God. but Not as You Know Him God Has No Future, Not If We Have to Believe in the Christian Idea of a Big, Holy Bloke. So Claims an Ex-Nun

By Vallely, Paul | The Independent (London, England), February 26, 1999 | Go to article overview
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God. but Not as You Know Him God Has No Future, Not If We Have to Believe in the Christian Idea of a Big, Holy Bloke. So Claims an Ex-Nun


Vallely, Paul, The Independent (London, England)


Behind me on the train sat a group of women in their fifties, raucous and giggling on a girls' day out: they were reading their horoscopes aloud and punctuating the astro-logical platitudes with saucy shrieks.

Across the compartment a besuited businessman was reading from a Bible study guide entitled God and Money, and cross-referring to passages in the New Testament. In the seat next to me, a serious young woman was engrossed in a chapter called "Why some prayers go unanswered" in a Scripture Union paperback entitled Are you ready for God?

This is supposed to be a secular age. Yet since God was pronounced dead by Nietzsche over a century ago, he has rather stubbornly refused to lie down, as was evidenced by the people I encountered on the journey to meet Karen Armstrong who tomorrow will address the Society for Analytical Psychology on the subject of The Future of God. But which of the three Gods who sat by me on the train is the one with the future? Is it the God in the Sky: the controller of fate; the arbiter between free will and predestination, whose inclinations can be predicted by those who claim the ability to read the stars? Or is it God the Lawgiver, the carver of commandments and establisher of business ethics? Or is it God the Listener, the object of supplication and (occasional) answerer of prayers? There is a massive paradox at the heart of the contemporary concept of God. For most of us have ceased to believe in Him - and yet we remain very fixed in our notions of Who it is in Whom we no longer believe. We have put behind us the idea of God the Big Bloke. Karen Armstrong ceased to believe in Him, too. When she left her convent, after six years with the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, she declared herself an atheist and created a blaze of publicity with two autobiographical critiques on the shortcomings of the religious life. But that was 20 years ago. In researching another book, The History of God - which came out recently in paperback after six years as an international hardback bestseller - she has changed her mind. God does have a future, she has decided. Only not as a Him, but as an It. "Most people are stuck with an infantile view of God - whether it is one which they embrace or reject," she said when we met for lunch this week. I mention the lunch because it became the source of her metaphors. "The idea is of God as First Cause, as Supreme Being. A God who is like us, only bigger," she said. "The top man. But whose behaviour we can predict, whose questions we can second- guess, whom we can imagine in our own image, but from time-to-time popping in, acting in the world, doing the odd miracle." Like a Cosmic Waiter, I said, as the fish arrived. Exactly. It is a vision which grows out of the scientific literalism that rules modern thinking. "In it, the rational is valued more than the intuitive, and everything is viewed literally rather than metaphorically or mystically. Because we can prove that the atom exists, or Australia, even though we can't see them, we think the same must be true of God. So we have set about dealing with God in modes which are utterly inappropriate." Her conclusions come from a comparative study of the origins of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. A God rooted in philosophy was something which the Jews and Muslims attempted to locate, too. But they gave up the attempt in the Middle Ages and went mystical. The Eastern Orthodox never bothered with the attempt; they instinctively knew it was a blind alley. "But the Western world went off at a tangent from the other traditions, developing rationalistic notions and emphasising dogma and doctrine rather than practice and spirituality." No wonder then, that the Western notion of God has had a few knocks this century, along with the rest of the rationalist package and its myth of progress. The fallibility of science has been exposed; it creates as many moral and environmental dilemmas as it solves.

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