Chapter 17: God as the Ground of Faith

God in the New World
by Lloyd Geering

Chapter 17: God as the Ground of Faith

Whenever we talk about the relationship of God with the scene of human history, we move out of the field of history, as it is commonly understood, and enter the medium of myth. This has led us to justify the use of myth in the new world, partly on the very ground that without it we cannot express our faith in terms of God’s concern with the world. But on what grounds are we justified in speaking about God at all?

Throughout most of the Christian era the reality of either gods or God could be taken for granted not only among Christians, but also among the non-Christians to whom the Christian Gospel was proclaimed. Through the Middle Ages and down to quite recent times, theologians believed that, if pressed to do so, they could prove the existence of God on rational grounds. There was usually no need for this however, except as a theological exercise, since the presence of a powerful and authoritative church and the possession of an infallible Bible were usually sufficient to re-awaken faith, if ever believers were faced with doubts.

But today in the new world the most basic premise of the Christian faith has been widely challenged. In proclaiming the Gospel, the Christian can no longer assume that he has a common link with his hearers in some kind of God-belief which forms the basis for the communication of the Christian faith. The Christian is being challenged to show that when he uses religious language, and in particular, when he uses the word ‘God’, he is speaking in a meaningful way, and is not simply repeating an archaic form of words which belonged to the old world, and which is no more relevant to the new world than goblins and fairies.

It is not simply a matter of debating whether God exists or not, for this begs the basic question of what is meant by the word ‘God’. Even the Bible does not hesitate to declare that what some people mean by ‘God’ is no reality at all. As with all words of the language that man has slowly evolved, the meaning of ‘God’ is only grasped and appreciated when it is read or heard in the context of human discourse. The word ‘God’ means what the user of the word wants to make it mean. All of us use words in slightly different ways and impute to them slightly different meanings. Language is not nearly as exact and precise as we often imagine.

But we could not communicate with one another at all by means of language unless for most words there were some commonly accepted meaning, however general. For this reason, we never start a discussion of God with a tabula rasa. We ourselves are the products of a culture which has itself been largely shaped by the Christian faith. The language we have inherited from our fathers has already given some kind of content to our use of the word ‘God’, whether we regard ourselves as believers or non-believers. But within the limits set by the cultural background of the world, there are still considerable differences in the connotation the word has for each of us. If we are believers, we have emphasized those aspects which enable us to adopt a positive and accepting attitude to the word. If we are non-believers, we have fastened our attention upon those aspects which cause us to adopt a negative and rejecting attitude.

Our first task is to examine the way in which the Bible bears verbal witness to God. Here it is to be noted that the Bible does not confine itself to one word. As we have seen, there is the untranslatable proper name YHWH, which was Israel’s most treasured word to point to the reality, who, they believed, had delivered them from Egyptian bondage. But they did not hesitate to use other words, such as the untranslatable El Shaddai, and those translated as ,‘God’, ‘Lord’, the ‘God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’, the ‘Holy One of Israel’. The Old Testament goes to some trouble to make it clear that all these words refer to the one reality. Another important aspect of the biblical talk of God is that He is not simply ‘God’, but so often ‘our God’, the ‘God of our fathers’, the ‘God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ’.

Next we must note that there is considerable diversity in the ways in which the Bible describes how God manifests Himself to man. We have already noted the growing reluctance to speak of God in anthropomorphic terms. Theophanies gave way to angel talk, and angel talk to visions, and visions to the hearing of the Word of God in the inner ear. The Bible reflects no embarrassment about this variety of usage. In the New Testament we find the apostolic church talking about God in some quite new ways. Yet even though the differences in usage between Old Testament and New Testament caused some second century Christians to conclude that two different realities were referred to, the apostolic church was adamant, that it was none other than the God of Israel who had spoken to men in Jesus.

Now this variety of usage in the biblical talk of God (and modern scholarship has shown that the biblical statements cannot all be neatly fitted together into a systematic whole, in the way some earlier Christian thinkers assumed that to be possible) makes it clear that the Bible is not wedded to any particular form of words concerning God. The words themselves do not contain the reality to which they refer; they are pointers. The biblical words are used to point to the deepest reality in the experience of man.

What is the relevance to us of the God-pointing language of the Bible? This is the same as asking, "What is the deepest reality for our experience as men of the new world, and is it the same reality as that to which the Bible points ?" We have seen that when the Bible is read against the background of the ancient mythological cultures, it is found to be pointing in a different direction. Whereas they pointed to the pantheon of gods in their unseen heavenly world, the Bible pointed to one who was in no way to be identified with the gods of ancient man, but who was known to them in the sphere of human history as the deepest reality confronting them there. This concern with the human scene finally led attention to be focussed on Jesus of Nazareth, a man of history, who lived and died as other men do, and yet one in whom the God of Israel confronted men in a unique way.

Even though the Bible was pointing away from the gods of ancient man, it was still forced to use the God-language of ancient man. For this reason conservative Christians maintain that if we dispense with the concept of God as a supernatural being dwelling in heaven, we are rejecting the biblical witness. But the biblical witness must be read in its own context, and when this is done, we must look for the direction in which the faith of Israel was moving, not for the mythological remnants still present in its expression.

Now just as Israel carried through the theological spring-cleaning proper to her time, so we, if we are to be faithful to her lead, must pursue the reformation of God-talk appropriate to our time. One aspect of God-talk, for example, which is overdue for elimination is that which tries to look for evidence of God in the areas of human ignorance, and which seeks to use him as the explanation of all we do not understand. There is no room for the ‘God of the gaps’ in the new world, nor is this the God of whom the Bible speaks. The God of Israel met men not on the borders of life, but at the center, at the point of deepest significance.

Another aspect of God-talk that must go is that which looks to God as a source of super-human power, who can be persuaded, and even cajoled, by the appeal of prayer, to perform those desires of man, which man cannot manage for himself. There is not all that much difference between the dancing of the prophets of Baal before their altar in the hope that their god would vindicate them, and the all-night prayer relay which seeks a glorious harvest of souls at the mass meeting of the visiting evangelist.

But when we have allowed for the various images of God which ought certainly to vanish, because they are the remnants of ancient mythology, we are still left with the question of God-talk itself. Must even the very word ‘God’ be now abandoned? This is a vital current issue. It may be that, more and more in the new world, men may find they can speak of the deepest reality of their experience without any need to use the God-talk inherited from our fathers. If so, we must listen appreciatively, remembering that, because all human language is relative and limited, we must not let any one word or group of words assume the qualities of an absolute, for that would be a return to the idolatry from which the faith of our fathers sought to deliver us. The Bible shows no concern when its writers were led to replace an earlier name or form of words by a new expression, and consequently it cannot be said that either the Bible or Christian tradition has made one particular doctrine of God or one form of words sacrosanct.

Some of the most fruitful thoughts about the role of God-belief in the new world have come from Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45), a German theologian who was executed in a German prison a few days before VE Day, for having taken part in a plot against Hitler’s life. His most creative contributions are found, though only in seed-form, in his Letters and Papers from Prison. He spoke of our era as ‘man’s coming of age’, and said, "God is teaching us that we must live as men who can get along very well without him". While we cannot say how Bonhoeffer himself would have developed the implications of these phrases, let us attempt to apply them to the question of God in the new world.

In the life of each man there is a long period of preparation and growth before maturity is reached, before he comes of age. In his pre-natal existence the embryonic person passes through various stages remarkably similar to those by which the whole race has developed by biological evolution. In infancy, childhood and adolescence, he passes through stages which find some striking parallels in the sociological evolution of mankind. A person owes his very existence to his parents, and inherits from them such traits as can be transmitted biologically. At birth he is still wholly dependent upon them. In the course of time he receives from them the language and the heritage of culture which enable him to develop his human potential. All that a person owes to his parents and to the cultural environment of his birth cannot be overemphasized, and yet it belongs to his very personhood that he becomes steadily independent.

Then he comes of age. The wise parent has been leading his child to the point where he can fend for himself. In coming of age the adolescent recognizes that he must stand on his own feet, and not be looking to his parents to extricate him from the problems and difficulties into which his ineptness and weakness lead him. Parenthood, insofar as it means the exercise of power and control, aims at making itself unnecessary. Yet at the very point where the young adult realizes that now he is free and no longer within the reins of parental control, he begins to find, though often slowly, that much of his parents is with him still. But now it is within him, prompting, guiding and stimulating him from within his own real self.

Now let us turn to the fatherhood of God. The Bible affirms with clarity that we are dependent for our very existence on the fatherhood of God. The traits of our humanity we have inherited from him, for we are made in his likeness. We may see the infancy of the human race, as the long period of man’s origins when he was completely at the mercy of his environment. In the mythological culture he recognized his helplessness and looked to the mysterious unseen forces for the things he could not achieve for himself.

The whole Judeo-Christian heritage, from whose roots the new world has sprung, may be regarded as the medium by which God the Father has been leading the human race to its coming of age. The New Testament proclaimed Jesus Christ to be the new man, in whom the nature of God was so fully to be seen that he could be called the ‘Son of God’. The very significance men saw in Jesus was that by his coming, men should be enabled to come into their own. "To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God." The letter to the Ephesians claims that the gift of Christ enables men to attain ‘to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’.

If it is of the very nature of the fatherhood of God that he should be leading his children to mature sonship, then we can see some point in saying that we must learn to live without God in the world. This is the maturity of sonship to which God the Father is calling us, and for which he has prepared us by means of the very heritage which has led to the advent of the new world. Yet just at the point where we find ourselves assuming full responsibility, free from the restraints of mythological powers, we become slowly aware that it is He, the God of our fathers, who is in fact prompting, guiding and influencing us from within. The man of faith lives in the new world without appealing to the ancient gods of heaven, for the very spirit of God is within him.

There is a final point from the analogy. The truly mature son does not abandon his father when he learns to stand on his own feet, but on the contrary, with his increasing maturity, he becomes more aware of all that he owes to his parentage, and is increasingly grateful. The test of whether man in the new world has come of age is seen first of all in his ability to shoulder full responsibility for his life, and secondly in the recognition of all that he owes to the fatherhood of God to whom is due praise and thanksgiving.

Some may have concluded, on hearing the phrases quoted from Bonhoeffer, that ‘living without God in the world’ quickly leads to the cessation of all God-talk. With Bonhoeffer himself it certainly was not so. On the contrary, his letters are full of it, and reflect the life of a man of deep faith, and full of gratitude to God. This may help us to see why the Bible, in spite of the fact that it was turning men away from the gods of mankind’s infancy, was quite vigorous in retaining God-talk to point to the deepest reality man encounters in his historical existence.

What men of faith may choose to do, even in the quite near future, concerning this dilemma of the language of faith, is yet not clear. The continued use of the word ‘God’ with all its associations and images from the old world always constitutes a temptation to turn back in the direction of mythology, and that leads to idolatry, which has always been the church’s greatest weakness. One can readily appreciate why some have been searching for new ways of expressing the attitude of faith towards the deepest reality man encounters, that reality to which the Bible points by means of God-language.

But in abandoning the biblical language of faith there lies another danger. It so easily leads to a humanism in which man becomes his own measure and consequently his own god. This is idolatry turned inside out. The more man sees himself as a self-made man, with no one to thank for it but himself, the more he turns into a demon, and of this the history of man has already seen many examples. The great deficiency in absolute humanism in the long run is that it is dehumanizing. The deepest reality we encounter in human existence is not our own image in the mirror, for that is no encounter at all. For this reason no better language has yet appeared in the new world to replace that which we have received from the heritage that has made us.

As we listen to the witness of the Bible, we may be inclined to think, at first, that this is no more than the voice of the human Israel which points us away from the gods of idolatry as the first step in man’s self-emancipation. But Israel shouts to us that this is none of their doing. The prophets affirm in no uncertain terms that Israel is a nation of stumblers and idolaters, but it is the Word of YHWH out of the burning bush, out of the mountain, out of the unknown, to which they bear witness.

The ‘this-worldliness’ and ‘down-to-earthness’ which made Israel’s faith so distinctive, came to a consummation in the man Jesus. In wildly ecstatic ways, and with all the impreciseness and lack of logical consistency which goes with that kind of unbelievably good news, the New Testament wants to say to us that here is man’s chance to become free and to achieve his full human potential. Yet even while it ventures to talk about this man in terms of the God-language of faith, the New Testament does not hesitate to describe this Jesus as a real man and one who points to Him who sent him.

To the extent that the new world may be described as man’s coming of age, we must be ready for all the refinements it necessitates for the way we talk about God. But if we dispense with God-talk altogether, we may find that we have not achieved the freedom of maturity at all, but rather lost it by confining our discourse to such limits as no longer allow room for the human spirit to breathe and move. Words like ‘God’, ‘divinity’, ‘holiness’ arose admittedly in the mythological context. But the human spirit needs these words, for true it is that in God ‘we live and move and have our being’.

It may well be objected that we still have not made clear what is meant by the word ‘God’. That is true. By God-talk we are pointing to the deepest reality we encounter, to that which concerns us ultimately. But we do not know what that is. The God that is known is an idol. The God who can be defined, is no God. It is of the essence of human existence that man lives not by knowledge, but by faith. It is by faith that man is led to fulfillment and ultimate destiny, and God is the ground of his faith.