What we all know

We all know that human beings invented God. As this is precisely the opposite of what my religion teaches, it’s necessary to repeat it in case some kindly reader thinks it’s just a careless mistake: we all know that human beings invented God, well in the first instance Gods, and later the single God. Gods first appear in the ceremonies, stories, artefacts and writings of human beings. Of course it’s also true that trees first appear in the same way, but whereas there is general agreement that, although trees appear to us through our human processes of perception, they are real existences separate from us, there is no such agreement about Gods or God, which cannot be perceived by the senses or examined by science.

Now I imagine that some scholars will want to object that lots of Gods, of the sort Christianity calls idols, can be seen, touched and even tasted. Yes, true, but the thing that distinguishes an idol from a lump of wood, is precisely the human imagination of its power.

Others may want to note that much of what is important in science cannot be perceived by our senses, and is also the product of human imagination. Yes, true, Einstein’s terrible equation E = MC squared, which we might call a universal law, is the invention of a human being, the product of a very profound imagination. It has however been found to be in accordance with physical reality, most terribly in the atomic explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But if in some future circumstance the equation was found to be faulty, it would be revised or abandoned by scientists.

If I want to argue that belief in God is like this equation, a product of human imagination which is in accordance with reality, I have first of all to admit that there is no revelation that gives me privileged access to truth, and that my God must be as subject to correction by experience as Einstein’s equation.

We all already know that we have invented our God or Gods. We give the game away when we attribute his (Hindu) Gods, or her (Islamic) deity to mere imagination, but ours to divine revelation. The Christian Bible, if we read it rationally, is quite clear that God is invented, sometimes well, but always partially, by patriarchs, lawgivers, prophets, and indeed by Jesus, Paul and the rest, all of whom add their precious adjustment to the image of God.

But if we admit this, as I do, we must immediately take responsibility for the appalling violence unleashed by religions over the centuries in the name of Gods who are absolute truth and cannot accept competition. As soon as we are more modest in our claims, recognising that our Gods are are own inventions, and that we may be able to learn from the imagination of others, violence will at any rate, seem less justifiable. We have allowed our traditions to persuade us that our knowledge of God is certain, but it may be that our violent response to others is a sneaky sign that we are not completely persuaded, and cannot cope with the dreadful thought that it may all be a load of baloney.

So it’s healthy, sane and I believe blessed, to know that our God is a product of an imagination which is dealing with human questions: how can I be safe, when should I plant my crops, what am I looking at in the sky, should I kill animals, how should I treat my neighbour, where do I come from, where am I going, whom should I obey? And more. And while there will always be answers which are in the form of facts or theories, there are also answers which are stories. This is especially the case with the Gods, most of whom are stories: Zeus turning himself into a bull, Krishna into a blue-skinned seducer, Jehovah into Jesus. This form of knowledge can be seen as feeble compared with science, but who will seriously argue that Homer, Shakespeare and Tolstoy give us more feeble knowledge than Einstein? In fact it’s quite possible a new story of any God to take Einstein into account.

My Christian faith then is a product of the imaginative stories told in the Bible – eh, hang on a minute, surely Jesus is a fact? Yes, Jesus is a fact deduced from a story. As I was saying, my Christian faith is a product of the imaginative stories about God in the Bible, worked over in the imagination of the church over centuries and re-interpreted by the living imaginations of my own church and myself. I think that these images of God point to what Dante called, “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” They do not define, fix, pin down the mystery of God, but point reliably in God’s direction. The rest is for living rather than arguing.

An example. The gospel writers, Mark and Matthew show Jesus starting out with a clear, radical trust in God his Abba as one who desires to turn human beings towards his justice and love, through Jesus his dear child. Their stories show him living out this image of God in conversations, acts of healing, and prophetic announcements. But then he is betrayed by his own people, tortured and killed by an imperial power. He ends by asking, My God, why have you abandoned me? As well he might. This event forces his followers to imagine God (and Jesus) in a new way.

Another example. The first Christians saw their God as Israel’s God, their faith as a continuation of Israel’s faith. St. Paul however recognised that if Jesus had been rejected by Israel, faith in Jesus meant rejecting the God of only-Israel in favour of the God of all people.

A final example. People have said about my daughter’s death, that my faith will strengthen me. In fact that event is changing my faith, my imagination of God, for now she/he has my daughter with him/her. Or not.

We all know that human beings invent God; our actions and our sufferings reveal how well we have done so. Decent religious people know this; they have to get used to chasing off leaders and teachers who say, We have the true God; the rest are human inventions.

One comment

  1. This is one of the most profound things you’ve ever written. And as I was reading it I thought that your daughter’s death is forming new theological outlook in your life. Your penultimate paragraph confirmed my suspicion. I did not comment on any of the posts you wrote as dialogue with Eleanor, because I felt those were private between you and her. But I really like what you’ve written here. I really do.

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