Friday, June 29, 2007


Knowledge is not simply a matter of external observation, scrutiny and testing. It is about participation in and relation to what we claim as 'reality', including the reflexive distance of language by which we deduce/adduce something of what it is we participate in or relate to. If the reality at issue is a 'chair', say, there is a huge body of common human experience and observation to go on. Plus there is a universe-pattern that a chair can be shown to be part of, which exists to reinforce and legitimate an agreed account of what this thing is - an account which proves usable and sustainable for our living. That is why we go on 'believing' it.

However, that is not how things work with God, since God is not an object of any kind, not reducible to any particular element of experience, naming (designation) or universal patterning. Rather, when we speak of God we are talking of the mystery that holds the universe in being, and we necessarily speak in tradition-specific ways which involve both contradiction and paradox. Any means of claiming things about God (like 'being' or 'non-being') which does not recognise this as both a pattern and a limitation for reasonable talk about 'the divine' is, in a post/modern context, in deep trouble from the outset. That is a challenge for someone like A. C. Grayling among the 'deniers' of God, and much as it is for those who make claims for God. But it largely ignored. Even in supposedly literate circles.

How we move in a different direction from the current deadlock is, it seems to me, the 'theological issue'. How can we claim to speak with credibility about the nature of God, or to claim we 'know' about God (to affirm or deny, for instance)? It's part of a project I am developing entitled God After Christendom - which will argue that, in spite of massive problems and distortions arising from the near absorption of large elements of historic Christianity into patterns of worldly domination which have often nearly extinguished its soul, the core 'traditional' elements of Christian speech and grammar turn out, surprisingly, to be key resources in helping us to have something significant and genuinely life-giving to say and do about God -- who cannot be written off as dead, but is massively libelled (and mostly by 'the religious').

In the meantime, what follows is adapted from my paper What difference does God make today?, with a couple of small changes resulting from correspondence. The joy of internet publication is that you can go on modifying the text. Hopefully (though not always) to improve it - or, as I think one should say in all modesty, make it less inadequate.

“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,” says Nicholas Lash. God-talk is therefore 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.” [Holiness, speech and Silence]

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. 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.

That will have to do as an interim summary. The rest is here. [Picture: with thanks to]

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