Faithful and Free
6 - Belief in God
We have sketched out some belief options, and we have suggested how one might go about choosing amongst the multitudes of belief possibilities. We must now speak in more detail about our own belief in God as the way to give a name to ultimate reality. For our own faith is faith in God as real - God as reality itself.
When we talk about God, we are using language which has come to us through the Jewish and Christian religious traditions. In both these traditions there are two key affirmations about God which are essential also to our own belief.
First of all, God is experienced as personal, and therefore individual. God relates to people personally and is affected by them. In the Bible, God loves and cares for humankind and for individuals, and grieves over them too. And yet, on the other hand, in both religions God is recognised as universal, the beginning and end of everything, and of every particular thing. There is nothing in all the world untouched by God.
When we speak of God we are in harmony with these ancient traditions, and maintain both the individual and the universal aspects. God is a person who relates Godself to all that is and all that may be, the one individual who unfailingly makes a difference to everything, and to whom everything makes a difference.
God, thought of only in universal terms, becomes an abstract reality untouched by human living and dying. God, thought of only in personal terms, becomes a human being drawn large. One is then left with either a cosmic tyrant or a cosmic loving parent, and nothing larger than that. And one accepts the consequence that there is that which God does not touch and which does not touch God. An exclusive emphasis on either God's individuality or God's universality fails to do justice to the whole reality of God. In this we stand with the biblical tradition.
There can be no facile answer. Religion often meets this challenge by imagining possibilities of existence beyond the range of life in this world. God is given more space and time, out of human view as it were, to make things come out right in the end. This solution brings its own difficulties. If everything is straightened out in another world, that seems to undercut the seriousness of this one, and to remove the point of the freedom God allows. We look to God as the basis of our hope for every situation, every individual, every moment. We cannot justify the kind of belief in a 'beyond' that would allow people to disclaim responsibility for the world of present experience.
We do not suppose that God intervenes arbitrarily in the affairs of the world. God is not an occasional visitor who grants a miracle here, a vision there, an emotional high somewhere else. It makes no sense to us to expect that if you do something stupid driving your car (for example) God will miraculously intervene to protect your life and those of your passengers. We cannot see our lives as subject to the whim - even the benevolent whim - of a supernatural power that operates independently of our own responsible decisions. In fact we do not wish our freedom to be undermined by such an understanding of God.
Therefore we resist the kind of dogmatic belief in miracles that is advocated by some Christians. Such belief undermines creaturely freedom; weakens human responsibility; pictures God as having favourites; and contradicts the scientific and historical ways of understanding the world which are inseparable from modern consciousness.
What then? Is the existence of God something that, true or false, makes no practical difference to our lives, and never did? Or was God's activity limited to winding up the universe like a clock, in the beginning, and ever after leaving it to run by itself? Or are religious humanists (like Lloyd Geering) right in saying that the symbol 'God' is simply a human construction, useful for focusing particular human values? We accept none of these suggestions. Rather we will now discuss the real activity of God under the three headings of creator, redeemer, and liberator. Through this discussion we hope to make more clear the distinction between what God can and should be expected to do for us, and what we can and should be expected to do for ourselves.
The intention of God for the world is only good. But God does not enforce good over against creaturely freedom. God so creates the world, and you, that there are ever-new possibilities of good, and yet good remains unrealized without the initiative and co-operation of creation. The personal love of God, which reaches out to everyone and everything, respects creaturely freedom for the sake of all the good that may come of it, and accepts the risk and the pain that cannot be avoided if freedom is to be real.
God has not created a world more painful than it needs to be. This must, in fact, be the best of all possible worlds. God sets the limit to creaturely freedom at the point which allows the greatest possibility of good compared with the risk of evil. We can choose to work for good, and good can conquer evil. The order of things is biased on the side of goodness and decency. The world really is a good place, and if people do evil things that is not through necessity, but through the perverse employment of their own free will. Maintaining a world in which we have the freedom to do good is God's work. It is what God does.
You might like to try a thought-experiment. Imagine a world that allows people as much freedom as they have in this one, but sets extra limits to the negative consequences that flow from freedom, as well as to accidental calamities. You might decide, for example, that although pain remains painful, and is often a consequence of wrong choices, yet the exercise of human freedom should never result in irreversible damage. Is this alternative world truly better than the one God has actually given you? Does not any lessening of the possibility for evil diminish even more the possibility for good?
It is interesting to explore the many literary attempts to describe utopias - earthly paradises. Few people would choose these creations if they could, in preference to the world of their actual experience. In the twentieth century, utolpian writing has mostly been anti-utopian (Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's 1984). Anti-utopian literature can disclose the disastrous consequences of varying the conditions of possibility of the world we actually live in.
Relating Godself to us all in every moment is what God does. The Christian tradition calls it 'redemption' - God buying back our lives from finitude and insignificance; God letting us really count for something.
God cannot, then, be charged with indifference to human suffering. In all suffering God suffers. But because suffering falls so unequally in this world, this does not seem to be a sufficient answer to the question of God's justice. If God's love is individual and special to each person, how does it cope with the appalling and undeserved calamities that so regularly befall the poorest citizens of this earth?
There is a difference between God's work as redeemer and God's work as liberator. Whereas people can do no more than witness to God's all-inclusive love, God's work as liberator demands their active co-operation. Then the issue becomes not so much one of Christian faith as one of Christian faithfulness.
There is work, then, that God can only do with human co-operation - reforming social life; cleaning up politics; establishing justice in national and world economies; breaking the yoke of oppression, and lightening the load on the shoulders of the poor; looking deep into the well of a people's despair, and following through on a commitment to do something about it. People are free to get on with such tasks when they themselves are so liberated by the love of God that they have energy and love left over for some one or some cause beyond themselves.
What, then, does God do in the face of suffering? God so deals with people as to set them free for the service of others' need. And that means, again, that God is a reality in human life - the ultimate reality. This God invites you to become free from yourself and all others for yourself and all others, and to take up the challenge to make this world (and your life within it) everything it has the potential to be.
It is our invitation, too, that you be faithful and free, inspired and inspiring, co-worker with us and with God in liberating the world.