Sunday, May 27, 2007

God and Religion

I agree with both Nathalie and Beth that it is possible and desirable to keep discussion about God apart from discussion about religion. I am currently reading “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins and I find he moves from one to the other somewhat carelessly. But while Nathalie and Beth want to talk about God without talking about religion, I think it is also possible to talk about religion without talking about God. After all Buddhists manage to do it, so why shouldn’t we?

I do this for two reasons. First, as the Dean of a Cathedral, religion is my profession. Secondly, the arguments against belief in God advanced by Dawkins and other have been around a long time. But in many cases, Christian theology has not taken them seriously. Belief in God is, I believe, still possible within the world view offered by the sciences of evolution, geophysics and quantum mechanics, but the nature of that belief, and the understanding of God within that world view must be very different from the theology espoused by most believers today. The number of people who are sufficiently cognizant with both theology and modern sciences to undertake the task of thinking and talking about God with intellectual honesty and rigor is very small, and I am not among them. So, mostly, I restrict myself to talking about religion.

I see religion in this way: religion in general, and the Christian religion in particular is one part of the much larger flow of the human cultural tradition down through the ages. Its boundaries have always been fluid, and particularly over the past half millennium, many of the questions which once belonged in the religious stream of the tradition have been spun off into other streams, including science, philosophy and literature. But the central concerns of the religious tradition have always been ultimate questions of the meaning of life and death, of the purpose of life, and of right and wrong, justice and injustice, hope and fear. I have to agree with those who point to religion as a source of violence, war, oppression and injustice. But the stream of religious tradition is not a single flow. Even within the more specifically Christian stream there are enormous differences of approach to key questions which dance together down the ages. In God and Empire, Jesus against Rome, Then and Now, John Dominic Crossan builds on his earlier work in showing how violence and non-violence exist side by side in the Biblical texts, the foundation of the Christian tradition and how they continue to exist in the contemporary exponents of the tradition. Like Crossan, I want to opt for an interpretation of Christianity which is non-violent, inclusive, peace making and open to plurality and diversity. All this I find in the scriptural record and in the development of the tradition across the ages.

Because of my own history, I stand within the tradition of religion, but, with this interpretation, I can look out and dialogue with other parts of the human cultural tradition. I can meet with people of other faiths. I can consult with anthropologists, sociologists, and even stretch my mind to try to understand what scientists are saying. I can try to find in what ways this tradition can contribute to the future of society and humanity. All this I can do without spending too much time agonizing over the idea of God, except when that idea is abused by those who wish to oppress and dehumanize others.

Maybe actually it was something like this that Dietrich Bonhoeffer had in mind when he spoke of religionless Christianity. Unfortunately Bonheoffer did not live long enough to fill out his idea. If I am right about this, then perhaps what I am looking for is religionless religion. Anyway, let me know what you think.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I have never been quite sure what Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant by "religionless" Christianity. I know that he was very dissatisfied with the church as a religious institution. Did he perhaps feel that it was possible to have a faith commitment without it being mediated by the institution? or did he think that it was possible to dispense with traditional religion and conventional religious practice?

Similarly, his view that we must talk about God in non-religious language if we are to address modern society which is largely secular. Is he advocating what in philosophy might be called "natural language" as opposed to artificial or formal languages like symbolic logic? Theological discourse, what has sometimes been referred to as "God-talk", was for Bonhoeffer no longer possible. Compare Rudolf Bultmann's demythologizing the Gospels and substituting Heidegger's existentialist philosophy for the "mythological" language of the Bible on the grounds that it reflected a pre-scientific age.

Both Bonhoeffer and Bultmann may have been influenced by the Vienna Circle--Moritz Schlick's Allgemeine Erkenntnislehre (1918) and Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921)--which privileged the scientific/antimetaphysical traditiion of Ernst Mach (1838-1916) and Henri Poincare (1854-1912). Postivism/Logical Positivism rejected religion and metaphysics as pre-scientific forms of thought (Auguste Comte).For the members of this group of analytical philosopohers the task of philosophy was the logical clarification of basic concepts expressed in ordinary language or the language of science/mathematics.

Bonhoeffer was hijacked by "the Death of God" movement in the 1960s. I am not sure that he would have approved of that move!

In my posting,dated May 25, 2007, I referred to Bonhoeffer in connection with Michel Onfray's book "In Defense of Atheism." Onfray calls for a "post-Christian secularism" because he maintains that contemporary Western seculaism is really Christianity in another guise. He is right in so far as Western secularism has deveoped from the Judeo-Christian idea that God is quite distinct from the universe, consequently the universe is desacralized. Thus, in Genesis 1, the sun, the moon,and the stars are all created; they are not gods to be worshipped (refer to German Protestant theologian Friedrich Gogarten). We might also consider the language we have developed to discuss human rights and social justice issues. It is not overtly religious or moralistic but rather more legalistic. (compare Tertullian's use of legal language to formulate his theology and his legalistic conception of reward and punishment). Obviously there are several possible avenues to explore here.