Struggling through the brainache of what is it all about soon leads you on to the subject of God, and what constitutes a good life. This is another source of brainache, but fortunately there is a guide, in the form of Keith Ward’s book God, subtitled A Guide for the Perplexed.
Why did I read such a book, published as it was in 2002? It was actually a posthumous present from friend Chris Lyons, who died 3 years ago now. A wonderful part of Chris’s funeral was the opportunity to select one of the books from his extensive library as a gift. Browsing through the books available I was drawn to this one by Keith Ward, who is variously described as priest, philosopher and theologian. I had some years previously seen Keith give a stimulating talk at a Mystics & Scientists conference.
Keith Ward has made a valiant effort to take us through and help understanding of some of the many contradictory strands and threads in the Western understanding of God over more than two millennia. Most major prophets, philosophers and theologians are there.
This is not easy reading. but rewards the effort taken to understand. There is no final answer to the question ‘what is God?’ Ward stresses that “thinking about God is not just an intellectual exercise. It is thinking about the best way to live as a human being, and about the deepest understanding of the world in which we live”.
I’ve found this book a helpful guide, but it’s in the nature of the subject of the mystery at the core of human existence that, although somewhat enlightened, I am no less perplexed than I was before reading it!
Also perplexing is the insistence of materialists in regarding the ‘hard problems of science’ as a more helpful concept than ‘God’.
Overview of the content
How does Keith go about this exploration into God? It is impossible to give any sort of summary, but I will at least give his chapter headings and some idea of the topics covered and the luminaries involved.
1. A feeling for the gods,
Once the world was seen as full of gods, such as in Homer’s Iliad. These gods are now seen as symbolic constructs of the human imagination, representing creative energies and deep powers. This was a world of the poetic imagination, that we struggle to understand today, and that poets such as Blake and Wordsworth tried to reconnect with.
2. Beyond the gods
Then came prophets and seers who spoke with inspiration from deep within. They saw beyond the world of the gods, culminating in the second Isiah who came to the concept of the one God, unknown and unknowable. Monotheism. This idea of God, adopted by the Christians when they came along, culminated in the work of Thomas Aquinas in 13C. This God of classical Christianity could not be defined or described: “We cannot know what God is, but only what he is not.” This unknowability of God lies at the heart of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other traditions. There was no old man in the sky.
3. The love that moves the sun,
God is said to have passed down to the Jews, via Moses, the (ten and more) commandments, included in the Torah. Two great commandments were emphasised – to love God and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. These were later adopted by non-Jewish Christians who renounced the Torah around 7C but retained the spiritual essence. In 17C Calvin developed this to such a demanding ethic that it could not be fulfilled, so required the forgiveness of God. The rationalist Kant actually retained a religious approach to morality, contrary to how he has been sometimes reported.
4. The God of the philosophers,
Plato’s (3C BC) philosophy of love of wisdom turned from the world of appearances to the inner vision of goodness itself, and beauty and truth – the true home of the soul, as in the Upanishads. Platonism was largely adopted by Christianity, notably through Augustine in 4-5C. God was the creator of matter and of the form of goodness. Aristotle’s vision was slightly different, but God was still there as the perfect being, acting as an attractor to all beings. In 11c Anselm defined God as ‘that than which nothing greater can be conceived’.
5. The poet of the world
The classical view of the timeless immutable God dominated European thinking about God for 1000 years, culminating in Aquinas. The Protestant revolution introduced God as entering into human history. Rather than turn towards the eternal, man would shape the material into perfection – the world of science and technology. Established authorities were challenged and in 18C came the American and French Revolutions. The incomprehensible Hegel proposed that the whole of temporal reality was the self-expression of Absolute Spirit/God, seeking to realise its own nature. (Marx and Darwin turned things round, and matter was at the centre of existence – nature evolved and history was a dialectical process). Pantheism and panentheism are perhaps the ultimate expression of Hegel’s view. In 20C Whitehead’s process philosophy sees the world comprising countless millions of agents each making their own moral choices towards the good, guided by love – all experienced as part of God.
6. The darkness between the stars
In 16C Francis Bacon heralded the coming science and its practical impact in ‘bettering’ the human condition. In 19C Kierkegaard went in a different direction ‘subjectivity is truth’. Faith in God is a subjective matter, a commitment of the self despite objective uncertainty. In 20C Ayer and logical positivism took things to ‘logical’ extremes – all meaningful statements must be verifiable, talk about God was meaningless. Even he later admitted this was going too far. For Sartre life is absurd, except for the meaning we give it for ourselves, there is no God. Tillich is more traditional, seeing God as the power and ground of being, the ultimate symbol of the good we strive for. Wittgenstein said little about God: “Whereof we cannot speak, therefore we must be silent.” Modern spirituality tends to emphasise the good rather than God.
7. The personal ground of being
There is an interesting discussion of the problem of evil, with thinkers Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer and Nietsche. God needs to be in some way transcendent to avoid being tarred with the inevitable evil. Tillich suggests that God is the personal ground of being, but not a person.
Featured image fresco Creation of Adam from Sistine Chapel ceiling, by Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada via Wikimedia Commons