Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Word to Grasp Here Is Myth

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Word to Grasp Here Is Myth

Article excerpt

No matter how they answer the God question, generous-minded people could profit from adopting an attitude of critical sympathy towards religion and maybe even taking the odd dip into it--provided they heed Canon William Vanstone's warning that the Church is like a public swimming pool, where most of the noise comes from the shallow end.

Most religions have two main departments of thought. The first calls itself "natural" theology because it recognises that it is in the nature of human beings to ask ultimate questions about the universe in which they find themselves.

Apart from being more hopeful about finding positive answers to these questions than less committed searchers, natural theologians go over the same ground as philosophers and are no better at arriving at absolutely convincing conclusions than the philosophers are, which is why the exercise usually ends up at a kind of graded agnosticism that stretches from almost-atheism to almost-theism but never absolutely nails down either.

If you need personalities to define the gradations, Richard Dawkins fits the almost-atheism end and Roger Scruton fits the almost-theism end. Incidentally, it is worth remembering that both of these thinkers are subtler in the positions they hold on these complex matters than most people give them credit for.

So far, so inconclusive. It is the next move in the religious enterprise that gets interesting. This is where theologians introduce the idea of revelation. "Revealed" theology is the department where we try not to figure out whether there is a god, but to work out the meaning of the messages that the god has sent us from beyond to answer the questions that we are unable to answer. This is where sacred texts come into play, as well as the institutions that accrete round them to protect and promote them. Revelation is what you get when you go to the synagogue or church or the mosque--all those instructions from God to do this or abjure that--and it is where things can get both frustrating and interesting for unbelievers. …

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