Reflections for Lent 2005
A DOZEN WAYS OF KILLING GOD
1. He is killed outright by those who claim as unintelligible all language, symbols and concepts employed to support the idea of God.*
2. He is killed through indifference and apathy*
3. He is killed when people demand evidence of His existence.*
4. He is killed by an appeal to common sense, down to earth living.*
5. For Christians, God is killed by reducing Jesus Christ to our level, and God the Father to a pathetic old man in some celestial nursing home with nothing better to do than stir things up, to the discomfort of us all.*
6. He dies of neglect.*
7. Sometimes he is killed vindictively in a conscious act of painful rebellion.*
8. God is killed systematically as sceptics methodically dismantle the rational justification for His existence, using reasoned argument and persuasive analogy.*
9. We dismantle God bit by bit, until there’s little left of Him.*
10. He is killed through de-mythologizing.*
11. God can be "killed by kindness", a fervour and devotion that replaces the love and service He desires with a loveless imposition of a specific "way".*
12. God is killed whenever we consider our own creativity and take all the credit for ourselves.*
God and the New Believer*
Is God really killed?*
Journal entry 5th January 2005
Some time ago our son gave us a little book entitled "50 ways to kill a slug". Methods, always ingenious, range from getting them drunk to sending them into orbit.
Listening to Joan Bakewell interviewing Steven Rose (Open University professor, brain researcher, author of "The Making of Memory") in her series "Belief" set me thinking that I might write a book "A Dozen Ways of Killing God".
Rose takes the middle ground between outright atheistic determinism as proclaimed by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and some form of theism. He concedes that we have to look beyond mere molecules in order to accommodate consciousness, but though I listened intently for some theory or tentative explanation for the emergence of consciousness from the material brain, there was none.
He sweeps the question of a non-material hypothesis neatly under the philosophical carpet. He denies the possibility of God and insists that – well, this is just how things are in my Godless world. To be dogmatic is to be non-philosophic.
What follows is an outline of some of the attitudes people adopt in relationship to God. All amount in some way to an act of "attempted murder" or "manslaughter" of the deity. Individuals may think that they have killed God – but strangely, He survives!
GOD IS KILLED IN SO MANY WAYS
Talking to Napoleon, Laplace is reported as saying of God – "I have no need of that concept"
More recently Jonathan Miller, talking to Sue Lawley on "Desert Island Discs", was questioned about God in his life. He didn’t even accept the title "atheist". He made his point very forcibly: the idea of God was totally unintelligible to him. For him, not believing in God was on a par with not believing in witches – of no great significance.
If one ceases to talk about some thing or person, in a sense that thing or person no longer exists. This is a brain-washing technique described by George Orwell in his novel "1984".
THE LIVING GOD
So God is dead?
How then did he die?
Or was he exorcised?
Truth’s temple now is scoured,
Laplacian legend lives,
The brain of teeming molecules self-stultifies
And renders mind as empty as a sieve.
Or did he drown
In that Darwinian ooze
From which we came?
Not exiles, leaf bedecked, from Eden home
But dripping primal slime did we arrive.
Or did he bleed
Victim of that strife
Born of internecine hate?
The new commandment that he gave, to love,
His raging flock have merely learned to mock
Or has he died
Of broken heart,
Unwanted and unknown?
The teeming millions go their way self-satisfied.
They atrophy that live by bread alone.
God is not dead
It’s Man, alone, who dies.
The Jews demanded a sign from Jesus. We still do.
There are human qualities that cannot be proven: trust and love, for instance. Only by living close to someone is assurance of these qualities gradually acquired through a deep and intuitive " knowledge". This knowledge is of a different order from the kind of knowledge gained when Einstein’s theory of relativity was confirmed when light was observed to bend.
Intuitive knowledge is "understanding from within, from the depths". C.S.Lewis, in "Reflections on the Psalms", writes: "The Bible and tradition ought to be tested by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message". It is there and there only that one is to perceive the particular fragrance, its own character and ‘otherness’.
We similarly come to know a person’s character, the full personality, through deep intuitive knowledge. This is even more true of the person of God. He is known, not by demanding evidence, but through sensing his particular fragrance by living in His presence.
"God is not relevant in this new millennium. We get along very well without resorting to such airy-fairy ideas."
ON LISTENING TO AN A I * LECTURE
What a welter of inconsequential sound!
Like a bee in an inverted cup.
All this talk
All this computer talk.
I have heard people talk of computers
As they do of precocious kids, or smart pets
About to burst upon the world – or circus –
Is this "be kind to computers" year
Or just Man the masochist at play?
Once I wove threads of logic,
And marvelled at the patterns that they made.
But mind was my wonder,
Some would say that ancient man
Was mad to see in tree and stream
A god or dream.
But choose who is bemused:
He who in a tree divines the Divine
Or one who in a metal box finds mind?
* "A.I." STANDS FOR ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
5. For Christians, God is killed by reducing Jesus Christ to our level, and God the Father to a pathetic old man in some celestial nursing home with nothing better to do than stir things up, to the discomfort of us all.
Christianity is the only religion that holds as the principle tenet of its faith that God Himself came down to earth as one of us. In this respect it blasphemes in the eyes of followers of Judaism and Islam. Buddhists strive to withdraw from the world. Taoists and Confucians are busy finding a way in this world. Hindus spread their devotion between many gods, and come close to the figure of Jesus in their worship of Krishna.
Historically, Europe has been dominated for two millennia by the idea of "God incarnate", Jesus of Nazareth. The idea has been seen by many as inconceivable, bordering on the ludicrous. The divine claims have been consistently rejected. Yet the person of Jesus commands respect. "He did good through outstanding powers of healing which are scientifically explicable – no miracles, please! He was a powerful moral teacher – pity he muddled his head with all that ‘apotheosis’ stuff and ‘Son of God’ paranoia." The ‘virgin birth’ and ‘resurrection’ are of course the familiar stuff of myth and legend.
God has persistently been put on trial with reasononly as judge. The trial follows the reductionist procedure. The conclusions go something like this: "Jesus, being one of us, felt and acted like one of us and was subject to all our limitations. Let us praise him for being a good man, but nothing more – just another Socrates". It makes us comfortable to have God and Jesus Christ as one of us, to invite them to come into our stable and eat hay with us.
But it is we who are on trial. If the Christian story is true, then it is the one and only hope for mankind. We must not miss this opportunity. We must not kill our God by bringing Him down to our level.
JESUS WAS A POET
Some people speak about ‘the Christian ethic’
As though Christ left a list of injunctions.
They sift his words for precepts philosophic
Imposed to limit wayward human functions.
But Jesus was a poet.
He satirized, analogized,
Was given to hyperbole,
A master of the parable,
But urged to set no rules.
Rules are sought by fools.
The poet uses images and pictures.
Jesus was a poet.
He loved to give us pictures
As strictures upon those who look for rules and rigid reasons:
Tales about the seasons,
A dissolute son,
Thieves and shirkers.
Jesus was a poet,
So hear him as a poet;
Not with expectations literal,
For nothing so offends the art as this,
But close your outward sight,
And open up your inner eye
In order not to miss
The mystery of the Kingdom.
For this is all the poet has to give
That you might live.
The Devil died a century ago.
God died a little later.
Neither date is definite;
The registrar of births and deaths
Has nothing in his books to fix the facts.
Smiths and Jones galore, a few Entwistles and McKays;
But God and Devil? No-one has reported their demise.
The order is significant: Devil first, God next.
Both parts of the pantomime horse, God in the head, the other at the tail.
When the hind end fell, the front end fell as well.
You can’t have a headless horse, nor one that’s tailless for that matter.
When one part goes, the whole lot goes down sprawling with a clatter.
And this is what the kiddies have been waiting for-
A horse laugh!
All tensions eased, a belly laugh, a great guffaw.
Pantomime is a serious thing.
Prince, Princess, the Demon-king command respect;
And fairies have their fling in solemn God-mamma’s manner.
But who could hold the banner
For a double-barrelled, double-jointed horse?
It lacks the ring of authenticity.
Clever old Lucifer to let himself "die"
Like a well trained dog at his party tricks.
The ground was well prepared.
His tragicomedy roles are nonpareil,
The masterpiece, his "stoker with a tail".
Master of the ludicrous,
He also painted heaven as an aviary unsavoury
Where creatures rank according to their plumage,
And the keeper, in his dotage, breaths out fire.
One must admire him for his devilish artistry.
The joke though, sadly, is on you and me.
For we are not contending against flesh and blood
But against the Principalities,
Against the Powers,
Against the world rulers of this present darkness
Against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places.
The curtain has come down,
The pantomime is over,
We are outside in the darkness where the silence screams.
No clown, no Pantaloon,
No Harlequin to spin his Columbine.
Time to wait, time to kill.
Standing at the storm’s eye, all is still.
A plant placed in an obscure corner of the house and seldom watered because forgotten, will surely die.
There is an episode in "The Good Life" TV series in which Barbara tries an experiment. One plant is given loving attention by being fondled and cooed over regularly, whilst another is merely watered. Will there be a difference?
With people there is no question, is there? Love always triumphs; the fairy-tale princess is brought back to life by a kiss, the symbol of love. And many of us have witnessed the reviving and transforming power of love working in a once desolate individual of our acquaintance.
God returns our love a thousand-fold. He manifests His life by giving us the "life of a new creation".
But in neglecting God we die, not Him.
There have probably been countless incidents of this act of murder during the aftermath of the recent Tsunami. Survivors who have lost family, friends, homes, livelihoods have no doubt cried out in their fury and agony "I hate you God, I want nothing to do with you!" Surely God will look kindly and forgivingly on such individuals in their extremity.
I recall an essay by McIntyre and Flew in which we are invited with two explorers into a jungle clearing where flowers and weeds grow. One explorer says "some gardener must tend this plot". The other denies this. The sceptic asks the believer "just how does your invisible, intangible, eternally illusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener?". In developing his theme Anthony Flew (the rationalist throwing down the gauntlet) asks "What would have to occur, or have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of, God?". My scribbled note of 38 years ago reads "If God did not exist then neither should I".
In the 40 years since the writing of this essay, I believe Flew has matured. Perhaps he has by now discovered what has to occur in order to believe: faith is not primarily about posing logical questions.
MADE IN WHOSE IMAGE?
First the catkin, then the leaf,
Then the nuts the squirrels eat.
In this you see causality,
And I, design.
You perceive the hand of chance,
I, the divine.
One world we walk, you and I,
Sense and share the things we love
That spring from out this fecund earth,
Tugging at our hearts and minds from birth.
"Don’t think I grudge you your God"
You ask. "But why propound the profound?
And why invoke this joke ‘Divine ground’?"
And further, you insist
"Not wishing to be personal,
But surely it is strange – to say the least –
That your God is a person."
First the foetus, then the child,
Then the man on whom God smiled;
Because he wants to have me for a son? …
This power that makes the galaxies for fun!
Queer indeed. I understand your doubt.
My answer’s simple, if a little odd:
It’s not, as you might think, I fashion God from man,
But rather that we humans are like God.
Some refer to the "shrinking man", the "God of the gaps", a travesty of God. Science busies itself plugging the gaps with solid explanation; many believe that eventually no gap will remain, and God will have been proved to be an unnecessary product of mankind’s imagination.
The dismantling process is creeping and systematic. In one fell swoop the hesitant Darwin (for he had a lingering religious sense) seemed to dispense with the uniqueness of man – made in God’s image – and promise an explanation of life’s origins. In my view this promise has yet to be delivered. Some of the mystery of creation was lost in the primordial soup.
Cosmologists have triumphantly supplanted the biblical six days of creation with a "Big Bang" singularity, beyond which science has nothing to say; mathematics at this point becomes sterile. They ignore the fact that the bible’s creation story is from first to last a lovely poem of mythical substance, never intended to be factual
GOD IS DEAD
But is He really dead?
Or has a caricature - bearded, vengeful, Olympian -
Such a God never was.
God is not in winds of raging words,
Nor in fires of "holy" wars
Nor earthquakes upstart minds make,
But in a still, small voice.
Perhaps it's death by deletion:
A "God of gaps" ferreted out,
A notion made redundant in a world that runs itself?
A cowering God of gaps there never was.
For there is no battle, no Darwin and Goliath clash;
Neither was a death-rattle heard.
"Liberated" minds love to shadow-box
And chase God like a fox with pedant hounds.
Or is it death of fancy that sweeps God away?
Once-loved stories languish.
Play of yesterday and Santa Claus
Today become an old discarded cause.
There's a tale told through time:
Recurring theme involving death, of life laid down in love;
A new unruly life that casts off death.
Such lasting love is God. He's here to stay.
Some say God, and gods, likeanimism, are early attempts by man to explain observations that we can now explain through science.
This attitude is sustained by the assumption that science is the only sure path to truth, and that myth-making was our ancestors’ fumbling and childish approach to truth since they had nothing better. But this is to misunderstand the function of myth, and to demote it by regarding it as a feeble substitute for science.
C.S.Lewis, in his essay "Myth became Fact", writes:
"What flows into you from the Myth is not truth but reality (truth is always about something, but reality is that about which truth is), and, therefore, every myth becomes the father of innumerable truths on the abstract level."
Demythologizing is a process of slowly killing through reductionism; taking the mythical content of religious belief piece by piece and explaining it away, or refuting it in physical terms. As in the game of Jenga, where a tower is constructed out of interlocking wooden bricks which are then removed, piece by piece, until the tower finally collapses, the story is deconstructed. The demythologizers imagine that God’s kingdom will finally collapse. They do not comprehend that God, through Myth, is the father of all truth.
This "killing by kindness" takes two forms. Firstly, there is the sometimes excessive zeal of the missionary and evangelist. We see in history many examples of this. We now interpret the crusades of the Middle Ages as a misconceived form of gospel spreading, and worse, butchery in the name of Christ.
Later Christ was taken to the New World, where he was imposed with an arrogant and ruthless firmness upon a spiritual people already alive to their own specific traditions and cultures.
Later still, well-meaning missionaries went out to the "dark continents", where they proceeded to "enlighten the natives" with a mixture of Victorian morality and rectitude and uncompromising biblical teaching.
The tragedy of all this endeavour is that it is nearly always initiated with good intentions. But the substance of religion is replaced by its conceptual and symbolic trappings. Christ gives usone commandment: to love one another. Love comes from the heart, and is inspired by God’s spirit.
Another group perpetrating ‘death by kindness’ are those scholars for whom, in an overweening rational contrivance of theological ideas, the truth and simplicity of the Gospel story becomes lost. Let dogma, doctrine and all the spiritual apparatus that comes from the rational mind be an aid and a crystallization of love when it helps; but of those who climb aboard an omnibus of religious ideas and tell the driver only to "head for the unenlightened" we should ask "Is your journey really to further God’s kingdom?" Some theologians truly believe that they render a service to God and a kindness to their fellow man by making a dogmatic system out of Christ’s essentially simple message. In truth, the reverse is often the case: dogma can get in the way of faith.
Journal entry, 11 January, 2005.
Freedom of choice, and imagination
"Word for Today" tells us that these are the gifts given us when "God breathed the breath of life into us", as Genesis puts it.
Do these two attributes mark us out as unique in the animal kingdom? The female of many species does appear to choose a mate. Some male birds engage in vigorous aerobatics, tumbling through the air, vying with one another for the attention of the hen. She seems to make a choice. Male deer joust, often viciously, and the doe "chooses" the victor.
But is this reflective choice, or response to perceived signals?
If someone unknowingly drops a £10 note at a cash point and the person behind him notices this, a choice is prompted – to pocket it or to return it to the owner? We say in this situation that moral concepts are involved. The individual may or may not acknowledge them. They may or may not be spiritually oriented: a humanist and a Christian would offer different explanations of their honesty.
What is inescapable is that concepts are involved in man’s thinking processes, whether consciously or unconsciously. And though we anthropomorphise - talk to our pets, and enjoy stories like "Watership Down" and "The Wind in the Willows"- we are mostly persuaded that animals do not think conceptually.
If choice involves deliberation between two or more ideas, imagination is the free play and interaction of ideas. In this there is freedom. Originality, and in its highest flights genius, are words extended to that marshalling, juxtaposition and formulation of concepts that universally amazes. The end result may be embedded in stone, on canvas, a musical score or in words, but always it is the result of something magical being done with ideas.
Some believe this to be the greatest gift God has bestowed on us. Others effectively kill God by taking all the credit for themselves, or putting their achievements down to such abstractions as evolution (hard-wiring), serendipity, molecular contingency etc., – never inspiration.
Journal entry 12 January 2005:
Reflecting on the amusing booklet "50 Ways to Kill a Slug" which set me thinking about the different ways we kill God, I was amused to find in today’s bible reading a reference to a slug. David is railing against his enemies. Amongst his several curses he includes this:
"Like a slug melting away as it moves along, like a stillborn child, may they not see the sun". [Psalm 58]
To be denied the light is indeed a savage sentence upon anyone.
From this my mind pondered upon the fate of many who seek spiritual enlightenment but in their first encounters with those they perceive to hold the key, find only dryness, a rebuff to their expectations and disillusionment. God then, for such people, is not so much killed as stillborn.
In the booklet there is an anti-slug remedy that serves as a metaphor for what I have been suggesting happens to the disillusioned: the writer recommends – "give them a buzz": recent research has apparently shown that caffeine has the power to stop slugs in their tracks! A container of coffee or cola placed near prize plants will cause them to take a coffee break, never to return.
How many would–be initiates have taken coffee after a church service, never to return? The buzz they seek has not been found. The buzz they get is not what they want. The sources of the unwanted buzz are many, but they all stem from the same source: pseudo-religion. This has been referred to as ‘churchiness’. It can range from holy rhetoric and archaisms - "O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness" followed by reiterated "alleluia!"s – to over-acted reverence, aloofness or, at the other extreme, the condescension of "we old practitioners". Pseudo-religion mistakes the trappings, the symbolism, for what resides behind them, namely GOD. It is often accompanied by more than a dash of hypocrisy and spiritual pride.
Of course, the phrase "God is killed" is relative to an individual. God is the ground of all our being, but an individual person may choose to separate himself from God, thereby "killing" Him metaphorically. God can no more be killed than may the oceans be dried. God WAS, God IS, God EVER SHALL BE.
OCEAN OF A VOICE
Kill your god!
I counsel you to kill your god.
The one in clouds who never was, who never shaved!
A despot on a jewelled throne
Showering thunderbolts on the depraved.
So many variants of the lord –
The more they’re made ludicrous
The more you applaud.
You rid yourself of Santa Claus at six,
Suspected heaven at seven.
Now, a free thinker and progressive
You hang on to God wilfully
Because it is fun to bait;
Fun to set him in stocks and sling the effluence of your hate.
Sticking pins in the effigy of your travesty
Is acupuncture for a smarting soul.
So simple to fashion what is fatuous
From the finite stuff of self,
Then show it off for all the wanting world to laugh.
Superiority is measured in guffaws.
But pause and think.
Is there a secret sorrow in your thought?
Is it that you ‘think’ your God,
Winkle him from out the tiny shell you call your mind
And find a worm?
There is another way.
Take an empty shell
And hold it to your ear.
A little child will say you hear the sea, and he is right.
Let it wash the many trifling thoughts vast depths away
That you may hear the ocean of a voice.