Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Thinking About God

Ian Harris      Otago Daily Times     Dec. 12, 2014

DO people begin with a worldview and find a place for God within it (or not, as the case may be?) Or do they begin with a view of God and mould their worldview around that (or not, as the case may be)?

A lot will depend on what they mean by “God”, and that is infinitely variable, both between religions and within them. Priests, rabbis and mullahs naturally seek to pass on the received orthodox view: their concept of God then becomes the starting-point for the worldview they teach.

There is a danger inherent in that, however. A God that can be made “official” in this way may become an instrument of power and repression in the hands of those who define him. The history of all religions sadly shows that.

In the freer modern air of the West, it may help to begin with the worldview rather than with any preordained understanding of God.

The worldview is the lens through which people make sense of their experience, the way they come to terms with everything around them. It develops out of all their learnings and experiences, first as children and then as adults, usually without their even being aware of it.

People whose minds are open and curious are constantly absorbing new information and experiences, and modify their worldview accordingly. Those with closed minds do not. Either way, a person’s worldview is central in helping him or her to see things in relation to each other. It provides a framework in the search for meaning and wholeness.

Language and culture have a huge bearing on the worldview that people form. That is apparent, for example, in divergent Maori and Pakeha attitudes to land, Waitangi Treaty issues and the foreshore, or in Israeli and Arab perceptions of Palestine. On top of that, everyone brings to it something uniquely personal, and each person’s worldview is his or her own.

Since earliest times, religions have provided a unifying, stabilising focus for society, helping to shape the worldview of people loyal to them. One obvious example is the Jews’ conviction that they are God’s chosen people, blessed with a divine destiny despite all the setbacks and suffering they have endured over the centuries. All Jews can say: “I was born into a story.”

So, too, can Christians and Muslims, though those faiths seek to transcend the racial identity which is a hallmark of Judaism.

American theologian Gordon Kaufman was in no doubt about the primacy of a person’s worldview in making sense of life, and of the importance of the God-symbol in this regard.

For 3000 years the monotheistic faiths have understood God as a supernatural being existing apart from the world and human beings, though impacting directly upon them. That understanding is still widely affirmed in western societies, but as they become more secular it is losing its pulling power. That need not be the end of God, however, for as a human creation the God-symbol can and does evolve.

So Kaufman suggests that in the modern world “God” is to be understood not as a distinct object or being, but as “an important constituent of an over-arching worldview”. The function of the God-symbol is then to bring meaning and fulfilment to human life, because “it sums up, unifies and represents in a personification what are taken to be the highest and most indispensable human ideals and values”.

For Kaufman, the God-symbol in the Christian tradition conjures up essentially humane images, as seen supremely in Jesus.

He speaks of a “cosmic movement” toward the fuller realisation of human possibilities, regardless of race, sex, nationality, culture or anything else. The purpose of religious institutions is to tune in to this humanising drive, and when true to their founding vision, they do so by creating communities of openness, love and freedom.

Obviously, cultivating a worldview with such a God-symbol at the centre will influence profoundly the way a person perceives the world and behaves in it. That is because it removes the central focus of life from oneself and one’s own race, culture and destiny: when the God-symbol is the focal point of a person’s worldview, everything else becomes relative to it.

A cameo in Lloyd Jones’ The Book of Fame illustrates the same dynamic in more traditional form. The 1905 All Blacks are standing in the glow of a fire in their Welsh hotel for a Christmas service, and Bob Deans prays: “God be in our thoughts, and in our words . . .”

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