When I was training for the Uniting Church ministry there was gossip doing the rounds that there was a student who did not even believe in God. While most of my fellow students brought with them a belief in God as supernatural agent, I came from a background of scientific atheism. My adherence to the church did not include the God that my fellow students thought was the centre of faith.
This may remind some readers of that episode of Yes Prime Minister in which Jim Hacker complains that some of the candidates for the episcopacy did not believe in God, a sign that the Anglican church has become so compromised in its drive to appeal to all as to have abandoned the One to whom it was answerable.
Liberal Protestantism has a reputation for abandoning anything it sees as a barrier to the man in the street darkening its portals. Thus talk about morality in church is abandoned because it is seen as a turn off in an increasingly liberated society.
It is often the case that the creeds are not said in church, that the Eucharist is but a symbol or a memorial meal, the miracles are rationalised away and any sharp confrontation between the preacher and the congregation is avoided at all costs. Such is the desperate state of the church that fears for its life in direct contradiction to the gospel message.
In this case God is abandoned and replaced with the spiritual journey and all is peace and light except for the fact that one could die of boredom, there being so little meat left on the bones of the faith.
At the other end of the spectrum are the fundamentalist or so called Evangelical Christians who have no doubt about their belief in God. This came home to me after attending two talks given by the Christian Union at my university. My criticism of these talks was that although both speakers had good things to say, both had done their research, there was a point in the talk at which God was simply parachuted into the room without explanation or warrant. The assumption was that we were all Christians and we thus all believed in this God. That is just what Christians do.
This group would rage against limp Liberal Protestantism saying that it had sold out the essence of faith in order to gain adherents from secular society. In this I am on their side, but what worries me is that critical theological thinking only goes so far and then cops out when it comes to the question as to how God exists. There is an element of double book keeping here.
While the Word of God in scripture is celebrated and is at the centre of preaching and teaching, often to the shame of liberalism, there exists in the mind of the believer another God above the scriptures. There is a dualism here that mirrors the also strongly held dualism of body and soul.
While Evangelical Christians, as their name suggests, cling to the Word of God found in the Bible, this word is understood to point to its speaker, the real God as supernatural agent. This is very much like the relation found in Islam between God and the Koran. God is transcendent to the world and dictates his law to the Prophet who writes it in the book. The book then becomes holy as it is the direct word of God.
This scheme, when it is applied to the Bible, is vulnerable to the findings of biblical criticism that has discovered the people and communities behind the texts. The words in the Bible are actually human words derived from a reflection on human experience. They do this in many diverse ways, from psalms and songs to histories and legends and finally to gospels and the letters of the early church. Biblical criticism has exposed the chaps and maps of the Bible. There is not one divine voice here but many human voices all of which point to human truth.
This precipitates a crisis in the modern understanding of God as supernatural agent who exists apart from the world. The philosophers of the 18th and 19th century, especially Nietzsche, understood this and further cemented the basis for modern atheism. This is the god that Nietzsche’s madman declared dead and in doing so performed a great service to the church.
It has become clear that this god has no place in the serious study of theology because he cannot be an object of study. Rather, the proper object of study is the God revealed in the pages of the Bible, not in terms of a supernatural agent who hovers over scripture but whose life giving Word is found in scripture.
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