Home > Culture > The God Problem, Alternatives to Fundamentalism

The God Problem, Alternatives to Fundamentalism

Polebridge Press 2006
RRP $18.00
Available from http://www.westarinstitute.org/Polebridge/Title/GodProblem/godproblem.html

I guess there is in any kind of religious awakening a great sense of discovery. It’s like seeing a rare and beautiful bird in the forest for the very first time. Perhaps I discovered this bird. Surely no one else has ever seen this fantastic creature or I would have heard about it, wouldn’t I ? But then I come to realize it’s my own limitations that make me think this.

So it can be annoying to come across people from time to time who speak as if they describe something really new. They may be young feminists just understanding the depths of patriarchal oppression in history or they might be new Christians on fire for the Lord hoping to show you the way. They might be terribly sincere but they come across a bit disingenuous.

So it was for me reading Nigel Leaves’ The God Problem. Maybe the title is part of this. God is problem. Leaves’ approach pays virtually no attention to any kind of religious experience. There are also a couple of aspects of his approach which just annoyed me. One was the sense reading it that these questions and answers were somehow new. The second was that they were somehow catastrophically important to the universe.

Ecclesiastes rightly expresses: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”

Having made that criticism I would hasten to add that the book is still an excellent and easy to read introduction to the ideas he seeks to clarify throughout the book; the current popular alternatives to a traditional supernatural God and how these fit or don’t fit into modern Christianity.

He defines four alternatives. Panentheism, Non-Realism, Grassroots Spirituality and Religious Naturalism. As with any theology ,it is important to understand these terms as he describes them as some words carry meanings from other contexts.

Panentheism is the title he uses to describe the views of John Shelby Spong. Spong’s view of God is that God is real but ultimately beyond all our images and definitions. God is present in all things and beyond all things. Consequent to this is that Christianity is not the only way to a greater awareness and understanding of this God. Sadly, this is still a confronting idea for some Christians.

Non-Realism is a view he differentiates by describing some of the work of Don Cupitt and Lloyd Geering, neither of whom I had ever heard of. They promote the idea of a God that is not actually in the real world. ‘Non-real’ is the way they see God , which is merely a verbal symbol for the highest expression of our human values and spirituality. A trained philosopher might argue what is real anyway. I found his distinctions between Spong and Non-Realism rather hard to see and perhaps more a matter of emphasis. Is not Spong’s God the transcendent aspect of the non-real immanence of humanity? Perhaps he would have done better to describe the non-real world by comapring it to Star Trek. We know this universe of a slightly utopian future earth is just fantasy but it still captures the hearts and minds of millions and can at best present ideas and values that we can aspire to.

The third alternative Leave describes is of Grassroots Spirituality. In this he lumps together all that some might label new age along with many other practices, religions and psychologies. Some of these share some common aspects but it is a fractured area and still prone to exactly the same human tendencies to fanciful belief in magical cures and inspiring gurus.

The fourth alternative, Religious Naturalism , comes closest to dealing with religious experience. Leaves’ quotes a variety of modern authors who reflect that common sense of awe, mystery and reverence for “Mother Earth”. This is translated into religious language and significance but does not deify. It is not a religion with a god but a secularizing of the same notions.

In the conclusion Leaves explores a little the way in which these different approaches affect or can fit in with traditional Christianity. There is obviously a lot more one could do here but Leaves does not really try to do that in this short book. He really leaves that up to the reader to work out and that would be my approach too. The non-real approach might suit some due to its ability to sit fairly easily alongside traditional church ritual and language. But as he notes this may only suit the mentally agile.

For me , in the end it’s all a lot of intellectual gameplaying. To be sure it’s something I rather like but that is the trap. You can become a searcher who never decides where they want to go. Rather ,when confusing religious experience forces a consideration of these issues it can be worthwhile. It’s only then that I am really much more interested in talking to people about these experiences and their frameworks for interpretation. That’s my mystical bent I suppose. Otherwise wouldn’t it be far better to be doing something real and considering questions of ethics and evil in the world rather than spend too much time on metaphysical speculation?

Reviewed by Owen Ronalds