Having just written about the need for more subtle approaches to talking about God, I feel that I ought to add a major corrective to that argument. It seems to me that any intellectual approach to commending Christian faith, even if it is set in the context of communal ritual practice and contemplation, is insufficient of itself to commend that faith to others. The only thing that can offer a compelling commendation of living faith is the visible transformation of human lives. Pope Francis has recently published a ‘call to holiness’ in his exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate. In this inspiring and challenging text, he insists that ‘throughout the history of the Church, it has always been clear that a person’s perfection is measure not by the information or knowledge they possess, but by the depth of their charity.’ (para. 37) He also makes it clear that ‘God is mysteriously present in the life of every person’ (para. 42) and not only in the lives of those who attain perfection.
The key to a life lived towards holiness is a life lived in response to the call to love: ‘Jesus clears the way to seeing two faces, that of the Father and that of our brother or sister. He does not give us two more formulas or two more commands. He gives us two faces, or better yet, one alone: the face of God reflected in so many other faces. For in every one of our brothers and sisters, especially the least, the most vulnerable, the defenceless and those in need, God’s very image is found. Indeed, with the scraps of this frail humanity, the Lord will shape his final work of art.’ (para 61)
I frequently puzzle about the rise of atheism in this peculiar corner of the globe – it’s a professional hazard – and while I’m sure it’s impossible to account for it in terms of a single cause, there must be some contextual factors that have led to this anomaly. Of course, some atheists would not see it as an anomaly but as the inevitable banishment of superstition by the triumph of scientific rationalism – a statement of pure faith if ever there was one. In global and historic terms, however, it is indeed an anomaly and one that seems to have greatest purchase in areas where there has been a significant historic presence of Protestant Christianity. It is, therefore, an anomaly that many of us in this western outpost of northern Europe face day by day but I think that Christians are best to avoid complaining about this phenomenon, at least until they get to grips with their own part in its appearance.
And so I have a simple proposal: atheism is, in part, a response to simplistic accounts of God. If Christians have given the impression that God is simply a bigger and invisible version of a human being, then atheists are quite reasonable in their rejection of God. If Christians give a simple account of the human response to divine will – God tells me to do stuff and I do it – then I would be at the front of the queue of those asking, ‘just how do you know that this is what God wants of you?’ And if we insist on the Creator simply being a rather more complicated sort of engineer, then it’s fair enough for aspiring human engineers to aim high and assume that they will eventually match the Creator’s ingenuity and do away with any need for him altogether. Of course, we should know very well that God is not a ‘maker’ but a ‘creator’, not an artisan but the Originator. Similarly, we should know that discerning the will of God is complex interaction of the human mind and heart with One whose mind and heart are not entirely knowable to us. But we fail to give a nuanced account of God because we fall into the trap of thinking that language about God works only on the level of how we give an account of any sensible phenomenon.
Language about God does indeed include the language of philosophy (though surprisingly few moderns and very few scientists are well versed in its subtleties and forms of argumentation) but also the embodied language of ritual and of wordless contemplation (wordless but not entirely uncommunicable). In other words, discourse alone is insufficient to give a suitably nuanced account of God. If we do not participate in the deeply symbolic and cumulatively effective language of practised religion, we are unlikely to get a sufficiently credible sense of who and what God might be. This, I guess, is the distinctive problem of some protestant accounts of religion that dismiss ritual or embodied practice and favour the word alone (not a problem for Pentecostalists though). They risk giving the impression that God is an object of inquiry like any other.
However, none of this is to suggest that we simply keep quiet about God unless people are prepared to take the whole range of religious language on board. On the contrary, it rather compels us to put the record straight on some of the impressions that we might have given while also insisting on the importance of ritual and embodied knowing. One thing it does require is that those who deal in traditional theological language let their voices be heard amid the louder voices of more simplistic accounts of God shaped by modern rationalist categories (by which I mean fundamentalisms of various sorts). The public square is famously inhospitable to complex ideas, but I think it’s worth trying, don’t you?