God Problem

A problem with ‘God’ is that it’s a three-letter word; a pattern of printer-ink dots on a piece of paper; a display of pixels against the background of a computer screen; a vibration in the air produced by vocal chords and transformed into sounds by electro-chemical processing in human brains; an idea that exists in minds. What it actually means is a profound mystery, despite those who claim otherwise. 

Long ago, as a ‘minster of religion’, my book shelves protested against the weight of heavy books (in more ways than one) entitled ‘Systematic Theology’, promising detailed and complete ‘A to Z’ guides to the deity. They’ve been replaced by books about “Comparative Mythology” with world-wide coverage across aeons of time, which have introduced me to gods and goddesses without number, who’ve fallen in and out of favour, and been loved, feared, followed and fought over down through the centuries. ‘Other-worldly’ beings have found a place in human consciousness since its earliest awakening. They seem to have been ‘built in with the bricks’.

To some people these images, and the stories they appear in, constitute a repository of age-old wisdom and accumulated human experience. They therefore cry out to be valued, understood in relation to their own time and setting, and freshly interpreted for continuing relevance to ours, either by way of example or of warning. To other people, they’re toy-room playthings, left over from the infancy of the human race. Their once comforting or diverting purposes are now outlived, and they should be allowed to slide down the dustbin of history, My own inclination leans more towards the former than the latter, but only with the proviso of at least one key reservation.

All these gods and goddesses should be understood, not as supernatural beings regularly (or even irregularly) intervening (or interfering) in our worldly affairs, but rather as an amazingly diversified, ongoing progression of creative images, illuminating the pages of highly imaginative stories. The language these stories are told or written in, is that of metaphor and symbol, as in myth and legend, allegory and folk tale. What they tell us most about is ourselves!

Taking them literally opens a door for the undesirable entry of the intellectually indefensible, and the behaviourally perilous. Too much nonsense has historically (and sometimes hysterically) been preached and written, and too much blood has been shed in pursuit of brutal religious wars and persecutions. Too many people, at the same time as insistently and dogmatically dismissing the deities of others as groundless phantasies or devil-inspired delusions, credulously swallow equally extravagant stories and claims about the sayings and doings of their own. It’s the age-old depressingly unprofitable, myopic story – ‘Your gods are myths, but not mine’.

Unfortunately, the way our language is structured and understood tricks us into forgetting that whenever we say “God is so-and-so or such-and-such” we are expressing opinions and beliefs, not stating definitive facts and eternal truths which justify vilifying and killing others, let alone ourselves dying for.

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