Monday, February 22, 2010

What Difference Does God Make Today?

by Simon Barrow
July 2007


In a society which is publicly sceptical of Christianity and which often assumes that all 'God talk' is superstituous or merely subjective, this paper suggests how the basic grammar of Christian belief can make sense today, and how it can be mapped in relation to key issues like globalisation, responding to human suffering, and the crisis of communication within mixed-conviction societies. Unlike many of Ekklesia's research papers, it is not directly tackling public policy issues, but instead is an extended essay exploring (especially through the work of Nicholas Lash, and others) some fundamental questions about how Christian convictions are shaped and articulated in the public realm. This is important, because much of our work and commentary employs explicitly theological language - although usually at a more popular level. The paper seeks to show that the meaning of 'God' is widely misunderstood, both by believers and sceptics, and that Christian theology offers some distinctive and robust resources for coming to terms with the demands of daily life, politics, culture, economics and society - but not in the easy, prescriptive way that is usually supposed. It includes a brief historical look at how and why talk of God became meaningless for so many in Western culture - before moving on to show how Christian thought becomes intelligible and effective once more when it is embodied in relationships, passionate conversation, shared living and action for change, rather than in abstract metaphysical categories. The essay does not presuppose wide theological reading, but it is a fairly dense exploration of some foundational issues.

1. Christian Belief After Christendom?

We live in an era and in a part of the world where the received institutions, rituals and ideas of historic Christianity are being severely questioned, bypassed, mocked, superced or rejected. Some call it post-Christendom, the demise of an era when Christian convictions held sway over governance and public life. The temptation for many Christians in response to this situation is to head in one of two opposite directions: aggressive reassertion of a Christendom mindset (the attempt to 'regain control'), or passive accommodation to the cultural zeitgeist of sceptical detatchment.[1]

The former approach involves suppressing or denying the validity of the challenge, both politically and theologically. The latter assumes that the Christian tradition lacks the resources necessary for a rigorous and fruitful encounter with the contemporary. In this sense they are both counsels of despair. But for those of us who find in the Christian community (with all it many failings) a continued source of nourishment for positively critical thought, radical social commitment, characterful living, and open-hearted spiritual development, a different approach is needed. The purpose of this paper is to show how a reasoned, hopeful and substantial account can be given of Christian conviction in the confused, divided, multi-perspectival world we inhabit daily. [2]

In particular, What difference does God make today? draws heavily on the thought of Nicholas Lash, an ecumenical Catholic thinker who has been an important catalyst in recent British theology – influencing not only public figures like Rowan Williams, but also Christians engaged critically with secular thought, with questions arising from post-modernity, with religion and politics, with the psychology and sociality of belief, and with the relationship between inherited and emergent features of church life. [3] His importance lies in the fact that, unusually in today’s climate, he is both well-attuned to contemporary intellectual demands, and fully committed to showing how Christianity can both respond to and transform some of the most important debates about its vitality or validity. For this reason his work offers a very helpful starting point for examining belief in (better – ‘explorations into’) God today. [4]

In an elegant but demanding little book published in 2005, [5] Lash draws reflectively upon a lifetime of theological and philosophical exploration to show both believers and sceptics how the core Christian grammar concerning ‘the question of God’ can be rendered intelligible and effective in relation to some huge contemporary challenges. Those challenges he sees embodied in globalization (the construction of the world as a single economic fact), human suffering (both natural and inflicted), and communications (“the crisis of language”). He chooses the motifs of ‘holiness’, ‘speech’ and ‘silence’ to explain how Christian thought relates to these demanding concerns. His categories correspond broadly with “one known as Holy Spirit, and as Word, and as the originating stillness in which that Word is spoken.” [6]

The starting point for the intellectual task of wrestling with God, both within the churches and in wider society, is very tough indeed, Nicholas Lash contends. [7] As he says, “[w]e underestimate at our peril the comprehensiveness of the ignorance of Christianity in contemporary Western cultures.” This ignorance is rendered intractable by the common supposition that ‘everybody knows’ what Christianity is: either a relatively un-engaging fairytale, or a child’s comforter for the feeble-minded. The way we are accustomed to ‘see the world’, according to now-dominant modes of engagement, is increasingly resistant to Christian categories.

What is required from Christians in this difficult situation is not more volume, greater self-assertion or the quest for some reassuringly simple ‘answer’. On the contrary it is tough thought, shared pain and patient reasoning in making the story the Gospel recounts our own once more; that is, the “unceasing, strenuous, vulnerable attempt to make some Christian sense of things” which is known as “doing theology”. But the churches in Britain and Ireland seem largely to have abandoned the task, seeking comfort or vindication instead.

This woeful situation needs to be challenged. And while erudition is certainly not necessary to authentic Christian living, observes Nicholas Lash, “it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that devout and educated Christians who refuse to acquire a theological competence cognate to the general level of their education simply do not care about the truth of Christianity.” In which case, why on earth should anyone else take it seriously?

2. The question of God re-assessed

In examining the erosion of Christian meaning since the seventeenth century, Lash invites us to contemplate a revolution in our ‘modern’ understanding of (or, rather, false presumptions about) God.[8] He does this not by abandoning what the Christian tradition has to say as outmoded, but by seeking a thoroughly contemporary recovery of Aquinas’ tendency (and that of others, not all of whom are Aquinas’ followers) to sustain the word ‘God’ as verb rather than as noun – a point to return to later.

But we need to start somewhere nearer the genesis of the contemporary problem. During the past four hundred years ‘God’ has been rendered practically and imaginatively almost irrecoverable for many people, suggests Lash. This process began when the early-modern search for human mastery (through the practical ‘ends’ produced by ‘cause and effect’ as the way the world came to be understood) led to the word ‘god’ being used, “for the first time, to name the ultimate explanation of the system of the world.” But natural science soon saw that the world as such did not require any single, overarching, independent, explanatory principle. So the word ‘god’ could be dispensed with, and modern atheism was born.[9] However this understanding of the word ‘god’, which has been perpetuated by na├»ve believers and misinformed non-believers ever since, is profoundly misleading in a whole host of ways.

Before modernity, the term ‘gods’ was understood, correctly, as a relational one, designating whatever it was people worshipped – gave ultimate worth to. It resided in occurrences, activities and patterns of behaviour – not concepts. Explains Lash: “The word ‘god’ worked rather like the word ‘treasure’ still does. A treasure is what someone... highly values. And I can only find out what you value by asking you and by observing your behaviour… There is no class of object known as ‘treasures’… valuing is a relationship.”

However, with the dominance of instrumental reason, ‘gods’ became, correspondingly, things (objects, entities, individuals) of a certain kind, a ‘divine’ one. Analogously, the ‘home territory’ of God-understanding shifted from worship (the assignment of worth-ship) to description (the assignment of properties). It became a metaphysical enterprise rather than a matter of appropriate relationship. The difference is that the former has to make claims about essence or ‘being’ (of a person, a thing, or ‘god’) in order to find it meaningful. The latter does not, though it needs a good idea of what it speaks.

This double shift of meaning and affection fundamentally corrupted and disabled the modern comprehension of ‘God’ – because God is, logically and necessarily, beyond definition (delimiting) and categorisation. God is most definitely not a ‘thing’ belonging to a class of things called ‘gods’.[10] “Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists all have this, at least, in common: that none of them believe in gods”, says Lash. Therefore religions are best considered ‘schools’ in which people learn properly to relate to God precisely by not worshipping any thing – not the world nor any part, person, dream, event or memory of it.

God is rendered ‘unbelievable’ for many today because we have forgotten this. People “simply take for granted that the word ‘god’ names a natural kind, a class of entity. There are bananas, traffic lights, human beings, and gods. Or perhaps not: on this account… ‘theists’ are people who suppose the class of gods to have at least one member… ‘atheists’ are those who think that, in the real world, the class of ‘gods’ is, like the class of ‘unicorns’, empty.” This is a basic category mistake with lethal consequences. As Denys Turner says, commenting on Aquinas: “In showing God to ‘exist’ reason shows that we no longer know what ‘exists’ means.” [11]

Similarly, the modern mind readily submits to the notion that technical and abstract language (‘ineffability’, ‘transcendence’ and so on) is inherently superior to the ‘concrete anthropomorphic imagery’ of biblical thought, attributing the latter to the simple-minded. This is, in fact, nonsense. It ignores the reality that all language is humanly generated. Everything we say of God, in whatever register, is metaphorically said, because God is not and cannot be some version of us writ large – and speech or writing that is conscious of this is less likely to deceive itself by attempting a ‘fix’ on ‘what God is’. [12]

God-talk is therefore immensely difficult. It requires resourceful imagination funded by scripture, liturgy, art, prayer, literature and poetry. It also requires and enables the rational disciplining of imagination that we call theology; an unending dialogue between these two, in fact.

Another ubiquitous modern misunderstanding is the idea that God is ‘a supernatural being’. This is a misapplication of a word (‘supernatural’) originally used adjectively or adverbially to designate a creature acting beyond the categories of its nature, supported by the grace of God. (A rabbit playing a violin, say, or, more realistically, a person behaving truly selflessly!) In these terms “God, alone, cannot be supernatural, cannot ‘act supernaturally’, for what would graciously elevate or heal God’s nature?” [13]

What, then, does it truly mean ‘to believe in God’? Developing Augustine’s thought about this, Nicholas Lash distinguishes three possibilities based on the Latin ascriptions: Credere Deo (to believe what God declares), Credere Deum (to believe God to be truly God, and nothing less); and the creedal formula Credere in Deum (to believe ‘godwardly’ or ‘into God’, as a matter of incorporation into an evidential body and by learning ‘godly behaviour’).

To cut a long discourse short, it is the third sense that best expresses what is offered and required in Christian believing – the language of Holy Mystery embodied in appropriate relationship, by which we non-idolatrously and wholeheartedly give ourselves to the truth, flourishing and freedom to which we are summoned – but which (at one level) wholly exceeds what we are able to think, see or do. The ‘journey into God’ involves developing good habits and skills of mind, heart and disposition. It is neither a matter of blind faith nor narrow-sighted certainty, but continual exploration and growth in understanding using all of our embodied faculties.

3. The spirit of globalisation

“We all make up one world,” says Christian humanist thinker Nicholas Boyle, “even if we are only gradually coming to recognise it.” [14] The discovery of the interconnectedness of everything and the primacy of relations is a major scientific, cultural and social feature of modern life. This becomes ‘globalisation’ with the realisation, mediated by technology and cyberspace, that the world is now a single economic fact – so far making a minority very rich, allowing many to remain poor, and posing challenges to people and planet beyond our parochial patriotisms.

Relationship is, as we have seen, central to the meaning of that awkward word ‘God’, without which Christians would render unintelligible the narratives that give them their identity. God thereby names the destiny of the world as the realisation of the purposes of love – dispossessive affection which creates genuine, freely-given and life enhancing relationship.

Globalisation demands imagination to fund political action based on a ‘global identity’ – the idea that who ‘we’ are is, in a sense, everyone. The language of church (ecclesia) is one that denotes this possibility of a common peoplehood. Observes Lash: “The notorious slogan ‘outside the Church there is no salvation’ has always had two senses: that only Christians may be saved is false; that salvation is the healing of relations, the gathering of humankind into ‘ecclesia’, communion, in [the unlimitedness that is] God, is true.”

The discernable oneness of the world requires such a ‘common story’, by which is meant ‘a true account’, not an attempt to impose one narrative. But many people object to this, claiming that ‘narrative is fiction’ and that ‘grand narratives are inherently imperialist’. Nicholas Lash counters that we have good reason for seeing the world as ‘story-shaped’. He goes on to show why reason should not be confused with necessity, how contingency can and does bear meaning for us, how persons prove unassimilable to their component parts, and how the particularities and fallibilities of local narratives do not preclude their imagination as global realities too.

It is important to recognise that no story says everything, not even a story about everything. It is in the encounter with the ‘other’ through different narrated accounts that the world is continually enlarged for us. Truth is a gift and a right relation, never a commodity, a possession or a certainty – as instinctive positivists of a ‘believing’ or ‘non-believing’ kind are constantly tempted to think. That is why materialisms, idealisms and nihilisms, as totalising systems, will always fail eventually. But at enormous human cost.

Drawing on Thomas Aquinas’s corresponding confession of the mystery of God as ‘gift’, Nicholas Lash argues that to understand all things as an expression of the giving that is God’s own self (so to speak) is to comprehend what is meant in the naming of the divine as ‘Holy Spirit’. It means, as the Eastern Orthodox suggest, that God is known through the energies of the divine resonating within the natural, not in essence or by unmediated encounter.

What impact does this conviction about all-that-is being a gift of God have upon our reception of, and interaction with, the world? The difference it makes is not that of substance dualism, which sees ‘spirit’ and ‘matter’ in metaphysical contention. Rather, as ‘mind’ is not a ‘thing’ stuck in your brain, but the ability to act consciously, so ‘soul’ is not distinct from the human life, but may be thought of as its total ‘shape’ – towards life and love rather than bondage and death.

The biblical distinction between ‘spirit’ and ‘flesh’ is, similarly, not that between living systems and their capacities. It is between things crumbling and things coming alive; life-gone-wrong (or ‘not-life’) and ‘life-in-its-fullness’, breathed by God. The Spirit “blows where it wills”, as the Gospel puts it.

So “[t]o confess God as Spirit is to tell the story of the world as something, from its beginning to its end, given to come alive.” God is not ‘a spirit’, because God is not any kind of thing. Rather, God is limitless donation, and with Thomas Aquinas, John of Damascus and (latterly) Fergus Kerr, may therefore be identified (fruitfully, if inadequately) as “more like an event than an entity”, a verb more than a noun. Aquinas did not quite reach this point on his own, but it is the direction of his thought, among other things, that re-raises it in the contemporary.

What of the holiness produced in and for us by relation to God as Spirit? It is neither synonymous with the world’s various ‘spiritualities’, nor with ego-dependent piety, nor with a religious system. It is not primarily a moral quality, either.

“Etymologically, ‘holy’ is the whole, the healed”, Lash says. To worship is to acknowledge in God all the completeness we lack, and to be opened to being transformed by it without needing to seize it. The holy is beyond our manipulation. The sacred invites us, but refuses our possession. When we seek to own God there is hell to pay, as we see when we look around the world.

What then of ‘religion’? If ‘gods’ are whatever we worship, then these days people do not name as ‘gods’ the things they actually worship (give ultimate worth to). The same is true of religious beliefs and practices, of what people treat as ‘sacred’. “Whatever a social group takes really seriously, finds too hot to handle, believes to be beyond control… is the character of its religion”. Under the influence of Enlightenment hostility to religion, people use the world very differently these days. But that does not change the reality.

Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that ‘you can’t buck the market’ was, in this understanding of religion, truly a confession, a statement of faith (of where we put our trust). In the United States, the national flag is, similarly, a religious symbol. Religion is the “binding principle of society” says John Henry Newman, in a way not dissimilar to Hegel and Durkheim. And most of it, Christian theologians have recognised, is idolatrous – treating as sacred that which is not God, to the serious damage of human beings.

This is why, at their best, the world’s religious traditions are schools teaching people that no feature of the world – no nation, institution, person, text, idea, place or ambition – is straightforwardly sacred. The Holy calls us beyond worship of the creature to a process of discernment about how lovingly to bear the “gift and burden of contingent freedom” in all the world. To give ultimacy to anything short of God is to imprison ourselves, and likewise to cut ourselves off from the finality of love declared in and as God.

Within the human conflicts and contradictions that constitute Christianity lies the Christian vision that everything we are and have (and will be) is gift. But “[i]n a world so comprehensively disfigured… the ‘giftedness’ of reality is not, to put it mildly, self-evident.” To perceive it we have to act with reciprocity and thus experience the rectification of relations that alone comes from forgiveness, the dispossession to go on giving beyond measure, merit or calculation.

In the cross inflicted upon him by the vengeance of state and religion against one who exposed their lies, Jesus takes the violence of another upon himself in a costly way that is gift beyond measure and explanation (‘miraculous’, as Christoph Theobald puts it). And when the church community makes a genuine ‘option for the poor’ it too tells “the Christian story of the world as gift and action of God’s liveliness”, with and from the viewpoint of those subjected to that same world’s avarice. This is the shape of ‘belief’ as life lived beyond our means ('resurrection life'), rather than as propositional theory.

In summary, “God looks like the action of the ‘holy spirit’ that God is said to be: like forgiveness and non-violence, solidarity with victims, the achievement of communion in the one world to which we all belong.” … “God also looks like a young man tortured, strung up on a Roman gibbet. The next question to be considered is, what does that death say?”

4. Cacophony, conversation and shared learning

Is conversation possible in a cacophonous world? Nicholas Lash examines this question in relation to the Word (the reason, or wisdom) of God in the shape of Jesus the Christ – one in whom we encounter, in the particular, in narrated flesh rather than generalised theory, the utterance that God is (metaphorically, but truthfully) said to be, and through which all that is exists.

Conversation across the globe is made difficult right now not just by cultural gulfs but by devastating political and economic unevenness, and also (some argue) by incommensurable conceptual frameworks embodied in untranslatable languages. But ‘conversation’ is not just a mental act, it is a bodily one, a cultural embodiment through which we discern common humanity in mutual vulnerability. We can’t sort it out in our heads alone.

To be human is to be able to speak. But speech is held within the trust and responsibility of relationship, in which we are all ‘speaking parts’. Our capacity to speak and listen reflects what we have become over time, our form and nature. We can “say what we like”, but this liberty is best understood as the burden of our responsibility to speak the truth in a dark, complex, often illegible and unutterable world.

Modern speech has mostly forgotten conversation, which it has swapped for monologues and “kitsch ideologies” (George Steiner). Speech, like all things in time, takes time. We are tempted to evasion and despair – silence about things that matter, and chattering into the void. Something better can only emerge from “an immensity of waiting”, the “long day’s journey” of the Saturday that lies suspended between Good Friday, the time of waste, and Easter Sunday, the dawn of hope.[15] This is where we in the West live, for the most part.

As Augustine reminds us, everyone learns to speak by hearing our language spoken. Together we work out where we and others are, how we got there and where we are going. In this sense, Lash reminds us, “[t]ruth is tradition-dependent” and “learning how to speak the truth takes time.” Social thought is about what we discover before we acquire the capacity to choose, an unfashionable but inescapable reality. In fast-paced, technological post/modernity we want to control what we know. We are impatient with debate, difficulty, ambivalence, elusiveness and paradox – which Rowan Williams suggests “is at heart an impatience with learning, and with learning about our learning.”

The world’s darkness is beyond human explication. What gives us hope is the strangeness of evil encountered by the greater strangeness (mystery) of grace, gift. The Cross can be seen as the ‘rendezvous’ for this encounter, the essence of which is defined by the Stranger on the Emmaus Road. [16] Reviewing the past as part of an uncertain future, he enables the travellers “to speak a quite new language, to glimpse a world quite different from the world they thought they knew.”

It is in the context of gratuitous hospitality that the Emmaus walkers discover, surprisingly, that they are guests and that the Stranger who appears alongside them is host. In this divine reversal they recognise Jesus as he ‘vanishes’ (appears differently) to become “the kind of man you meet along the road… the figure of a human being bounded, as all human beings are, by mortality.”

So “[w]hat they recognised, as they began to see the point, was [Jesus’] new presence as the bread he broke, the life he shared, at the beginning of this new conversation which is, for all eternity, uninterruptible.” Nicholas Lash does not spell it out like this here, but this (humanity transfigured) is the Gospel’s abolition of religion as a separate sphere of life controlled by ‘the religious’. [17]

5. Attending to silence, turning to action

The paradoxical, poetic and paradigmatic truth of the Garden of Gethsemane, the place of agonizing and unanswered darkness, is that we cannot speak unless we are spoken to (addressed) – “all speech is, in the last resort, response, and we are responsible for what we say. Yet what we hear, as we attempt to speak, is silence.” Jesus expected no reply from God, but gave himself over to the Eternal Silence. In him is God’s Word, There is no word beyond “the Father’s silence” (Christoph Theobald) [18]. Therefore the more we know of God in seeking to refract the character of the Word in action, the greater the depths of our unknowing.

To acknowledge God as Creator, the donative mystery of all things, is to see ourselves not merely as facts but as creatures, those who attend creatively to originating silence. [19] The universe we observe is unimaginable in scope. Pascal recognised the terrifying empty stillness of the sky and of human solitude. We may seek to fill the void with extraterrestrial life, with spirits or deities, but these are “speculative strategies of evasion” which betray the wonder we rightly feel at being here. (This, not the answers of ‘natural theology’, with its a priori or empirical postulations, is where we appropriately discern “the question of creation”.)

The biblical notion of ‘creation’, according to the popular modern imagination, is “an explanation of the establishment of the initial conditions of the world”. This is not so. Textually, it is an argument against fatalistic and dualistic ancient Near Eastern cosmogonies which were used to divide and command.

The temporal image of ‘beginning’ in the Hebrew Scriptures is about matters more basic than chronology and sequence – it concerns the absolute dependence of everything on God, the world ex nihilo. It says that all-that-is need not have been. It is sheer gift – and needs to be appreciated as such in the way we receive and handle it. God does not ‘manufacture’ this gift, but donates it beyond manipulation, ‘speaks’ it into being.

As scientists have long recognised, the universe (or, perhaps, the multiverse) requires no causa mundi. The world is not a puzzling fact in contrast to other straightforward facts: it is all the facts there are. To confess its ‘creation’ is not to contradict that with an appeal to ‘special agency’ thwarting or competing with natural processes. Rather it is to acknowledge that all the facts there are depend upon the mystery we call God - whose relation to them, when recognised and repsonded to, brings about deep transformation: signs of new possibility. [20] God is the ‘cause’ of ‘all this’ by virtue of what and who God is, not by being an additional or final cause in a chain of events.

Concludes Nicholas Lash, with hopeful realism: “To speak appropriately of the holy mystery that makes and heals the world, but is not the world nor any item in it, is quite beyond the [analytic] resources of language.” God-talk is therefore, he repeats, inescapably metaphorical - that is the way its aspiration to truth is necessarily formed. “It is the tragedy of Western culture to have fallen prey to the illusion (widely shared by believer and non-believer alike) that it is perfectly easy to talk about God.” [21]

Serious religious activity (worship and action that refuses the dominating claims of 'deities', both religious and non-religious in form) involves disciplining ourselves to avoid pinning down and labelling the Holy One - "the unfamiliar Name" (T. S. Eliot). It involves learning how to recognise that we, and all things, are, in the flow of the Christian story at least, lovingly created (gifted) into peace – and that at the end of the day, this is all we ‘know’ – for we are contingent.

To know God in this way is not to know a scientifically or philosophically determinable ‘fact’, or to be able to describe ‘frameworks of cosmic order’, but to enter a personal, communal and narrative relationship, embodied in social practice. Above all, this takes time, patience and cooperation. And it assumes the surprising conclusion of traditional Christian thought, which is that God is disclosed as God within the conditions of the material world, rightly apprehended, and not anywhere else. Esoteric knowledge of ‘another world’ is not presupposed.

To live before God, in a dignified way, is also to acknowledge our radical dependence (the condition of our mortality) without pathology. [22] God is no tyrant, but the life-giver. To be humanly free in the presence of God – a deeper freedom than mere ‘autonomy’ – is to learn how appropriately to handle contingency and brokenness (alongside the abundant joys of life) through mutuality, belonging, listening, forgiving and attentiveness.

The outcome of this is not ‘spirituality’ – a privatised zone of consolation or esoteric ‘knowledge’ – but radical personal, social and political engagement with the pain and noise of the world in the direction of healing (holiness), conditioned by the hopefulness embodied for and with us in the liberating Word that resonates in Jesus Christ and originates in the eternally inviting silence of God.


[1] For an account of the continuing transition from Christendom to post-Christendom, see the After Christendom series of books published by Paternoster Press. The issues examined in this paper are part of a larger project which may lead to a book for this series on ‘God after Christendom’. I should also offer some apology to Nicholas Lash for the title of this essay. He rightly eschews the instrumentality implied by the "what difference does God make?" question - as if God is there to 'do' something for us. I hope it will become clear as I proceed, however, that "the difference God makes" is no more and no less than the reality God is, as we think, sense and experience that unconditioned, unlimited reality turning our very limited 'reality' upside down.

[2] What follows is primarily related to developments in Britain and Western Europe. But it also has global resonance. See also: (eds.) Simon Barrow & Graeme Smith, Christian Mission in Western Society Precedents, Perspectives, Prospects (CTBI, 2001). A further account of faith in the contemporary world, focussing more on the content of the Gospels, is given here: What is radical about Christianity?

[3] I would like to add the Anabaptist tradition, but that does not yet seem to be true. Among Lash’s works which are of abiding significance in the areas I have mentioned are Change in Focus (1973), Theology on Dover Beach (1979), A Matter of Hope (1981), Easter in Ordinary (1988), Theology on the Road to Emmaus (1989), The Beginning and the End of ‘Religion’ (1996) and Seeing in the Dark (2005).

[4] In following, elaborating and improvising upon Nicholas Lash’s basic arguments, I hope I have done justice to his work. But please take this exposition as my own – and if it engages you, read the book itself. The sections in this paper are based upon the chapters of Professor Lash's Holiness, Speech and Silence [see 5] - to which, as anyone who has studied it will realise, I am considerably over-indebted in what follows.

[5] Nicholas Lash, Holiness, Speech and Silence: Reflections on the Question of God (Ashgate, 2005). This paper started life as a summary and exposition of Lash's "mini summa" for a study group in Exeter. It was subsequently developed for teaching purposes to introduce central Christian convictions in relation to philosophical considerations and global challenges.

[6] To many modern minds the Christian doctrine (grammar) of the Trinity is utterly baffling, if not nonsensical. But Nicholas Lash continues to believe that it is of fundamental importance. In the present book he explores the metaphors by which it ‘makes sense of us’. For a thoughtfully direct unpacking of the underlying ‘grammar’ of Trinitarian understanding, however, see his excellent Believing Three Ways in One God (SCM Press, 1997).

[7] The sensitive reader may ask ‘why Christianity, specifically?’ The answer is that the question of God, like the question of humanity, does not come to us in the abstract, but in the particularities of communities of conviction. The conversation between different belief systems is an important one, and in no way secondary. But it cannot be embarked upon until we have really grasped what it means to speak of and live toward God in a specific context. Moreover, I have reasons for being and remaining Christian, whatever my debts and loves towards those of other faith – which are considerable.

[8] On the basic questions about the meaning of God and relating to God, see also the excellent work of John Bowker, The Sense of God: Sociological, anthropological and psychological approaches to the origin of the sense of God (One World, Oxford, 1995) and Licensed insanities: Religions and belief in God in the contemporary world (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1987). Also Keith Ward, God: A guide for the perplexed (One World, 2003) and John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God: A theology of the event (Indiana University Press, 2006).

[9] This thesis is developed at greater length by Michael J. Buckley, At the Origins of Modern Atheism (Yale University Press, 1987). It is epitomised by Laplace’s supposed comment about God: “I have no need of that hypothesis.” The point, of course, is that God is not a hypothesis in or about the world. That is the key misunderstanding. God is the mystery in which the world lives and moves and has it being.

[10] This is a point that Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and other philosophically ill-equipped critics of ‘God’ seem quite unable or unwilling to grasp. They work on caricatures which bear as much relation to mature Christian theology as the average person’s account of electricity would to the finer points of electromagnetism.

[11] See Denys Turner, ‘On Denying the Right God: Aquinas on Atheism and Idolatry’, Modern Theology, volume 20 number 1 (January 2004).

[12] The amusing example Lash cites in the opening pages of Holiness, Speech and Silence is of a teacher who chides a child for painting a swan when asked to draw a picture of God. What the child instinctively grasps, but the teacher intellectually does not understand, is that an image of gracefulness infused with something that speaks of the divine is a better way of communicating than a presumption that we can have some clear image or word with which to ‘capture’ God. As Stanley Hauerwas and Nicholas Adams are often saying, we know less than we think at one level, and think less than we know at another.

[13] This is an important illustration of the fact that thinking about God, who is no 'thing', is not the same as thinking about the world of objects. It requires more. ‘What is’ or (in the case of God) ‘what shall be’ shapes the language, tools and methods we use to apprehend, reason about, or come to terms with them.

[14] See Nicholas Boyle, Who Are We Now? Christian humanism and the global market from Hegel to Heaney (T&T Clark, 1998).

[15] See George Steiner, Real Presences: Is there anything in what we say? (Faber and Faber, 1989).

[16] Luke 24. 13-31.

[17] See for example, The Beginning and the End of Religion (Cambridge University Press, 1996), the Teape Lectures.

[18] The metaphor of ‘fatherhood’ applied to God is about generative, participative, guiding affection. It has, of course, been abused in patriarchy. But there is at least a reasonable argument for saying that by taking fatherhood into God, it redeems it from the control of men – a point made within parts of feminist discourse, which also urge a range of images to express our experience of the divine.

[19] In one of his recent books, Alasdair McIntyre has written of ‘creatureliness’ in terms of our human capacity to see ourselves as Dependent Rational Animals (Duckworth, 2004). This has implications for recognising, morally and relationally, both the deep affinity and the mysterious dissimilarity between humans and other animals.

[20] See: Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology (Blackwell, 2001), passim.

[21] Since Holiness, Speech and Silence is a short book, I have not referenced every quotation, but have verified all of them.

[22] This point has been superbly communicated by David E. Jenkins in an important but overlooked foreword (Liberating ‘God’) to Jurgen Moltmann’s book on the respective claims of ethics and aesthetics, Theology and Joy (SCM, 1980). He says that Freudian dependence is pathological, that final independence (from each other, the world and the divine) is an illusion, and that inter-dependence with God overestimates our capacities. Therefore the question the Gospel poses is: “is there a liberating form of dependence?” – one which enables us to grow rather than shrink. The Christian message says ‘yes’, and adds that it is the most hopeful thing imaginable, because of the endless creativeness and love of God.

Also highly recommended: Rupert Shortt, God's Advocates: Christian thinkers in conversation (DLT, 2006) and the various works of James Alison, which are enormously subtle and illuminating.

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