Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Having a God of the Gaps Discussion

I made the point on Thinking Anglicans that religious revival is not some big numbers, gassy, marketing approach to churches with some God apparently behind it, but rather small groups of people asking questions.

It's not my place here to represent others' opinions, so I am not going to try and avoid it, plus I see this straying from an intention here to keep to general points about matters to which anyone (within this reasonably liberal-democratic culture, especially the UK) can relate. There was a discussion among church people, and I was there, and my presence pushes things in some directions just as others push it their ways. Don't, reader, get the message that my discussion here about my contributions represents the drift of the whole.

The discussion was about God and change: God as purist Greek type, getting involved Hebrew type, suffering and limited Christian type, sometimes inactive deist type (an early response to science and the invisible hand of the market), sometimes the secular.

The issue of Dietrich Bonhoeffer arose, he who was killed by the Nazis not long before the Nazis fell, and so we will never know half of what he meant. One phrase that did not arise was the odd one "religionless Christianity", but we did consider "God of the gaps".

This Bishop's Course booklet - a sort of make of it what you will type course - had two statements for each of two examples to contrast secular and religious, as follows:

Moses led the Hebrews out of their slavery in Egypt
God led the Hebrews out of their slavery in Egypt

Jesus was executed under Pontius Pilate
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree

For me, as a religious person, whilst the first statement in each case was open to be falsified, the first was also religious as well as the second. This is because I am not a God of the gaps person, however I might understand God. Nor are these statements meaningful because of something I am adding on. They are special and meaningful statements by themselves from a world view, and there is not a neutral world view. A secularist would regard the first statements as secular and the second as religious, but for them Bonhoeffer would not solve the problem. Bonhoeffer attacked the God of the gaps: God is not an answer at the end of resources of answering, but in the centre. For the secularist, Bonhoeffer has religious add-on statements of irrelevance even if Bonhoeffer is in the business of attacking add-on statements!

It could be that I am already so Bonhoeffer that the first statements are, for me, God in the centre, and thus Bonhoeffer and I would agree that basically secular statements are religious. Actually I think that there are reasons to consider otherwise that Bonhoeffer and I agree. Whatever, a secularist view of these statements, that does have them as first secular and then religious, is not altered by Bonhoeffer.

(Of course there are religious believers who think the first is secular and the next is religious: pity them. Perhaps Bonhoeffer was only writing for their benefit)

These are the reasons otherwise - why I think I don't agree with Bonhoeffer. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of "man come of age", another one of his 'please explains'. The best view of this cliche is not that man is now morally good, or similar, which is partly due to a misreading by and of John Robinson and Honest to God. It is instead (I suggest) that gaps are being closed in the explanation of things, and we have come of age in that manner. Bonhoeffer was not some latter day optimistic liberal, but a modernist evangelical. Bonhoeffer, then, had his "religionless Christians", people too busy with gaps closed to be bothered with existential questions. This is the road to The Secular City, as with Harvey Cox (before he went all Eastern). Against this is the more existentialist approach, of "What is the meaning of it all?", as with Paul Tillich, and it is in this sense that statements, such as 'Moses led the Hebrews out of their slavery in Egypt' and 'Jesus was executed under Pontius Pilate' acquire religious meaning even standing alone, in the sense that they are special and sacred as of themselves (existentially).

I do not understand "Religionless Christianity". I understand the secular city, that God is so revelation-only based and so unconnected with any shifting cultural expression, that God is therefore remote or hidden, that there is therefore no objectivity in this world; and that even with a 'biblical encounter' understanding of Christianity, the modern city, come of age, just gets on with life. This may be more Karl Barth than Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but Harvey Cox used them both. If Bonhoeffer is God at the centre, it is still anti-existentialist, still more via unsought encounter than diffused questioning. A diffused metaphor is a more questions metaphor. (This paragraph is beyond the discussion we had.)

Those statements inthe course are more questions-arising statements. They have myth within them. So, for example, if history falsifies (the materials aren't available, but Moses's existence is rather doubtful to say the least) a Moses leading the Hebrews out of their slavery in Egypt, then the myth of the statement on its own remains. Now it is rather likely that Jesus did die under Pontius Pilate, but I expressed it in discussion that it could be, from a Roman viewpoint, that an insignificant person along with other insignificant people, but nevertheless seen as trouble makers, were killed by the Roman authorities. In other words, done and forgotten.

So I am arguing here that some speech has a specialness given into it, a specialness of otherwise everyday speech but speech worth making.

Then followed another point by me, that the New Testament is, itself, a shelter place (another's expression) of the God of the gaps. Seen from our (come of age gaps closed) perspective, it is a set of explanations that is precisely framed that way. There was an answer to this, but I wasn't wholly convinced.

This related to an earlier part, a sideways discussion, about the Bible itself - where I raised the point about it being normative. It should be used. There is the Anglican Quadrilateral that includes the statement that the Bible contains all things necessary for salvation. Yes there may be a lot of dross in it, and contradiction, but it has all things... What does normative mean? There are, for example, those anti-homosexual clobber passages. That unlike for women and headship, there are no contradictory passages. You can indeed interpret, for example, that these clobber statements in the New Testament relate to idol worship and behaviour in the equivalent of brothels and have nothing to do with steady faithful relationships between gay people. But the issue is in what sense is it normative - or more to the point why - if, as was suggested (I have to include another's opinion here), that it was written in one culture and time and we are in another. I would agree, but then how does something so elastic be in any sense normative or contain all things necessary for salvation. A suggestion (again to state other opinion) is that therefore it does not so contain all necessary for salvation.

In what sense then does this justify a normative position for the Bible? For example I said no I do not find significance in the statement 'Jesus was executed under Pontius Pilate' because I add, silently, 'He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree'. Indeed, under the elastic view of the Bible, I am at complete liberty to subvert that second statement (which I do, though not for simple elasticity reasons). That second statement is itself a God of the gaps type statement, because it concerns an area that is now covered by psychology. I didn't hear Pamela Connolly, the psychologist, refer to God once when she interviewed Sarah the Duchess of York, about Sarah's condition over time from childhood through to media attacks.

Take this to its logical conclusion, and you can read say the Bhagavad Gita instead of the Hebrew Bible, or indeed Buddhist ethical precepts instead of the New Testament... Gosh, I used to do that, and a lot of people did not like it even when I could.

(Yeah I know - why move from a situation where I can to one where I can't: another discussion about norms imagined and real...)

I said in the discussion I keep asking why. There is actually a history behind this. It was an ex-Anglican priest then Unitarian minister, no longer alive, and a spiritual mentor for me, who said and recommended, "You just keep asking why." I am in a why phase at the moment. Why has something to do with a very stupid bishop who said recently in the General Synod, with his parodying of others, "‘Oh we have to live with difference'... 'at least we’re being "open"'," and then, said the bishop, "Friends, we have never been this way before." Yes we have: as was pointed out in our discussion, the Lambeth Quadrilateral only came about in the 1880s.

Somehow, living with differences, the issue is one of tradition as adequate (not exclusive) source, of insights and depths, remythologised if it has beendemythologised first and therefore closed of those God gaps. The bishop of biblical exegesis (the occupant of Durham) has hardly bothered with these more fundamental systematic theological questions. Our discussion did include some of these, as I view part of it.

1 comment:

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