Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 3 January 2010
3 January 2010 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence
I want to use the five matins sermons I have this month to consider what must be the most fundamental of questions facing theists: What can we realistically believe about God? It is, of course, a complex question, not least of all because if you examine current beliefs in God at all closely you will find a wide variety of answers to that question, not just between different religions but even within each religion. A fundamentalist supporter of the Taliban, for example, may have a very different conception of God from the one held by, say, a sophisticated teacher of moderate Islam in somewhere like Egypt, and much the same could be said of differences between Jewish and Christian believers of different sorts. The very word ‘God’ encompasses many views, some of which I have to say I find more compelling than others.
Part of the issue relates to metaphysics, or what you believe about fundamental reality. The philosopher A N Whitehead once famously said that ‘Christianity is a religion perennially in search of a metaphysic, but never able to rest in one.’ Well, at different stages in its history Christianity has been at home in various metaphysical views of the world, to start with in the Hebrew vision of the world at the time of Jesus, but then soon moving into the far more diverse views of the way the world is in the Greek and Roman cultures. I suppose for one period in the Middle Ages around the time of St Thomas Aquinas most thoughtful people at least in Europe probably shared St Thomas’ essentially Aristotelian view of metaphysics, but that unity soon collapsed and today, of course, we face a huge variety of ways of looking at the world, each of which might influence how we talk and think about God.
But probably for most of us today who live in Europe and the West more generally a scientific view of the world prevails; if we want to know how things are we look to science to provide us at least with some of the answers. But then even within science there are a variety of views, and within the scientific world we can get some confusing pictures.
Physicists now probably look at the universe through the prism of quantum physics, with its very strange notions of the most fundamental units of the universe being energy rather than matter, of black holes, of dark matter, of string theory and of multi-universes. One distinguished theologian I know believes that way of looking at things does provide a metaphysical foothold for belief in God, but I have to say personally the very limited bits about quantum physics that I have read and understood, and I have certainly not understood all I have read, makes it very difficult for me really to find in that a basis for theistic belief. If there really are multi universes as suggested by some mathematicians I have to say that seems so far from my experience that I am not sure I find it a very helpful to think about God in such a context, and while of course I believe what the cosmologists tell us about black holes and the like into which things totally disappear, again I cannot really see how all of that can be the context for finding a basis for a belief in God.
So among the scientific ways of looking at the world I find the biologists’ way rather more comprehensible, because they are talking about things that I can see or at least imagine. It is, of course, some well known biologists who have provided some of the most strident and dogmatic arguments for atheism, but that is not a view shared universally by all biologists and as I shall examine later in this series of addresses it is certainly quite possible to accept all that Darwin and his followers taught about evolution and still to have a realistic belief in God.
But at the moment among scientists there is no unified ‘theory of everything’, and while some still believe that may be possible to discover in the future other scientists harbour serious doubts about whether such a comprehensive and unified view can ever be achieved.
Now one way round all this is to say that religion can be independent of any metaphysics. What matters about God is not what he, or she or it, is essentially, but about what the concept of God can do for people. Religion, some might say, is primarily about experience, and we must examine with some care what belief in God has produced in people.
There is, of course, a down-side to that from the point of view of religion, as it has sometimes produced terrible conflicts, ghastly wars, appalling prejudices and attitudes so rooted in a defensive and closed way of looking at the world that except to those who share those closed beliefs it seems very unattractive. Any religion, including Christianity, must be honest about some of its less compelling aspects and history.
But on the other hand a belief in God, and what is more a genuine trust in God and in his goodness has made some people very good, good by almost any standards. It has made them more altruistic, more loving, more genuinely open to other people, and it has also made them prepared to show enormous self-sacrifice for the sake of others.
So it is certainly possible to argue that the essential truth about God and the whole Christian vision is a psychological truth rather than anything based on metaphysics. If you act on the basis that at the heart of everything there is a loving and forgiving Father, who invites us to share in his programme of loving and forgiving those with whom we come into contact, that can have such a beneficial effect both on the believer’s sense of wellbeing and on others that it provides justification for the belief itself. Personally I have some sympathy for that point of view, and that is probably what keeps me a Christian at those times when I am most inclined to question the whole shooting match; Christianity does seem to work as a way of living psychologically for me. That is not to say that I am necessarily particularly good because of it, but without it I might be even worse!
But ultimately I am not sure that will do. If God is real, then he must be real in a deeper sense than purely psychologically, and what I want to do in this series is to think about some of the ways in which that might be true, starting next week with thinking about the God, or maybe I should say the Gods of the Bible. If you are interested it is my intention of putting this series on the Abbey’s web-site as the month progresses. I certainly am not going to claim that I am going to answer for anyone other than myself the question of what we can realistically believe about God, but I do believe thinking about that question is fundamental for anyone who tries to believe in God today, and I hope at least this series might provide some useful questions even if it provides no satisfactory answers.