The Trouble with SoF

Stephen Mitchell attacks the term ‘non-theism’. Stephen Mitchell is a member of the Steering Committee. His book, 'God in the Bath', will be published by O Books in October 2006

The thinking behind this article began with the publication of two books in 2002. Both of them have proved to be influential within the Sea of Faith network. The first was David Boulton’s The Trouble with God. It’s a popular book, read far beyond the confines of the Sea of Faith Network. It has just been reprinted in a new international edition by John Hunt’s O Books this year.

The first part of the book begins with a very witty, intelligent and moving, autobiographical account of a child growing up amongst Plymouth Brethren, later to become an influential journalist, broadcaster and Quaker. He entitles it 'My Story'. The second part of the book, 'God’s Story' begins: ‘Until relatively recently it would not have occurred to any believer that God had a life story(page 76).

My Christian senses begin to smell trouble. Surely God doesn’t have a life like other creatures that have lives. God is life, life itself. My concerns are confirmed in the next chapter 'The Making of God':

The god we call God was born in the biblical land of Canaan in the late Bronze or early Iron Age. He was not created out of nothing (page 83).

Now whatever it is David is talking about, it is not the god Christians call God. Their God is from everlasting to everlasting, unbegotten and uncreated. I want to swap the titles of the first two parts of David’s book. (I know he couldn’t do it himself. He’s far too humble!) But from a Christian perspective, it’s the first part of the book that should be entitled God’s Story, the life of the incarnate, eternal God in David. That is where the Christian God is revealed. The second part should more properly be called David’s Story, his account of the myth of God.

Lloyd Geering’s book Christianity without God reprinted by Polebridge Press also proved a popular book. I know because I sent copies to many network members. Each time I packaged the book the title bugged me. Christianity, if it is about anything, is about God, the Kingdom of God and Jesus’ witness to God. A Christianity without God, may grab the headlines, but it cuts no ice with the Christian church. It’s simply a non-starter.

Lloyd, however, is well aware of what he is doing. He is, after all, an Emeritus Professor of Victoria University, a former professor of Old Testament studies and a principal of a theological college. His book begins:

Could Christianity continue to exist without belief in God? At first it appears absurd even to pose the question... Before we can adequately answer that question we must pose two other questions: What do we mean by Christianity? and what do we mean by God? (page 1)

The book is comprehensive and subtle, but once again it becomes clear that Lloyd is arguing against a God that orthodox Christian theologies would never recognise – against what is sometimes technically called theism. Lloyd makes this clear in the last chapter of the book, Why Christianity must become non-theistic.

To avoid ambiguity, then, let us reformulate the original question to read: ‘Can Christianity exist without theism?’ and hereafter so understand the phrase ‘Christianity without God’ (page 132, author’s emphasis).

Lloyd gives us the definition of God proposed by theism earlier in the book, in Chapter Four.

In theism God is taken to be the name of the supernatural personal being believed to have created the world and to continue to have an oversight (providence) of its affairs, intervening in them from time to time with miraculous events (page 53).

Later we are given another definition of God as ‘an objective, supernatural being’. Many Christians, it is true, would find nothing wrong in these definitions and that’s part of the trouble – as Lloyd is well aware. But, like it or not, whether we are Christian or not, traditional, orthodox Christian theologies would have little time for such a definition. God is not the being who did something. God is not a being at all. God is not ‘an’ anything, certainly not an objective anything. God is. God is beingness itself, existence itself, reality itself, life itself. God, traditionally, does not intervene but is, at all times, incarnate and present everywhere. Strictly speaking, God is not therefore supernatural.

Now many may not find this traditional, orthodox Christian theology of God useful or even meaningful. What is it that is present at all times and in all places? They may ask how this God relates to the God of the bible. These arguments are for another day. All I want to note here is that the God being demolished in these two books is not the God recognised by traditional, orthodox Christian theologies.

Several years before the publication of these two books, the arguments in Sea of Faith circles concerned the term ‘non-realism’. Even though it was used in the invitation sent to those who attended the first conference in Loughborough, it become a very unpopular term amongst some members.

I certainly have no wish to re-introduce the term but to look at what happened to it. In the beginning ‘non-realist’ did not mean ‘not real’. Why invent such a cumbersome expression when we already have the word ‘unreal’? No, non-realism was used to describe a whole series of changes that were affecting the way we understood the world around us. The changes were a move away from a philosophy which had its roots in Platonism. It was a move away from ideas of a hierarchy of being with degrees of reality, at the top of which could be put a Supreme Being. It was a move away from belief in an ideal world of which our world was a poor copy. And because these changes were affecting the way we understood the world, they were affecting our understanding of faith. The way we understand history, meaning and the self were all undergoing profound change. We were beginning to understand them in a ‘non-realist’ way. And, as religion is bound up with an understanding of history, meaning and self, so of course, our understanding of faith was changing too. A non-realist understanding of God was not God understood to be unreal but God understood through these profound changes in human thought.

The remarkable and exciting discovery for some of us was that a non-realist understanding of God bore some resemblance to God as traditionally understood in some Christian philosophies. Here was a way of combating some of the perversions of fundamentalist faith. But not everyone shared this hope and not everyone was convinced by the ‘non-realist’ understanding of our world. As people lost interest in the arguments, ‘non-realist’ drifted into a posh way of saying ‘unreal’.

In articles in the Sea of Faith magazine, discussion now centres around the word ‘non-theism’. And just as ‘non-realism’ came to be used, not in its technical philosophical sense, but simply as a way of saying ‘unreal’, so now ‘non-theism’ has lost any historical meaning it once had and become an excuse for using the word atheism. The subtleties of Lloyd Geering’s argument have gone and ‘non-theism’ has come simply to mean ‘without God’.

So the argument is dumbed down. Religious faith is a human creation. Therefore, God is a human creation. This, it is then said, leaves us with two strategies. The first is to carry on using the word God as a projection of our most cherished values. The second is to be rid of God altogether.

But neither of these strategies is going have any impact on the hierarchies of the faith communities. Neither of these is going to persuade the churches away from a realist, platonic philosophy. They are water off a duck’s back. The stumbling block is the statement God is a human creation. It is simply met with a blank stare. A humanly created god just isn’t God. ‘Your God is a fiction. Our God is real’ is the response. Nor are these strategies going to be found very attractive to those outside the faith communities. Again the statement that God is a human creation is met with astonishment. So, if God is a human creation, then God is no more real than the character in a book. Why not come clean and call it atheism?

If Sea of Faith continues to have any ambitions of reforming the faith communities or recreating faith outside them, it is unlikely to make much headway with these strategies. Outside the faith communities, people think we are dishonest atheists. Inside the churches, people think we just have no idea how people of faith use the word God.

Sea of Faith is in danger of losing much of the common ground that it once had not only with the major world faiths but with most academic communities. It is in danger of having very little to say to them. Whereas once, radicals within the faith communities and radicals within the Sea of Faith network shared many common concerns about the way we understood the world, now the language of Sea of Faith is in danger of going unrecognised within those communities. Once Sea of Faith shared a common concern with the arguments within other academic disciplines. Within science and sociology, within departments of psychology and philosophy, many of the same issues about truth and meaning, self and certainty were being discussed. Now our discussion, lapsing as it is into an argument between believers and atheists, is in danger of generating little interest even within religious studies departments.

Another area of common agreement that we are in danger of losing is our approach to the stories of faith. Radicals in the faith communities and radicals within Sea of Faith were both agreed in reading the stories of faith as stories. We may have disagreed about God but we agreed that these were simply stories. We agreed that these stories had developed and changed over time, some were useful and inspiring today, other less so. But we agreed that they were stories. We agreed that the characters in the stories (including the character of God) had changed, but we agreed that they were characters in a story. We had common cause against those who insisted in reading the stories literally. We had common cause in finding a use for these stories today. But now, many in Sea of Faith, take these stories to be a literally true account of the history of God. In their anxiety to tell us of a God born in the Bronze age and dying in second Axial age, they are in danger of losing interest in the rich literature of faith.

Also in danger of being lost is concern for the difficulties facing the faith communities today. Never mind the theology, never mind the philosophy, many of the faith communities struggle with the problems facing institutions as diverse as schools, hospitals, theatres, concert halls, post offices and pubs. Sea of Faith once shared a common concern for things that enriched community and built up cultural life. If we felt much religious life was on the way out, we were anxious to find something to take its place. We worried about the common public expression of values and the celebration of life.

Perhaps even more worrying is the danger of having nothing to say publicly. Hans Küng wrote, many years ago now, that there would be no world peace without religious peace. Sea of Faith once had a vision of helping to broker that peace. Seeing faiths, not as competing claims to truth, but as varied expressions of the good, the just and beautiful, there was hope of securing some common ground. But changing our focus from ‘non-realism’ to unreal and ‘non-theism’ to atheism turns us into yet another competing claim to truth.

Recently there have been a number of cases, highlighted in the press, of people being forbidden to wear the symbols of their faith. At the same time, outrage has been expressed by what some faith communities see as the ridiculing of their God in cartoons. There has been no public response to this from our network.

If Sea of Faith is going to make a reforming impact on the faith communities then it must begin with their most sophisticated and radical concepts of God. For myself, I begin with such expressions as ‘that in which we live and move and have our being’, and that which is ever-present. Some tell me this is the Anglican vicar striving to saving his stipend and keep in with my bishop. As if.

It’s the priest who’s learnt the first principle of politics – the art of the possible. In the last fifty years, a number of courageous individuals – some from this network – have gone head to head with the church. Most of them have fallen at the first fence and are now out of the race. (Sorry – I live near Newmarket now!) The church will not be changed unless there are people willing to stick with it and find common starting points for dialogue. The church will not be changed unless radical concepts find some roots in orthodoxy. Of course radical concepts of God quickly collapse into mystery, nothingness and being. And as we have been well taught, a religion of being is substantially different from a religion of God. But to begin from a common starting point does offer some hope of meaningful dialogue and change.

Those who are not convinced, have no time for ecclesiastical politics, patience for discussion with the faith communities, or even believe they are worth saving, need to think how they will prevent dwindling faith communities becoming more aggressively fundamentalist. They need to think how that can be achieved without creating an intolerant society where public expressions of faith are banned by law.

This is not about labels but about strategies. The network’s statement of intent leaves open the question of God. While some in the network may wish to close it, I believe the network’s future lies in leaving it open.

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