Practical Dreamers
...Honest to God
where to now?

Ian Harris - October 6, 2005



Thank you . . . . . ,  and my thanks to the Sea of Faith group in Dunedin for the opportunity to speak here tonight.  You may wonder why a journalist, of all people, should have the temerity to explore in what is truly a theological minefield.  I suppose the short answer is: Because it’s there, and it’s too important to me not to.

That said, I’m well aware that the sorts of issues that the Sea of Faith Network explores were once the almost sole preserve of the churches.  In recent years, however, as the questions have become more insistent and the traditional answers less satisfying, the discussion has broken beyond the boundaries of the church and is now at home everywhere – even, as has been mentioned, in the secular press.  I’m happy to join you tonight and contribute my two penn’orth to the debate.

In this address I shall range fairly widely to set out the broad context for being honest to God today – which is not at all the same as being honest to God 3000 years ago, or even 1000 or 500 or 200 years ago.  We’ll go back nearly 3000 years to see how our forebears worked at being honest to God (or, if you prefer, honest at creating God) at a crucial time in human history.  We’ll look at that core notion of creating God, which may seem unduly shocking to some of you, and then ask what’s been happening to give this question new urgency in our own times.  Finally, I’ll project forward and ask: Where do we go from here?

Just one qualification at the outset: I’ll be offering ideas that I’ve found useful in going forward, another way of seeing.  I’m certainly not claiming to pronounce any final word.  First, then,

The Setting for Being Honest to God Today

We’re all aware that we’re living in a period of huge and convulsive change.  That’s true of every aspect of our existence – the values of our society, its racial make-up, our political structures.  It’s true of health and longevity, of basic social attitudes - to women, for example, to homosexuals, and increasingly to children.  It’s true of the kind of world we live in (I have only to mention September 11).  It’s true of the world of ideas.

It’s also true of religion, which I’m defining broadly in Carlo Della Casa’s phrase as “a total mode for the interpreting and living of life”.  In that sense, I suppose, we all have something akin to a religion, whether we call it religion or not.  It may even be political (such as communism), or environmental, or ethnic, even atheistic.  All of these may offer a fundamental reference point and framework, “a total mode …”.  That makes all of them religious in Della Casa’s sense.

It’s because we’re living on the cusp of such fundamental and far-reaching change that, inevitably, the old religious frameworks for “this total mode for …”  are found less complete and less satisfying than in past generations.  Almost certainly, new ways and new frameworks will emerge over time, but at this point they’re only in the early stages of being discerned.  It’s as though the cultural and inner life of humanity, especially in western societies like ours, is in the middle of a major tilt on its axis, and we don’t know yet where it’ll settle.

Before exploring how we can be honest to God in this emerging new era, I’d better say what I mean when I use the term “God” – which may or may not be what you mean.  That’s part of the problem – it means so many different things to so many different people.

I don’t mean a Being existing objectively in another world that impinges on this one: for me, God is not “real” in that sense.  But what the word symbolises still matters supremely:

• It points to what is best and highest and deepest in our human experience;

• It sums up what is central to our understanding of life, what we sense as ultimate in the values we choose to live by;

• And it provides a focus of coherence for all our experience.

To put that another way, when we’re talking of God today, we’re essentially doing two things simultaneously:

We’re thinking of an over-arching framework of coherence for all we know and are and can be;

and we’re reaching out to a transcendent quality of life within our experience of this world of space and time.

Don’t imagine that we’re the first to go through this shift in the tectonic plates of religious thinking.  So before we focus on own situation, let’s step back and look at another period when something similar was happening.

The Axial Period

I’m referring to the first period when the “total mode …” tilted on its axis.  It was roughly the period between 800 and 200 BC, known in the books as the Axial Period.  Something new and exciting was happening then in human experience, and it was expressed (as you’d expect it to be) in religion

Till then, societies were essentially tribal, and religion was an expression of the life of the tribe: think for example of the Romans, the Jews, the Maori.  Their rituals and beliefs were summed up as the religion of the Romans, the religion of the Jews, the religion of the Maori.  That religion wasn’t something they chose from a smorgasbord of possibilities, as it might be today – they were born into it willy-nilly.

Their world was full of unseen powers, both friendly and hostile, who had to be placated, invoked or warded off – hence the role and the power of the priest, the medicine man, the tohunga.  The world of each culture was a complete, self-contained world, and one alive with spiritual powers.  Their religions can be characterised as nature religions; and they’re far from extinct even today.  I’ve seen them myself in the rituals surrounding the planting and harvesting of rice in Java, you’ve seen them in the lifting of a tapu to make a place or a ceremony safe from the influence of unseen spirits.

In the framework of such cultures, change was to be avoided at all costs, because change might disturb the delicate balance of forces and people’s very place in society.  The well-being of the community depended on not rocking the boat: people who deviated had to be killed or exiled for the good of the whole.

So what happened to upset this age-old pattern?  Well, it’s remarkable that about two and half thousand years ago, in a number of countries round the world and quite independently of each other, a few individuals emerged who dared to question what everyone else took for granted.  In Greece, Palestine, Persia, northern India, northern China, free-thinkers appeared who began asking radical questions about the meaning and purpose of life, about what really constitutes the good, about the nature of the world around them, and about their own cultural traditions.

In the Mediterranean world in the centuries around 500 BC there were the Greek philosophers such as Plato and Socrates and Aristotle, the Hebrew prophets such as Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, and further east there were Zoroaster, Gautama Buddha, Confucius.  All of them, each in their own way, brought into focus another mode for the interpreting and living of life.  They didn’t displace the older religions immediately.  But they sowed seeds that took deep root, and we’re still reaping the fruits today.  Looking back, we can see those societies perched on the cusp of change; and by the time the effects of their thinking had worked through, the religious and cultural axis of the northern hemisphere had tilted decisively.

The period was marked by a number of features:

- There was self-reflection – people were encouraged to think about the way they were thinking.

- People became more aware of their own limitations, and of the world’s.  So they looked beyond their immediate world of unseen powers and forces to speculate on another order of reality, a finer world beyond this one.  Then they found ways of responding to the ultimate issues of existence in light of that finer world (remember, it was “a total mode …”)

- As a consequence, the tangible world gradually lost its sacred quality, because only the God of that finer world could be holy.  (This loss of sacredness was, of course, the pre-condition for modern science eventually to emerge.)

- There was also a negative effect.  As people reached out to a world beyond, life in this world was devalued.  It became the arena of everything undesirable, and especially of sin, suffering and death.

- So out of this there developed a dualistic world view.  It was no longer one world that included all those unseen principalities and powers as part of the way things are, but two different worlds – God’s and ours.

- Consequently, the focus of religion shifted from the basic necessities of life – things like food, protection, reproduction – to the needs of the spirit, which were felt to be inherently superior.  Remember, salvation now lay in another world.

- Along with that, the religious emphasis shifted from the social or tribal to the individual. Religion came to be a more personal affair – personal, but not individualistic.

- Finally, the new frameworks of beliefs, attitudes and rituals came to revolve around historical figures, and the implications of their teaching were seen to be universal.  The new faiths were proclaimed as meeting not just the needs of a people’s own tribe and heritage, but of the whole human condition.  This spurred their followers to move beyond their old ethnic limits and push out across races and continents – Christianity into the gentile world, Islam east and west from Saudi Arabia.  While both those religions emerged after this Axial period, they’re very much products of it.

You’ll recognise many of those Axial characteristics as part of the churches most of us grew up in.  They’ve endured and served the world, on the whole, very well.  But now another change is building, and to that I turn.

Idea of Creating God

One of the obvious signs of change today is the way the idea of God is being rethought.  God is slowly being unhitched from the theistic formulations that have been dominant till now.  In theism, God is affirmed as a real and objective being with an existence in a supernatural world apart from ours; but this God also intervenes at will in the life of this world to sway nations, to bring death and destruction in earthquakes and storms, and to heal and redeem.

In the Christian tradition God’s major intervention was to rescue fallen humanity from the consequences of Adam’s sin, and to bring God’s chosen followers to an after-life of eternal bliss.  Those ideas are alive and well today, as you’ll see if you read your liturgies and your hymn books, and listen to the prayers prayed in church.

But there’s change afoot.  The concept of God is being rethought: in our own lifetime God has taken on a greener tinge in the churches themselves, reflecting our growing environmental concerns.  At the instigation of the feminists, the overwhelmingly male image of God has acquired female characteristics.  Neither of these attributes was apparent even 50 years ago.

Also, books have appeared in which God has acquired a history (Karen Armstrong’s A History of God) and a biography (Jack Miles’ God: A Biography).  God’s been given a farewell (Don Cupitt’s Taking Leave of God), a funeral (A.N. Wilson’s God’s Funeral), but also a future (Lloyd Geering’s Tomorrow’s God), and God’s had a re-genesis (my own Creating God, Recreating Christ). All these are serious contributions to the faith quest, yet all would have been unthinkable 100 years ago.  What has changed?

Essentially, the one who traditionally has created is slowly being himself re-created or reconceived, whether consciously or subconsciously – and this is happening not to belittle God, but in order that what the word sums up might continue to be a positive and pervasive influence in people’s lives.  You can see this as a threat to faith and resist it; or as a promise for faith and enter into the opportunity.

Whether you think it a threat or a promise, it’s not a new idea: Meister Eckhart in the early 1300s said: “The highest and loftiest thing that one can do is to let go of God for the sake of God”.  If that throws you, he also said: “God’s exit is her entrance.”

Even earlier Anselm, who died in 1109, said: “God is that Being than which nothing greater can be conceived” – that is, the God we experience is at the very least the God we conceive in our minds (or create).  Anselm also said God was greater than anything we can conceive.  But that has to be a philosophical statement, since if we can’t even conceive it, it won’t be much use to us.

There’ll continue to be debate along the lines of whether we create God, or respond to God.

On the one hand are those who lean to the idea that humans create the one who (or that which) will be God for them.  They begin with humans in their search for meaning, in their questioning of our purpose and destiny, in their awareness of the forces of good and evil around them; and they suggest that throughout history, for the very best of reasons, cultures have speculated the gods (and later God) into a subjective reality, and then shaped their lives around it.

That’s a world away from the traditional view of the monotheistic faiths, that of response.  There God’s seen as the great and universal given, the cause, the initiator, the creator, with everything deriving from that - so that even if humanity had never existed, there’d still be God.

There’s a huge gulf between those two positions.  But I suggest that in practical human terms, the God who some insist is not created is a God who is created in the mind and imagination – only it’s created in such a way as to rule out the idea that it was created.  In other words, they create a God whose prime attribute is that he cannot be created.

Whichever way you may lean, the idea of creating God is taken as read in some of books I mentioned earlier.  In A History of God Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun, writes:

Ever since the prophets of Israel started to ascribe their own feelings and experiences to God, monotheists have in some sense created a God for themselves.  God has rarely been seen as a self-evident fact that can be encountered like any other objective existent.  Today many people seem to have lost the will to make this imaginative effort.  This need not be a catastrophe.  When religious ideas have lost their validity, they have usually faded away painlessly:  if the human idea of God no longer works for us in the empirical age, it will be discarded.  Yet in the past people have always created new symbols to act as a focus for spirituality.  Human beings have always created a faith for themselves, to cultivate their sense of the wonder and ineffable significance of life.  The aimlessneess, alienation, anomie and violence that characterizes so much of modern life seems to indicate that now that they are not deliberately creating a faith in 'God' or anything else – it matters little what – many people are falling into despair.         (p.456)

A similar view is present throughout God: A Biography, by a former Jesuit priest, Jack Miles. This is a study of God as a literary character cumulatively created by many Jewish writers over hundreds of years.  The Jews were insistent that God is one; but not all the experiences and aspirations they projected on to God were compatible.  The result, says Miles, is an amalgam of several personalities in the one character, evolving as it goes along.  Essentially again, God is seen as a creation of human minds.“Ever since the prophets . . . falling into despair.”

(“A History of God”, p 456)

I’m suggesting, therefore, that if we want to be honest to God in the world of today’s understandings, we should start from the point that it is we who create God, and not the other way round.  You’re free to reject that, but for present purposes I’m going to continue to explore down that track.  To take this position is in no way to trivialise God, but an attempt to find a way to bring divinity/Godness alive for own times.


But why are these questions being raised at all?  Why do the old certainties no longer carry conviction for so many of our contemporaries?

Because over the past 400 years, the axis of the way we understand the world has been tilting again.  Once again philosophers, prophets and free-thinkers have appeared asking radical questions about the meaning and purpose of life, the nature of the world around them, and their own cultural and religious traditions.  Once again, they’re being ignored or resisted by those for whom the established tradition still holds the final word and still gives the best available package on the “total mode …”

The reality, though, is that the world is changing around them.  According to the census, the fastest growing major religious grouping in NZ comprises those who profess “no religion”: it grew by 53% between 1991 and 2001 to over 1 million people.  That’s 27% of the population, and 80% of them are under the age of 40.  Among them are many who are just as interested as I assume we are in questions of ultimate worth and purpose, but they don’t find the old world view and answers compelling.  We need to understand why this is so, and why it’s irreversible.

First and foremost, in answer to that, the western world’s view of reality has changed radically in the past 400 years: and if God is part of that reality, our view of God must change too.

There’s always been a link between people’s understanding of God and the culture of their times – whether that be Hebrew, Greek, Roman, medieval European or whatever.  For example, God was once clearly located in the top tier of a 3-tier universe consisting of heaven, earth and hell.  That cosmology has gone, so where does God belong now?  In so many ways the God who fitted that 3-tier picture has disappeared for the purposes of our everyday understanding - but he’s still firmly embedded in our liturgies and prayers.  If change is blocked, God could well become a fossil stuck in ancient understandings and world views.

The root of the problem – but also, I suggest, the hope and the opportunity – lies in secularisation, the process that has produced the secular culture in which today we live and move and have our being.

I’d better clarify what I mean by secular.  I don’t mean anti-religious.  I’m using it as a neutral word referring to the world of space and time – the Latin saeculum means an age, or generation, or period of 100 years (as in the French siecle).  It’s a word pointing to this world, as opposed to any world beyond space and time.  So we have a secular education system in a secular state.  The Roman Catholic Church has secular priests – not a fifth column white-anting the church’s teachings, but there to serve ordinary people in the everyday world of their parishes, while the religious orders live a more cloistered life apart.

Secularisation refers to the process by which institutions or public occasions or buildings pass from priestly control to serve neutral ends.  Over the past four centuries we’ve seen it happen in the law, in science, schools, universities, hospitals - all of them once under church authority, but now mostly not.  We’ve seen church buildings secularised to become theatres, craft shops, cafes, dwellings.  We’ve seen hymns and Bible readings dropped from school assemblies.  We’ve seen secular celebrants emerge to offer an alternative to the church’s role in weddings and funerals.  We’ve seen moves for Parliament to dispense with the prayer that opens each sitting day.  That’s all the result of secularisation.  Some sociologists use the word to mean the disappearance of any religious or spiritual impulse from society, but that’s not the sense in which I’m using it here.

Secularism is different again.  The word first appeared in the 1840s to describe an ideological stance that rules out all religious considerations from questions of morality.  It says there can be no validity to religion at all.  It’s an anti-religious dogma.

One result of the process of secularisation has been to shift the focus back from that other, heavenly realm to this world as the place where we have to look for meaning and purpose and value in life.  I wonder how many people here believe that the meaning and destiny of your life lie in a supernatural world on the other side of death.

If you do, please also recognise that’s a world view that fewer and fewer westerners can affirm.  They’re caught up in this new Axial shift I’ve been talking about, and it’s that, not stupidity or hardness of heart, that’s emptying churches around the western world.  So while people whose God was created in the old framework are perfectly free to get on with life accordingly, it’s also necessary to look for ways of finding God within this, our evolving, secular culture.

In this new framework of understanding, this new house of meaning, as it’s been called:

We no longer look to another, supernatural order of being to find the point of our life in this world.

We no longer project everything worthwhile to an origin beyond this world.  Along with that comes a revaluing upwards of the life of the here and now.

We try to make sense of life/ purpose/ destiny within this life, because secularisation brings the realisation that this world is probably all there is.  This life is not a dress rehearsal for something that lies beyond: fulfilment/ wholeness/ mystery/ salvation all lie here.

Changing tack, the attitude to nature shifts again.  Nature’s no longer an aspect of a self-contained spirit world, as in the pre-Axial period.  We no longer exploit it hand over fist in the belief that it doesn’t matter all that much because it’s all going to end one day and salvation lies in another world anyway.  Instead, we accept our responsibility as stewards of the natural world, and we live in respectful partnership with it.

In this new framework our western focus on the individual has to be balanced by an increasing emphasis on right relationships as part of spiritual health.  The new Archbishop of Canterbury touched on this at his consecration two years ago (2003) when he said: “When Christians grieve or protest about war, about debt, about poverty, about prejudice, it’s because of the fear we rightly feel when insult and violence blot out the divine image in our human relations.”

If secularisation is bringing a new world into being, then finding ways to meet the fundamental needs of the human condition within this new world becomes an urgent task for all who value the spiritual dimension of life (which is, I suggest, the essentially human dimension of life).

In other words, if we’re going to create God in a manner worthy of the name, we’ll need to take on board for faith purposes some of the decisive shifts that have produced the modern world.  For example, we live:

Post-Galileo, who finally dislodged the earth from the centre of our universe, and sent a shock wave through the church’s whole theological framework;

Post-William Smith, the geologist who concluded that the earth had to be a fair bit older than Archbishop Ussher’s calculation of 4004 BC;

Post-Charles Darwin, who explained the variety of the natural world in a way that didn’t match the Bible story of creation;

Post-Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, who explored the depths of the human psyche (which, as you know, is the Greek word for soul);

Post-Ernest Rutherford, who took the atom that by definition couldn’t be split, and split it;

Post-Albert Einstein, who revolutionised the way we think about space, time, energy and matter;

Post-Max Planck, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, who probed the microscopic world of quantum physics;

Post-Edward Hubble, who opened up the vastness of space for exploration;

Post-James Watson, Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin, who began the unravelling of our DNA structure.

We also live post-200 years of critical biblical scholarship, which has made possible a new and deeper understanding of the Bible and its worlds than was ever possible before.

We have a choice to make: Either our faith must take account of all that and more, or reject it and say nothing has really changed.  I say, let’s take it all on board and work forward from there.  That’s where we begin to be honest to God in the 21st century.  It’s the first step toward answering the question:

Where to Now?

How can we be honest to God today, if we take the view that we create God and not vice versa?  I won’t offer a comprehensive blueprint, but I will suggest a platform that seems to me sturdy enough to build on.

We begin by looking at our options – there are only three - and deciding where we stand:

First, we can carry on as if the past 400 years haven’t happened.  In matters of religion, but nowhere else, lots of people do.  In law, medicine, education, technology, science we expect to apply advances in knowledge as a matter of course, but in religion there are many who dig in and refuse to budge.

Second, we can give up.  Many people have.  This has the merit that it’s honest, the drawback that they turn their backs on so much that is potentially so rich.

Third, we can rub our western faith tradition and our secular culture together till currents of energy begin to flow between them.  This then becomes a time for exploring and re–interpreting, for finding ways to put our insights into new creeds, liturgies, hymns and prayers still to be written.

For my part, I still dream, standing as we are on the cusp of another axial change, that our churches will see as their key task for today this challenge to re-imagine their faith tradition in and for this secular age.

But I see little sign of that, which forces creative energy to the fringes.  If that’s where it’s got to happen, that’s where it will happen – remember Paul Tillich’s description of the boundary as the most creative place to be.  Remember too the comment by John Spong, a bishop on the boundary if ever there was one, that of 10,000 letters in response to his book  Why Christianity Must Change or Die,  the lay people were 90% positive, the clergy 90% negative.  It seems we may have a wee problem here.

It’s not too late to recapture the initiative – the difficulty lies rather in being too timorous to make the attempt.  At parish level, the main requirement seems to me to be to redefine the role of the parish church as a place where people can search openly and honestly in a 21st century way, instead of being frowned on or frozen out for raising doubts, or saying certain treasured doctrines don’t compute any more.  This is a time when the questions are more important than the pre-ordained answers.  Groups such as the Sea of Faith, Ephesus, Spirited Conversations, Galaxies – these are places where people say they feel safe.  So often people say they don’t feel safe in their own congregations, which is an indictment of them.

In fact, this shared exploration is where the spirit of ecumenism may well flicker into life again.  Ecumenism was surging in the 60’s and 70’s with the movement toward church union, but that has withered on the vine.  Denominations have dug in.  The fact, however, is that today’s religious questions – the real questions about salvation or destruction on this planet – don’t have denominational answers any more, if indeed they ever did.  So searching minds cross the denominational boundaries to explore the issues alongside others of like mind, and often people of no denomination find they can join in too without losing their integrity.  I’ve seen this again and again in the SOF Network, Ephesus, Spirited Conversations, and many other groups.

These places create opportunities to engage and explore in the style of the synagogue (which of course were laypeople’s institutes), with the clergy as a valued resource rather than as controllers – in the Presbyterian order beloved of Dunedinites, of course, that’s the role of the teaching elder rather than the ruling elder, so you have a head start.  It’s most important not to set too many restrictions in advance – it won’t be a genuine exploration if it’s already been decided what you’re allowed to discover.

As such groups quarry Scripture, do theology together while holding to a secular world view, engage their imaginations, a natural consequence is to work together on liturgies that grow out of the life of the group ( that’s using “liturgy” in its root meaning of “the work of the people”).  Another is to sort out what they’d want to say in a faith statement or creed of their own – which is not the same as devising a creed for the whole world and for all time.

Down the track, this approach should lead to a new architecture where all this can comfortably happen.  Building more churches around the old theology seems myopic to me.  It’s important that the new generation of churches should be places where members of the wider community can also engage in this search for integrity, meaning and purpose without feeling ill at ease.  I would cite, for example, the journey of Marian Barnes,  an atheist New Zealander whose honesty and integrity led her to affirm “God” (or Godness) while remaining true to her atheism.  If her feeling is at all widespread – and I know from the response to my column in the Dominion Post and the Otago Daily Times that interest in the God question is far wider than would appear from church attendance – that overture is surely worth trying to build on.  It’s all part of an evolution into something new, something so far undefinable.

It could well be untidy for a while.  But it will happen because that’s the way we humans are, and because the questions that gather around that little word “God” have for millennia been so central to living life to the full.  I believe that still holds, even in our secular world.


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