At the beginning of this new year, and following on from my previous posts, I’m asking myself, having once been a preacher, what my current religious paradigm is. What do I think and feel I can reasonably and credibly believe?
When people say, “there is a God”, or “there isn’t a God”, it’s clear to me that these must be empty statements. The word God, (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary), means, “A superhuman person regarded as having power over nature and human fortunes”. Traditionally this person is regarded as infinite and eternal, is all powerful, knows everything, and is truthful and good in all he says and does. He’s a masculine ‘father’ figure, who created a colossal universe, that includes our tiny world, which he supervises, and can intervene in whenever he so chooses.
My view is, that no mere human being can credibly make such a claim. That kind of infinite and eternal ‘God’, by definition, exists outside of what we can experience in our world of space and time, especially as our human experience is confined to the strictly limited amount of incoming data that can be processed by our five senses. Perspectivity and humility are the order of the day.
One of my favourite quotes is attributed to Isaac Newton, whose outstanding discoveries included universal gravitation, the multicoloured nature of light, and the mathematical calculus. Despite such ground-breaking insights, he compared himself to “a boy playing on the seashore .. whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me”. Our human limitations must mean that an unknowable extent of that “great ocean of truth” is not only undiscovered, but undiscoverable.
A comparable quote, from a man of religion rather than science, comes from Thomas Aquinas who, in his later years, was writing his massive magnum opus, the “Summa Theologica”. While celebrating Mass, he experienced something which not only couldn’t be put into words, but stopped him from doing any further writing. He’s quoted as saying, “I can write no more. I have seen things that make my writings like straw.” His magnum opus was left unfinished. No “Theological Summary” could begin to do anything approaching justice to that which is ultimately, universally, and fundamentally real.
In short, whether or not there is a ‘God’ of the ‘traditional’ kind, is entirely beyond our ability to know. All any person can meaningfully say is either, “ I believe” or “I don’t believe”, nothing more. I think this little story from the Indian ‘guru’ Shankara, hits the target … “The great teacher Bhadva was asked by a student what Brahma – the ground of all Being – actually was. Bhadva was silent. Thinking that perhaps he had not been heard, the student asked again, but still Bhadva was quiet. Again the student repeated his question – ‘What is God?” – and, again, Bhadva would not answer. Finally, exasperated, the young man demanded to know why Bhadva would not respond to the question. ‘I am teaching you’, Bhadva replied.”
My religious paradigm, firstly then, would explicitly state that the existence of God can neither be proved nor disproved. It therefore cannot be asserted as a fact, but only as a belief, one way or the other, for or against. Such beliefs, everyone should be free to hold, and free to share, but not to force upon others, nor to oppress people whose beliefs are different. That would mean that while it would be entirely appropriate for religious groups to supply humanitarian aid to all in need, without any exceptions, the same would not apply to organised ‘missionary’ activity designed to ‘convert’ people of all other religions, whether by carrot or stick. If that, historically, had been part of the religious paradigm, our world would surely have been saved from centuries of religious altercations, persecutions, crusades, wars and genocides.
It’s sometimes said, more in vain hope than expectation, that it’s never too late.