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God in Us

John Mann reviews God in Us by Anthony Freeman.

Rev. Anthony Freeman was in the news recently as the vicar sacked from the Church of England for ‘not believing in God’. This book was perhaps what got him sacked – a public declaration of his faith in a ‘God in us’ – a God who is a part of the human reality rather than some supernatural being ‘out there’. What was no doubt the final straw for those opposed to the Rev. Freeman was this book’s brilliantly lucid, clear, common sense and to the point style, which must make him almost unique amongst modem theologians!

This is perhaps the point. Anthony Freeman is not a theologian, he does not juggle words or play with language, he is – or was when he wrote this book – a vicar who speaks plainly and honestly. The book is about Anthony Freeman trying to communicate his joy at the discovery that God is a uniquely human God, and that Christianity’s talk of love, faith, hope and compassion start to make sense and become real when we keep them at the human level and don’t try to build them into some absurd theological-metaphysical superstructure.

This is not to say that the book is some subjective, autobiographical journey. Readers of Philosophy Now will be pleased to find each short chapter presents a new argument to defend the position taken, and together build into an impressive defence of what at first sight might appear to be a patently heretical position.

Can a Christian – particularly a Christian vicar – really not believe in a God ‘out there’? A number of points need to be made on this issue.

Firstly the central truth of Christianity is the incarnation – that God became man. It may be that uniquely amongst the world’s major religions Christianity is able to understand why God might be revealed in man. In the New Testament Jesus is not concerned with instituting new religious practises. Instead he teaches that we serve God when we show love to one another, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me… whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25: 3 5-40). “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27). So it can be seen that from the beginning Christianity has made a connection between God and man: God revealed in man, service to man as service to God, God becoming man.

Secondly changes in our understanding of the world through science and history have caused serious religious thinkers to radically rethink what ‘God’ and ‘religion’ mean when thought of in non-mythological terms. It could be argued that a major thread of modern philosophy has been a re-understanding of God: both Kant and Hume continued to believe in God whilst delivering the most powerful critiques of traditional religion and religious conceptions of God. Modern theologians such as John A.T. Robinson (the author of Honest to God), David Jenkins and Don Cupitt all show us a very different God to the mythological God – in a sense an alien, puzzling, ‘Zen’ like God, yet also a human, compassionate, loving, sacrificing God. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s comment “we do not know where man ends” reminds us that placing God within the human reality can mean vastly expanding our conception of what ‘man’ is.

The third issue raised by Anthony Freeman is the ethical status of religion. Can we morally accept the traditional all-powerful God out there? Do we develop into healthy, balanced people if we believe in a God behind the scenes pulling the strings? Dr. Ronald Goldman produced some classic studies in the 1960s on the impact of religious education on children (see for example Religious Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence, and Readiness for Religion published by Routledge and Kegan Paul in 1964 and 1965 respectively). The accepted wisdom on religious education at the time was simply to teach children the Bible. Goldman showed that presenting children with the myths of the Bible with no explanation or analysis produced crude, superstitious conceptions of religion and a vengeful, wand-waving, ‘super-human’ conception of God even in quite old children. Clearly we cannot simply repeat the religion of the past – morally, intellectually and spiritually something radical, imaginative and challenging is required.

Anthony Freeman’s book is well worth a read. It is short and to the point, and presents the arguments in such a disarmingly clear manner that his sacking can only make us believe the Church have burnt another saint.

God In Us: The Case for a Christian Humanism by Anthony Freeman is published by SCM Press and costs £5.95 for the paperback. ISBN 033 402 5389

© John Mann 1994

John Mann is a Christian atheist..

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