Yesterday I came across a blogger whose work gained my respect as I read his stuff. He is Kenan Malik, who blogs at Pandaemonium email@example.com. covering philisophocsal, moral, political and cultural topics with an easy elegance and impressive knowledge. He calls himself an atheist and is apparently used as a devil’s advocate by a theological training college to sharpen up its students for the warfare ahead.
I also listened to a video in which he described his atheism as “having found no necessity to believe in God,” especially in view of the comic jumble of absoluely certain descriptions of God’s character offered by the religions of the world, and sometimes by different groups within the one religion. Obviously, for example,there is considerable distance between the God of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who, wincing a little, can accept homosexual people as believers, and the God of many African bishops, for whom they are an abomination. Kenan Malik rightly observes that in spite of all the talk about unchanging truth and divine revelation, the views of Christian churches do change according to place, time and social mores. For Malik this is desirable because he sees the creativity of individuals and societies as the true driving force of humanity’s bumpy journey towards a better world.
I am happy to accept most of what he says. The history of Christian morality in the UK in the last hundred years, indeed even within my own lifetime, is evidence of both change and creativity. The Christian culture in which I grew up, while distinguishing itself from the puritanism of some Scottish churches, was quite clear that heterosexual intercourse outside marriage was a grave sin and that homosexual behaviour was deviant and frequently degenerate. God had created us male and female so that we could get married and have children and any departure from this plan was an offence to the creator. Sixty years on, not only my views but the views of many non-fundamentalist believers like me, have changed, in that we expect our grandchildren to have a number of sexual partners before they marry; and we welcome homosexual people as worthy members of our churches.
What has happened here? Fundamentalist believers will say that we have abandoned the clear witness of holy scripture to the will of God. They will argue that God’s will has obviously not changed, but that I and people like me, have changed and not for the better, since we have lapsed from true faith and perverted the truth of God.It is easy enough to make fun of the contradictions involved in fundamentalist belief (why do they not obey the clear commandment to stone adulterers to death?) but less easy to justify our view that holy scripture is normative for our living … but…er…only the bits of it we like.
The root of the problem lies in the bad faith of religions of revelation in refusing to admit the human creativity which has produced their sacred traditions. The creation story in the book of Genesis Chapter 1 has at least one human author, who chose to represent the faith of his/her community in these words. She was aware that her story was different from the various stories told about the creation of the world in the surrounding Canaanite, Babylonian and Egyptian cultures. Although the corpus of writings which contain her story, the Torah, claims divine authority via Moshe, the author of the creation narrative simply tells her story, without attributing it to divine revelation. If we read it sympathetically, we become aware that sentence by sentence, she is inventing God. I don’t mean that she was the first person to think of God this way; clearly she was representing a tradition of belief. But those traditional beliefs themsleves are a human creation, bearing the marks of their place and time of origin. The author of the Genesis creation story is a creative artist who in all probability, was the first to synchronise the stages of creation with the days of the week, including the splendid idea of God resting from his labours on Shabbat.
This all too brief analysis reveals what ought to be the first statement of all theology:
ALL GODS ARE CREATED BY HUMAN BEINGS
All systems of theology that do not admit this are in denial. They give the game away by decribing other religions as human creations, while maintaining that their own is guaranteed by holy books whose every word is inspired or written by God. But the obvious truth is that their books bear just the same marks of human genius, human lies and human brutality as the books of their opponents.
Am I suggesting that there is no God or that God does not communicate with human beings?
No, I am suggesting that the best and most honest human users of word God are aware that they want it to point beyond their best inventions to the one who is beyond all worlds and yet accessible within all worlds to those who listen creatively. Even the grandest theologies should put the word “God” in commas, to show that is not a name or definition, but rather a pointer towards a truth that cannot be fully defined. I don’t mean that theology should be vague in its descriptions, just that it should admit that these descriptions are its own creation, just as the description by contemporary scientists of the origin of the universe is their creation, and like them, subject to criticism and development.
For example the story of Genesis chapters 1-12 is of a creator God who fashions a good world, but makes the strategic error of creating a being in his own likeness, with the power to choose, who predictably chooses not to obey God and disrupts his plans. So from the 3rd chapter onwards “God” becomes a comic figure, always being outmanoevred by his best creation, continually trying to get a grip on a deteriorating situation, who ends up almost wiping out his entire creation in a flood in a pathetic attempt to gain the upper hand. I say “attempt” because no sooner has the flood finished and the rainbow taken its place in the sky than Noah and his family are back into the old routine, drunknness, sexual scandal and lack of concern for their creator’s wishes. Finally, this “God” realises that he can’t control humanity from a distance by threats and punishments, and that he must therefore persuade (!) them to live in his way; and to that end he chooses to begin again with one family, that of Abraham. If you think I’m exaggerating, read these chapters without prejudice. No unbeliever has ever painted a less flattering picture of deity.
The Genesis writers, as subtle storytellers, are perfectly aware of what they are doing. Even within their story they offer alterntive versions, such as the two stories of the creation of humanity, because they know that they are creating God and that their creation will, at its best, only point in the direction of a truth that cannot be grasped by human beings but which may grasp them. They tell the story because they think that, inadequate as it is, it contains profound wisdom for living.
Believers should not be dismayed by the notion that they help create their God. Human inventions can be both useful and true. E= MC2 is a human invention which is both useful and true, while also being subject to criticism and development.
That’s already too much for one day. I’ll continue tomorrow. All the images are by William Blake, who invented new stories about God.