Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 31 January 2010

31 January 2010 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence

On the Sunday matins addresses of this month I have been looking at the question of what we can realistically believe about God. I have thought about metaphysics, about the God of the Bible, about God and Science, and God and Suffering; if you are interested the rest of the addresses are on the Abbey’s web-site. Today it falls to me to conclude the series by returning to that fundamental question, what can we realistically believe about God?

Some years ago one of the translators of the New Testament into more popular English, J B Phillips, wrote a book called ‘Your God is too small’. I read it at the time, although cannot now remember much of its contents, but the title has always remained with me as a good one. We can often have far too limited a notion of God. It is easy to start off with some sort of mental image of what we might mean by God which almost makes him into an object within the universe that may or may not exist; and perhaps it was because of that danger that some of the medieval theologians used to say that God was beyond being. They were suggesting that we should never talk in such simplistic terms as whether God existed or not, for he was the condition for anything existing. Lord Rees, the President of the Royal Society and Astronomer Royal, starts his book ‘Our Cosmic Habitat’ by saying ‘The pre-eminent mystery is why anything exists at all.’ It is a mystery worth pondering upon. Why is there a universe, the real mysteries of which we are only beginning to understand? It is possible to start with a definition of God that says simply that God is the word we use as the condition of why anything is at all. In a way it is a very imperfect explanation, if for no other reason, because we know so little of what happened before the so-called big bang, but it does show why those medieval theologians could speak so powerfully of the mystery of God. Our understanding of the universe of which we are a part may well be developing thanks to the work of cosmologists like Lord Rees, but that has not removed that element of ultimate mystery, and those of us who presume to speak about God should never forget that the very concept is so much beyond our understanding that any knowledge we might claim of him can only be at best provisional. A measure of humility before the notion of God is an essential starting point. 

But if we start with the notion that God is, by definition, the condition for anything existing at all then we can begin to see that developing a relationship with him is actually also about developing a relationship with the universe of which we are a part. What do we feel about this universe in which we are set? Just to ask the question is to be plunged into mystery, but we can also see that it is therefore fundamental. How do we relate to everything? That is what religion is about, although I think we must confess that some of religion’s responses are very inadequate to the hugeness of the question.

But to put the question like that does make some conceptions of God obviously inadequate, because God cannot be pigeon-holed. When people talk rather glibly about God doing this but not that in the world one has to ask whether the conception of God implied in that way of looking at things is altogether too limited. God just is; he is not a force within the world that can be seen in specific actions, although we may well feel closer to him in some actions than in others that occur, but that can never be the limit of God; he is always bigger and more mysterious than our conceptions of him.

Well, with that in mind as the basis of the mental humility we need in considering the question at all carefully, what more can we dare to say about God?

The first thing is, I believe, that such a way of looking at God does not imply any conflict with science. As scientists manage to understand more of how things are we can simply rejoice at their discoveries. Of course if you have a more limited view of God, if you simply see him as the cause of various specific things that happen in the world then it does create a problem.  If, for example, you believe, as the writer of Genesis evidently believed, that a rainbow was a sign from God then the scientific explanation of what a rainbow is can become a problem. But if you have a big enough view of God then such explanations, and even explanations like evolution or big-bangs that started the universe off are not a problem. They simply show how things happened. If there is a scientific explanation for something then so be it, and we should not need to rely on gaps in human knowledge to find a place for God, because such gaps are bound at one level to decrease the more science advances. But God may be beyond all that.

And I believe that sort of explanation can extend to explaining how religions themselves develop. I do not believe that religions as such have some sort of hot line to God that gives them special knowledge, or that they cannot themselves be the subject of scientific inquiry. We can welcome an objective analysis of religious life and how religious responses have developed, as long, that is, that what is being investigated is real religious life and not some Aunt Sally that is created in order that it can be knocked down. Richard Dawkins latest entry into the field last week in a newspaper article seemed to imply that any real Christian has to literally believe everything in the Bible including every explanation the Bible gives for anything. Yet most thinking Christians have no difficulty in recognising that as knowledge develops so does any religious response, and it is simply ridiculous to suggest as Dawkins does that only narrowly fundamentalist Christianity is true Christianity. This Abbey is clear evidence that it is not.

But to move on, the American theologian Paul Tillich once wrote that God is about depth; ‘He who knows about depth’, he said, ‘knows about God’. Well, consider three qualities that appear to be fundamental to human living and what thinking about them in depth might entail. 

The first is the pursuit of truth. What is truth and what claim does it make on us? I fear we must admit that at times in the past religions have laid claim to knowing and guarding truth, but have often done so in blinkered and untruthful ways. But it is not only religions that have done that; all sorts of other groups who wanted to harness the power of ideas have tried to control the process; look at the Fascist and some of the Communist systems. The open pursuit of truth is dangerous to almost all ideologies. But where does the pressure to pursue truth whatever the cost come from? Is it just the human creation of curious and honest men and women? Or is it somehow written into the very nature of the universe? It seems to me that there is a transcendent, overarching claim on us to pursue truth that I believe is rooted in that condition of everything that I call God. God and truth are not separate; if you have a big enough concept of God they are intimately connected.

The second issue is the claim of goodness. Of course what is considered good has varied at different times of human history, and, as with truth, various groups, including religious bodies, have tried to control society’s understanding of it. But where does the sense of obligation towards being genuinely and deeply good come from? Again it seems to have a transcendent claim upon us; goodness, I suggest in its purest form is not merely a human construction; it, like truth, is rooted in the very heart of the universe, or in what I am choosing to call God.

And the third is beauty. Now again it is sometimes said that beauty is simply in the eye of the beholder. But is that enough of an explanation? Can we really say that a piece of music or an image from nature or an image from the hands of human beings, or even a mathematical explanation is merely beautiful because it seems so to us? Beauty, like truth and goodness, is, I believe, rooted in something greater than us, and again for want of a better word I am content to call that something God.

So, despite the sheer nonsense that is sometimes talked about God in some religious circles, it is a word that does seem to me to point to something real; indeed something so real that it seems to be at the heart of everything that is. It is not a question of believing in a personal God, but it is believing that in our understanding of everything there is God, and contained within the mystery of God is personality.  How that relates to the Christian God revealed in Jesus Christ is something I intend to look at in the Matins addresses when I am next in residence in May.

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