20 July 2008 at :00 am
When Christian men and women have striven to explain the nature of Christian faith and, in particular, the arguments for belief in God, in the past they often relied on various areas of human knowledge where there was no obvious explanation of how something came to be. So they pushed the need for such an explanation on the notion of God and on such a basis argued for his existence. The most obvious example, I suppose, is the sheer mysteriousness of the world and the universe of which it is a part, with the explanation that such a mysterious thing could only be explained by an intelligent creator.
But as many Christian theologians have pointed out the difficulty of that way of thinking is that as the gaps in human knowledge have been reduced, most obviously by scientific discoveries, then the areas requiring such an explanation become smaller and smaller, and God, as a necessary explanation of those gaps in human knowledge, becomes somehow smaller, or certainly less obviously relevant, as a consequence. In a pre-scientific world it was easy to look at events such as an eclipse, or a flood, or an earthquake, as somehow an act of God. But now we are more aware of such things as tectonic plates, or the ordered movement of the stars and planets, or the workings of our weather systems, and so ascribing to God the explanation of why something came about seems less obviously necessary.
And, more than that, science seems to have gone even further than just finding explanations of such physical phenomena, it has even started to explain how planets such as our earth came into being, and how life could have developed on it.
Of course there is still no explanation of how space itself or matter itself ever came into being from nothing, if, that is to say, there ever was a time when there was nothing. That sort of ultimate mystery remains, and I suppose it continues to provide some sort of definition of what might be meant by a creator, that which called space and matter and, indeed, time into being. But it certainly does not prove that belief in a creator is somehow logically necessary; it could be argued that the universe just is, as an inexplicable brute fact.
And it is on the basis of arguments like that, that some contemporary advocates of atheism make their case. The God that people like Richard Dawkins do not believe in is a creator God, because Dawkins believes that there is a scientific explanation of how the world came to be that does not need the idea of God. And he also rejects a concept of a God who intervenes to exercise some sort of control over the world, and he argues that on the basis that there is no firm evidence for such a being.
Now just suppose for a moment in those matters he is correct. Suppose we cannot in any way demonstrate the need for a creator, and suppose we are very sceptical about any notion of a divine being somehow intervening in the world and changing things, as personally I think we must be in the face of such horrors as the Holocaust or natural disasters. Does that mean that God has been edged out of our world completely?
Well I would not be standing in this pulpit if I believed it did. But I do believe we have got to approach the question of God in a different way from the ways of our pre-scientific forebears. I believe we have to accept the scientific explanation of how things are, including explanations such as evolution and even the very creation of life itself, and we need to come at the question of God from a different perspective, leaving open, at least to start with, the question of how space, matter and time ever first came into being.
And for me the starting point into the question of God comes from the idea of transcendence. Is there anything that is somehow greater than us as individuals? Are we just human beings in this world with no meaning and no purpose other than that which we have to create for ourselves, or are there some things that seem to make claims on us, to which in some way we are answerable?
Well, I think there are, and I suspect I am far from being alone in that.
Take first the notion of truth. Truth is obviously a complex concept with many dimensions, ranging from being honest about some event as in a court of law, to finding a truthful explanation of how something happens, as in a scientific discovery. But the concept of truth does seem to be rooted in something other than simply human beings. Of course we human beings have to make judgements about whether something is true or not, we cannot escape the responsibility for that, but I suspect whenever any of us is involved in making such a judgement we do feel somehow answerable to a concept of truth that is greater than simply our own convenience or even our own self-interest. Obviously that does not stop some people being untruthful, normally because they see it as being in their own self-interest or convenience, but if that untruthfulness is exposed then they are seen as having failed a transcendent obligation, that of being truthful. And I suspect that notion of truth as something that is there to be discovered and respected is at least partly contained in what a Christian might mean by God. That transcendent demand to be truthful comes, a Christian might believe, from a God who is himself the source of all truth.
And aligned to truth there is also goodness. Of course there are disagreements between people about what is or is not good. They may be differences between different ages and cultures. In our world today there are differences about say the good or otherwise of capital punishment. I happen to be rather firmly against it, but I must be truthful in acknowledging that that conviction is probably largely influenced by the time and culture in which I live. And even within a single age and culture there are genuine differences in attitudes towards matters like, for example, sexual ethics, which I shall consider next week. Human beings always have argued, and no doubt will continue to argue, about whether something is good or not. But the notion of good is greater than any particular argument about what it might mean in a particular case. And I doubt whether there are many people who would argue that the very concept of good is merely a human construct. Goodness, whatever we might mean by it, makes a claim on us in the same way that truth does, and I believe it too points to something beyond just a particular age and culture; it too points towards God who is the source of both truth and goodness.
And aligned to both truth and good there is also compassion. The ability to feel the problems or difficulties that another person has, to empathise with them in a particular dilemma, to try to feel what it must be like to be them, that also seems to me to be a quality that is somehow demanded of us. It is a practical outworking of that other quality that Christians believe is rooted in God, namely love.
And I suggest that in those transcendent claims of truth, goodness, compassion and love, we begin to see a route into what it means to believe in God. God is, in Christian theology, ultimately transcendent, above and beyond us, yet he is also intimately immanent in us, within each of us, as are the demands of truth, goodness and love. And he is always calling us to be more truthful, to be more active in pursuing the good, and to be more compassionate and loving. God is therefore not just an abstract concept, in which we may or may not believe, but a force to which we must respond.
And is such a God edged out of the world? Well, it was the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer, executed on the orders of Hitler, who once said that he was, but that he was edged out of the world onto a cross. Perhaps it is in the cross of Christ that we see truth, goodness, compassion and love revealed for what they are, and we find that we do not judge them, they judge us.