May your God go with you
Saturday 11th April 2020
Dave Allen (TV: 1960s-1990s) was a professed atheist, but he invariably ended his show with the words ‘May your God go with you.’
The Irish television presenter, Dave Allen (TV: 1960s-1990s) was a professed atheist, but he invariably ended his show with the words ‘May your God go with you.’
Dave Allen’s words conveyed an important truth: that ordinary people often think deeply about their faith. They believe what they believe, and like Dave Allen, not always what they are told to believe: for example, that the Holy Bible is the revealed word of God.
Many Christians still believe this assertion, but the Bible was set down in ages when powerful men managed communities, and when hierarchy was everything. Most people, once, had a ‘lord’ or a master (male or female). Hence, it seemed logical to our ancestors that ‘obedience’ was an essential requirement in life. Thus, God’s commandments and laws were there to be obeyed, not to be discussed.
The Bible was also written in the context of a ‘three-tiered’ universe. God lived in heaven and was, therefore, ‘up there and out there’, relative to the earth. Hell was below the earth.
However, people were also taught that God, Satan, angels and spirits, could exist in many forms, and here on earth. They might be invisible to the human eye or choose to appear in a human or animal form. And it was believed that angels, could act as messengers and appear to people; or they and God could talk to people in dreams.
This tells us that the three-tiered universe wasn’t as simplistic as we may at first understand it be. Maybe, some people in earlier centuries always took the idea of God ‘out there’ as simply one way of thinking about God? They were also taught that the Holy Spirit could empower them, therefore they believed that, through prayer, God could be with them and within them, directing their hearts and minds. They may not have concluded that God was their ‘Ground of Being’, but it is reasonable to suggest that the thoughts of independent-minded people about the nature of God may always have been more sophisticated than we often give ordinary people credit for.
Many writers suggest that the ‘three-tiered universe’ is dead, but it isn’t. Many people still think about heaven and God in this old way, and there are many variations of this way of thinking: ways that many people still have a deep emotional attachment to. But it is undeniable that an increasing number of scholars reject the ‘God out there’ model and are exploring new ways to make ‘God’ understandable in the modern world: like thinking of God as a verb, rather than as a noun, as something to be ‘experienced, than as a thing.’ For an example: see Brian Mountford, Christian Atheist.1
Paul Tillich (1886 -1965) promoted the idea of God as the ‘Ground of our Being’.2 This is like saying that God ‘comes with our DNA’. This can explain why many people have an instinctive feeling that ‘God’ is with them, in a way that gives meaning to their existence.
Ironically, the ancient Hebrews got halfway to the ‘Ground of Being’ concept, when they identified the name of God as ‘I am who I am’. What they were saying is that God, ‘Just is’.
This is where we are in 2020. God, he/she/it, is still beyond human experience and our ability to define with any precision. But God can easily be imagined and felt as an ultimate ‘gold-standard’ level of authority and thoughts: higher for example than human law makers, such as princes, presidents, prime ministers and politicians (who given an issue such as ‘climate change’, will often put individual or national interests above the future needs of the earth’s inhabitants).
Imagining this higher level of authority is becoming increasingly important, as our world becomes ‘global’ in operation and national governments have diminishing power and influence. We now have an environment in which fake news, social media, TV soap operas and the like, are now setting low common denominators of social values, and even negating our instincts that higher standards are attainable.
Thankfully, most religions advocate a ‘Golden Rule’ similar to: ‘Do not do to others what you don’t want others to do to you’.3 So, it follows that major religions can continue to teach good social values.
I do not think how we imagine ‘God’ is particularly important, if our concept of ‘God’ gives us a therapeutic/spiritual boost and helps us to relate to our world in a loving and constructive way. If God really is and embodies love, our response to the idea of God will be all that matters. This is giving genuine ‘worth’ to God; further worship is optional.
Today science explains natural phenomena, the causes of illnesses, and it has shown that time and space are merely variables in a mathematical equation. And this knowledge undermines key ideas about the biblical ‘interventionist God’ and many traditional thoughts about there being an afterlife. The significance of this new knowledge needs to be discussed by religious authorities.
Science has also given us the idea of the ‘Big Bang’, but this can be over-rated. The ‘Big-Bang’ adds nothing to everyday understanding of how anything (including us) can exist. Nothing (so Shakespeare wrote) can come of nothing!
Richard Dawkins and his atheistic associates are dismissive of religion in the 21st century, but they fail to empathise with the fact that religion is about the ‘universe of the human mind’ and the human response to existence.
Believing in the need for constructive social values and of ‘God’ as ultimate authority (even in a poetic way) can encourage human beings to work together, unselfishly, as members of a world team, determined to create sustainable societies and ensure real justice for all. Whether God is viewed as real or as an ‘imagined reality’ (like a joint-stock company), it makes little difference. With genuine belief, God can be the factor that makes authority acceptable and effective.
As Confucius explained, over two thousand years ago, ‘belief’ is self-controlling; it evokes shame in a believer and stops him or her doing something ‘wrong’, unlike legalism which relies on penalties imposed after a ‘wrong’ has been committed.
However, the ‘God’ believed-in is personal to the individual.4 There is little point trying to define ‘God’ in each case. That’s why Dave Allen was right. We all need to say to our neighbour, ‘May your God go with you,’ because their God is probably quite different to yours.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. Example: Brian Mountford, Christian Atheist, O-Books, UK, 2011, “God: a noun or a verb – an answer or the question?”
2. Example: John Shelby Spong, Unbelievable, Harper Collins, New York, 2018, “Thesis 1” and “Universalism”.
3. See Don McGregor, Blue Sky God, Circle Books, 2012, Chapter 9. Don sees the Golden Rule, in Baha’i, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Shinto, Sikhism, Sufism, Unitarianism, and Zoroastrianism.
4. This was the conclusion of Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkguard, who influenced the ideas of Rudolph Bultmann and Karl Barth. See also, K M Kuitert, The Legacy of Christianity, SCM Press, 1999, Chapter 1.
(In my previous article in ‘Progressive Voices’, I discussed how long it took in human history before the idea of a ‘Creator God’ fully emerged and suggested that the underlying purpose of most religions is to establish rules that are necessary to promote sustainable societies.)