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”.