The God debate is permanently flawed by the fact that neither side – the atheists and the only believers they like to engage with, the traditionalists and fundamentalists – accept that ‘God’ cannot be a person. Their quarrel is about who or what ‘God’ is, or is not. It would be more productive surely if the question was: where?
First, though, let us concede the obvious: that every person has the right to believe in some deity or other, or not, and that no-one has the right to tell anybody else what to believe. As an ordinary Anglican Christian humanist, I have my own take on ‘God’ and ‘faith’ but I do not expect anyone else to share my views. So I offer them merely as a contribution.
Furthermore, I know only too well that this ground has been covered thoroughly since the first centuries CE. What follows here is one civilian’s meditation. Its purpose is to merely to think aloud about a paradoxical idea (cf Thomas Aquinas and others) about ‘God.’
That idea is that, far from being, in Terry Eagleton’s unforgettable phrase, “some kind of chap”, any ‘God’ that we could ever believe in has to be so far beyond what we can think of that it cannot be within our frame of reference: in other words ‘God’ does not exist in any way that we can define. ‘God is no-thing’, a counter-intuitive perception that originated in India centuries ago. It is not quite the same in scripture: the Bible quotes ‘God’ as asserting “I am the frst and the last” (Isaiah 44:6) and the Quran states
No one is His offspring, and He is not the offspring of anyone, and He has no like or parallel.” (112:14)
If we cannot say who or what ‘God’ is, then we have to fall back onto the where. That word instantly demands others: approaching, staying, leaving, expelling, up and down, and so forth. One such word is ‘encounter’. We encounter situations, things and people at different times and places in our lives. Some of us encounter ‘God.’
Those of us who do have a rendezvous with the concept every day. One obvious ‘where’, I believe, is through religious practice or anything like it. The purpose of all such practice is to re-enact the trials and challenges and joys of our life and through that enactment heal. To worship ‘God’ in this way is not in itself an assertion that ‘God’ exists or does not, or that it is our own creativity that has produced ‘God’ as a cultural concept (see endnote). Neither should it be taken as a claim that religion is one big lie. It is simply acknowledging that if ‘God’ is to be encountered, our individual predicament as humans (“Where?” “Here!”), as well as our shared world-experience in all its richness, grace and tragedy, is a good place in which to start to do so.
But not the only one. We encounter the divine in ourselves (let’s leave that for another day) and also in others, not always happily. The whole point about the Christian ur-story is that ‘God’, so unknowable to us, was/is amongst us as another human being, sharing our joys and troubles, to the extent that we tortured him to death just as we continue to torture and kill other fellow beings all the time. As William Tyndale first put it, “Christ is crucified every day.”
It is up to us
And this happens because those who do these things are certain – that terrible word! – that they are doing the right thing in their given circumstances. So we encounter ‘God’ and we kill ‘God’ and ‘God’ just keeps on resurrecting in us, however angry and betrayed we feel. We cannot know why ‘God’ refuses to rescue us from disaster because we have accepted that ‘God’ is by definition unknowable and because there is no-one else that we can ask but ourselves and no-one to make it right but ourselves. (I know this conflicts with Christian doctrine but that is the point: I am trying to think beyond the dogma).
We have to re-enact the divine in the world because logic and the lessons of the ages have confirmed that there is no-one else to do so. It is through us that ‘God’ intervenes, not in the form of earthquakes or in some sort of category-error conflict with science.
Elie Wiesel spells out the principal implication for us in all its horror: in Buna concentration camp near Auschwitz, suspected saboteurs, amongst them a boy, are hanged and the prisoners are compelled to witness this:
“Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing… And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:”For God’s sake, where is God?”
And from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where is He? This is where–hanging here from this gallows…”
That night, the soup tasted of corpses.” Night ch4, p62
Cultural concept “denotes an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life” (Clifford Geertz. Religion as a Cultural System, in: Banton, Michael P. (ed.): Anthropological approaches to the study of religion. London/UK 1966: Tavistock & New-York/N.Y./USA 1966: Frederick A. Praeger Press, pp. 1-46; http://www.iwp.uni-linz.ac.at/lxe/sektktf/gg/GeertzTexts/Religion_System.htm).