The recently deceased Bishop John Shelby Spong stayed in the Episcopal Church, though no longer able to accept many traditional teachings at face value. To be true to themselves, people must either leave, or seek change from within. Choosing pursuit of change, Bishop Spong wrote the book “Unbelievable” in which, like the reformer Martin Luther, he outlined a number of ‘theses’. Here’s the first one …
“Understanding God in theistic terms as “a being’, supernatural in power, dwelling somewhere external to the world and capable of intervening in the world with miraculous power, is no longer believable. Most God talk in liturgy and conversation has thus become meaningless. What we must do is find the meaning to which the word “God” points”.
I think understanding God, in the way described, is still believable for many people. Declining church attendance suggests, however, that for growing numbers (myself included) it isn’t. Like Bishop Spong, I was a ‘minister of religion’ but, unlike him, I chose to leave. How do I now “find meaning to which the word ‘God’ points”?
I find it difficult to think of God as “a being”, which seems to suggest humans making God in their own image, instead of God making us in his. What makes more sense to me is the idea (John 4:24) that “God is Spirit”. ‘Spirit’ is invisible, undefinable and indescribable, and so I find myself ‘in tune’ with the medieval scholar Maimonides, who suggested we can’t meaningfully say what God is, but only what God isn’t.
Rather than ‘end of story’ this is, for me, ‘beginning of story’. Finding meaning to which ‘God’ points necessitates story and legend, image and picture, simile and metaphor, intuition and idea. Credible meaning can emerge from these, provided they’re not taken literally, or otherwise claimed to be more than they are.
It follows, from this, that religious creeds, confessions, catechisms, hymns, doctrines and dogmas are unquestionably of historical, literary, linguistic, institutional, sociological and cultural interest. They chart the origin and evolution of a variety of important ideas and motifs, but in language requiring to be understood as metaphorical and confessional, in which case their ‘meaning’, rather than lying on the surface, is contained in their depths, lending itself to intuitive perception rather than ‘certain truth’.
What I’m left with is ‘God’ as the Source of Being, or ultimate origin of everything – pure disembodied Intelligence informing the cosmos – the fountainhead of its Design, and the continuous stream of Information which that demands. From that Source comes the ‘miracle’ of conscious awareness, generating the experience of personal ‘selves’. It’s itself evolving (that’s why the cosmos doesn’t run entirely smoothly) and we are among the sentient beings through whom it‘s growing in self-awareness. “God”, for me, means there’s more to reality than mere Materialism. “God”, at the very least, is a foundational, archetypal reality in the collective human psyche. Despite the ‘new atheists’, “God” may be ‘down’, but will never be ‘out’.