St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury
June 25, 2003

 

"JUST WHAT DOES  'G-O-D' SPELL?"

 

The act of parliament setting up the University of Melbourne stipulated that, unlike the great universities in Britain and the US, this place would NOT have a faculty or school of divinity.  Behind that lay some bitter sectarian squabbles in the 19th century; these are not our concern here.  But the place has always had a fairly sturdy tradition of cynicism about religion.  The toilet door graffiti said, "How many born again christians does it take to paper your wall?  Depends how thinly you slice them!" 

 

When some of my ABC broadcast talks made it into "Farrago", the student union weekly, that was almost a bigger distinction than being invited to do the  talk on ABC.  One which drew mixed responses was called "Is reverent agnosticism the most honest religion?"   Agnosticism means 'not knowing'.  I knew many at the university who said, "There's something about life itself, about my own being, about the birth of our first child, which tells me there's more in life than meets the eye . . .  but I don't know that I can say it in your language, John.  I think I've put that churchy talk behind me."  Part of my brief as university chaplain was to try to build bridges with people like that. 

 

In fact, this has been an objective of my ministry in nearly fifty years, and it's the main reason behind our current series, "God, Humanity and the Cosmos" sub-titled "questions of a sceptical generation."  If the credibility gap is to stop widening, it will be because people like you can give a reason for the hope that is in you in ways that make sense to a generation who have walked away. 

 

My task as an intellectual in the church, an interpreter of the tradition and (dare I say it) an inventor of godtalk, is to prepare meals for you!  But if we're to dish up anything credible about 'G-O-D', it should meet five criteria.

 

       It should be honest.  We shouldn't have to suspend our intelligence.  That does no honour to One we are to love with heart, mind, soul and strength.

       It should be informed.  We can't ignore what's available via archeology, astronomy, geology, paleontology, physics, the life sciences and so on.

       It should be open.  We can no longer take a sectarian position that says everyone else is wrong.  God is more versatile than we once thought.

       It should be ethical.  Whatever we say about God should enhance the life and future of planet earth.  If it doesn't, it's immoral and evil.

       It should be intelligible.  Godtalk is not much use if the only people who can understand it are PhDs.

 

As a way into today's topic, I want to look at three questions, with a story or two to help. 

 

I

 

First is this: Is it feasible to say that God is 'knowable'?  Some will give you the smug, super-confident response; others will be very doubtful indeed.  The answer may be somewhere in between.   Best way to get into this is with a story. Seven or eight years ago I was approached by two clinical psychologists, Don and Diane, with a request for marriage.  Remember the occupations!  I told them what I say to any who want me to marry them: that I'm a tough pre-marital counsellor, and want to see them four or five times.  If I marry them, I have a big stake in the success of their covenant, and I would be short-changing them if we didn't look at money and sex and fighting and in-laws and who calls the shots and so on.  I have always believed that pre-marriage chats aren't worth much unless, once in a while, someone decides to back out as a result of things that come up.  I certainly don't set out to wreck good relationships, but one year I had three not go ahead because of bad stuff people were trying to push under the carpet!  Don and Diane agreed, and we set up the first meeting.

 

Now I don't always follow exactly the same route.  On this occasion I decided to ask my two clinical psychologists how well they thought they knew each other.  Don smiled and said, "We've been friends since we were students, and we've been living together this past year but know each other? You have to be kidding!"  Diane nodded, like she was in agreement.  Was I the victim of a conspiracy?  Then she said, "One of the commonest exaggerations is to say 'I know him well' or 'I know her very well.'  We know only a fraction of the other.  That's why marriage is based so much on trust; it has to be."

 

Nobody had ever taken this line with me. Mind you, you don't get two clinical psychologists every week.  I said, "Tell me more."  "Well," Don said, "we both know that people reveal pretty much what they want to reveal, and there is lots they keep to themselves.  That's OK; it's their right and nobody has the right to burgle another's cupboard of secrets."  I was starting to get the picture.  "The other thing is that whatever Diane does reveal is received by my flawed organs of perception so what I think I see or hear or understand of her has probably been scrambled up a bit by my own receiving system."  Diane said, "Maybe when we've been married sixty years, we'll be able to say we know each other really, really well.  Then again, maybe never."

 

I found this conversation one of the more sobering experiences of my life.  Perhaps the 'really real' you and the 'really real' me remain forever inaccessible to others.  I find this a very important insight when it comes to the question "Is God knowable?"  The bizarre thing to me, when we are aware how it is with humans 'knowing' other humans, is that anyone should be so certain and conceited in their claims to know God well or even very well.   Could be a bit presumptuous.  To my second question . .

II

 

Should religious language be more humble in what it claims?  There's a bit in my most recent book about name dropping, a big trap for preachers.  I met a well-known English bishop (no names or places; that would be name dropping!) who said, "I hate name dropping, and so does Her Majesty!"  Sometimes I think the churches engage in name dropping on a grand scale, talking about God with altogether too much familiarity, and almost like we own God!   We need reminding now and then that there's just so much we don't know, so much yet to be discovered about the nature of God and how God interacts with the cosmos.  We also need reminding that all our godtalk is 'symbolic'.  It refers to something beyond even the best words we can think up.  Two stories.

 

During World War I a young Lutheran pastor named Paul Tillich was a chaplain with the Kaiser's military.  As he spoke with young men about to do battle, and with those who came back, leaving their mates dead in the mud, he realised how much of his inherited godtalk failed to address the realities.  Paul Tillich left Hitler's Germany and settled in the US, where he became a professor at Harvard. Perhaps more than any other theologian, he stressed the importance of 'dialogue' with other disciplines.  He's been a big influence on me. Tillich loved the story in Exodus 33 of a chat between Moses and God.  Moses wants to go beyond that 'symbolic' knowledge of God.  Let me quote.  "And God tells him that if he sees him face to face he must die.  Yet he can see God walking along, and can see him from behind.  This is a wonderful half-poetic, half-metaphorical expression of the necessity by which every religious language remains symbolic."

 

My favourite Moses story concerns that weird experience he has while grazing his father-in-law's flock.  He comes upon a gorse bush blazing fiercely, yet apparently not consumed.  Edging closer, he's halted by a voice.  "Moses, you're on holy ground."  There ensues a conversation.  The voice tells Moses to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt.  Moses argues and makes excuses, but the voice is insistent.  Finally Moses says, "Look, I can't handle this if I don't know who or what you are, talking to me from that bush!"  Just like it is when you and I take a phone call, we want to know who is at the other end.  We have less control in a situation where the name of the other is withheld.

 

So, how does the voice deal with Moses' request?  In effect, with a refusal to divulge a name.  All the voice will say is 'ehyeh asher ehyeh' Hebrew for "I will be what I will be."  This is what underlies the concept of the unnameable name: that which must never be spoken.  Why?  Because to do so implies some illusion or some pretence on our part that we can somehow box up the holy One.

 

This takes us to one other question, on which I want to conclude . . .

 

III

 

Can we then talk about God at all?    Can we put any content into that word spelled 'G-O-D'?  Well, of course we can so long as we bear in mind those five criteria.  It has to be honest, informed, open, ethical and intelligible.  Presumably, whatever Jesus said about God was seen at the time to be so; that's why the common people heard him gladly, as the book says!  I want to tell you in a minute how Jesus went about it, and the genius in what he said.  But I must explain what I think guided him.  I call it 'Hosea's Theorem'. 

 

Hosea was a Hebrew prophet who lived in the 8th century before Jesus.  His home life was a mess.  His wife Gomer slept around. She had assorted lovers to whom she bore children, bringing shame on Hosea and giving him good grounds for ditching her. Instead, Hosea went after her.  He set out to win her back and rehabilitate her.  Then he had this mind-blowing insight.  "If I, frail man that I am, can go to these lengths, how much more must it be like this with God!"  The message of Hosea is that there's an indestructible love at the heart of things which helps people who have made a mess to start again.

 

So, what's 'Hosea's Theorem'?  Given that we see things like love and selflessness and trustworthiness (at the human level) as being among the loftiest and most beautiful things, it is absurd to imagine divinity which does not contain such qualities and to a degree infinitely more refined than in us.  If this were not true, the river would have risen higher than its source.  We would be better than God, the ground of our being!  And that's a logical absurdity.

 

Now, I'm fairly certain that Jesus embraced Hosea's Theorem.  He looked around him at all the loveliest and loftiest things in the lives of men and women, and said to himself "If this is true of them, how much more must it be true of the Eternal!"  Jesus never tried to define God.  What he did was to describe what he believed to be characteristics of God, inferring these from what he saw in the best examples of humanity he knew.   I find it an intriguing idea. 

 

In my book "The One with Many Names" I pointed out how Jesus used a heap of metaphors to describe how he believed God related to humanity and the world.  Most were very personal.  His favourite, which we're going to reassess in a few weeks, is the metaphor of cosmic parent the one who gives the universe its being and guides it on its way.  The question is what effect 2000 years would have on Jesus' way of viewing the world, and his way of talking about the relationship between the human and the holy.   But that will have to wait.

 

Scriptures: Exodus 3:1-4, 10-14;  Matthew 6:5-13

 

An address given at St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury by the Rev Dr John Bodycomb

on Sunday, May 25, 2003.     MAY BE REPRODUCED WITH ACKNOWLEDGEMENT