That probably sounds like a rather unremarkable claim. I’m a minister serving in the United Church of Christ who believes in the reality of God. Of course, I do. It’s my job really. I don’t think this post will generate the traffic that my fellow progressive blogger John Shuck has in his recent post which is titled “I’m a Presbyterian Minister Who Doesn’t Believe in God.” Given how much I agree it seems odd to respond but I think being close in our views can make small differences instructive.
And perhaps push the discussion forward because the God he doesn’t believe in, I don’t believe in either. Richard Dawkins, has used that definition as the benchmark separating theism from atheism. Included in that definition is the idea that God is a supernatural being, who is outside of space and time and from time to time intervenes in miracles. I don’t think such a being exists.
But even if it did, I don’t think it could qualify as God, I think God has a narrower definition than is what is usually put forth. I’m interested in what makes for life in this world, not just a generic power that exists out there. Now John Shuck makes other claims that I’ll modify slightly so I find myself in full agreement with them:
Religion is a human construct The symbols of faith are products of human cultural evolution. Jesus may have been an historical figure, but what we know about him is often in the form of legend. God is a symbol of myth-making and not credible as a supernatural being. The Bible is a human product as opposed to special revelation from a divine being. I regard the symbols of Christianity from a naturalist viewpoint.
What I appreciate is how his column is open to questions and doubts that so many people have, including myself. And he lays them out on the table for all to see. In that he demystifies faith, makes it a genuinely democratic process whereby we can be free to question, to examine, and to determine what from our cultural inheritance will make sense for us today. I think Christianity, I think all world religions needs that kind of movement. John Shuck plays an invaluable role in this.
I think the difference is in how we approach religious symbols. I think the word God is rather indispensable for us as a guide and wrote two articles on the subject. Why Progressive Christians Need God and What Difference Does God Make? I wrote them to indicate that while we need the religious freedom John Shucks speaks of, the kind that welcomes all doubters, all questioners, all who long for the more in life, that the symbols and resources of our respective traditions have a significant power to them.
I think this is partly because constructivism only has explanatory power if it is paired with a certain kind of philosophic realism. The kind that argues that symbols and theological constructions are formed by humans beings negotiating their world such that they refer back to lived realities in the world. That is that they have a reference point in experience. The work of the theological imagination is never at work in isolation but in reference to a wider world.
That reference could be seen in two ways. First as expressing what we see operative around us. The fact that we are dependent on realities beyond us, in our relations with others, in the natural world which sustain us, which transforms us, that provides the possibilities of more in life. To quote Shailer Matthews: “God is our conception, born of social experience, of the personality-evolving and personally responsive elements of our cosmic environment with which we are organically related. ”
But not just any element but rather those those elements that make a difference for the better. As Henry Nelson Wieman writes God is that in the universe “which preserves and increases..the total good of all human living where right adjustment is made.” In that the thrust of most major religious traditions, Christianity included, is salvation based. This is not reducible to morals, but includes them. It includes all that makes for life abundant, whether that is material needs which are met, intellectual life satisfied, encounters with beauty from art to nature, the love we experience in our relations to one another. These are charged with divinity.
Lloyd Geering notes that the supernatural comes in when there is an absence of what makes for life. It was a critique of existing arrangements. It said there was something better than what was. So when the Israelites envisioned salvation, they looked around and said, it would be deliverance from the Babylonian captivity. When they felt the absence of God it was due to being in captivity. When they envisioned God’s reign they looked at the oppression in their land and said not that, the opposite actually where there is peace, where all will have their own land. When Jesus envisioned the Kingdom of God it was one where the power of Rome was no more.
So identifying God is identifying what’s lacking in supporting life as it should be. It is also identifying what is operating to make for life as it should be. The absence and the presence of such things, both remain part of our experience and grounds it. Which is a good thing because it means religious beliefs are in a position to be critiqued, evaluated, transformed to relate to the world as we know and experience it today. The inheritance never remains static, which is what I appreciate in Shuck’s piece.
Now religious language is not the only language we have to relate to this presence and absence, the actual and the ideal. We have many languages, from the sciences, from other disciplines, from other religious traditions. When I speak of God I am not trying to compete with another language, like science. I’m using one route, a route that gives us clues in how we respond to saving realities, real and possible. One of reverence, of piety, if not worship. One which seeks to transform the whole of one’s life towards saving realities. To become as it where “a new creation in Christ” as Paul writes.
“I think of Christianity as a culture. It has produced 2,000 years of artifacts: literature, music, art, ethics, architecture, and (yes) beliefs.” John Shuck writes. I agree. How to open up the resources of that tradition such that we can open up the world in saving ways I take it as the task of the church and ministry. I believe John is doing that in his way. And in my own relation to this heritage I’m trying to do likewise. To the degree that beliefs can serve humane ends, and not be themselves the objects of faith, is to the degree that a progressive account of faith will be good news in our world.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma