Simple Faith

I've finished reading Roger McGough's Collected Poems and I'm now part way through his Autobiography, Said and Done. He handles prose as well as he does verse. It's lively, funny, witty, wise stuff covering a particularly interesting period: the Mersey scene of the 60s and beyond of which he was an integral part. Before he gets to that bit though, near the beginning, speaking of his boyhood Catholicism he has this to say:

"The unimaginable force that governs us, the benevolent energy behind all we see and do, has been oversimplified in the excitement of evangelism, and in their attempts to personalise God, artists have anthropomorphised a concept that is beyond human comprehension, so many of us have come to reject religion. Except on those evenings as the light drains away into the horizon, and the old questions rise up again and we lift up our eyes from the ground and search for answers beyond the stars."
(Said and Done p41)

I had my Christian beginnings in a Church which did indeed oversimplify in the excitement of evangelism, endeavouring to make the Gospel simple enough that every person could understand it in half an hour. This was an aim that they achieved in Spades, but unfortunately if you were in the church for any more than half an hour, the simple Gospel could begin to pall just a tad. The anthropomorphised God we worshiped with such experiential fervour gave me an exciting (and perhaps, for me, the only possible) entry into the Christian faith but has not been able to sustain me through the decades. The questions are too big to be shoehorned into Pentecostal sureties. Where did I come from and where am I going and why? How did this amazing universe begin and what is it anyway? Who am I that looks out through these eyes and what is this ME that keeps getting in the way of the view? Is there an unimaginable force that governs us and is it benevolent?

The story is told of Karl Barth, being asked in an interview what was the greatest theological truth he had learned. He replied, without hesitation, "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." I guess he could only give that answer if he knew that the simplistic Sunday School song and Der Kirchliche Dogmatik were saying pretty much the same thing. Which means that the Sunday School song has to be seen not as literal truth but poetically, as an allusion to much deeper truths - the truths contained in Der Kirchliche Dogmatik . But of course, if we see this, we have to acknowledge that the truths in Barth's masterwork are also provisional, also allusional; also, in a sense, poetic, as are all our answers to the great questions, always.

How often do we forget that all theological truth is metaphorical? When people, who have palled at our literal acceptance of provisional truth, see the light draining away into the horizon, does our quest for reassuring certainty hinder our attempts to make known the unimaginable force that governs us?

Perhaps it is easier for a Catholic or an Orthodox, whose worship is so overtly dramatic and metaphorical, to grasp this. Perhaps it is harder for us Protestants whose preoccupation with The Word and its exposition can fool us into thinking that the hard won intellectual insights we arrive at are in some way final or absolute. Religious truth has to do with the infinite; therefore we are never going to arrive. To be sure, there are waystages and points along the way when we have some of the uncertainties of the past explained, but there is always a further on. This doesn't mean we are forever lost, however, for there is a certainty which comes not from arriving at the right answers but from knowing that we are engaged in asking the right questions.


Anonymous said…
"This doesn't mean we are forever lost, however, for there is a certainty which comes not from arriving at the right answers but from knowing that we are engaged in asking the right questions."

So to travel hopefully is better than to arrive? Hmm, not sure this really clicks with John 8:31-32, and all that stuff about the finality of Christ (Heb. 1:1-3). Don't Lloyd Geering & co. think they're 'asking the right questions', too? Yet they've gone on an entirely different trajectory. No doubt there is a lot of naive theo-anthropomorphism about which a latter day Feuerbach could skewer, but the point of the NT doctrine of the Incarnation is to make the stupendous claim that God really did become a man, truly and uniquely in Jesus Christ. I don't think Barth would have agreed that the fundamental claim of his Dogmatics - that the Triune God reveals Himself and thus effects our salvation - was provisional or metaphorical: Barth set his face adamantinely against 19th century theological anthropology!
VenDr said…
"...the Triune God reveals Himself and thus effects our salvation."


Well there's three metaphors for a start.
VenDr said…
...and thanks for the reminder of John 8:31-32. Good old John. He makes precisely the point I was driving at.

You shall know the truth... says vs 32. And how do we know the truth? Well, says vs 31, by following; by moving; by continuing in Jesus's word (ie in his ongoing revelation. A Mathetes, one who follows, was one who imitated his master in every detail until he became like his master, and then he stopped following: he became a rabbi himself with other mathetes following him. It's a splendid metaphor for our relationship with Jesus, except that like all metaphors it has a point where it reaches a limit: in this case, the fact that the one we follow is a perpetually moving target. We never arrive at the point where we are able to dispense with our master and strike off o0n our own.

"So to travel hopefully is better than to arrive?" It's not even a choice. When we are dealing with the infinite God we NEVER arrive.God is infinite, remember? how can we arrive? But why should that surprise us? The Universe hasn't arrived yet. History hasn't arrived yet. None of us have arrived yet. All is in a glorious, grand, wonderful state of process. It is a heracletian flux as Gerard Manley Hopkins says. Isn't that wonderful?
Anonymous said…
What's a heracletian flux when it's at home? (presumably not some sort of unmentionable greek intestinal disorder...)
Anonymous said…
... relief to read your reply.
Continuing in Jesus word IS on going revelation.
Jesus did not create Gods law He revealed it to us and I hope continues to do so day by day!
(John 12.49-50 )
I think gods revelation to the human soul is everlasting and ongoing through Christs spirit.
I hope that there is an ever continuing deepening of knowledge of gods love and purpose for mankind ... and that we will begin to understand what Jesus meant when he said " Before Abraham was born, I am"
It is easy to confuse moving-/ openness to ongoing revelation- with questioning Gods authority. They are not the same thing.
I wonder if we who think we will, will recognize Christs 'second coming'...
VenDr said…
What is a heraclitan flux?

Heraclitus (c. 544-c. 483 BC)

Greek philosopher who believed that the cosmos is in a ceaseless state of flux and motion, fire being the fundamental material that accounts for all change and motion in the world.

Nothing in the world ever stays the same, hence the dictum, ‘one cannot step in the same river twice’.

Wisdom came from understanding this eternal dynamic, which unified the diversity of nature, as he wrote in On Nature.

See also, Gerard Manley Hopkins Poem "That Nature Is A Heraclitan Fire And The Comfort Of The Resurrection"
Anonymous said…
What would be interesting to discuss is what form and shape Christianity will take in the future, what alliances is it going to make, what syntheses will take place. Is a synthesis possible?

Scholars such as Karen Armstong are telling us we live in an "axial age" where old forms are dying and new ones coming into being.

Can this be controlled and managed? is it wise to do so? or is it a case of ca sera sera?

The prophet Lloyd Geering claims a spirituality centred on mother earth is something crucial for our time? will he be taken seriously or stoned like the prophets of old?
Is Geerings insight credible?

Will the physics laboratories in universities be places where those interested in theology become drawn to?

Will Sunday worship include time in the Church's Buddist lead meditation room?

Will a course in comparative religion be a prerequisite for Church membership?

I read where an old Egyptian religion Osiris? lasted for 6000 years and it is no more. What is the future for Christianity after 2000 years?
Anonymous said…
Thank you, Kelvin.
You use the idea of metaphor. As a long ago student of maths I use the idea of the hyperbolic equation: the graph of the equation gets ever closer to the axis but will never reach it.
I have some understanding of God but not completely. And I never will.
This sets me free from the accusations of those who tell me I have disappointed God, the church and everybody really because I have not believed correctly. Of course I haven't believed correctly. The graph of the hyperbolic equation. I go about my life with a sign on my neck, "What you think of what I believe is none of my busienss."
I am also set free from accusing myself. Sunday's epistle: In the most elementary way have I confessed with my mouth that Jesus is Lord? Yep. Do I believe God raised him from the dead? Yep. That's it. I will think about the distance between my point on the hyperbola and the axis some other day.
Bill Schroeder
Anonymous said…
Well, at least somebody took up my point about Geering. He may be a prophet, but not of the Elijah/Elisha school. Nor am I clear what is 'metaphorical' about the expression 'Triune God': is the Trinity not really true? Or maybe I just haven't kept up with the latest twists in linguistic philosophy or Sally McFague. I am unrepenetantly pre-modern here!
Of course it is not in the nature or capacity of a creature to comprehend his or her Creator, and, by the grace of God, I will remain a disciple of Christ as long as I live. But we need to distinguish between life in this earthly pilgrimage and what lies on the other shore - where the faithful have arrived. And at the center (as Dante - that metaphorical artist! - reminds us) is the Beatific Vision of the Trinity. Or consider the closing vision of Revelation.
Bill: as long as the asymptotic line perpetually approaches the axis, then it is fair to say a creature 'has arrived'. That's as much as I was saying - and it is a lot!
VenDr said…
It's a bit of a nuisance talking to all these anonymouses. Three in this discussion, I think. I think that we are actually quite close on many points.

As far as metaphor goes, I like Sallie McFague very much, and found her Metaphorical Theology a very helpful book. All language is metaphorical.(this is not particularly McFague's idea) That's how it works. The small furry animal with pointy ears and whiskers sitting beside me is represented by the word "cat". That is, one thing acts as a symbolic representation of another.The word "cat" stands for a greater reality but is not itself that reality.It is a metaphor, but because we think using words we fail to notice and confuse our symbols with the thing itself. Of course "Triune" and "God", like any other words are metaphors. And because the concepts represented by the words are so big and so ill defined, the metaphorical nature of the terms is even greater than with a fairly concisely defined word like "cat". All theology (like all other language) is metaphor - the symbolic representation of something else.

Language works in much the same way as our other thought processes in presenting a picture of reality to us and leading us into the trap of thinking our picture is actually reality, but I won't get into that here.

What I will suggest though, is a sort of answer to one of the other anonymouses who asked about Geering and Osiris and having Buddhist meditations in the side chapel.

My answer to that is that Christianity is indeed a metaphor, but I did not say it is JUST a metaphor. (and I think this is a point being made by yet another of the anonymouses, and by Bill's excellent metaphor of the hyperbolic equation)The metaphor is a metaphor of something, and that something is, I think, eternal truth.

The Christian faith is about God's movement towards humankind - and that movement is not so much in the gifting of a body of knowledge, but in a person. That is, in a lived metaphor. In a living myth. In something that cannot be readily contained in words. Pilate sneered, "what is truth?' not understanding that Jesus didn't know the truth he WAS the truth. The truth was standing before him, and Pilate was unable to see it because he was so blinded by the idea that the truth must be propositions and words and doctrine and hypotheses and all those other signposts. All this hoo haa in the church at the moment: all this taking up positions and parties and ignoring each other because we subscribe to different sets of metaphors: this is the church following Pilate, not Jesus.
VenDr said…
To one of the anonymouses:
this statement betrays you:
"Nor am I clear what is 'metaphorical' about the expression 'Triune God': is the Trinity not really true?"

If something is a metaphor it does not mean it is not "really true." In fact a metaphor can only work if in some sense it is "really true" (but of course the term "really true" is a fairly vague and confusing term.) We fall into error when we confuse the reality with the symbol. When we are talking of the Triune God, we are talking by way of symbolic language, of something beyond the power of any of us to comprehend.
Anonymous said…
The closing vision of the comic of Revelation (Ch22 13 - 21) sums up the woeful and hallucinogenic logic of this book. It is no wonder Luther and others wanted it ripped out of the bible - pity they didn't. (there are a couple of OT books that could go as well)

Theologians try and get around the absurdity of this book by calling it 'apocrophal literature' (whatever that means) - which is as absurd as their invention of that hilarious intellectual Heath Robinson outfit called Theodicy!

The tenor of these verses sums up the tired old curmudgeon diatribe of the fundamentalists. Believe, worship, interpert and value what we do or you are a dog on the outer (Rev Ch22:15) - Remember this is NOT JESUS saying this.

It's the same old politics of exclusion from the club and banishment to the lake of fire for all those that don't think the way we do.

God is love not fear. The light and love of Christ banishes the spiritual darkness. God is the God of eternal forgiveness and eternal redemption which means that in eternity all are forgiven and all are redeemed. For it to be any other way would be a contradiction of what divine love means.

The only way forward is an evolution, development and dialogue within community. It is interesting that the Holy Roman Catholic Church at Vatican 2 in the 1960s recognised and documented the relevance and contribution of the worlds other great religious traditions to human spirituality - a step in the right direction?
Tillerman said…
Bill Schroeder:

"What you think of what I believe is none of my business."

That is the very best sentence I have read this year.
Tillerman said…
What you have expressed about metaphor is useful and insightful and has given me much to think about:

- You said that Pilate sneered, "what is truth?' It is interesting how people interpet / visualise this scene in different ways. I don't see Pilate
as sneering, I see him shrugging his shoulders in resignation, as though it is something that he has struggled with himself and it has defeated him. This to me is one of the great scenes in the NT because Pilates words are the words of all humanity "What is truth" - indeed that is really what the debates on this blog are all about.

So here is humanity asking through Pilate the big question and Jesus answering "I am the way and the truth" (or words to that effect). Now if Jesus is the answer to the question and we look upon Jesus as Gods metaphor (or a metaphor of God) do you think this is the only expression of the metaphor (ie the only form in which the Gods metaphor is manifested)?
VenDr said…
What a very good question, Tillerman. Christianity claims an exclusivity for Jesus what no other faith claims for its founder. He is the only begotten son of God. In him the fullness of God dwells bodily. To see Jesus of Nazareth as a living metaphor (and note again I am NOT saying Jesus is JUST a metaphor)is another way of stating this claim which does leave the way open for other metaphors of God which do not contradict this exclusivity and might even enhance it.

I agree that Pilate may not have sneered but who knows? I too find this a haunting scene, in which Pilate is asking on behalf of all humankind the question that keeps on getting asked - because we have failed to see that the way we have framed the question prevents us from arriving at the answer.
Anonymous said…
Well, this isn't how I've been accustomed to think of 'metaphor', as a suppressed simile (partially) or analogically comparing one thing in terms of another - which is quite different from saying that languages formally have an arbitrary character in their semiotic function: this has been clear at least since the days of de Saussure. But that's not at all what I mean by 'metaphor': the furry creature at my feet IS a cat (or 'un chat' or 'un gato or 'eine Katze' or whatever). I do not confuse the sign with the thing signified. Whereas if I described, say, a certain woman as 'catty', that would be a metaphor (and dangerous).
If the Bible is no more than anthropological and anthropomorphic projection (there's Feuerbach again), then we must set it aside as an interesting cultural artifact. But if it embodies a 'real presence' of the Spirit (which is what the calssical doctrine of inspiration asserts), then it communicates real truth about God - not exhaustively, of course, but dependably.
I think McFague sees traditional (biblical) language about God having its origin in man (and specifically the male of the species) and therefore something that can be revised or rejected. 'Theology is mainly fiction', she says somewhere.
VenDr said…
Well, anonymous, you seem to be working with very old linguistic theories indeed. Certainly every linguist since Noam Chomsky would agree that the structure of language is basically metaphorical; that is, that the relationship of ground and figure (ie what the metaphor refers to and the thing it uses as a tool of reference) is seldom if ever merely an arbitrary assignation.

Even in terms of metaphor as a purely literary device, metaphor as a concept is considerably more complex than being a "suppressed simile" (try looking up Metaphor on wiki )and concepts such as implicit, submerged, cultural and root metaphors alert us to the fact that complex language (and especially very complex languages such as theology)carry many meanings we may be only dimly aware of. But my interest runs a little deeper than that.

Modern linguistics, working with cognitive science and evolutionary biology tells us that language is inescapably metaphorical because the cognitive system which gives rise to language works by way of correlation and analogue. We don't come hard wired for doing integral calculus or existential theology or New Testament exegesis- these complex abilities are built up from rudimentary systems designed to "master the local environment and outwit it's denizens" (Stephen Pinker)and these rudimentary systems all work, basically, by comparing one thing with another. We start with the basic concrete things found in our environment and by comparing them, build from them complex systems of thought, including languages. Not just the vocabulary of our languages is thus analogical but also the complex grammars we use to string the vocabulary into meaningful sentences.

If you don't feel like ploughing through Noam Chomsky, might I recommend Stephen Pinker as a very readable and entertaining entry point to this knowledge?

Sallie McFague, quite rightly, noted that Theological language, like all language, is never free of values and preconceptions. We are prisoners of these preconceptions until we recognise them... but of course the very language we use to describe the preconceptions to ourselves is full of values and preconceptions and around the mulberry bush we go.Sallie McFague points out some of the more obvious gender biases in religious discourse but it doesn't stop there. McFague (at least when I was reading her in the '80s) was working basically at the level of root and/or cultural metaphor, and didn't, as far as I am aware, draw on the insights of modern linguistics which would have greatly strengthened her case.

Does all this mean that "...the Bible is no more than anthropological and anthropomorphic projection"? Absolutely. But no more so than the Declaration of Independence or the special and general theories of relativity or the Encyclopedia Brittanica or any other human artifact composed of language. And recognising that all our knowledge arises from a metaphorical cognitive system producing a metaphorical language with which to juggle concepts in a process of mental remote control, it's not such a big deal actually. As long as all of us recognise that absolute truth remains beyond the grasp of any of us, at least while we are still restricted to working with brains.
VenDr said…

A very accessible account of how the brain builds up complex cognitive systems from rudimentary analogical components is found in The Tree Of Knowledge: The Biological Roots Of Human Understanding by Humberto Maturana and Francesco Vareala
Anonymous said…
If the word Jesus is a metaphor for the person Jesus and the person Jesus is a metaphor for God (god having the equivalence of ultimate reality) and if this reality is something that can not be ultimately attained (...the one we follow is a perpetually moving target. We never arrive at the point where we are able to dispense with our master and strike off on our own") we are always going to be asking the question:

What is ultimate reality a metaphor of?

No wonder Pilate was perplexed.
Tillerman said…
I found this extract from Lewis Carrol recently in a Fundamentalist Religious training manual - The title of the manual didn't indicate any particular religion.

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master -- that's all.'
VenDr said…
Aaaahhh... another version of the "if God made the world then who made God?" argument, which is not an argument at all, just a linguistic knot. If anyone made God, then God is not God.

If Ultimate reality is a metaphor of anything then it is not ultimate reality.

Yes it is very perplexing. In fact it is beyond our capacity to think it through, which was Pilate's error - trying to.

So, do we take the Buddhist line, put ultimate reality in the impossible to know basket and get on with the difficult but attainable business of enlightenment? Or take the Christian line and ask, "Although we cannot attain ultimate reality, can ultimate reality attain us?"
Anonymous said…
It's only a linguistic knot for those who live in 3 dimensions - how far down the rabbit hole do you want to go?
Anonymous said…
The way ahead is to realise that the Buddhist and Christian perspectives are not mutally exclusive - after the acceptance comes the spiritual task.
Anonymous said…
YES ! ... This is all good stuff no rubbish as my father used to say.
I pray that humankind will allow Christianity to move forward with Gods truth revealed. I'm second anon- I hope we WILL see Jesus as he appears again.
VenDr said…
I have still to be convinced that the Buddhist and Christian paradigms are easily reconcilable. It is superficially easy to say that "acceptance" and the "spiritual task" are sort of complementary halves but the fundamental concepts on which the faiths are built are incompatible

But a thought has occurred to me. We never get there. All our versions of the faith are in the final analysis equally metaphorical. All are comparably invalid, but all are also comparably valid. That is, the child or the simpleton whose faith does not extend beyond "Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so" is in exactly the same position, as far as faith goes, with the scholar who before morning tea time has read learned marked and inwardly digested the entire Church Dogmatics in the original German. I can increase in understanding all I want, but it might not necessarily mean a growth in faith (or a diminution)
nie said…
Kelvin, the last bit of your latest comment about versions of faith reminded me of something I read just today from the little book by Brother Lawrence all those years ago. In this particular conversation BL said:
"That there needed neither art nor science for going to God, but only a heart resolutely determined to apply itself to nothing but Him, or for His sake, and to love Him only.".
(The Practice of the Presence of God:third conversation )
daniel said…
“So, do we take the Buddhist line, put ultimate reality in the impossible to know basket and get on with the difficult but attainable business of enlightenment?”

I'm not sure I agree with that statement, but it somewhat depends on semantics. Ultimately reality can be known, in the sense that it is perceived and understood by enlightened mind. The fact that it is beyond concept however means it cannot ever be defined as knowledge (or relative knowing).

On a more practical note, “I can increase in understanding all I want, but it might not necessarily mean a growth in faith (or a diminution)”. This is why most Buddhist traditions emphasise a balance of study and practice, generally with a stronger focus on practice. One can chase intellectual understanding forever, going in endless circles or arriving at unsolvable contradictions, as the intellect cannot get past the levels of metaphor and projection. The purpose of meditation, to learn and practice awareness, enables direct perception that sees past the projections.