Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Spong: Beyond theism but not beyond God?

In Chapter three, Spong takes up again the thesis that theism grew up alongside the development of our self-consciousness, essentially as a way of re-assuring ourselves that something of us would continue after we die.

Again, I have problems with this idea, first of all because I don’t think it is a complete and sufficient explanation. For instance, I think it gives too little credit to the idea that we tend to anthropomorphize everything. We are conscious agents with intelligence and intentions, and we can see that animals are the same to some extent. If animals, then why not thunderstorms, the sun, clouds, waterfalls and trees waving in the wind? Even now, though we know better, emotionally we can sometimes feel that inanimate objects are conspiring to frustrate us.

Secondly, as I understand it, theistic religions (at least, the early animistic versions of them) predate the belief in life after death, and the idea of life after death is not a necessary part of all religions, it just happens to be a major aspect of the religions we are most familiar with today. If that is the case, then religion originally was not (as Spong claims) primarily about easing the angst of our impending earthly demise.

In chapter four, “Beyond Theism but Not Beyond God” Spong starts looking to see if there is any way in which we can describe what he calls the God-experience in a new way. I’ve read through the chapter several times, and I have to say I find it somewhat incoherent. It seems to me that he is trying to describe our experience of God without defining the God we are experiencing. God is not a supernatural theistic deity, and yet is still something apart from the natural world – which rather suggests that Spong is finding it very hard to find a description that moves away from a supernatural being periodically invading the world to achieve the divine will.

Sometimes, God gets described as a symbol. “The God we once saw theistically as a being can now also be seen as a symbol of Being itself.” And later he says “This God is the source of life, the source of love, the Ground of Being. The theistic God of yesterday is a symbol for the essence, the being of life in which we share. God is life, we say, and we worship this God by living fully.”

Now it seems to me that Spong is trying to have his cake and eat it. He is claiming the nonreality of the theistic God, is talking symbolically of the nontheistic God he seeks to discover in its place, and yet claims that it has a reality that goes beyond the merely symbolic.

I can do symbolism as well as the next person, and if Spong wanted to say that God is the word he uses to represent everything that is best in the human experience of Life and Love, then I would have had no difficulty with that. But it seems he wants more than this, a God with an existence independent of the symbolism we associate with the word, even as he claims that the God-experience he describes is of a God which defies definition. It seems to me that if he wants a God with an independent existence, then he is sliding back towards the theism which he claims is dead.

I get the impression that the 21 pages of this chapter contain his central thesis, and yet I can’t quite see the bit of firm ground on which he looks to build his new structure. It all looks like quicksand to me.

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