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The Real God: A Response to Anthony Freeman’s God in Us

Gordon Giles reviews Bishop Richard Harries’ reply to the book that got Anthony Freeman sacked from his vicarage.

The debate is on! Anthony Freeman is a ‘Christian Humanist’ who does not believe in a supernatural God, or Heaven, an afterlife, or the authority of the Bible. For him, Jesus is merely a unique focus for human ideals, and prayer amounts to talking to yourself. As his second we have a sympathetic reviewer, John Mann, who calls himself a ‘Christian Atheist’, who I take to be a follower of Christ who believes there is no God. (See review in Philosophy Now No.10, p.39-49).

Into the ring steps Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, with a new book, seeking not to rubbish Freeman’s work, but to “examine and face those questions, and to give answers without equivocation.” But he “is not in the business of point-scoring. What is at stake is nothing less than the truth.” (p.6). So I too must declare my hand, as cleric in training, and Bishop Harries’ sympathetic reviewer.

His book is philosophically acute, and theologically sharp, bringing freshness even to those issues which are hardly new, but which must be gone over in this latest strand of a debate that has gone on in print for at least thirty years. Freeman is not new – he stands in a tradition of many names, past and present: Friedrich Schleiermacher, Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Robinson, Maurice Wiles, Don Cupitt, John Hick and Hugh Dawes spring to mind easily.

It was John Robinson who introduced us first to Tillich’s idea of God as ‘ground of our being’, and Bonhoeffer’s desire to find out “who Christ is today” (although Bonhoeffer would have vigourously disputed Freeman’s views). Robinson wrote Honest to God in 1963, launching a debate, which was rejoined in 1977 with John Hick’s The Myth of God Incarnate, which sought to review the traditional and credal view that Jesus Christ was both human and divine, and which ended up very much emphasising Jesus’ humanity. Hick’s anthology, like Robinson’s book, and now Freeman’s, spawned replies, some of which were more coherent than others. The Truth of God Incarnate, by Michael Green, was reassuring to those who had been threatened; but a more serious and thoughtful response came a couple of years later in Incarnation and Myth: The Debate Continued, edited by Michael Goulder. There it was observed that what Hick et al. were saying was pretty much what Schleiermacher had been saying a century and a half earlier. It also became clear that it is bound to be difficult to decide what it means to be both divine and human, when we have enough trouble knowing what it is to be human.

I am not saying that we have heard it all before. But it is the case that God in Us emerges from a tradition, and that this is the third time (or fourth, if we include an exchange between Don Cupitt’s The Sea of Faith and Brian Hebblethwaite’s The Ocean of Truth in the mid-eighties) that these issues have been debated in print. The debate is not new, it has continued for many years, and it has done so, because it matters. It matters to those who accept various church doctrines; and it matters to those who cannot, but want to hang on to their faith, integrity, or income.

It is not my job, nor am I interested, in judging people’s faith, motives or commitment. Like Bishop Harries, I want to see questions of truth debated.

Freeman started his book with an empirical observation – that no-one today believes in a God who intervenes in the world. He then described the sense of liberation he felt when he realised that the world can be explained without any supernatural account. All aspects of our lives, he said, are human in origin and content. The supernatural is unnecessary.

Harries points out that a view of God as intervening creator-ruler is not the only option, nor does he find it very helpful himself. There are alternatives. Many writers have concluded that this kind of God is dead, and rightly so. It is not very radical at all to say that no-one believes in a God in the sky who looks down on the world. But we have another, possibly more accurate picture of a God who is vulnerable, who suffers (most notably at the crucifixion), but who, in that very human predicament, continues to be vulnerable to rejection, indifference and to the consequences of the freedom in which his creation so delights.

Secondly, Harries distinguishes between questions about the reality or otherwise of God, and questions about how he relates to the world. A God who does not relate to the world, need not fail to exist.

Freeman went on to discuss the idea that God reveals himself to us. There are two options here – that rational reflection concludes that there must be a creator; or that God has chosen to divulge something of himself through some external means. Freeman and Harries are both sceptical about the possibility of convincing anyone through logic that there is or must be a God. Harries is also in sympathy with Freeman when he says that he cannot accept a natural world created through evolution which is so violent, but he also indicates a distinction between objecting to the idea of evolution and to the way in which it manifests itself.

Knowing God, says Harries, is more like knowing a person, than like knowing there is a chair in the garden. In order to know someone, there must be willingness to mutual sharing of oneself; and a degree of intimacy. God is not an object, and does not ‘exist’ as other ‘things’ do. We cannot even make the usual distinction between knowing that a person exists, and knowing them, for “we can only know God as God”. (p.16). Harries goes on to expound a kind of ‘natural’ theology (not in the Thomist sense), such that it is natural to trust people rather than distrust them; more natural to believe than disbelieve. Disbelief is secondary, but it is still to be taken seriously.

For Freeman, all God-talk is ‘human at the point of delivery’, and it varies according to context. He therefore considers it to be nothing more than the expression of human values. Harries does not dispute Freeman’s premises – God-talk is human, inevitably; and there is no doubt that there is diversity in any Christian tradition. Some people might even want to say that this very debate demonstrates the fact! But Harries does not accept Freeman’s conclusion. Christian identity has survived in a striking way, over two thousand years. Christians believe, and always have believed, that God has disclosed himself, in Christ, in a very particular way at a particular point in time, and for a specific purpose. God has become vulnerable in that these three features have been challenged, not least in the tradition I have been outlining – was Christ just another human being with special God-consciousness?, can we identify an Historical Jesus?, and can Christianity make any unique claim? Harries cannot prove that there is a real God, and so the question must remain, but he points out that through the ages Christians have believed that God is real, and the fact that we use human language to describe him does not mean that we have simply made up the beliefs of which the language is an expression.

Freeman denies belief in a supernatural God. Harries understands him as referring to a ‘transcendent’ God, and recognises him as a member of Don Cupitt’s ‘Sea of Faith’ movement. For them, ‘mind’ is a social reality, and ‘language’ is a public phenomenon. Language becomes internalised as thought, but the thought, related to talk, still has a public dimension. We spend our lives interpreting, but the language we use to interpret is conditioned, and given. What we are left with is interpretations of interpretations of interpretations (etc.). But Harries refuses to accept this completely, for in its extreme form, the scepticism involved denies the possibility of any truth. But for Freeman, ‘all is interpretation’ – there can be no core at the centre. Harries exposes Freeman’s fatal flaw though – which is that his view is itself an interpretation, and by his own lights, cannot lay claim to truth. Freeman is not afraid of talking of ‘errors’ or ‘false distinctions’, and so approaches a position in which he claims that no-one can be right, except himself, who is right about the fact that no-one else can be right!

As far as Harries is concerned, Freeman has overlooked the fact that there are some things which are accepted as right – such as not targeting civilians in war; or not torturing children. It is possible for there to be such ‘cores’ of accepted truth. Discussing personal identity, he adds that individuals, and organisations such as the Church, have memories, which act as a continuing core of identity in the face of biological or physical change. So even if we peel the metaphorical onion of which Freeman speaks, we do not find that all is interpretation – there can be and is something identifiable at the heart of it. We are not complete slaves of our language, we are shaped by it, but not to the extent that it, and we, are actually meaningless.

Freeman picks up questions that have been asked about the historical Jesus over the past century or so;and takes the view of George Tyrrell that such enquiries show us nothing more than the reflection of our own faces. Harries eschews his total scepticism, claiming that at least the outlines of Jesus’ life and teaching are clear, and there is no doubt about the central event of crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, in spite of Enoch Powell’s rather unusual ideas. Jesus spoke of a coming ‘Kingdom of God’, and encouraged people to change their lives in the light of God’s intervention in the world, effected in him. Freeman sees Jesus as a focus for our human values – as a teacher, but no more. Harries would want to ask Freeman to address what those teachings actually were, for “it is not possible to take Jesus seriously without reckoning with these claims.” (p.42).

Freeman would defend his view by saying that a more humanist understanding of Christ facilitates dialogue with other faiths. Harries disputes this, pointing out that this would lead to a beating about the bush, and thus that no real dialogue could take place, for Freeman’s view of Jesus is not only alien to the teaching of the Church, it is not what most Christians believe, and thus would not be representative in any debate. For Harries, truth is more desirable than a harmonisation of lowest common denominators.

The Christian faith is about Hope. Hope for ourselves, and for others, both in life, and after death. We may not know anything about an afterlife, but it does not follow that there isn’t one. Whatever comes after death, is a gift of God. (p.50). Harries detects in Freeman a popular tendency to shift the emphasis away from hope for afterlife, to an attempt to make the world a better place. This is a good thing. But it need not replace a hope that in the end “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” (p.54).

The main argument against God centres on the problem of evil. It is natural – Harries claims – to believe in a wise and loving God. But as we live and learn we face the reality of evil, suffering and death. Much of this is caused by the negligence and cruelty of other human beings. Since we were not ‘programmed’ by God, and have free will, we are free to damage and hurt one another, and often do. God does not make the world so much as make it make itself. Thus God himself is somewhat limited by human freedom, and by his whole purpose in making the world in the first place. The negative ‘side-effects’ are preferable to living in some kind of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ world, where no laws of nature or behaviour could be relied upon. The laws of nature do not reflect God’s powerlessness, or unwillingness to intervene – rather they reflect his constancy and faithfulness. As loving creator God, he suffers with humans; and yet also turns evil into good. Heaven lies ahead of us, because the purposes of love cannot be defeated. These propositions constitute the defence for God, and the evidence for positive belief. Knowledge of God and his love does not prevent a tragedy being one, belief is not a solution to the world’s problems. But Harries says that the love of God enables us to see more clearly, to see what is important, and opens up a greater vision than a narrow human one. When we see so much suffering in the world we may deny our maker, or we may turn to care for the world. If we turn to care, we will realise how much good there is in the world after all.

People believe or disbelieve for different reasons. Proof is not possible, either way. But this does not make faith irrational. Harries tries to communicate to his readers that in the Christian view, “everything falls wonderfully into place”. (p.70). Life is tragic at times, and the Christian admits this, it happens to be what the crucifixion stands for. There is a popular postmodern view that there is no standpoint from which we may view the evidence for anything. We are stuck in whatever tradition or view we happen to be stuck in. But even the tradition that makes this point is itself a tradition, and cannot claim an optimum vantage point, any more than Freeman can claim to be right about everyone being wrong. As a tradition, it must be committed to a dialectical relationship with other traditions, in order to come to understand what might count for or against its own point of view. Harries takes this line from Alisdair McIntyre, but also points out the inherent vulnerability involved. For there is always the danger in dialogue, that one’s own point of view may be undermined. But that there are rival claims to truth need not mean that one’s own claim is undermined. An awareness of difference is crucial in today’s world, and it does not mean that there is no common ground – the awareness of difference acknowledges much common ground, and need not lead to relativism.

Harries’ final point against Freeman, is that he has not respected atheism, which the bishop describes as a ‘noble stance’. (p.79). “To dress up our human ideals and values and call them God simply fails to respond to the world as we know it: it is grossly insensitive to the tragic dimension of human life.” (p.80). Much of the debate centres on Freeman’s attempt to redefine Christianity (a definition which the Church of England has not accepted), but by the same token he has attempted to recast atheism, and it may well be that he has not done a committed atheist any justice either.

Harries concludes his book with a look over his shoulder to the 1960s incarnation of this kind of debate. These are serious issues, and those who raise the questions must be taken seriously. But for Harries, and many others, it is perfectly possible to address the problems and issues with theology and philosophy that is not alien to traditional belief. It is not necessary to think of God as a word for human ideals. It may be helpful for some people to do so, but that is quite a different matter. But if there is such a thing as truth,and people find falsehood, inaccuracy, or sloppy thinking helpful, then Faith, or no faith, we have a problem.

The Real God: A Response to Anthony Freeman’s ‘God in Us’ by Richard Harries, is published in paperback by Mowbray at £5.95. ISBN 026 467 3840. God in Us: The Case for Christian Humanism by Anthony Freeman, is published by SCM Press and costs £5.95 for the paperback. ISBN 033 402 5389.

© Gordon J. Giles 1995

Gordon Giles specialises in philosophical aesthetics, and is currently training as a clergyman at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. In June he will be ordained as Curate to the Church of the Good Shepherd, Cambridge.

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