Monday, 6 October 2008

The little we know about God

‘The little we know of God makes it difficult to learn more, because the more cannot be added to the little, since every meeting brings such a change of perspective that what was known before becomes almost untrue in the light of what we know later’. This quotation from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom has become something of touchstone for me. I used it most recently in something I’d written for our diocesan magazine about Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.

I suggested ‘It may make the most sense for us to admit that we are deeply flawed and failing people, part of a deeply flawed and sometimes abusive institution, and share deeply flawed and partial understanding of what God means. It may make most sense for us to admit that these failures have sometimes been most pronounced when we have been most sure that we are right. When a Dawkins curses us for these flaws we should probably assume that anyone who does so has a perfectly valid point. Our instinct and hypothesis remains that it is meaningful to use this word God about what sometimes seems to meet us in these flawed places and sometimes seems to call, draw and take us beyond them. Our instinct and hypothesis remains that in Jesus of Nazareth we can see most clearly what God would look like when expressed within the time and space beyond which we cannot conceive. Our instinct and our hypothesis is that what we encounter in creativity, love and communication are also echos within time and space of the life of the God who draws us and who we see in Jesus.’

I was asked to talk at the weekend to some local people who’d been interested in the article. I hadn’t realised how little rigorous discussion of this nature happens in my regular ministry, nor how much I miss it. The small local group of ‘progressives and questioners’ affiliated to the Progressive Christian Network include a Unitarian and some agnostics as well as those who feel held by the Christian faith in different ways. They were welcoming, open about what holds them in faith, and stimulatingly engaged in discussion.

I was allowed significant time to share an exploration of the way in which the necessary philosophical framework within which any statement of faith is made inevitable colours and distorts it to a greater or lesser extent, and the discussion sailed on from there. I tried to share a little of the implications of Julian of Norwich’s sense that God ‘cannot be gotten by thought but only by love’ and Thomas Merton’s sense that God cannot be treated as an ‘object’, and how we can speak about and follow that which we cannot properly conceive. They kindly said they were stimulated and encouraged by this, and I certainly was by the opportunity and the response.

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