I have been taken to task for not addressing the issue of life after death, before moving on from deconstructing the Christian faith to reconstructing it, but there is a reason for this. While talk of God is speculative, we have at least an experience of the numinous which we look to understand and define, but with ideas of life after death, we have no more than hopes, fears and dogma. We, obviously, have no experience of life after death, at best we have hints and intimations, yet all too often Christianity is completely focussed on and coloured by its beliefs about the issue, so that, for instance, salvation is about securing a place in heaven and the impulse to act righteously is motivated by the hope of reward or the fear of punishment, rather than doing good for goodness’ sake. So, yes, there needs to be such a discussion, the place for it is in a footnote, not in the main body of theology, and so we shall turn to it later.
So, if we are to begin the process of reconstruction, we need to begin with God, and we need to begin where we ended our previous treatment of the matter, standing in the footprints of the first humans, gazing out at the infinity of space, and sensing with them, the presence of the wholly other.
The first thing to note is that the Bible was the creation of a community and the images of God that occur in it are also the creation of that community. It was a particular community that placed God into the Bible and it did so by locating God in its developing collection of folktales, legends, sagas, novellas and myths, in various guises as the main character, because those who conceived the Bible in the first place, made God the primary actor in the story of how they themselves came to be. God is then, an objective reality, the wholly other which we discover in encounter and we then invent images in order to express what we experience in that encounter. We discover God in our experience of the world—not through miracles, not through sudden revelations from mountaintops, not in disembodied voices or incarnated in a human being, but in the everyday experience of the other’s presence in our lives, in our history and in the natural world. But simply to discover the other raises problems: how do we know that what we encounter is God? Why do we identify whatever it is we experience as God? How do we link this personal experience of what we term God to the God of our community’s historical experience? It is at this point that we recognise that all of our images of God are metaphors. What the Bible, and indeed the writings of the Church Fathers, theologians and mystics, present us with is a range of metaphors: God as a king, a judge, a shepherd, a lover, a parent (and sometimes even as a tyrant). This God can be pleased or angered, and can cry, rejoice, or punish. This “personhood” of God portrays God as a rich, fascinating, and very human character, sometimes God is even portrayed as speaking in the first person: because we are devoted to God, God will deliver us, will keep us safe, when we call upon God, God will answer us; will be with us in distress, will rescue us, honour us, let us live to a ripe old age and show us his salvation. (Ps 91:14–16) In practice the Bible and the Christian tradition is a treasury of metaphors, enabling us to see the unseen, hear the unheard, and grasp the ungraspable. When we come to our experience with a particular metaphor of God in mind, such as our lover, it our shepherd, or our parent, we tend to experience God as what the metaphor encapsulates – often to such a degree that we forget that it is a metaphor, and so God becomes literally, almost objectively, lover, friend, judge, king, mourner, tyrant or lawgiver, as pleased, or angry, or punitive, or any of the many other characterizations of God which we find in the Bible and which resonate with us as individuals. The question we then have to ask ourselves is this: where did this treasury of metaphors come from? Where did our ancestors find the various characterizations of God that they then wove into the fabric of the biblical texts and so made part of our lives?
The answer must be that they emerged because our ancestors looked at the most immediate source of information about what God must be like. That is, they looked inside themselves (or at one another) and what they saw there, the totality of their human experience, was how they envisaged the “other”, the numen to be. God emerges as a person, with all of the characteristics of a person and with all of the accomplishments, failings, ups and downs, and tensions that accompany a person’s life, because that is how they experienced others – we still do the same thing in attempting to understand animal behaviour, frequently attributing to them emotions, motives and rationalisations from our own experience which seem to fit their responses, circumstances and actions. So, the numen is perceived to be as we are, not because it is, but because that is the human default for understanding that which is seperate to us and stands out as a Thou to our I. Where else could these human images have come from if not from the self-awareness that our ancestors had of themselves as human beings? Did our ancestors invent God? Was God a product of their rich imaginations? Is God no more than fiction? No, it is far more likely that they lived with an experience of the other, of the numen, of God, as a presence in their day-to-day lives and in their attempts to understand what the world was and what human life meant. In that experience, they came across this multifaceted God, which they then incorporated into their thinking and into their texts. There is no question, then, of the subjective quality of all human thinking about God. There is no underestimating the revolutionary nature of this gradual awareness of the true nature of all religious claims. It requires pluralism—not only among different human beings who have different and equally subjective experiences of God that lead to different images, different metaphors, but also among the many and often contradictory, shifting images of God that occur in our texts. The Bible was canonized, which means that the text as it was received became fixed and authoritative, but it is in fact the product of different communities at different times composed by different individuals, each recording their own particular experience of God and the metaphors of God that emerge from these experiences. So it is pluralistic, not only in terms of the community, but also in the way in which God was conceived by various communities in their specific contexts.
Once we accept that this is so then, along with subjectivity, comes the understanding that all religious and theological claims have to be understood as provisional. Nothing is objective, true, or fixed forever. We can read the Bible as a story of the evolution of these images of God because none of the images is ever completely constant. The God of the Genesis myths and legends, for example, is very different from the God of the prophets. Whether a warrior, a king, a consoling mother, or a judge, these different images are all equally provisional in the sense that they apply to certain aspects of our life experiences. The metaphor fortifies or canonizes each of these images. The creation of these images is potentially a rich and diverse process but is also one which is subjective, provisional, elaborate and changing and this is healthy, it is only when that process is co-opted by specific religions whose hierarchies act, not simply as a mediating channel of the divine, but the final arbiter of which metaphors are appropriate and which are proscribed and, therefore, of what is a valid experience of the other and what is not.
Feurbach was wrong to suggest that we create a synthetic God in our own image, that God, as such, has no objective reality, but religion most definitely acts as a filter, if not a strait jacket, stifling the individual’s authentic experience of God. That experience is always deeply personal and individual and while we may not create God, what we bring with us to our encounter with God certainly colours what we experience of God in that encounter. If we are open, tolerant, generous and loving, we are unlikely to find condemnation from a narrow, prescriptive and judgmental God. Similarly, if we are cold, legalistic and judgmental as individuals, we are highly unlikely experience lavish, nurturing, unconditional love in our encounter with God.
Whether in metaphor or in myth, theology is contingent on our experience of that which it seeks to describe. If the metaphor works, use it. If the myth speaks to you, retain it. If not, then discard it for there are no sacred cows.