A Steep Hill to Climb
"Only one thing is certain - - that is nothing is certain. If this
statement is true, it is also false."
Thesis: Yes, there is a God.
Antithesis: No, there is no God.
Synthesis: After a very prolonged period, nothing yet.
Where do your thoughts fall on this scale of belief? Is there, isn't
there or what else might there be? Perhaps what follows will shed some
light on this long-debated issue. Maybe not. In any event, for many the
search for belief can be a steep hill to climb.
When I use the term "God" I mean what the Church teaches, a divinity
considered the Supreme Being, the creator and ruler of the universe;
something numinous and transcendental. Something well beyond man's
untrained ability to imagine. I do not mean a deified person or object.
Such Supreme Being has historically assumed various forms, expressions,
or characteristics for various peoples in various cultures. It has been
pointed out that every culture develops its own idea of God.
Why does man believe in, or need to be taught to believe in, God? There
are good and demonstrable reasons why, and we will delve into them. They
explain just why we believe, or at least try and believe, in such a
Supreme Being. It's really a matter of self-interest.
So, while rationally we do not know the does or does not of God itself,
there is demonstrably a rational (does exist) idea of God (Chapter
Five). There is also a rational purpose (does exist) for the god of that
idea (Chapter Six), and a questionably rational institution, the Church,
(Chapters Three and Four) which defends and promotes its version of the
god of the idea. We will explore this idea of God in depth here as I
have come to hold that it is this idea itself as opposed to its subject
that defines what it is we hold as belief. I have also come to the
conclusion that God, as Christian mankind holds it in its subjective and
collective mind as the result of the idea (belief), is both a reality
and more importantly a human necessity. As someone has famously said, if
God didn't exist, we would have to invent it. That's a provocatively
interesting statement, and one we will pick up again.
I believe strongly in the concept of God. However, whether or not there
is a god, independent of the idea, rationally we have yet to figure out
how to either demonstrate this, or to finally refute it. In this sense
we are all non-corroborated agnostics, no matter what we might believe,
or the degree of confidence (faith) we have in that belief. We start
here from that position; we don't know.
What we do know, religiously speaking, we learn from the Church. The
Church in turn relies on the Bible, the received word of God, for its
teaching. For centuries, this chain of knowledge was both stable and
authoritative. Then, the apparent results of what we today call science
began to cast doubt on biblical "truths." This was and is a challenge
for the Church.
In the case of scientific conclusions vs. religious beliefs (reason vs.
faith), don't let anyone fool you: Western religion and science have
since classical Hellenistic times been at odds on significant worldly
matters. This is not a new issue. While that may not come as news to
most, both cannot be right in their opposing conclusions. Under the law
of contradiction two opposing propositions cannot both be true. One of
them has it wrong. Which is the best horse to bet on here, the seen or
the unseen? That might depend upon the context of their positions.
Western religions — Christianity for purposes here — have
for centuries been playing defense as the physical, and lately even the
social sciences have progressively demonstrated pragmatic concepts of
knowledge and understandings of worldly matters. These not infrequently
differ sharply from the revealed religious presentation of those same
events as described in the Judeo-Christian Bible. Our world and the
heavens most probably weren't made in six days of spiritually creative
activity. Earth most likely isn't about 4,004 years old — more
like 4.5 to 4.6 billion years, give or take a hundred million years,
according to science — and man as we know him today most probably
didn't appear on earth fully human in one day, no assembly required.
From a historical scholarly viewpoint, it seems highly improbable that
the first century Jewish charismatic eschatological preacher, Jesus of
Nazareth, was a god, or "God," in the divine Christian sense of the
word. He was so anointed well after the fact by a minority of Church
elders who looked to him as their religious inspiration and raison d
ètre. Admittedly this was done, as we might say, in an evolving and
generally good faith way. We'll go into these matters more in the pages
to come, citing specifics where the Church has attempted to reconcile
these differences within its own teachings.
Religion (the Church) is built and sustained upon faithful belief in the
unseen by the revealed divine word of its God, the Bible. It has no
other authentic evidence or source to quote. To have the biblical word
of God questioned is to challenge the basis of religion itself. God, as
presented by the Church, is a powerful conceptual as well as practical
influence on man. But the historical presentation of God by the Church
has problems associated with it, exacerbated by the accumulated findings
of science. On the other hand, as Lord Jonathan Sacks (Former chief
rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth)
pointed out, "No society has survived for long without either a religion
or a substitute for religion." Many, many on this third rock from the
sun take monotheistic religion as a given. Should we? Belief in a
religion is a conviction based on a matter of faith, which represents
trust. How far can/should this be taken in matters of a worldly nature?
As a product of my time I favor rational verified explanations of
worldly matters based upon evidence sufficient to be accepted as truth
by a reasonable person. I consider such explanations organic, and
evolutionary. That is, as knowledge expands and accumulates,
explanations are fine-tuned to represent the best and most current
evidence and thinking, or modified or discarded as and if new evidence
disproves the earlier understanding. Under this hypothesis, nothing is
definitive — even for science — but everything we currently
believe we know about worldly matters is subject to change if and as
necessary. This is how mankind has slowly experienced worldly progress
over the past few thousand years in spite of spiritual claims often to
the contrary. It has only been in relatively recent times (see below)
that such biblical claims have been challenged, and in the minds of not
just a few, questioned or discredited.
Some call this thought process materialistic. Materialism is simply a
philosophical theory. It regards matter and its motions as constituting
the universe. All phenomena, including those of the mind, are considered
as due to material agencies and without spiritual implications. The
alternative to this philosophy is one of Biblicism which holds that the
Judeo-Christian Bible provides the truth about our material world and
its inhabitants. At its most conservative, it relies exclusively and
literally upon what the Bible says about worldly issues.
The basis for my choice of philosophies is experience, not mine
personally but the history of Western man. For almost two millennia
(from about 300 BCE to about 1500 CE), the dominant institution in
non-oriental developed societies was the Church. It was in the main the
exclusive institution of learning and repository of knowledge, libraries
for example, during this period. People were taught, if taught they
were, and learned what the Church wanted them to learn, which was a
God-based curriculum focused upon the Bible. Within the institution of
the Church itself learning and knowledge was no doubt somewhat broader,
but still focused on a God-based curriculum. There was no incentive to
look beyond such curriculum for knowledge. Under such a static outlook
there was little change, or desire for change, in a status quo.
Over the past six or seven hundred years, beginning about the 13th
century, man, at least Western man, has increasingly demonstrated a
curiosity regarding his surroundings. That led him to question the
status quo of his time. Today we, you and I, are largely the
beneficiaries of this curiosity and its resultant benefits,
materialistically speaking. But, you may ask, is that all there is to
it, the materialistic? The answer here has to be yes ... and no. It
seems that man is at once an optimist and a pessimist regarding himself
and the world he inhabits.
It's not, and never has been, a naturally "kind and gentle" world for
most of us although we do seem to be moving towards a kinder and more
gentle world as time — lots of time — goes by. That's the
optimistic view. The more pessimistic view is perhaps a shorter term
consideration that we look at as we face our own mortal lifetimes, and
man's sometimes inhumanity to man. Progress toward that kinder, gentler
world isn't always apparent on this time frame. Therefore, to sustain
and support ourselves we have developed a non-materialistic approach of
looking at things. We generally refer to this as religion, the
alternative to materialism.
Religion, broadly speaking, is a set of beliefs concerning the cause,
nature and purpose of the universe. It is usually presented as the
creation of a divinity, or superhuman agency (a god), and usually
involving devotional and ritual observances. It often has a moral code
for the conduct of human affairs. This non-materialistic approach to
what is, why it is and what caused it is supportive of man's personal
needs when and if the materialistic seems to offer or provide little or
no encouragement or answers to life's difficult questions. It fulfills
an apparent spiritual (psychic) need as well as the more visible
materialistic needs of humanity. Some religions also address the issue
of man's mortality.
Over time, it has come to be common and normal, at least in the West,
for most to recognize both a materialistic and spiritual demand in life
in some proportion. One purpose here as we move through these pages is
to ask just what that proportion should be, perhaps even should it be.
That is, does Western religion — today — fill a meaningful
and even necessary role in the lives of humanity as we struggle to
continue to move toward that more kinder, gentler world most would
I would propose that generally it does. But I do so with the caveat that
it would behoove it to reevaluate its purpose or role today as well as
its credulity under current day conditions and future expectations. This
might possibly affect its teachings. Actually, I see signs that this is
underway in at least some quarters. The question is, as with some of the
more progressive recommendations of the mid-twentieth century's Roman
Catholic convocation of bishops known as Vatican II (1962-1965) for
example, will proposed change be embraced, or strongly resisted by the
beneficiaries of the status quo?
A case in point here might be the promulgation following Vatican II of
Nostara Aetate, one of the shortest but conceivably among the
most influential of the major documents to come out of this conclave. It
is by many considered a watershed in the field of Christian-Jewish
relations, not merely for what it said, but because of the radically new
direction it encouraged. Some fifty years on now, it is still a work in
process. It's not easy to modify religious policies, beliefs and
teachings held for centuries. But this example shows it may be possible.
Let's hope so.
Looking Back to Look Ahead
Human history is replete with stories of "spirits" and "gods." Earliest
man accepted spirits, both good and evil, for the worldly happenings he
could not understand or explain. Myths were passed down by word of
mouth. Rituals were developed to try to appease, or please such spirits
and gods. A class of individual, the shaman, or witchdoctor or
soothsayer and subsequently the priest developed to act specifically as
an intermediary between people and gods. In all this, the spirits and
gods were not necessarily thought of as supernatural but part of nature,
initially. Often, sacrifices were called for to appease these spirits
and gods, either to gain favor or to avoid disaster. This became a
natural way of life in antiquity. Few probably questioned it. Gods
served a human need for causality.
In pre-Christian (and in Christian) times both the Greeks and Romans had
pantheons (temples) of gods. Often, these gods could take on human form.
They acted and behaved in many ways like humans did; had faults and
favorites. They lived in these temples, or on top of mountains. They
were believable because they acted in many ways as humans but with
superhuman powers to account for the physical events still a mystery to
ordinary man. That was their primary difference. These gods were often
transplants. If someone else's god appeared better or more powerful than
a local god, it might be adopted, or at least some of its attributes
bestowed upon the local deities. Significantly, these gods were at times
said to interact with normal people.
In time, these spirits and gods were said to be active in history. That
is, they walked with and spoke with humans. The Hebrew Bible is full of
such interactions in the books of Genesis and Exodus. They are harder to
find thereafter. In the New Testament, the closest such direct
interaction in history is the saying attributed at the baptism of Jesus:
"This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." It's not
clear from the New Testament's three Synoptic Gospels, just who heard
The biblical book of Exodus goes back at least 3,200 years; Genesis even
further back, perhaps 4,500 years. These were not codified back then but
rather the events that are depicted in these books date from these
times. The books themselves are considered to be the recording of
stories passed down by word of mouth over hundreds and hundreds of
years, and from within the entire Middle East (Mesopotamia), and by
multiple authors. Historical evidence today finds duplicates, if not
exact duplicates very similar ones, in the histories and stories of
different peoples at different times (the Flood and Creation narratives,
With the Hebrew Bible we get a story of the development and subsequent
history of a tribal people, the Jews, and the particular part that a god
(or gods) plays in their history. From the story of Abraham (Genesis 17
for example), it would appear that this particular god — who
referred to itself as "God Almighty" — was out evangelizing and as
an enticement to him made a covenant with Abraham that if he would keep
God Almighty's commandment (circumcision, at this point) and worship It,
this god would make him a father of many nations; very fruitful. This
god would make nations of him and kings would come from him. The
covenant would be everlasting between this god and Abraham and his
descendants for the generations to come. The whole land of Canaan, where
Abraham was then an alien resident, this god would give as an
everlasting possession to him and his descendants, and this god would be
"their god." Now that's quite a promise, but with stipulations: follow
me, obey me. That sounds suspiciously like what today we might call a
Godfather's offer you can't refuse. One could speculate that this God
Almighty must have been pretty hard up for followers to offer so much.
This was the beginning of a rocky history for the Jews. This god's
promises were not immediately forthcoming, and it appears that not all
of the descendants supported and followed this God Almighty all the
time. At any rate, we jump forward in time and history to about the year
1,246 BCE to the prophet Moses and the exodus from Egypt. Biblically it
appears that the God of Abraham (?) at this point is leading them out of
captivity in Egypt by his agent, Moses, and towards the promised land of
Canaan. Again, the journey is not direct, and the Jews seem less than
united in their acceptance, commitment to or maintenance of covenantal
requirements of this God Almighty.
During this exodus Moses, the acknowledged leader of and judge for most
of these people, spends an inordinate amount of time resolving disputes
between individuals brought to him by the Israelites (or Jews): "They
stood around him from morning till evening. His-father-in-law Jethro
said, 'what is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit
as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till
evening?' Moses answered him, 'because the people come to me to seek
God's will. Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I
decide between the parties and inform them of God's decrees and laws.'"
2 It would seem Moses was privy to these divine guidelines even before
he spent those forty days on the mountain formally receiving them.
Excerpted from "God Versus the Idea of God" by Thomas Richard Harry. Copyright © 2018 by Thomas Richard Harry. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.