I am convinced that almost all books produced by believers for the use of fellow believers or as defences of belief for a general readership, are defective and misleading if they omit an initial chapter which explores the foundational sentence of theology:
ALL GODS AND GODDESSES ARE INVENTED BY HUMAN BEINGS.
Most theologies will promote their version of this other sentence:
ALL GODS AND GODDESSES ARE INVENTED BY HUMAN BEINGS – EXCEPT OURS.
Refusal to recognise the human origin of all Gods encourages a sectarian (we’re right/ you’re wrong) view of reality which is at the root of all fundamentalisms. Although this refusal is made by people of irreproachable virtue, they cannot be exempt from the charge of encouraging dogmatic lies. Religions are far from being the worst purveyors of untruth in our electronically- connected world – the deliberate and systematic lies of murderous regimes come to mind- but because they purport to seek truth and guide people into goodness, they are the more guilty.
Healthy faith begins with a history of the human construction of its beliefs, so that the possibility that this or that teaching is wrong, insufficient, mistaken or plain bad, is kept before the faithful, and that genuine change and development may occur. There are people within the Christian Church who not only find gay sex unattractive, but are also convinced that God does. They are incapable of realising that a God invented by people who find gay sex unattractive, will probably share their distaste.
I am a Christian believer, who happens to find the doctrine of the Trinity illuminating, but I can see very clearly the history of this teaching – it barely exists in the Bible and is an interpretation of the Bible by believers in the first centuries of the church life. That does not invalidate it; indeed this doctrinal history is evidence that some human inventions are better than others. Scientists produce hypotheses which are tested against reality and revised accordingly; even long -accepted hypothesis called “laws” may revised or discarded. The truths of faith should in my view follow a similar procedure, although how they are tested will be very different from the scientific method.
But how then can faith give people the absolute certainty they crave? It can’t and will be all the better for admitting it.
I do not hold this reasonable scepticism with the truths of faith only; it is essential for any pursuit of truth and any criticism of others’ truths. Imagine how devastating it must have been for scientists to be told by Heisenberg that no scientific facts could rule out the human observer, and that some facts – such as the simultaneous knowledge of the position and velocity of an particle- are unobtainable. But they did not immediately abandon science as a busted flush; rather, they persevered while recognising new limitations on their procedures. They made Heisenberg’s scepticism part of science. For after all, every human perception is biased because it is human. The bird outside my window sees the tree differently from me. And as for me, I spent most of my life in utter ignorance of the underground life of trees, in which root systems are connected by fungi in such a way that trees can communicate with each other. Buddhist thinking encourages us to see that the names we give to “things” are just convenient ways of chopping our world into manageable chunks, whereas in reality everything is connected with every other thing.
A small dose of this sort of thought frees us from lazy dogmatism, and introduces a decent modesty into the human quest for truth.
A decent modesty does not mean a total scepticism about our ability to understand the universe, more a cautious optimism. I believe in one God, the Father, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Messiah, his only son our master, and in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, but I know that generations of human beings have praised and prayed and pondered and invented the nature of this God. But surely it is God who has revealed himself to human beings? Well yes, that’s the nature we gave him. The imagination of human beings has been central to what we call the revelation of God. If that were not so, how would we have made him masculine and honoured him with a masculine pronoun? Our sticky fingers are all over the history of God. But just as the same imagination is capable of understanding the quantum nature of particles, so it is capable of understanding God. Just as there is no need to judge that there is no reality behind our understanding of particles, there is also no need to judge that behind our theology there is no God. Much “new atheism” misunderstands the process of invention and testing in theology and dismisses theological assertions as lacking proof. In fact the doctrine of God has undergone millennia of testing by millions of human beings who have believed in God. Richard Dawkins submits a Sunday School deity to a scientific kicking.
My purpose here however is not to give Dawkins a well-deserved kicking in return, but to urge that all theologies acknowledge their roots in human experience and imagination:
IN THE BEGINNING – OR SOMETIME NEAR IT- HUMAN BEINGS INVENTED GODS AND GODDESSES.
This confession would allow Popes to recant their doctrines and Martin Luther not to blame the scriptures for his interpretation of St Paul (” my conscience is in chains to the Word of God”) Believers would learn to take responsibility for their contribution to the nature of their God rather than pretending that the moment Jesus saved them he also gave them an implant of all sorts of garbage about gays, blacks and socialists; or that Allah issued them with a prescription for the killing of cattle and the proper headgear of women.
If I’m right in believing in a God of love, then of course he/she will want to communicate with her human creatures, and if she does so, will accept the consequence that her message will be filtered through the human imagination, with all its power to distort. And if ultimately she decides to hold nothing back, she will still have to communicate through the human imagination of her son Jesus, to whom she did not give the advantage of a son-of-God implant that could by-pass his human limitations. Maybe that’s why his story leaves us with the greatest question in the Bible:
“My God, my. God, why have you abandoned me?”
All theologies, I suggest, should be Chapter 1 theologies, which admit the human origins of faith and the corrigibility of doctrines.