Wednesday, January 13, 2016

What Do We Mean when We Say “God?”

William Blake's "The Ancient of Days
setting a compass to the earth"
We hear a lot of talk these days about God. There is a current controversy in some circles as to whether or not Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Then there are the writings of the new atheists such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins  and Christopher Hitchens who doubt that God exists at all. What do all of these people mean when they use the term God? As people debate the topic, we may hear, in addition to atheism, such terms as theism, pantheism, and panentheism. Right away it becomes clear to some that we are not talking about an either/or argument between just two isms.

I just became acquainted with Nancy Abrams’ book A God that Could Be Real last month when she and I both participated in Matthew Fox’s “Blog Tour.” Each of us who participated wrote a review of Matthew Fox’s newly revised and updated autobiography, Confessions, with a new review posted each day (to see all of the reviews, go here). 

Interestingly enough, we all chose to take a personal approach, relating how our lives were enriched by contact with Matthew Fox and his writings. Abrams’ review, however, was one that really stood out, and prompted me to explore her website. Here is an excerpt from her review that I thought speaks to where many of us are and I think it is what many of us progressives need to hear:
Spirituality is the driving force of life to Matthew Fox, and he is convinced it’s not only accessible in the modern world but essential to our survival. Without healing the wounds of religion, he writes, no one can build an authentic political coalition. They need “fire in the belly about justice and compassion.”

Fire in the belly is what everyone who wants to save the world needs! The spiritual power that underlies religions belongs to us, not to the religions. If we disdain that, how are we to become a real force in changing the world and not just an esoteric group of scientists, philosophers, and philanthropists?

We need the experience of oneness that impassions the motivation to act collectively and that Fox calls the mystic. “When progressive thinkers and doers stay as far away from religion as they can, they turn over religious language and religious values to the very fundamentalists whom they oppose as political right-wingers (Fox’s italics).” (Read the entire review here)   

In reading Ms. Abrams’ review, she made reference to her book A God that Could Be Real. I have not read her book, but when I went to her website, I found some information about the book as well as a blog post she had written in response to a reviewer’s comments in the Los Angeles Review of Books. The reviewer apparently was an atheist who highlighted reasons why he and others of like mind have no need for any concept of God. Reading Abram’s response brought to mind many discussions I have had, in terms of what we mean when we say “God.” 

Objectionable Traits Attributed to God

Usually, when I hear or read one of the “new atheists” describe the god they do not believe in, my response is that I do not believe in that sort of god either, but that in no way makes me an atheist. So often they are targeting some “sky god” who keeps tally on human actions and zaps some people with plagues, floods and other punishments while demanding attention from human subjects. Such a petty god is far too small for divine status, and far too easy to discredit. (I elaborated on some of these god-concepts in another post, “Image and Likeness.”) 

Bertrand Russell has made the best argument for atheism in his book Why I am Not a Christian. In my opinion, no other atheist has been shown to be his equal. Even at that, however, Russell’s book does little more than to set up a paper tiger against which to make his argument. The “new atheists” do the same thing, just not as well as Russell did.

The other tactic that the “New Atheists” typically take is to enumerate all of the ills that religion has brought. Usually wars, violence, prejudice, The Inquisition, etc. are on the list of harmful traits of religion. The argument seems to insinuate that if we could rid ourselves of religion we would be free from those objectionable traits. The truth is that all of the ills they mention are human ills rather than specifically religious traits. Consequently, we will likely carry those ills with us wherever we go, whether we take  religion with us or not. They are indeed ills that we should seek to overcome, but scapegoating religion will not deliver us from our own evil.   

Two Responses to the Question of God

Now back to Nancy Abrams and her book. You can find information about A God that Could Be Real on her website. I like the way physicist Paul Davies summarizes the current debate as well as the value of Abram’s presentation in his comment about her book:   

“Over the past two decades a largely sterile dispute has raged between two diametrically opposing camps: atheists and religious fundamentalists. It is surely time to move on and elevate the discussion to a higher intellectual level. This ambitious and thought-provoking book by Nancy Abrams on the interface of science and religion is a timely and welcome contribution to a more productive discussion of the topic”

Her website also has a link to her blog where you can read “My Response to Marcelo Gleiser's review of A God That Could Be Real.”  You will find that post here

Roger Olson, professor and theologian, has a blog at Patheos wherein he presents his views as an Arminian Evangelical Christian. He is a very disciplined scholar (he says to his readers, “Before you can say 'I disagree,' you must first be able to say 'I understand'”).

Olson brings his scholarship to bear in a recent post in which he explains for us lay people the different views of God when he asks, “Do All Atheists Deny the Same God?” I would recommend his essay for anyone wanting an accessible overview of what different people have meant when they have referred to God. You can see that essay here.

And Don't Forget the Comedians

No discussion of God would be complete without input from the comic side. Comedians help us to not take ourselves too seriously, and they often serve as a safety valve of sorts to keep some of the pressures of society down a bit. Being able to joke about the unknown and incomprehensible can put a healthy balance to the subject of God. Cartoonist Gary Larson, in The Far Side comic strip offered many illustrations of God. This is one of my favorites, Acts of God.


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