Last term I was privileged to be invited to give a sermon in Exeter College chapel here in Oxford. Here I am posting an extract from that sermon, with minor modifications to fit it to the blog format.
I began by talking about the fact that we all find it hard to know how to talk about God. Two ways which don’t work are as follows. First there is a rather obviously muddled way, in which people talk about something that has the appearance of being like other entities, only bigger and more powerful, located somewhere called ‘heaven’. Secondly there is an attempt to be more careful, but which often fails to carry real weight. This is when people speak in a more philosophical way, bringing in terms such as ‘omniscience’ and ‘omnipotence’, but all held at arm’s length, so that it all seems a bit artificial, like a word-game.
(the extract begins here)
So how do we do it? How do we talk about God? And what are we talking about?
We do it largely by using metaphors, and what we are talking about is this. God is the reality which defines who we are and who we should be hoping to become.
It is not a question of whether God is real or not. Being real is God’s first and second and third and n’th property. It is a question of finding out what that reality is. More precisely, in fact, the question turns out to be not “what is God?”, but “what modes of response to God are appropriate?”
That response certainly includes investment in renewable energy, micro-finance, conservation, health care, science and education. And it includes other things.
The reality we are wanting to talk about is mostly about love. But we need to open that out a little. What does it mean, and how should we respond? Jesus of Nazareth mostly spoke of this through enigmatic stories with an almost Zen-like character. And he often used a phrase that combines a Greek and Hebrew idea with an everyday Aramaic word. The Greek and Hebrew idea is the idea of that which is absolute and dependable. The Aramaic word is the word for dad or father: the word ‘Abba’. Jesus brought these ideas of absoluteness and parenthood together, in a phrase that has been translated into English as “your heavenly father”. Unfortunately, that translation is rather misleading nowadays, because the word “heavenly” has got muddled up with popular religious mythology. It summons up hopelessly naff images in our thoughtless heads. But in its original context, Jesus’ phrase had the sense, “absolute and dependable”. It means the reality you can really trust and which will never go away. That is what “your heavenly Father” means. It means the absolute reality that sources us and calls us, whether we realized it or not. It means a reality which will clothe you with love just as surely as the lilies are clothed with petals.
Of course “Father” is a metaphor, and of course the metaphor is about parenthood, not maleness. We know that God is beyond us, beyond all our attempts to name God, so we can only ever use metaphors and symbols. But this parenthood metaphor is a truthful one. The reality that calls us, that enables us to grow up, to become more loving, to recognize one another’s innate value, is not like a chaos, nor like a lucky chance, nor like a mathematical equation, nor like an amoral force, nor like a policeman nor a dictator, nor completely unknowable, but something like a parent.
The use of metaphor and analogy is just as central to theology as it is to poetry, but in both cases this does not mean that truth-speaking is not taking place. By doing our abstract metaphysics homework carefully, we clarify what is and is not meant by religious symbols. I gave an example just now with the word “Father”, which is not and never was about gender. But once we have done this homework, then we are set free to enjoy the metaphors. We have to speak to one another in the only language we have—the language of human life—and this sounds a bit odd when applied to ultimate realities, but it works. It works as long as you lower your defences a little, accept that some poetry is going on, but allow that the poetry is pointing to something weighty; something that we can rely on.
(this is the end of sermon extract)
This is why teachers in this area often find stories helpful, including, of course, the use of parables by Jesus. The idea is not merely to convey data, but to open up the human imagination and comprehension and willingness. This is also why art, music and poetry have at least as much to offer as the philosophy of religion. For most people, in fact, they are more helpful because they get more directly to the heart of the matter. Science also moulds the way we think; it especially encourages ruthless honesty. But science does not come in and sweep everything else away, as some people appear to think. The scientific method is how we answer questions about matters than can be held at arm’s length, passively considered and compared. That is not how we form friendships and other relationships of trust, however. This is why science does not and cannot offer anything even approximately approaching the whole of what we need in order to live truthfully and humanely.
Here are a few of the poems elsewhere on this site (for more, click the poetry category on the home page):