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Book Review: Religious Language, Meaning, and Use: The God Who is Not There

A review of:
Religious Language, Meaning, and Use: The God Who is Not There
by Robert K Bolger (main part)
& Robert C Coburn (collection of previously unpublished essays)
2019 Published by Bloomsbury Academic, London
by Beverley Burlock

Thinking religious words have become widely separated from any meaning in religious practice isn’t that new. It’s mostly fundamentalists, including atheist ones, who are still sticking to either/or, black/white concepts. While reading I got the impression indigenous peoples would find western male theology/philosophy incomprehensible. Though Bolger talks about ‘acceptance’, rather than teaching such of ourselves, more often in Christianity’s history, the teaching was we’re irredeemable sinners from birth. Of all religions, it’s always puzzled me Christianity is not considered ‘a way of life’.

Bolger stresses the phrase ‘God is love’ doesn’t mean God is loving, but rather love itself is ‘God’. Nonetheless, in his final chapter, he’s back to God-He. And can God is love be proclaimed, when Christianity has more often been a religion of fear?

Bolger gives a good account for, as well as good arguments against, major religious topics in each chapter:

* Dawkins, Idolatry and the God Who is Not There.
A supernatural God domesticates God, raising many problems. People protest against Dawkins because his concept of God is their deity of choice. A life constantly turned inward, engrossed with self preservation, and treating religion as a way to avoid or escape from life, are all idolatry. For evil to get off the ground, God needs to be personified, which leads to creating God in our image, one preferring us as we ourselves do. Injustice and horror must be called by their right names, as Job did, unlike his friends.

* Transcendence, Faith and Fideism
Particular religious doctrines become a means for supporting an idolatrous faith. What’s needed is not more information, but a different way of looking at things. Such a shift results in transcending a certain concept of God. Accepting our limits of knowing God can be an act of reverence. Rather than religion being a set of beliefs about reality that can be proven true, it’s best seen as a way of life, assessing reality, accepting life’s ups and downs, and looking with love on all in need.

* Picturing a Religious Form of Life
With religion as a filter through which we interpret life, it becomes regulative behavioural guides whose meaning is intricately and logically tied to a life that involves dying to self and putting others’ needs (at least) on par with our own. With religion as a way of interpreting (seeing) the world, and living for others, its language must be inextricably linked with life and our practice.

* Truth Pluralism: On Criteria and Religious Belief
There are many forms of truth, all dependent on context, which thus changes the meaning. Context and criteria are essential for ‘fact’, ‘reality’, ‘truth’ – and there can only be ‘the truth’ if one knows the criteria for the subject. Even science has now discovered its own paradoxes – one thing can be in two different forms, and, though separated by a universe, can still be connected and respond one to one another. The relationship between the truth-claims believers make and the life they live is the criteria.

* It’s All about the Neighbour: Agape and the Religious Life
If we do good for heaven or God’s approval, that’s idolatry, as is any search for reward or vindication. It’s only love that enlivens and awakens the meaning of religious language, our relations to humans that give theological concepts their only significance. Loving action comes from our overall attitude, is part of our character – there are no non-neighbours.

However, at this point, Bolger seems to return to the concept of ‘original sin’, that selfishness is our nature. How then does one explain the indigenous potlatch, or other such selfless behaviour in various indigenous communities? Except they weren’t taught from infancy they were original sinners. Even infants show empathy, not acting as though they were the centre of the world.

For him, it’s our innate egotism that makes it so difficult to love our neighbour. Maybe so, in Western/European cultures. But that’s not because we’re born that way but were taught personal salvation is all that matters. Such love has even been called weakness, foolish, against our nature. Again, maybe, but again, not so in indigenous cultures.

He then discusses ‘incarnation’, saying Jesus was a ‘new form of divinity’, ‘based on self-abasement and compassion’. How on earth can we accept and love others if we don’t accept and love ourselves? My understanding was that Jesus was so comfortable in his own skin, he had no difficulty in accepting, appreciating and thus loving, others in their own skins. Indigenous peoples welcomed the invaders, willing to sharing what they had, as they’d always done. However, the invading ‘Christians’ condemned everything, declared evil the people and their cultures, and set about eliminating both.

Then we also have those professing no religion who nonetheless have loved, cared for, and ‘saved’ countless needy people, throughout centuries, with no thought of heaven, reward or even their own Virtue.

After such a promising argument leading up to the last chapter, the ending left me disappointed.

Review & Commentary