Why Bother to Take God Seriously?

by Tony Windross

Tony Windross is Vicar of St Peter’s Church, Sheringham, England.

The following appeared in the Newsletter of The Center for Progressive Christianity, undated. Information and resources from the Center for Progressive Christianity are available at www.tcpc.org


One congregation’s attempt at reaching people for whom belief is problematic includes publishing a series of leaflets aimed for them. The following is a sample.

Most people haven't any interest in religion - mainly because they haven't any interest in God. If asked as part of a survey whether they "believed in God", many would say that they did, but there be would few if any differences in their lives compared to those who deny the existence of God. For most people, the subject of God is completely irrelevant, and that is an enormous pity.

Does God exist? If so, what's he/she/it like? These are pressing questions for all who bother to think about it, but because so many of the claims made by Christians are so odd and so simplistic, many thinking people shake their heads and walk away.

It's obviously not possible to believe everything, even if it were desirable. The Internet is crammed with websites devoted to all sorts of beliefs, ranging from the sensible to the ludicrous. We don't have the time or the energy (or the inclination) to investigate most of these, and so we tend to dismiss them out of hand. The problem with religion is similar to the problem with fiction: thousands of novels are published in English each year, and without literary critics and judging panels for awards like the Booker Prize, we'd be floundering around without any idea as to what might be worth reading and what probably isn't. Just as we need guides to help us through all the books, we need some way of sorting out the reasonable beliefs from the ridiculous ones.

Only a philistine would dismiss the very idea of religion out of hand: so many people find it meaningful that to see them all as misguided would be hugely arrogant. Although truth isn't established on the basis of a show of hands, there comes a point when the number of hands raised is so great that at the very least it should give us pause for thought.

The great world religions constitute an obvious short list of potentially reasonable beliefs, but even this is too long, unless we are prepared to give all our time to becoming familiar with each of them. The only practical solution is to focus on the religion that is dominant in our own culture. Although we live in what is often called a multi-faith society, the dominant religion is clearly Christianity. So when faced with the phenomenon of Christianity, what is the interested outsider to make of it? It appears to involve believing in the existence of an invisible super-person, who made everything and who keeps an eye on everything. Stemming from this belief are all sorts of other ones, such as the belief in an immortal soul, so that when we die we simply continue in another form, and (if we're lucky) do so in a glorious place called heaven. Not surprisingly, many intelligent, thoughtful people refuse to have anything to do with any of this, mainly on the grounds that there is no evidence worth speaking of to support it. Their reaction is perfectly reasonable and raises the question whether this belief in a super-person actually is what Christianity is all about.

God is traditionally thought of as a being (albeit a very special sort of being), and if we think along those lines then he/she/it must presumably "exist", in the same way that other beings or things, like people or chairs, "exist". But there are all sorts of ways of understanding the God symbol, with many thinking of God as a sort of philosophical ideal, much as the ancient Greeks might have done.

If the only version of God some people know is the one heard in Sunday School, it may come as a surprise for them to realise that viewing God as a symbol is possible within the church context. But in all other areas of human thought we allow, even expect, development: the understanding of physics of the primary school child is very different from that of the university student. Because adolescence usually marks the end of religious education, people get stuck in a sort of time warp. The good news is that there is religious life after Sunday School; the bad news is that we have to work at it.

Perhaps the best starting point for a sceptic is not to think in terms of trying to "believe in God". To put the work about God in terms of believing is to shut off all sorts of imaginative ways of imagining God. A better starting point is the recognition that all of us have depths in ourselves, which is what is meant by the word "soul". These depths are what yearn for the profound and the glorious and are not fed by the banal or the superficial. They are what is reached when we respond to music or art or poetry - or religion, which is a way of organising our search for what is most real or significant. Although many people are able to do without religion, they would be hugely impoverished if they tried to do without any sense of the profound in their lives.

Churches need to become places where people gather, not to reinforce their certainties about a being called "God", but to share in the experience of exploring ways of trying to satisfy their mutual spiritual hunger. The future for organised religion is bleak, unless we work at re-imagining and re-creating the God symbol, so that it really does speak to the spiritual needs of our time.