By Ian Harris Otago Daily Times July 11, 2014
“WHERE did God go?” asked a Time magazine cover a few years ago, signposting an article about the decline of traditional Christianity in Europe. It’s a searching question, though not as provocative as the one Time posed back in 1966: “Is God dead?” If the answer then had proved to be “yes”, of course, there would have been no ground to ask the new question decades later, which at least assumes that God is still around to go somewhere.
Dramatic as the questions are, the answer to both has to be: “It depends what you mean by God.” Here are five possible responses to that later question, all confining themselves (as does Time) to Christianity: other faiths and their followers would have their own take on it.
□ God has not gone anywhere. Even in Europe, where church attendance has dwindled and people’s general knowledge of Christianity has shrivelled, God remains in this view the creator and sustainer of the universe, the source of all that is good, and our surest hope for the future.
Though people may have abandoned God in their millions, traditionalists would say, it does not follow that God has abandoned them – if he had, he would not be the Christian God. So it is business as usual . . . except that everyone in the church and out of it knows it is not.
□ God has given up on the old established churches and is to be found among newer, less hidebound groups. Time notes a religious vibrancy in informal gatherings, many of them small. This is especially so where people find it safe to explore their thoughts and doubts without being dumped on, where they are free to develop more intimate and reflective styles of worship and, among immigrant groups, where they can be themselves among their own people.
□ God has gone south. American history and religious studies professor Philip Jenkins sees Christianity as far from moribund, but a huge shift has occurred in its presence around the world – a shift that has gone largely unnoticed in the West. There are, for example, more practising Anglicans in Nigeria than in England, and the disparity is growing. However, the kind of Christianity rooted among the billion-plus Christians in Latin America, Asia and Africa is not as liberal or open as in much of the West. It is generally orthodox in outlook, supernatural and often pentecostal in emphasis, conservative in morality, and authoritarian in style. So God as traditionally understood is alive and well on what were once the missionary continents.
□ The question is invalid: there never was “a” God (understood as a being apart from the world and humanity) to go anywhere. However, there will always be concepts of God (or Godness), developed in response to the deepest human experiences. These have proved enormously valuable over the centuries – and they have of necessity evolved as knowledge has expanded, society has developed, and people’s worldview and life experience have changed. New times repeatedly bring forth new concepts and/or new emphases about God. English scholar of religions Karen Armstrong puts it this way: “Ever since the prophets of Israel started to ascribe their own feelings and experiences to God, monotheists have in some sense created a God for themselves . . . Today many people seem to have lost the will to make this imaginative effort. “This need not be a catastrophe. When religious ideas have lost their validity, they have usually faded away painlessly: if the human idea of God no longer works for us in the empirical age, it will be discarded.” And, I would add, new human ideas about God can then slowly take shape. In other words, while the old theistic God has moved right out of the minds of many westerners, that spells doom for the churches only if they lack the ability – or the nerve – to think and feel their way through to a new understanding of what the word God can mean for secular people in a secular world.
One such prospect is:
□ God is being re-imagined in a non-realist way. That is, for many people God is no longer understood as a real or objective being existing beyond the world and periodically intervening in it, but as a subjective, life-orienting force in human experience. “Non-realist” because while not real in the usual sense of the word, God is still very much “for real”, still capable of being re-imagined (or re-created) and experienced in our brave new world.