Where has God gone? That’s a question that has echoed throughout history. We can travel back through the outrages of the Holocaust and Ethnic Cleansing hearing the cries of those whose lives have been devastated by a visiting injustice, through to the victims of the religious wars that have marked out faltering progress towards understanding and tolerance. Widows, orphans, the homeless and dispossessed; men, women and children living lives of piety and righteousness in the eyes of their God, left hopeless and forlorn by the austere judgment of their victors.
It’s also a question that has been asked by people whose spiritual journey has been punctuated by doubt and uncertainty. We can all believe in the warmth of the sun on a summer’s day, but what about when bright Phoebus clouds over? Doubt and questioning have divine vindication; even Jesus was left wondering about the apparent abandonment by his Father: ‘My God why have you forsaken me?’ it’s a tradition that stretches back deep into Jewish history and Old Testament tradition with Job, perhaps, the most obvious example of a man of God left to ponder the nature of God’s seeming displeasure and his notable indifference to men of evil profiting at the expense of the virtuous.
As the centuries have turned we have hit upon some pretty interesting explanations to account for all this. God doesn’t interfere in human affairs because it’s more important for humanity to develop in an autonomous and self-helping way. Evil is an unavoidable aspect of human existence so its random manifestation brings undesirable results. God cares about you really, it’s just a test of faith or the working out of a plan of which you have no knowledge – you simply need to grasp the bigger picture.
Today it is different; the question where has god gone foreshadows a more complex debate. Historically this lamentation has based its querulous appeal to a real God, a gendered person or personality that is somehow locatable within the framework of human geography. It has referred to a God who was here but isn’t anymore, to someone who has left the building, but who, crucially, could return at any time. But for the last fifty years or so belief in this type of being has been in full retreat. We know God didn’t walk with Adam or wrestle with Jacob. We know God has no gender and isn’t above the clouds looking down upon us all with varying degrees of dissatisfaction.
Today, we think of God as non-real. That is, an entity unconfined by human imagination regardless of whether that imagination focuses upon deity’s e existence or non-existence. We cannot speak of God in the way we speak of each other in any literal sense and so we communicate our acquired wisdom through metaphor and poetry. It used not to be that way; God was once a scientific or mathematical proposition. The arguments of Aquinas and others are well documented, and in some ways still quite appealing, because if human-kind has focused its collective attention on anything over the last ten millennia it has been on the concept of proof. Proving something remains the bedrock of scientific endeavour. The problem with Gods and Goddesses however was that we ended up proving so much about the world we no longer needed the reality of their existence to underpin our own knowledge.
Having achieved so much and intellectually, having travelled so far, we can look back and see the limitations of the old God. That Judeo-Christian God was a big strong guy with a penchant for taking one side against another; a God to fear but not really a God to love. Most importantly, perhaps, we can see how reductionist our ideas were. Our thirst for knowledge of this deity effectively defined what such a being could be, and all that old God could ever be was an extra-special version of the human male.
To talk of God’s non-reality sets deity free from packaging imposed by the human mind. The objective reality becomes subverted into the subjective non-reality of a thousand tongues each mediating a truth and each confirming a separate integrity. Such a proliferation might be seen in terms of Babel, a confusion of competing voices ultimately signifying nothing but their own individual, incommunicable experience. Fortunately theology is not like that. The language that conveys the message is a creative force; it defines who we are and frames our experience. But, uniquely, it is also a force created by us; it is master yet servant. Look through the words and you will find the Word. These days theology is becoming ever more earth focused: eco theology, animal theology, liberation theology, feminist thealogy – they are all concerned with life on earth and our lives on earth as men and women. Where has God gone? The message today isn’t that God has gone on a cosmic walkabout or is currently maintaining a radio silence. Neither is the concept of God bound to a two thousand year old worldview that, beyond its poetry is essentially as meaningless as it is unbelievable. God, if anywhere, is right here on planet Earth, awaiting, as always, our perpetual re-discovery.
Trevor Greenfield is the author of An Introduction to Radical Theology
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