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  When the Christian bishop J.A.T. Robinson caused a furore in Britain with his book Honest to God (1963) it was because he argued that the word, image and concept were bankrupt. Ordinary people no longer believed in God as, for example, an old man in the sky, or someone ‘out there’ watching over them, or a hypothesis to explain gaps in scientific knowledge. His book pointed to a difficulty in English—that the generic term for deity is also used as a personal name for the divine power worshipped in the Judaeo-Christian tradition (since God\'s name was considered too holy for human use). Ironically, Dios, from which deus/god, di/divinity comes, was the name of an ancient pre-Hellenic pantheon god—it comes from the same root as ‘sky’—and the overwhelming majority of humankind still, today, has no difficulty whatsoever in believing in God. The evidence, they would say, is all around in the natural world.

The Apostle Paul argued that all people seek after God, who has left signs by which he can be found. Later Christian thinkers developed this into a series of arguments for the existence of God. Anselm (c. 1033 - 1109), for example, maintained that if one means by God ‘that than which a greater cannot be conceived’, then one must necessarily conceive also that the entity exists, because what exists is greater than what does not exist, and a non-existent God would be a contradication in terms. Since what exists is greater than the mere idea of it, then God must exist.

Existence is generally taken to be an essential attribute of God—a non-existent God is a contradiction in terms which may be why in so many religious traditions the existence of God or gods is taken for granted, and not debated.

Another category of arguments for the existence of God centres on the design of the universe. Before the concept of evolution, the universe was seen as a perfect mechanism designed by God the Creator. The most famous version is known as ‘Paley\'s Watch’ after William Paley, who argued that the existence of a ‘clockwork’ world demanded the existence of a watchmaker. The idea of an absentee impersonal watchmaker suited 18th-century thought, but it left no room for ‘miracles’ or for God\'s personal involvement in the world. This is one of the big divisions within and between religions: is God an impersonal force, an unmoved Mover, Uncreated Creator, or simply above and beyond the world, time and space? Or does He or She condescend to be known on human terms, as Father, Mother, Lover, possessed of personality, even if it is beyond comprehension? Are the people who appear to have a ‘hotline to heaven’ deluded, and what are the natures of worship and prayer if a direct relationship is not possible?

These dilemmas raise a further question as to whether one can talk about God using human analogies and metaphors. Can one use human language at all? If not, what happens about myth, that important source of theological insight and religious self-awareness? Other arguments for the existence of God include the epistemological, which is based on the nature and origin of human knowledge, the moral argument which asks whence comes human conscience and morality and finds a moral purpose in the universe, and the aesthetic argument (which is perhaps more of a gut feeling), that such a beautiful world points to a benevolent creator. If the use of analogy is not justified, then it becomes increasingly difficult to defend the traditional arguments from accusations of anthropomorphism. As it is, God is often described in categories heavily coloured by contemporary culture and politics—God as King, Judge, Lord, etc.—which are found in many faiths. Similarly, defining God in abstract terms (such as Truth, Wisdom or the Supreme Good) can reveal more about society\'s values than about God without necessarily invalidating the assertion. What is dangerous is to say that Truth or Love is God.

In many religious traditions, for example, Islam and Orthodox Christianity, God is always described aphatically (that is, in negatives), as one cannot find adequate adjectives. He (always He!) is immortal, invisible, ineffable, impassible, unknowable, beyond comprehension, etc. This raises the questions of how one can know He exists at all, or if He does what relevance He has to the human condition? For the ‘religions of the book’, God is known by what he has chosen to reveal of himself. The nature of revelation as divine communication has been thoroughly investigated by modern theologians, especially by Karl Barth who emphasizes God\'s transcendence and Rudolf Bultmann, who applied an existentialist philosophy to biblical exegisis. Both were concerned with the Bible as the Word of God, but Barth\'s insight was to turn the traditional question round, making God the subject not the object of human thought, making God a ‘Thou’ rather than an ‘It’. In this hypothesis, human existence is dependent on justification before God rather than on God\'s existence needing justification to the world. But the approach raises the question of what is meant by faith. How can one know one is not deluded?

Perhaps it is inevitable that after two hundred years of scientific discoveries and an expanding universe, and the impact of Marxism, with a mechanistic view, that highly personal understanding of God should develop, with many retreating into fundamentalism. When Christian missionaries opened colleges in India in the 1820s to 1830s, they were convinced that modern scientific education would banish the myths and superstitions of Hinduism and the bigotry, as they saw it, of Islam, not appreciating how a generation later, Darwin would wreck the Christian faith of thousands, or how the Hindu mind would accommodate modern science. The tragedy, for Christians at least, is that science and religion have been increasingly compartmentalized and specialized to a degree where it is rare to find someone who understands both. However, while it is now generally acknowledged that one cannot scientifically prove the existence of God, equally, scientists cannot claim to be objective researchers, working without recourse to value-judgements and non-scientific presuppositions and leaps of imagination. Humankind needs faith and science—which proves, at least, that theology is also at bottom anthropology.

Separating God from the world enabled scientists to pursue their work without accusations of blasphemy, but now both pantheism and panentheism are enjoying a revival in the West as attempts to relate God to the world when the traditional Christian option of incarnation is rejected. Hence also the concept of Gaia. EMJ

Further reading John Hick, The Existence of God; , E.L. Mascall, Existence and Analogy; , Hugh Montefiore, The Probability of God.



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