The Case for God

Anybody who imagines that revealed religion requires a craven clinging to a fixed, unalterable, and self-evident truth should read the rabbis. Midrash required them to “investigate” and “go in search” of fresh insight. The rabbis used the old scriptures not to retreat into the past but to propel them into the uncertainties of the post-temple world.

Auschwitz was a dark epiphany, providing us with a terrible vision of what life is like when all sense of the sacred is lost and the human being--whoever he or she may be--is no longer revered as an inviolable mystery.

He claimed gleefully that he had no opinions at all, because he had no self. A poet, he believed, was ‘the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity’.75 True poetry had no time for ‘the egotistical sublime’,76 which forced itself on the reader:

If a stranger lives with you in your land, do not molest him. You must treat him like one of your own people and love him as yourselves, for you were strangers in Egypt.

In [the] early days, Muslims did not see Islam as a new, exclusive religion but as a continuation of the primordial faith of the ‘People of the Book’, the Jews and Christians. In one remarkable passage, God insists that Muslims must accept indiscriminately the revelations of every single one of God’s messengers: Abraham, Isaac, Ishamel, Jacob, Moses, Jesus and all the other prophets. The Qur’an is simply a ‘confirmation’ of the previous scriptures. Nobody must be forced to accept Islam, because each of the revealed traditions had its own din; it was not God’s will that all human beings should belong to the same faith community. God was not the exclusive property of any one tradition; the divine light could not be confined to a single lamp, belonged neither to the East or to the West, but enlightened all human beings. Muslims must speak courteously to the People of the Book, debate with them only in ‘the most kindly manner’, remember that they worshipped the same God, and not engage in pointless, aggressive disputes.

In the tenth century BC, the priests of India devised the Brahmodya competition, which would become a model of authentic theological discourse. The object was to find a verbal formula to define the Brahman, the ultimate and inexpressible reality beyond human understanding. The idea was to push language as far as it would go, until participants became aware of the ineffable. The challenger, drawing on his immense erudition, began the process by asking an enigmatic question and his opponents had to reply in a way that was apt but equally inscrutable. The winner was the contestant who reduced the others to silence. In that moment of silence, the Brahman was present - not in the ingenious verbal declarations but in the stunning realisation of the impotence of speech. Nearly all religious traditions have devised their own versions of this exercise. It was not a frustrating experience; the finale can, perhaps, be compared to the moment at the end of the symphony, when there is a full and pregnant beat of silence in the concert hall before the applause begins. The aim of good theology is to help the audience to live for a while in that silence.

Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians have insisted for centuries that God does not exist and that there is 'nothing' out there; in making these assertions, their aim was not to deny the reality of God but to safeguard God's transcendence.

Religious discourse was not intended to be understood literally because it was only possible to speak about a reality that transcended language in symbolic terms. The story of the lost paradise was a myth, not a factual account of a historical event. People were not expected to “believe" it in the abstract; like any mythos, it depended upon the rituals associated with the cult of a particular holy place to make what it signified a reality in the lives of participants.

The same applies to the creation myth that was central to ancient religion and has now become controversial in the Western world because the Genesis story seems to clash with modern science. But until the early modern period, nobody read a cosmology as a literal account of the origins of life. In the ancient world, it was inspired by an acute sense of the contingency and frailty of existence. Why had anything come into being at all, when there could so easily have been nothing? There has never been a simple or even a possible answer to this question, but people continue to ask it, pushing their minds to the limit of what we can know.

Some Western Christians read the story as a factual account of the Original Sin that condemned the human race to everlasting perdition. But this is a peculiarly Western Christian interpretation and was introduced controversially by Saint Augustine of Hippo only in the early fifth century. The Eden story has never been understood in this way in either the Jewish or the Orthodox Christian traditions. However, we all tend to see these ancient tales through the filter of subsequent history and project current beliefs onto texts that originally meant something quite different.

The Deuteronomists had made violence an option in the Judeo-Christian religion. It would always be possible to make these scriptures endorse intolerant policies.

The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel (1889–1973) distinguished between a problem, “something met which bars my passage” and “is before me in its entirety,” and a mystery, “something in which I find myself caught up, and whose essence is not before me in its entirety.”69

The new atheists show a disturbing lack of understanding of or concern about the complexity and ambiguity of modern experience, and their polemic entirely fails to mention the concern for justice and compassion that, despite their undeniable failings, has been espoused by all three of the monotheisms.

Religious fundamentalists also develop an exagerrated view of their enemy as the epitome of evil. This tendency makes critique of the new atheists too easy. They never discuss the work of such theologians as Bultmann or Tillich, who offer a very different view of religion and are closer to mainstream tradition than any fundamentalist. Unlike Feurerbach, Marx and Freud, the new atheists are not theologically literate. As one of their critics has remarked, in any military strategy it is essential to confront the enemy at its strongest point; failure to do so means that their polemic remains shallow and lacks intellectual depth. It is also morally and intellectually conservative. Unlike Feurerback, Marx, Ingersoll or Mill, these new Atheists show little concern about the poverty, injustice and humiliation that has inspired many of the atrocities they deplore; they show no yearning for a better world. Nor, like Nietzsche , Sartre or Camus, do they compel their readers to face up to the pointlessness and futility that ensue when people lack the resources to create a sense of meaning. They do not appear to consider the effect of such nihilism on people who do not have privileged lives and absorbing work.

There is also a widespread assumption that the Bible is supposed to provide us with role models and give us precise moral teaching, but this was not the intention of the biblical authors. The Eden story is certainly not a morality tale; like any paradise myth, it is an imaginary account of the infancy of the human race.