When God is no longer a person up there in the sky, where is God? When God is no longer personified in ways which can be controlled and manipulated by the powerful, who is God? When we stop creating images of God which are mere projections of ourselves, what is God?Rev. Dawn Hutchings, pastordawn Sunday 5 December 2021
The above paragraph is from the sermon NATIVITY – a parable born in the darkness of trauma given by Pastor Dawn. She is one of several Christian pastors/preachers I follow on WordPress. Pastor Dawn Identifies herself as a 21st Century Progressive Christian Pastor. I suspect most of the others would also identify in a similar vein, even if they haven’t identified specifically as such.
The sermon itself, places into perspective the minds of the gospel writers in light of the genocide being committed against the Jews by the Roman empire that started in the latter part of the first century AD, and continued for another fifty or so years. I agree with Pastor Dawn, that without understanding the circumstances of the writers, it’s not possible to understand their intent, nor the meaning of what they wrote.
Even though the Gospels were written nearly 2000 years ago, our modern understanding of the effects of social upheaval, and how people responded to tyranny and genocide at the end of the first century means that we should be able interpret their contents in a nonliteral way, which I suspect was the intent of the writers, and perhaps implicitly understood by the first generation Christians who were predominantly Jews facing extreme persecution by the Roman Empire – as Pastor Dawn describes it “the first Holocaust”.
Given the conditions of the time, why any thinking person today should believe that the Gospels must be read as factual history is beyond me. And while I can understand that fundamentalist indoctrination might be reason why some Christians conflate universal truths told in the form of storytelling, parables, metaphors and symbolism with historical facts, I struggle to understand why so many non Christians also hold a similar view – that the gospels are meant to be understood literally so are therefore a pack of lies. Neither perspective is accurate and both do an injustice to the works of art contained within the Bible.
Pastor Dawn offers a plausible explanation as to how early Christians came to deify Jesus. Although she doesn’t mention it in the sermon, Roman emperors of the day were deified and surprise, surprise, myths were created claiming some to be the offspring of a union between a mortal and a god. At least one of them had a star hovering in the sky to announce the birth. Under the circumstances, attaching a similar story to the birth of Jesus seems an obvious way of describing the significance of Jesus and his teachings to his early followers. The symbolism would have been very obvious to those of the day.
I’m a firm believer in what Quakers describe as “continuing revelation“. This can be understood in many ways, (old Quaker saying: Ask four Quakers, get five answers) but my take on it is that with new knowledge comes new understandings (of the world around us and of us as individuals and communities). While I vehemently disagree with Richard Dawkins’ view of religion, I can thank him for naming (but not originating) an evolutionary model to explain what Quakers have intuitively known for generations: that ideas, values, concepts of morality, or art, be they religious or otherwise do not stand still. They change over time.
Dawkins coined the term meme to describe the mechanism by which ideas and concepts are inherited from generation to generation, and in a way similar to how genes combine and mutate and subsequently succeed or die out, so do memes. An example might be the concept of slavery as it evolved in the West and culminated in the horrors associated with slavery in America. In its heyday, most people in southern USA considered slavery to be part of the natural order of the world. Today, remnants of that concept remain in the form of racism, it’s a meme that has mutated by not (yet) died out completely.
Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Christian history should be aware how much Christianity has changed (evolved) over the centuries. Let’s face it, Jesus was a Jew, in both ethnicity and religion. His desire was reform, to place an emphasis on ethics and social justice rather than rigid ceremony and law. It was not to create a new religion. I have no doubt that he would find Reform Judaism closer to his goals than most (perhaps all) forms of Christianity.
Meanwhile Christianity evolved into a multiplicity of forms – some developing characteristics that expanded on the ideals of the first followers of Jesus and some that developed traits that Jesus strongly opposed. I see that as an inevitable and natural outcome of the evolutionary process. Just as organisms evolve, so do religions. If they don’t evolve to adapt to their environment then they either become restricted to a niche environment to which they are suited or they die out.
Evolution also applies to our concept(s) of God(s). One characteristic that most fundamentalist Christians and many atheists have in common, is that they have an almost identical notion of how God is defined. Both seem to be unable to grasp the fact the Christian God has been under constant evolutionary change from the moment Christianity became a movement – even before it moved from being a heresy of judaism to a movement followed by Gentiles.
Some Christian fundamentalist movements will insist that God hasn’t evolved. He (it’s always ‘He‘) has always been the same, only no one fully understood the scriptures until the founder/leader of that particular movement/sect discovered their “True” meaning. In extreme cases theirs is the only “Truth”, and any who believe otherwise are heretics, deservedly destined to whatever fate their God has reserved for non-believers.
Atheists can find no evidence to support the existence of any god as an entity, and I have no issue with that. In fact, I concur. But then some atheists make the assumption that every form of religion must, of necessity, include a conviction that at least one deity or supernatural entity lies at its heart, even if that means shoehorning their concept of a non-existing deity into faith traditions that have evolved different notions of what God is (or is not).
I belong to a 350 year old faith tradition commonly referred to as the Quakers, and to a particular branch that in the 20th and 21st centuries is often described as liberal Quakerism, although in many ways it is the most traditional branch when it comes to practising our faith. In the short history of Quakerism, there is ample evidence of Dawkins’ memes in action. What is now viewed as the liberal branch were the conservatives in the eighteenth century, holding true to the tradition that everyone has direct access to the divine without the need for any intermediaries such as clergy or scripture, whereas the progressives/liberals of the day embraced the new evangelism and biblical authority that was sweeping through Christianity at that time and adopted articles of faith, creeds, clergy, and much else that is found within the evangelical movement.
In evolutionary terms evangelical Quakerism has been the most successful branch within the Quaker movement with about 85% of Quakers worldwide belonging to one of the evangelical branches, whereas the then conservative, and now very liberal branch account for around 12% of all Quakers, and confined to Britain and former British settler colonies (such as Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, and Canada), Western Europe, and some parts of the USA.
My reason for the (extremely) truncated description of Quaker branches is that on many occasions in the blogosphere, I have been “corrected” for making claims about Quaker beliefs and practices that are true for Aotearoa, but incorrect when referring to Quakerism in many other parts of the world. In fact I’ve been told in no uncertain terms by one atheist blogger that I have no right to call myself a Quaker as I don’t profess to be a Christian. Whenever I refer to Quaker beliefs and practices, my only point of reference is the religious community I am connected to (Quakers Aotearoa, Te Hāhi Tūhauwiri). Please keep this in mind whenever I refer to Quaker beliefs and practices. I accept that Quakers in many parts of the world have different beliefs and practices, but I am less familiar with those.
So, back to the question of where/who/what is God. For atheists and Christian Fundamentalists, the Answer is simple. For the former, there is no such thing, end of story. For the latter there is no doubt of “His” existence, and they can (and do frequently) quote passage after passage from the Bible to support their claim. For the rest of us it’s not so simple. God has evolved and continues to evolve.