Christian without belief in God? No problem

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 England.''

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 time.

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 the time.

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 religion'' option.

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.

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