I’m sometimes asked, as an ex ‘minister of the word’, how I presently see things. So I’m writing this, but not to persuade anyone that I’ve now arrived at a ‘right’ destination. I haven’t arrived at any destination, but I keep journeying on, with mind and heart as open as possible to any and all ideas and insights from others. Part of the genius and unpretentiousness of the great Sir Isaac Newton, scientist and religious believer, was his frank acknowledgement that “the great ocean of truth” continued to lie “all undiscovered” before him.
We live, in the West, at a time when, not necessarily religion, but ‘organised’ religion in declining. Membership lists and attendances keep dropping. We’ve lost count of how many churches have become flats, pubs or nightclubs. Some see this as threatening the end of civilisation. They forget that not only did civilisation exist for over 3,500 years before there were any churches, but that humans have been more or less successfully living together for the last 200,000 years – otherwise I wouldn’t be here to write this, nor you to read it. As always, we need to keep putting our ideas and opinions into long and broad perspective.
Among other things, churches gather around ‘sacred’ books. Clearly, a diminishing number of people believe that these books were written, dictated, or even ‘inspired’ by God. It’s likely that a diminishing number of people any longer bother to read them. Some might see this as a good thing, given that there are some people who find reasons and excuses in such ‘sacred’ books, for distrusting, fearing, hating and even slaughtering others. If, however, we can come to understand that these books are human productions, we can then realise that their content includes a great deal of myth, legend, folklore and story-telling, and that their language includes a great deal of symbol, allegory, parable and metaphor.
This frees us from having to say, “I really can’t believe that”, because we now understand that no one is asking us to! We can, however, as anyone who reads novels knows, learn a great deal from reading about things that, on the one hand, we don’t believe necessarily happened but which, on the other hand, we recognise as continually happening in human life and experience.
What is also freeing, I think, is becoming able to regard ‘religion’ as being not so much about ‘what we believe’ – a ‘checklist’ approach, or which ‘group’ we belong to – an ‘identity’ approach, as about ‘how we should live’ – a ‘practical’ approach. The fact that a ‘sacred book’ says such-and-such is then, rightly, determinative of nothing, but can still contribute one element to a wide-ranging and all-inclusive discussion of issues of human importance.
So what is there now to be said about God? The medieval scholar, Thomas Aquinas, was writing a vast “Summary of Theology” when, not long before his death, he had an ‘experience’ which stopped him in his tracks. He then said, “all I have written seems like straw to me”, and he wrote nothing more.
Someone who did keep on writing was William Wordsworth – about “a sense sublime, of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, and the round ocean and the living air, and the blue sky, and in the mind of man”. I see this, not so much as an attempted description of an indescribable God, as simply the sharing of a deep and profoundly meaningful experience. Though its significance, assuming it has some, must lie far beyond the words themselves, it is, for me, of far more meaningful worth than any ‘summary of theology’. Thomas Aquinas, it seems, at the end of his life, thought so too.
[Image – pinterest.com.au]