So There Is No God (A Church Without God – Chapter III)

Rev. Ernest Harrison begins his provocatively titled third chapter of his 1966 book “A Church Without God” by asking, “If Mother Church is dead, we cannot long delay asking the question: What about God? She offered herself as his one true agent; and we must ask if this God, in whose name she acted, has also died.” He then writes,

“There is no God. The statement sounds discordant and unreal, even to ears which do little more than hear a word without meaning. Therefore, those who call themselves Christians must explain how it is that they can do so and still believe that God is no more.”

Harrison continues by saying that new ideas or understandings often take a very long time to be accepted, because old ideas and understandings often work very well for many people. But eventually they die out. He uses the example of the old belief that the sun revolved around the earth. “It was widely held. It worked. It met the questions of the day…It became integral to the thinking of lawyers and religious leaders.” But, he says, “One day a simple question was asked, and history was never the same again.”

Harrison says that it is a different case when it comes to religion, because emotions as well as the idea of “divine revelation” are involved, which are used to defend very out-dated ideas even when they make no logical sense. He says that there have been changes within Christianity that have occurred at a snail’s place: “The Bible was written and edited like any other set of books. Jesus did not claim to be God. The sacramental bread is not the flesh of God. Jesus did not physically rise from the dead. The rituals prescribed in the Old Testament are not for all men throughout all time.”

Then Harrison again asks the question, “Is God dead?” The answer, he says, is yes. He notes that the phrase “God is dead,” is often attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche, but that Nietzcsche “is more in the league of the old-fashioned atheist.” Harrison continues:

“Our present generation is the first to permit a man to state several things at once: I am a Christian; I follow Jesus; I belong to a certain long-lived denomination; and I do not believe in God.”

In the past it was assumed that if you asked someone if they were a Christian and they responded affirmatively, then they must believe in God. If one did not believe in God then they were not a Christian. The same cannot be said for today.

And this is where Harrison says the water can seem to get murky and he talks of “Christian atheism.” For instance, what do we mean by the name “God?” If the term atheist means “one who does not believe in a supernatural Man-In-The-Sky who controls the world and judges it, then yes, this blogwriter is an atheist. But this is not the only definition of God. The author Marcus Borg speaks of panentheism, where “everything is in God.” He utilizes the verse “In Him we live and move and have our being.” It is as if God is a great ocean and we are the waves flowing within that ocean. Here, God is Spirit. This is the God that I believe in. Harrison also talks of the Church’s tendency to see humankind as fallen. He speaks of his own faith tradition, Anglicanism:

“If one turns to the prayer book of the Anglican Church, any doubts about the attitude of traditional theology evaporate. The only good in the world is the good that God gives us to counteract the human bias towards evil; with which, to be specific, he is said to be born. I can find no example in the prayer book of a phrase which implies that God accepts us as we are; in other words, that he really loves us…Those who call themselves Christians and obey the law of the Church, these alone seem to be granted acceptance. A poverty-stricken sort of love.”

The second style of “Christian atheism,” Harrison writes, is evolutionary. “God is eternal and unchangeable, but man consistently develops in his appreciation of the objective reality.” The ideas of God that have been set out in the Bible are continually being enlarged and refined. “Many of these ideas die and are replaced by better ones. Yet, through all the changes, we are only moving to a clearer vision of what is unchanging.” Harrison says that language must be changed, along with metaphors. Words and metaphors that must be analyzed and perhaps dismissed include: saved, incarnation, ransom, redemption. “Let us therefore, change them or explain them in new ways, so that new men may understand. “All through this process, there is no thought that the underlying meaning has changed or could change. Find a new word, explain it in new ways: we are still redeemed, still in need of salvation, still saved through the blood of the Lamb.

Harrison continues by saying that many people, such as writers C.S. Lewis, J.B. Phillips, and Dorothy L. Sayers have admitted that the term “God” holds little meaning for modern man, and so embarked on giving it more strength and meaning. However, it was an old meaning that they were restoring. “It did not occur to any of the above writers that God himself might change, or that he might have died…For them, God was alive as he had always been.” Harrison commends these authors for their efforts, but says their appeal was to a declining number of people. “To the majority, they conveyed little because even the purified, strengthened, and logically attractive God they described came through as irrelevant.”

Harrison then goes on to say that the work of the previous mentioned authors was pushed aside by more “radical” authors and thinkers such as Dr. John Robinson, who wrote his controversial book Honest To God only 3 years prior to A Church Without God. And even Robinson drew extensively from other men such as Tillich, Bonhoeffer, and Bultmann. Harrison sums up Robinson`s work in this way:

“Robinson set out a thesis which made an immediate appeal, not only to those who had detached themselves from modern denominational Church life, but to those who were caught up in it and wished to remain in it. Men used to believe in a three-decker universe, with Heaven above, the earth upon which they lived in the middle, and Hell beneath. God was thought of as “up there,” the devil as “below.” When the flat-earth philosophy came to an end, the God “up there” was replaced by the God “out there,” and the devil remained below, in the middle of the earth, though he also walked on it.”

Harrison says that with new discoveries in modern astronomy, “out there” as a place for God became difficult to retain. So if God is neither “up there” or “out there,” where is he? The successors of Lewis, Phillips, etc, “picked up the thought that God was a spirit and demonstrated that the old physical notions were crude, that they needed to go.” For instance, Tillich concentrated on what he called “the depths of our being,” When we look at ourselves, we find that we are concerned about many things. God, Tillich said, is the ultimate among these concerns; he is our Ultimate Concern. Harrison says that “The appeal of Tillich’s definition was immediate and is already commanding widespread acceptance.” He was writing this in 1966, and had not been introduced to this generation’s writers such as Bishop John Shelby Spong and Marcus Borg.

Harrison argues that atrocities such as the Holocaust “brought it home” that men were responsible for their actions. “The old God, who was supposed to love mankind and intervene on behalf of the weak, rarely did so and showed little concern except for the big battalions.”

Harrison continues that “modern man prefers to explain truth, goodness, and beauty, not by posing the existence of some Other Being, but by examining the evidence, primarily of medicine and science.” Also,

“Modern man is discovering himself. Psychology and psychiatry are daily opening new strait and narrow paths to the depths of man’s being. As they are opened, there are fewer extravagant claims to solving all human problems; there is more caution; there is more honest declaration of uncertainty and ignorance. There is, at the same time, more that can be seen by everyone as true discovery. As man digs to deeper levels of his being, he becomes more certain that he will never be able to say, ‘I now know everything about myself, my neighbour, and mankind.'”

And then Harrison makes a very important point: “To live with uncertainty is to mature.” He then states that “God is our ultimate concern, the ground of our being.”

Harrison then describes a belief that was put forward in his day by several theologians/writers such as Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton that there once was a God – now there is no God. He once lived but, somewhere in history, he died. He equates this with the existence of angels, that for a long period of time angels were said to have existed, but they aren’t spoken of hardly at all anymore.

If Altizer and Hamilton are correct, then when exactly did God die? Altizer says it was when the incarnation occurred. “The arrival of Jesus in the world made it clear that man no longer needed a heavenly God. God was now man, and there was no call to revert to a God who was Other than man.” Hamilton, however, suggests that God was dying in the period of the French Revolution and the First World War. Today, he concludes, we can see clearly that God is dead. God was dying in the nineteenth century; he is dead in the twentieth.” Hamilton then says that he has had many conversations with pastors of the Church, and they repeatedly say, “Everything we do in the life of the Church is exciting and makes sense, except for Worship.”

Perhaps the same could be said today, with many modern churches trying out “new ways to do worship,” whether it be new music, dancing, a new building. But still something seems missing. This can become acutely clear when they do not have Monday to Saturday activities of service to the community which are the lifeblood of the Church.

Harrison nears the end of his third chapter by listing what he sees as the possible choices when it comes to humankind’s view of God.

1. The “traditional” view of God as a personal Other, who made the Universe and occasionally intervenes.

2. The traditional God described in different language (but still the same God as found in #1).

3. The traditional concept of the Other isn’t possible and perhaps never was. Now we seek God as Ultimate Concern or the ground of all being.

4. God did indeed exist but is now dead.

5. There never was a God, there is no God now, and there never will be.

Harrison then asks: At what point in this list is it impossible or hypocritical to remain a member of the Church? At what point is it impossible or hypocritical to call oneself a Christian? The answer given here is that, though a question mark may well be placed over #5, all the above are possible to a Christian, and that it remains to be seen whether they are possible to members of the ancient denominations…To remain a Christian, one has to be a follower of Christ, and one may be such a follower while accepting any of the above beliefs, perhaps including #5.

Harrison says that the Church leaders of his day were having difficulties how to address these questions. Some said that congregants had to stay true to “the faith,” (whatever that was), or they vehemently attacked him for his liberal views.

Harrison concludes his chapter by asking “Who do we turn to” for the truth about God. The church? Pastors? Theologians? Bishops? No, he says. “The answer is, as it always was, that we have to decide for ourselves.”

“The choice, then, is for the individual, and for many of us it has already been made. We enjoy being members of the Church. It is here that we meet so many of the people we love. It is here that we are received as ourselves and can receive others in like fashion. We like the rector of the curate; we enjoy singing in the choir; we enjoy playing organs, drums, or saxophones. It is here that coffeehouses are organized, meetings held which give us enjoyment. It is here that our children seem to have their good times. The teaching handed out in Sunday School may range from inoffensive to wretched; but it tries to impart good standards of behaviour; the children like the teacher in spite of the teaching.”

Harrison continues by talking about “shopping around” for other groups or churches:

“We may even have shopped around to see if there are any other groups that might provide the sense of belonging we need. The agnostics sound great on radio and television, but it is difficult to find out where they meet, and we like to meet people. The Unitarians sound as if they are on the right track, but there is an assumed intellectualism which may be bothersome, and their groups form something of a pattern. We occasionally have resurgences of the old convictions, occasionally feel that the old moralities had their point; and this make us embarrassed in Unitarian company. This is probably an unfair assessment of Unitarians, but events so stand for many of us.”

Finally, Harrison suggests that many people want to remain members of their Church, and that if the traditional creedal follower can sit down with the more liberal thinker, then it is a great thing. “If the traditional creedal follower genuinely believes it, let us raise flags of delight. Then let us tell him what we think. Harrison concludes by encouraging more liberal Christian thinkers to remain in their Churches if they feel it is right. “As things stand, your beliefs may well be orthodox in twenty years’ time, and you may be faced with the task of showing charity to those who are challenging them.”

As it stands, I currently pitch my tent with Tillich, Robinson, Spong and Borg. To me, God is not a Person-like being in the Sky, judging us and sending some to Heaven and some to Hell. To me, God is the Ground of All Being, everything lives within God, including myself. As Spong writes, the best way I can express God is by living freely, loving wastefully, and being all that I can be.

Here we are in 2012 and while Harrison’s suggestion that a radical, more liberal view of God might be orthodoxy by now has not come to pass in large swaths of the Christian church, there are some changes happening. Preachers like Joel Osteen no longer preach damnation, others like author/pastor Rob Bell challenge a literal view of Hell, and so on. Of course the fundamentalists seem most resistant to change, which should be no surprise. But many in the mainline denominations, as well as the Quakers and movements such as Unity explore different views of who or what God is. This is encouraging. I currently find myself at the Unitarian congregation in my city after having rejected fundamentalist Christianity. But one day may find myself within the Progressive Christian movement, something that an entire other blogpost will be dedicated to in the future.

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