It is open to us in the modern world to reconceive God as
a powerful symbol, writes Ian Harris.
British actress Helen Mirren and Astronomer Royal Martin Rees
are poles apart in their life paths and achievements, but
they share a very modern trend in religion: they are
Christians who don't believe in God.
Not so long ago such a perspective would have been
unthinkable. Yet today many who regularly go to church (and
many more who do not) would agree with Dame Helen and Baron
Rees. I know ministers who lean the same way.
For some it's a position they've come to as they wrestle with
their understanding of the world around them, in which
traditional definitions of God no longer compute. Others have
a lingering sense of being Christian, but it has more to do
with cultural identity than theological perception.
Such identity appears uppermost for Dame Helen, who said this
month: ''I can't help being Christian because I was brought
up in Britain and the morality of Christianity is part of the
fabric of this country - but I don't believe in God. I do
believe in treating other people as you'd want to be treated
and being empathetic.''
That echoes the comment of Baron Rees, who describes himself
as ''a churchgoer who doesn't believe in God''.
''I share with religious people a concept of the mystery and
wonder of the universe and even more of human life, and
therefore participate in religious services,'' he said.
''And of course those that I participate in are, as it were,
the `customs of my tribe', which happens to be the Church of
Clearly, Dame Helen and Baron Rees affirm a religious
identity that has left behind a theistic concept of God.
That raises one of the key questions facing Christianity
today: Can a person claim to be Christian if he or she
doesn't affirm the traditional Judaeo-Christian view of God
as a personal being existing in a supernatural world,
overseeing life on this planet, and intervening in it
directly from time to time?That, however, is not the only
view of God open to us today. Religious ideas evolve along
with everything else, and 21st-century Christianity doesn't
have to accept uncritically the formulations of past ages,
though many Christians will continue to find security and
purpose within them.
Before theism, different societies created a range of gods,
each with its own niche in the scheme of things, to provide a
sense of security in a world full of uncertainty and peril.
Among them were gods of nature, such as the sea, weather and
harvest; gods of tribes and nations, as of Israel and Rome;
gods of peace, love and war. They met people's spiritual
needs and, importantly, were at one with the knowledge of the
Then came the monotheistic challenge, which reduced the many
gods of polytheism to one all-encompassing deity. This God
possessed all the positive attributes prized by people
everywhere, with no restriction of space, time and mortality.
Uppermost were infinite wisdom, infinite power, infinite
love, and a supreme will. For hundreds of years this God met
people's spiritual needs and dovetailed with the knowledge of
In our own era another shift in religious thinking is under
way, and to many it is most uncomfortable. American Episcopal
(Anglican) Bishop John Spong sums it up starkly: ''The God we
have defined theistically is simply no longer believable.''
Traditional Christians will dispute that, but others will
cheer him for saying what they have been groping towards.
Either way, it is no wonder that millions in the West are
quietly letting that theistic image of God go, with censuses
recording a continual rise in those ticking the ''no
That is an inevitable trend, since church teaching over many
centuries has identified God indelibly with theism. It leaves
people who no longer find this persuasive with nowhere to go.
Is it time, then, to rule off on God?
Not at all!
Bishop Spong goes on: ''As a human idea, theism can die
without God dying.''
There is a way of thinking about God beyond the real and
objective being of traditional theism.
It would mean going back to basics and acknowledging that
every idea of God is a human creation - and human creativity
lives on. In the modern world it is therefore open to us to
reconceive God as a powerful symbol - indeed the most
powerful symbol we are capable of - in a way that reflects
not only core elements of every major religion, but also a
secular understanding of the world.
I shall suggest one way of doing that next time.
- Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.