God’s history in 'thought world'

Sir Lloyd Geering adds his voice to the debate about the reality/non-reality of God.

Ian Harris serves your readers well by drawing their attention to what is happening at the leading edge of changing religious thought.

It is surprising, therefore, that he has been taken to task by Murray Rae (ODT, 19.2.16) for suggesting that all talk of God should be taken "out of the world of the human sciences and into the world of human thought''.

Even more astonishing is Prof Rae's appeal to the traditional understanding of God "as the Creator of all things'', without acknowledging that this idea is not a scientific one but one found only in the very world of human thought referred to by Mr Harris.

However much it may continue to be expounded by professors of theology in the great universities, as Prof Rae claims, the fact remains that whatever explanatory value the idea may have had in the pre-scientific past has simply vanished with the advent of the scientific discovery of the evolutionary process that now explains the universe.

On the one hand, cosmic evolution made it unnecessary to postulate a Creator God, while, on the other, biological evolution explains how thinking apes slowly became human by creating language and then constructing the human thought-world.

This so shapes us humans today from the time we learn to speak that we are hardly aware of its reality.

As I have explained much more fully in my book From the Big Bang to God, whereas our forebears saw themselves living in two worlds, material and spiritual, we have been forced, from the time of Immanuel Kant onwards, to distinguish between the physical world and our perception of it (our thought world).

The physical world is now known to be a universe of almost infinite dimensions that has been expanding for more than 13 billion years.

But only during the past two million years has the human species slowly constructed our thought world.

At first it existed in a great diversity of forms and only recently has it been achieving a more unified, global form.

The idea of God originated in the primitive human thought worlds as a generic term that refers to the class of spiritual beings (the gods) postulated by the ancients to explain natural phenomena.

As recently as 2500 years ago the plurality of gods began to be replaced by monotheism, the idea that there is only one God and it is He who created and continues to control the physical world.

Even this was not a fixed and unchangeable idea (as commonly assumed) but has a long and complex history, well documented by Karen Armstrong in her book, A History of God.

Contrary to Prof Rae's judgement that any idea created by the human mind must of necessity "be frail'', human history shows that ideas do have power, as the rise and fall of past ideologies clearly demonstrates.

The idea of God was so powerful that it eventually gave rise to the three great monotheistic cultures - Jewish, Christian and Islamic.

Only during the 20th century did it begin to lose its power to convince, prompting the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer to declare that humanity has now "come of age'' and in its adulthood must learn to "get along without God''.

But instead of gloating over the so-called "death of God'' (as outspoken atheists are inclined to do, Richard Dawkins iconoclastically referring to God as a delusion), we should rather learn to appreciate the creative role played by the humanly conceived idea of God.

By enabling our Christian (and Muslim) forebears to see the world as a unity that operates in a rational way, monotheism provided the seedbed for the rise of empirical science, as the philosopher Alfred Whitehead pointed out.

The early scientists, being monotheists, sought to understand "the ways of God'' and, in doing so, gradually uncovered the laws of nature.

Now having given birth to the scientific age, the role of God as the Creator could be judged complete, yet, as Mr Harris contends in his article, the idea of God may continue to serve us as an important symbol, pointing to what unites us with one another, with our fellow creatures and with the earth itself.

Harvard theologian Gordon Kaufman agrees, observing how the God-symbol has long served as "our ultimate point of reference''.

But all God-talk says more about us and the way we live than it does about the physical world; this is why the Biblical characters so often speak of "my God'', "your God'' and "our God''.

Kaufman wrote in 1993: "To believe in God is to commit oneself to a particular way of ordering one's life and action. It is to devote oneself to working towards a fully humane world within the ecological restraints here on planet Earth, while standing in piety and awe before the profound mysteries of existence.''

Sir Lloyd Geering is a New Zealand theologian.

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