Talk about God

Talk about God

Allan Jones

Sun 16 Feb

When I was a young minister, a much older minister gave me some advice about sermons. “Allan”, he said, “Talk about God, and talk about ten minutes”. I remembered his advice, but I have seldom adhered to it.

Until today.  When I hope to give at least the first half of his advice some attempt. I have been fascinated by the idea of God since I was a child.

I have listened to many sermons, and most of them did not talk about God.  They have been about the Bible, or the Israelites, or the Pharisees, or Palestine in the First Century.  I attended Theological College for three years, and never once heard a plausible explanation of God.  I’ve heard many people refer to God, and it seems they mean some supreme being who will look after you if you ask well enough.  That idea has so many problems about it that it is incredible.  Though it would be wonderful if it were true, it is impossible to believe.

I’ve read theology.  Not as much as some, but more than many.  I’ve found that theologians can’t tell you much about God.  Richard Dawkins once campaigned to banish the theology faculty at Oxford, because, he said, theology is only a real subject if there is a God, and no one can prove that conclusively.

When I told a friend and colleague I intended to talk about God at St Luke’s, he said, “Better read Feuerbach.”  Another colleague said, “Have a look at the creation stories.  There’s a clue there.”

Feuerbach was a German philosopher who wrote one famous work, The Essence of Christianity, in 1841.  He was praised by both Marx and Engels as the ultimate classical German philosopher.  He was famous for a few years because of his book, then overtaken by others like Nietzsche and the existentialists.  But his book is a mind blower, and interestingly Lloyd Geering lectured on Feuerbach with passion. 

Feuerbach said that the traditional idea of God as a supreme being, is that God is either supernatural, or superhuman.  Now if God is supernatural, that is outside of and beyond nature, then we can never know anything about God.  God would be indescribable and unknowable.  This is the sort of God Walter Chalmers Smith speaks of: immortal, invisible, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes, one who nothing can change, and one who is hid from us only by the splendour of light.

But Feuerbach points out that religion cannot give the supernatural any content except a natural one.  Mortality and immortality are matters of nature.  Change is natural.  And soon in Smith’s hymn he is talking of God in terms of justice, and goodness and love, of being blessed, and mighty, and victorious.  All these are human, not supernatural, qualities and values.  We cannot say anything sensible about a supernatural God, because we have to use natural and often human, describing words, and that makes God natural, not supernatural.

Feuerbach’s argument is longer and tighter than mine, but basically once you have followed it, you realise that talk of a supernatural God is nonsense, because we are part of a natural world, and all we can know or speak of is of this world and nature.

So, what about the other option: that God is superhuman, like us but greater and more powerfully human?  This seems to be the sort of God the Old Testament speaks of.  This God has human qualities, like justice and love and mercy, but also sometimes human qualities like anger, and even capriciousness.  The God of the Old Testament is much like a great King, who is to be feared and obeyed and loved even though some actions are mad.  Who would ask a man to sacrifice his son to show obedience to the great King he worships? Yahweh did.  Who would tell his chosen nation to steal the land of other nations and make it theirs?  Yahweh did.  Who would destroy almost all his created children by sending a flood, and afterwards offer his children a rainbow in the sky as an apology?  Yahweh did.

The usual solution to this is to say that only good and noble qualities are truly God’s nature, the evil qualities are misunderstandings of some sort.  This is pretty much where monotheistic religion arrived, with later Judaism, and Christianity.  God is a supreme being with superhuman qualities, but all of a good sort.  God is gracious, kind, loving, forgiving, understanding, and all powerful.  They are all things we can be to some extent.  They are human qualities writ large.

Feuerbach again.  This sort of God seems to make sense, because we understand the human attributes that such a God possesses in a superlative way.  But it is contradictory.  If God is all-loving and all-powerful, why is there so much suffering in the world?  Surely God could fix that?  And if God is all-powerful, can God build a wall that God cannot push over?  And if God is all-knowing, then can God change his mind?  In other words, the superhuman qualities we attribute to God become impossible to hold together.

Now we come to the creation story in Genesis 1.  Notice first that God seems to be a plural: “now we will make humans”.  The Old Testament assumes often there are numerous deities, some working together, some at odds with each other.  Just as there are many rulers and powers on Earth, so there are in heaven.

Then we have the remarkable story that God created human beings to “be like us and resemble us”.  Then the story goes: “God created human beings, making them to be like himself.  He created them male and female, blessed them, and said, ‘Have many children’.”  This account stands out in the whole Bible.  Nowhere else are we told that we were created in the image of God.  If it is true, it tells us a great deal about God, and a great deal about ourselves.

Feuerbach says it is true; it is just transposed.  It’s upside down.  We created the superhuman God in our own human image.  We gave God all the great characteristics of human nature and set him above us.  And this for Feuerbach is a problem. Why?  Because Feuerbach is a humanist, one who prizes humanity above all other values.  So am I.  And the superhuman God that thinkers and believers created in our human image belittles and undervalues human beings.  It tells us that we are little or nothing in the face of God’s greatness.  Feuerbach said, “man affirms in God what he denies in himself”.  We ought to be seeking divine qualities in human beings, not saying that the Divine has human qualities bigger and better than us.

So, we end up seeing that neither a supernatural nor a superhuman God are possible or satisfactory.  Feuerbach  sees no logic, or value, in a supreme being.  He’s like most people in the western world these days – except in North America – he has no need of a God.

There is no doubt that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have been based on a belief in a supreme being.  But other world religions have not.  Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, have no such need.  Zoroastrianism, the religion of Persia, has two gods, neither supreme.  The gods of the Greeks and the Romans are very human, fallible, not at all supreme.  How did these millions of followers get along without a big God in the sky, over all?

And what about Jesus?  I’ve been reading the gospels again and certainly Jesus goes along with the prevailing theology of his time to some extent.  But not with much rigour.  He talks far more about the Kingdom than the King.  He talks far more about how to live our lives, how to be satisfactory human beings, than about a supreme being who demands our obedience.

And Feuerbach, who began his university studies in Theology, never gave up on religion.  Religion, he said, is about love, justice, mercy, but theology seeks to objectify these into a being greater than us Feuerbach does not have much time for theologians.  He believes passionately in love, but only “as long as love is not raised to the level of substance”.  He speaks of community as something of the highest value – because only humans can create it.  He sees the incarnation as of great importance, because it is where humans become divine, that is, valuable, special, wonderful.

“Talk about God, and talk about ten minutes.”  I am now an old minister.  In the unlikely event that a young minister should ask my advice, I would not advise her to talk about God.  I would tell her to talk about faith and hope and love.  To talk about stories and parables that make people think for themselves.  To talk of life, and people, and kindness and decency.  To talk about extravagant caring and unconditional loving.  To talk about forgiveness and happiness and sorrow.  To talk about all the things that Jesus talked about, and to talk about him.

And if that’s not Christianity, I don’t know what is.