God Versus the Idea of God: Divinity Is What We Think, Faith Is What We Experience

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God Versus the Idea of God: Divinity Is What We Think, Faith Is What We Experience

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Some sixteen hundred years ago St. Augustine, the bishop of Hippo said, “To think of God is to attempt to conceive something than which nothing more excellent or sublime exists, or could exist.” But to think of God assumes that the notion, or the idea of (a) god, is already present. What is the idea of God? What is the origin of the idea? Is it God? If so, how did we get it from God—is it innate or discovered in experience? Or, did we simply invent it? (“I wonder?”) Questions, questions, questions.

God Versus the Idea of God is about one of the most profound skepticism people experience: individual religious doubt—up close and personal (With 35+ years of lay religious experience at the local church level, I write as one directly exposed to the issues the book discusses). The Church’s professionals need to hear our concerns, our doubts, from the thousands sitting in—or absent from— the pews. So I write as one of them and suggest a collective voice. A truism: the Church needs us.  However to preserve our faith, we may not need the tradition-bound Church we are today offered. Trending Church survey numbers suggest this.

Many today write about the ills of the Christian Church in Western societies. The Church is certainly not unaware of them, or of its declining following. The major difficulty is these so called “ills” reflect mainly the symptoms of what the book considers a more fundamental issue: the credibility in today’s culture of the pillars of its basic two thousand year old Christian belief system, the Bible and Church teachings. The book respects the Church’s loyalty to tradition but questions its guardianship results of the god of the idea as they have dealt with modernity.

Times have changed. Western culture has evolved since biblical times. Accumulated knowledge of our world and ourselves has expanded; progress in the human condition is evident. General knowledge and understanding in the liberal Western world today often conflicts with the Church’s presentation of its biblical-age faith story. Doubt, producing skepticism, is sown. The Church, many would no doubt agree, has inadequately addressed this doubt. Why not, if their story is correct, and still credible?

Today the Church seems, so to speak, a prisoner of its own making; its platform is based on tradition. Its position is that tradition (truth) is not subject to change. I agree. Truth is not relative, but truth is nevertheless subject to context.  I mean, how do you support an argument that was acceptable two thousand, or more, years ago within a contextually changed environment which, by its very nature, questions that context? You really can’t, and so the Church seems almost universally opposed to consider such an approach, although they do talk around it (the visible Church vs. the invisible church; horizontal truths vs. vertical truths).

For example, why do people tend to believe in the Christian God, or any god for that matter? For most because the Bible very early on tells us we were created (once and for all) by God, in God’s image. We are in effect the children of God. And we may well be. That explanation of creation was both credible and understandable at the time(s) it was written for its intended audiences—and that’s how we are aware of it because it is written “history.” But understand, it was written, and in numerable instances rewritten, by man even if purportedly revealed or inspired by God (actually the book of Genesis alone is believed to have been written by four people (redactors) over a four hundred year period, each with a slightly different slant (inspiration?) he (or maybe even “she”) favored. Which is to be believed? Obviously, for those of us sitting in the pews, the one(s) that survives to this day in our translated Bibles (few laypeople read Greek, or Hebrew, or Aramaic).

This is not necessarily to criticize the Bible. It does, however, suggest that there may be alternative answers to some of the issues in the Good Book. For example, where did the idea of God originate (the Bible really doesn’t address this question)?  Was the originator God, or was it perhaps originated by man, or by something else? What difference might that make? The book raises this possibility, but takes the position it really doesn’t make that much difference in the end. What is important is having the idea and the utility it has provided mankind for as long as there has been civilizations.

Another doubt producer on Sunday mornings is the issue of the purpose of the god of the idea? Why do we worship God? You will certainly get differing answers to this question. But if you sift and then classify the preponderance, the answer will certainly appear to boil down to, “we believe in our own self-interest.”

Is the Church going to come right out under today’s traditional circumstances and confirm why we believe in their/our God, historically and currently?  It hasn’t in my church, or else I slept through that particular sermon. God Versus the Idea of God clearly and simply explains why. It’s historical, organic, evolutionary, and widely understood, even if only subconsciously.

For most throughout Western history, the idea of god represented the three very basic human yearnings for (1) Protection, (2) Perfection, and (3) Perpetuity. “Absent the possibility of God, which in our thinking represents power (to protect), perfection (to correct), and immortality (to give hope), man until recently has had little to look forward to here on this third rock from the sun.” (From the book, page 45). This certainly appears both in our own self-interest, and primarily worldly—as opposed to other worldly where the Church today is still principally focused, at least in theory.   Question: Are these three “yearnings” still as significant in our feelings of need for the idea of God as in times past?

Given the above, the question is begged of the purpose, or function, of the god of the idea, at least from man’s standpoint. This differs from what the idea of God represents.  What is the purpose, the “why” of God today? Is it the same as it was several thousand years ago, or might it have evolved, changed? While the book detects a not overly subtle emphasis change, the church seems convinced it is the same. It has to be as it represents truth, in the mind of the Church, and again, truth is not changeable.  To reiterate, I agree; truth is not relative (believe it or not), but it is contingent upon context. How do we, or do we, adjust for context over a two thousand year period of progress and change? So far, the Church doesn’t. What about us, or what’s left of us, sitting in the pews?

In the end, God Versus the Idea of God concludes that the purpose of God must be consistent with what the idea of God represents for mankind. These are benefits for the here and now. Therefore, the purpose of God must support its idea, and it does. The basis for the purpose is clearly scriptural, and it supports a here and now understanding of the benefits of the god of the idea.

There is of course a great deal more the book discusses, questions, and even suggests answers   for as it makes its way toward these two deciding issues, the “what” and the “Why”. Its concluding judgement is that while we are still unable to rationally resolve the question, does or does not God exist, maybe it’s not that important a question. Why not, after all these centuries arguing about it? Because the book rationally establishes (proves) that the idea of god is both a human reality, a “truth”, and most probably even a human necessity! Who knows what humanity might look like today, absent the idea of God. It certainly is supportive of the saying, “if God didn’t exist, we would have to invent it”—for our own good.

The book does delve into the Christian question of Jesus and his place and position within the Church. It’s both a very interesting and most important matter, obviously. But in the overall question of God vs. the idea of God, it’s a subsidiary issue in the book – not an unimportant issue, but clearly a secondary one.

God, or more certainly the idea of God, is indeed great! Let it not slip from our needy grasp by the fault of man’s efforts to protect it from meaning caused by progress, by modernity. This writing is an effort to spread awareness of this possibility; to see how this may be avoided.

With more than 35 years of lay religious experience and exposure at the local church level, the author has become increasingly concerned—as others no doubt have—about the Christian church’s present health and future role within society.  Convinced that its “professionals” need to hear from the concerned thousands sitting in the pews, he writes as one of them and suggests a collective voice.

TR is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, The Thunderbird School of International Management—then called The American Institute for Foreign Trade—and New York University where he earned an MBA degree. He served three-plus years in Uncle Sam’s Navy in the Pacific region. His “day job:” exporting mustard products to his distributors and customers overseas. He and his wife live in Windsor, California.

Since 1999 I have authored three works of political commentary and one of theological/religious significance, but more importantly, how we might approach correcting what I perceive most believe is/should be a correctable situation. BOOM, A Revolting Situation, is the latest in this trilogy. God Versus the Idea of God is my first venture writing polemically on the subject of theology and religion.

In addition to his books, TR writes essays and polemics on current issues or on the writings of others. Most of these are posted on his writing website.

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