Sunday, 10 June 2018

The personal God

"Do you believe in God?" It’s a question that I hear seldom these days, but when I was younger it was common enough on people’s lips. Those curious about the nature of our world and of reality often came to ponder the existence or not of a "maker".

In recent times it seems the issue is settled: God is a fiction. Science has won. The Big Bang explains how we got here. There is no longer need for inquiry into first cause. Belief in God is now decidedly fringe, confined to religious fundamentalists, the elderly and people cracked open by personal crises seeking to put themselves together again.

But is God really dead? It seems to me that what has been rejected is a particular image or understanding of the divine. As a "supreme being", as an all-powerful father figure dwelling somewhere in the sky, God ultimately stood no chance against a secular culture bringing the benefits and sensible certainties of science. At least, not in Western countries. And being a He his authority was bound to be eroded by the modern move away from male dominance in society.

Interestingly, while rejecting God many people in contemporary times are not prepared to abandon spirituality, not content to entirely embrace scientific materialism. Writers like David Tacey and Hugh Mackay have identified the "spiritual but not religious" identity trend which incorporates a rejection of established religious forms with an opening to and exploration of different spiritual traditions and pathways. People don't want the old heavenly father, but they do want depth and meaning in life and some means to approach the timeless questions of who we are and how we are to live in this world.

We are living between times. The collapse of the Judeo-Christian tradition does not immediately herald another to take its place. Ours is a period of uncertainty in spiritual matters, of the dying of old forms and search for replacements. It is a time of exploration and groping forwards in the dark. At some point in the future the prevailing spiritual tendencies may coalesce into a new "religion", but we need not be too concerned about this word. The Latin root of "religion" means "to bind" and a religion is essentially a system for binding the individual and group to the source of their being through whatever myths, rituals and sacraments are fitting in their particular time and culture.

If we probe the supreme being, father-in-the-sky myth a little, we may get some important clues about patterns in spiritual observance. The extraordinary thing about the myth is that no religious thinker of any depth in the West has subscribed to it. Scratch Christianity, Judaism or Islam and you find a God that defies description, that is an unknown synonymous with the mysteries of the universe, and that cannot ultimately be talked about or represented. He is certainly not an anthropomorphic image, not the bearded old man of a Michelangelo painting.

So why has the popular image of God persisted for so long, perhaps since the beginning of the great religions? The answer is in the relationship between human and divine. A personal dimension helps us greatly in making the connection to God. We need concrete, direct ways to build the link, allowing us to see the work of divinity in our lives, to communicate with it through prayer, to understand what it asks of us. When God takes on personhood in the scriptures and is ascribed qualities such as love, goodness and mercy, it is for our benefit to be guided by the divine and to live full, decent lives.

But the personal God is, in the end, a device only; merely a convenient trope. The deeper the relationship that is built in an individual, the less is God anthropomorphised, the less is there of the simple human characteristics in the divine image we hold. At the same time, human and divine, matter and spirit, move closer to one another and the hard distinctions between the two gradually fade. We start to see something of the emptiness, the ineffability of divinity, even as we realise it at the core, the very building blocks of our being.

I suspect a future religion will again have to face the tension between the human need for a personal relationship with the divine and the reality of that very divinity, but perhaps the demise of the father-in-the-sky opens new possibilities. Could He become a She? Could the strong pull towards immanence result in a religious reverence for the Earth? Do we go the way of a mystic appreciation of the Universe? It seems, at the least, that many people are now prepared to let go of some of the cruder elements of the personal God towards a new, more refined understanding of the divine.

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