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ON THE OTHER HAND: Rethinking God

Peter Laurie

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We often talk as if God’s revelations were confined to ancient times. But why not see God as continuously revealing herself in nature and history?That way, one of theology’s main tasks would be to use progress in human knowledge to rethink our notion of God. This is what Teilhard de Chardin, a palaeontologist and Jesuit theologian, did. He tried, for example, to reconcile the Christian doctrine of original sin, based on a Biblical myth, with the scientific theory of evolution. Yet many of us still see the modern world as inimical to faith.We could not be more wrong.   All the modern discoveries in physics and cosmology – space-time, the Big Bang, dark matter – lend greater plausibility to the idea of a loving creator God. What was there before the Big Bang? Nothing? What is “nothing”? And how did the mass of an entire universe pop out of “nothing” 13.5 billion years ago in less than a second at precisely the rate of expansion that led to life in the universe? And why?Or why did biological evolution lead to consciousness? No one has satisfactorily explained the evolutionary advantage of our knowing we’re going to die. It sucks.The revelations of science are truly “miraculous”.Yet, instead of seeing progress in science and the growth of our moral sensibilities and artistic imagination as part of God’s purpose, we prefer to rely almost exclusively on frozen images of a deity revealed to persons from ancient cultures that (a) drew little distinction between fact and fancy, and (b) lived in patriarchal tribal societies whose “values” included genocidal war, the oppression of women, and slavery.  While many theologians have distilled universal principles from these ancient revelations, some still insist they should be taken literally, thus trivialising the power and beauty of myth as spiritual truth, and missing the point of God’s simple but demanding requirement: love.  Our failure to rethink God has done greatest damage in ethics. Most thoughtful people today, if asked to list ten guiding principles for ethical conduct, would not come up with the Ten Commandments.Instead they might speak of: respecting the Creator and his creation, being honest, fair, compassionate, and so on. They would also acknowledge the moral complexity of life.Few would mention the primitive tribal sexual taboos that seem to obsess some of us and that have more to do with treating women as property and control of female sexuality than anything else. Sex, like any other human activity, is subject to ethical judgment; but sexual acts are rarely intrinsically good or bad. A sexual relationship between unmarried adults may be immoral or moral.   Marriage, like other religious rites and rituals, brings a special sacramental grace to our lives. It’s a consecration of an intended lifelong commitment between two persons. But the lack of consecration does not make that commitment any less ethical. A relationship with God and participation in a religious community can unleash a spiritual force in our lives. And, of course, hallowed traditions, rituals and prayer can enhance that spirituality. But failure to believe is not a sin punishable by a mythical devil in a mythical hell. Our failure to rethink God means too often that, instead of religion continuously putting us in a right relation to God and all his creation, we’re confronted with three equally unpalatable options. Be a schizophrenic/hypocrite: six days of the week abide by an ethical and practical understanding of existence shaped by modern thought, and on the seventh day go to church and adopt a pre-scientific interpretation of the world. Option two: abandon religion as outmoded superstition, and lead a secular life devoid of religious spirituality.Option three: become a fundamentalist who clings to ancient beliefs, however absurd, as absolute truths, and rejects the modern world.Wouldn’t it make more sense to “put away childish things” and rethink God?
• Peter Laurie is a retired diplomat and a commentator on social issues. Email [email protected]