Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Discarded Deities

By Ian Harris                         Otago Daily Times                Aug. 14, 2015

History is littered with discarded deities – and any god that has run out of puff should be gently laid to rest. Such gods die only if they cease to be real to people and their communities, and religious leaders sensitive to their times will join in seeing them off. That doesn’t mean the end of any God worthy of the name, however. For the impulse that led to the creation of those once-potent deities does not die. The drive to find meaning, purpose and hope amid the twists and turns of life continues as before. 

Adventurous minds then find new insights and new ways of expressing them that speak to their own time and place. Some will discover new lines of approach within the old faith. Some will turn to other faiths or philosophies. Others, of course, will cling more firmly to the security of the past.

All those responses are evident in New Zealand today. In the churches, diminishing numbers suggest that one God is slowly dying – but there are signs that another is quietly emerging. Or, more precisely, one human image of God is being challenged by another that many find more in tune with the modern world.

Both groups would say they are being faithful to core insights of their Christian heritage – and so they are. But they are viewing their tradition from different vantage points. One insists that the hallowed doctrines and forms of the past are non-negotiable. The other seeks to interpret that same tradition through the lens of present-day understanding.

All this came bubbling to the surface when Anglican Bishop Richard Randerson, of Wellington, was interviewed on radio last month about his memoir Slipping the Moorings. There he sets aside the theistic image of God as a supernatural Being or Person, in favour of a concept of God as the living heart of all being. “The question of faith,” he writes, “is not one of intellectual assent to the existence of ‘God as a Being’, but arises out of our experience of ‘God as Being’, a reality at the heart of human life.”

  Randerson cites four shortcomings in theism:

* It is framed within a three-tier physical universe of heaven, earth and hell.

* God is conceived anthropomorphically in a human image (though with supernatural add-ons).

* Theism stirs needless controversy with science over the origins of the universe and of life.

* It leads to legitimate questioning about an all-powerful, all-loving God co-existing with evil and tragedy.

  On radio he spoke of “a sense of God as mystery, something other, something bigger. It’s characterised by love, by spirit, by transcendence. It gives me a sense of connection . . . and for Christians, of course, the mystery is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.” Randerson has clearly slipped the moorings of theism, but not of Christian experience.

He is in impressive episcopal company. In England, Bishop John Robinson believed that entering into arguments about the existence of God as a celestial Being, even a celestial Person, was to miss the point. Look rather to the truth that image is trying to convey, he said, namely that “in personal relationships we touch the final meaning of existence as nowhere else” – and Jesus fleshed that out.

“Jesus never claims to be God, personally: yet he always claims to bring God, completely,” said Robinson. Jesus provides a window into God through the way he lived his life. Central to this approach is a fundamental orientation to love, grace and transformation, and an affirmation of the potential of men and women to somehow live beyond ordinary human limitations.

That is basic to Christian insight, but Robinson believed that binding it to theism turned many people off engaging with it today. They have discarded that God. American Bishop John Spong concurs. “I believe passionately in God,” he says. “Yet I now find the theistic definition of God far too limiting.”

Instead, “the meaning and the reality of God are found in the experience of human wholeness flowing in life-giving ways through all that we are. God is experienced when we open life to transcendent otherness, when it is called beyond every barrier into an expanded humanity.”

It follows that in the modern world Christian faith no longer depends on believing in the existence of God but, more appropriately, on the experience of God (or Godness). Jesus’ followers enter into this first by taking him with ultimate seriousness, and then by orienting their lives accordingly.

A corresponding shift in the church’s focus is now in order.

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