central point. Now to illustrate this, let me say when our pioneering forebears came to Australia and New Zealand to what they thought was a sort of virgin land (forget about the Māori and the Aboriginies), and took it over and planned how to use it.
Their surveyors had to come in, and what did the surveyor do? He went to the nearest hill and put a trig station in, and from that trig station, he measured out the land and it was given out in plots. Now the trig station was on a chosen bit – that is, it was humans who decided where the trig station was to be. But having chosen it, it then became a central point to which they referred for the land.
Now the word God has played that role in the Western world. if you don’t know a thing, you’d say “Only God knows that”. Who made the world? “Don’t know. God made the world”. That’s how we answered all the difficult questions of our children as they were growing up. Use god as a reference point. So the use of the word God as a reference point is very good.
Now, what is my reference point? I was asked this recently when they did a television documentary about me. What was my reference point and I said “Well, they are values. The things I value most,” I said, “are Love and justice and compassion and goodwill and honesty and so it goes on,” and then I said, “and those are, for me, God.
In that sense I think God language has a very important role to play but in the traditional sense of that image, as John Robinson said in 1963, “That image of God has to go”.
7 Oct, 2020 at 9:00 pm
As the mediator said, at 92 he gave a great speech. Hope I am that articulate if I get to that age.
I understand that the word god is simply a term and should really be eliminated or you will get misunderstood when you use it.
I could say that the morals, honesty compassion etc. Is basically how you conduct and portray yourself through life and this is my view on this issue but not associated in any way with the word god. I do understand very well how gods have had some good influences on many people but believe it is completely outweighed by the detrimental effects on many other people. I do not believe any natural human emotion or trait has been influenced by any gods, accept perhaps for creating atheism and I doubt that the meaning of the word can ever change unless you reverse the first and last letters:)
I will avoid using the term god unless it is as a joke, during sex, having a swearing session or to ridicule the concept, and just as a note in case theists are reading this, I have not yet been stuck down by brimstone and fire.
9 Oct, 2020 at 2:56 pm
It was hearing a story about God striking down a non-believer that started me on my journey to understand God differently. That was around 1957, maybe 1958, as best as I can recall, when I was 7 or 8 years old. I have a blog post about the experience titled The day God spoke to me which you can search for if you’re interested.
Certainly by the time I first heard of Lloyd Geering about 10 years later, my understanding of God was that it was an entirely human construction – that God only exists in the human mind, individually and collectively.
Having said that, I suspect many, perhaps most, people have a tendency towards religiosity. By this I don’t necessarily mean a belief in deities or any specific beliefs at all. I mean that, perhaps as part of the evolutionary process we have developed a collective consciousness. An example of that would be mob rule where collectively people together act in ways they would never consider doing individually – at times being involved in acts they would normally consider wrong or immoral.
Many people, including myself experience something that feels as though it’s outside of oneself. It’s what I call a sense of the divine. I’m convinced it’s entirely a creation within the mind, but many (and I think this is because of the human tendency to match a cause to every effect) create metaphors, allegories and symbolism to explain their experience, often to the extent that the come to believe them as reality. I believe God, gods and supernatural realms are derived from those experiences.
Another way of looking at it is that some experiences feel so “real” that we tend to personify them. Even my father, who didn’t have a religious bone in his body, referred the the various cars he owned as he, she or it, depending on each vehicle’s “personality”.
As someone who struggles on a daily basis converting thought processes into words so that I can communicate with others, I think it’s better that words that convey abstract ideas and concepts be allowed to evolve according to society’s needs. In this regard, I’m strongly in favour of encouraging God to evolve.
If my assumption is correct, you’re in (or from) Australia, and I would have thought that multiple concepts of God and gods would be not that far behind what it is in Aotearoa New Zealand. But perhaps there has been less of an influence of indigenous culture on mainstream thought than there has been here. The gradual merging of two cultures more or less forces one to rethink assumed values and ideas. I believe this is for the good.
12 Oct, 2020 at 4:22 pm
Very interesting. If someone asks me if I believe in God, I tell them to define God for me, then I’ll answer.
13 Oct, 2020 at 11:34 am
That’s similar to my response to the same question, althoigh I’d never use the word “define”. My response is more like “It depends on what you mean by God. Tell me what God means to and I can tell you if i substantially agree with you or not.” I’m more intersted in what God means rather that what God is.
3 Jan, 2021 at 12:37 am
Reblogged this on Autism Candles.