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In this post I want to offer a short definition of the word ‘Theism’. I think I am some sort of theist, but I find that most of what is written on the wikipedia page for this word is quite alien to me. It says there that theism is “the belief in the existence of …” where for the dots you can put some sort of entity called a ‘deity’. But that is not how it works in my experience, and that is not how a lot of careful thinkers and writers have expressed it. The thoughtful theist does not consider that there is another ‘thing’ to be added to the set of all things, after one has exhausted what there is in the physical universe. It might seem like that, but I find it to be more subtle and hard to describe. The one Whom we learn to encounter is not ‘another thing’ but that which makes all things possible. As I say, it is rather subtle and quite open-ended.
Human life is part of a natural world whose nature we can try to describe but whose continuing existence is not something we can ever claim to fully understand. Our life is also one which reaches for hope and truth, and in which the human community, much compromised, has often made terrible choices and assumptions but has also made much moral progress.
Someone who is theist is someone who admits personal language when talking about the reality that makes all this possible and that most deeply affirms human identity. That is, what defines theism is not a superstitious guess about a God-figure, but a reasonable and authentic sense of what the sum total of our experience requires us to affirm. This experience includes what can be learned from human and natural history, and adds to it the truth of our total encounter with the world in the present.
I think that, in the end, goodness will finally show itself to be what survives, despite all the badness of the world, and this goodness is not what we assess but what assesses us. This goodness is being everywhere slowly revealed in the meaningfulness of that which is meaningful, and at root, reality is not merely an abstraction that we hold opinions about, but a good that meets with us and that we meet with: One that can and does both challenge and affirm us as people. Experiences of this were eloquently expressed long ago in the Psalms that now form part of the Bible, and they continue afresh in the present. Such experiences do not fall into the way of speaking that people commonly adopt in academic study of religion. This is not essentially about belief that a certain readily definable item exists, but about trust that the ultimate context or support of the world is good and worthy of our commitment.
The point is, the ultimate context or support of our lives does exist. That is not in any doubt. What we are interested in is the nature of this support, and how we should live. We live and move and have our being not just in plain physical terms, but also in a dynamic network of personal relationships, and our heart somehow lives most profoundly in this personal space which we struggle to put into words. We want to learn to inhabit that space more open-heartedly and play our part in a more complete and human way.
There are a significant number of thoughtful people who have written intelligently and convincingly about the metaphysics here. This aspect is not what primarily interests most people in their everyday concerns, but it is important that it is done at an academic level so that the whole framework has intellectual credentials. To put it more bluntly, the question is, what do we really mean when we talk about God, or when we engage in religious activities?
The simple phrases that you find in folk religion are often not literally true, but some of them are ways of conveying the practical substance of true ideas whose more careful expression takes time. In this area we are pressing against the boundaries of language itself, but helpful expositions have been given by, for example, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, the Christian Dominican theologian and philosopher Herbert McCabe, the former archbishop Rowan Williams, the former chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and the Trappist monk, poet and writer, Thomas Merton. These are just a few names from a large and noble tradition. A couple of contemporary authors one could mention are Rupert Shortt and Francis Spufford. When we make ourselves open to experiencing this, the experience we get is not like meeting another person in any simple sense, but it does furnish something like a kind of intimacy, and a sense of sharing in a meaningful and sound task. This is what theism is about. Once again, it is not about superstitious guess-work.
Here are two previous posts on this blog in similar territory:
Of course there is also a vast amount of stupidity that gets written about and lived by in the context of religion and theistic belief. But here I am doing what I can to say what sort of thing theism means when it is at its best. Atheism must also reckon with the fact that in practice it is a very mixed bag and mostly not at its best.
If theism at its best is better than atheism at its best then the reason is (and can only be) because it grasps the truth of our situation more accurately. I don’t want to disparage atheism here, but I do want to help the reader sense correctly what the issue is.
Part of the trouble with impersonal language about ultimate values (i.e. atheism) is that it leaves the individual human being too much in charge, as if we each define ourselves, but this is an untruth. In fact we are defined by the connections we make with others, and we show what we value by what we are prepared to give up to others. Theism is never, in my experience, an easy, settled, thing, but nor is atheism. It is debatable which comes more naturally to people or is a more natural and humane language that allows people to grow. I would say that a too strident theism, one that latches on to a definite image or ‘Being’ and declares that to be God, has gone wrong. So I welcome the work of atheism to oppose that. But atheism can also become a strident assertion that the truth of the world is contained in its fundamental particles rather than the overarching truths that are expressed through them, such as personal give and take. Such assertions leave people too little receptive to a challenge and a love that is both their birthright and their liberation.
“The real struggle is not between East and West, or capitalism and communism, but between education and propaganda.”
― Martin Buber