God needs a name change.
It’s time to park the old God jalopy in the shed and force ourselves to walk for a while, free to contemplate all the wonderful stuff that has gathered in under the word that the Bible says was the start of it all – without all the distracting stuff that has also accreted to the title.
The trouble with “God” is that, even for those who understand it as meaning what we can’t know – that which doesn’t exist, as theologians explain it, mysterious and ineffable – if the image that springs to mind when you bump into the word is an old man with a white beard, you’re stuck and stuffed.
That God will always be problematic. That God is ridiculous, if you try to take the literal straight-and-narrow path that a vision of an old man with a white beard puts you on. Ridiculous in an often grand and beautiful way of course, which is why we cut this Christian form of deity a bit of slack. Michelangelo’s God stretching out his muscled arm to Adam is a very appealing image (despite the fact there’s an anomaly in the way God is about to touch and bring to life the first man, even though Adam appears already infused with life – but that’s being too literal).
Greg Sheridan says, in his book God Is Good For You, that calling a literal belief in God ridiculous is part of “a great effort to bluff people out of their beliefs about God by ridiculing and demeaning those beliefs, claiming that people’s faith is primitive and superstitious”.
It’s true that anti-God sneering has some high-profile and influential proponents, but they are really, like the other side, only preaching to the (un)converted, rather than trying to bluff anyone out of beliefs. A writer such as Karen Armstrong can deal with someone like Richard Dworkins calmly because her deep historical research as well as her ability to encompass such wide scope of knowledge and condense it efficiently and in a trustworthy way (despite occasional overreaching and fudging over difficult passages) gives a reader confidence to go with her in her enquiry into religions.
Sheridan’s chapter on why belief in God is “rational” is, like his whole book, so sketchy and disorganised it’s far from convincing.
Greg Sheridan, while wanting to give us a personal and therefore modest argument for his own Catholic faith, cherry picks from a hodge-podge of reading and commentary that includes some quite extraordinarily unsuitable sources. The chapter on why belief in God is “rational” is, like his whole book, so sketchy and disorganised it’s far from convincing. Here he is countering claims that science makes God impossible: “If the universe is fourteen billion years old, or thereabouts, that just suggests that God spent fourteen billion years preparing a gift for us. That strikes me as utterly characteristic of God.”
This is, possibly, an example of the writer’s dry wit, or what the book’s blurb suggests is his “good humour”. There’s no author’s note provided on the book, presumably because Sheridan’s long-time role as foreign editor of The Australian, his presence on television, and his strongly expressed political opinions make him sufficiently well-known.
That quote, chatty but emphatic, is very much the tone of the entire book, and it appears to have infected even those asked to endorse God Is Good For You.
Former politician Bob Carr, who tells us he’s a sceptic, says Sheridan’s “honesty” about the dire straits Christianity is in “will recruit non-believers to join his lively hike through the frontline trenches of the argument whether God exists”. I quote this not (just) to grimace at Carr’s unfortunate suggestion one can take a jaunty hike through frontline trenches, but to disagree that this is likely to be the outcome of anyone’s reading this book. Indeed, it could turn you off such an enquiry just at a time when there is a great deal of really interesting and nourishing writing about God being done, if only we don’t get bogged down in those trenches.
It would in fact be rather fine if, as Greg Sheridan’s book suggests, “God is good for you”. Indeed, it would be a huge relief if God were not only good for “you” but also for “us” and for the entire planet. While Sheridan wrings his hands at the declining influence of the God of (Catholic) Christianity, if the spiritual yearnings of vast numbers of human beings no matter what the faith system to which they subscribe were to coalesce into a sort of international mood, things might be ok. Providing, of course, these systems aren’t dominated and controlled by fundamentalisms.
Sheridan’s thinking appears to be stuck in the 1970s looking longingly backwards from there. Late in the book, he writes it would be a good thing if Catholic schools devoted two terms for Year 9 students to a “systematic study of the Apostle’s creed”. In an earlier chapter, he helpfully lists the 12 articles of this creed, beginning with, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” I get in a muddle with words like creed and catechism – Sheridan might say I lack a decent education – but I think what Armstrong (who trained to be a nun) says is relevant here.
Sheridan’s response to the need for the church to update itself is more rock music and maybe a tv channel. Bishops who can tweet.
At the end of her book, The Case for God, as she takes us through the 20th century towards the surprisingly optimistic development of “weak theology” in the past 50 years, she mentions how stuck modernism was in thinking that God was an objective reality, stuck therefore in old-fashioned literalism: “During the 1950s, for example, I learned by heart the answer to this question, ‘What is God?’ in the Roman Catholic catechism: ‘God is the supreme spirit, who alone exists of himself and is infinite in all perfections.’… The catechism had no hesitation in asserting that it was possible simply to draw breath and define, a word that literally means ‘to set limits upon’, a transcendent reality that must exceed all words and concepts.”
Sheridan’s response to the need for the church to update itself, apart from giving 13-year-olds a term’s study defining the Father almighty, is more rock music (but not folk, which he says was an unfortunate mistake made by the well-meaning Church) and maybe a tv channel. Bishops who can tweet.
That might be true, but it’s beside the point. To appeal to those concerned about Christianity, let alone anyone keen to join the discussion about what it means to be spiritual in a material world, what is missing from Sheridan’s book is non-cynical scepticism, the expression of which is deeply appealing because it’s deeply human.
Stephen Greenblatt opens his book, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, with a personal anecdote about how he, as a young person, discovered the power and even joy to be found in scepticism. He’d heard from his parents that worshippers had to keep their heads bowed at the end of the Sabbath service because “in those moments God passed above our heads, and no one who saw God face-to-face could live.” Such an odd thing to tell a child, and when Greenblatt mustered the courage to challenge this awesome interdiction, and raised his eyes and saw only empty space above the heads of the gathered congregation, he lost in a moment his “naïve faith”. This doesn’t mean for Greenblatt that the stories human beings tell to make sense of existence are worthless, but rather that they are worth exploring with all the capacities of intellect available to us.
One of those capacities is language. Compare how Sheridan so clumsily describes his conviction that God works in mysterious ways to this, the final paragraph in Marilyn Robinson’s book of essays, Absence of Mind:
“The universe passed through its unimaginable first moment, first year, first billion years, wresting itself from whatever state of nonexistence, inflating, contorting, resolving itself into space and matter, bursting into light. Then, very late, there is added to the universe of being a shaped stick or stone, a jug, a cuneiform tablet. They appear on a tiny, teetering, lopsided planet, and they demand wholly new vocabularies of description for reality at every scale…. “
It’s not her best writing, but that’s because she is stretching out to explain the inexplicable. “Unimaginable” here is paradoxical, because Robinson in her essay, as human beings have done in religion and art throughout history, strives to imagine. For Robinson, both art and religion are the way the human brain seeks to enlarge both language and the imagination, in order to “query the great universe itself”. She herself believes in God, but, like Armstrong, immerses herself in the history of the arguments for and against, with an open and generous mind (and the nature of “mind” is so much a part of this history, of course), so that she doesn’t have to dodge difficulties in an attempt to prove what Sheridan calls “truth” (which is that which he believes). She seems to enjoy scepticism as it gives her the opportunity to engage her formidable talents as a thinker and writer. And I think she respects her readers enough to allow for disagreement.
This book represents a wasted opportunity. Surely there are writers in Australia capable of responding to a yearning need for post-materialism, post-modernism, post-dualism spirituality?
It’s not fair to expect Sheridan to write a different book; if he chooses to chat to some politicians about how often they go to church and whether they pray, if he tells stories about decent people with faith in ways that suggest he believes we are incapable of morality without religion (terrific topic, by the way, one which Armstrong deals with enticingly), and if he finishes with the faintly martyrish call to Christians to embrace their identity as a “bold minority” – that’s absolutely his right.
This book does, however, represent a wasted opportunity. Surely there are writers in Australia capable of responding to what is, as Sheridan sort of points out, a yearning need here and across the world for post-materialism, post-modernism, post-dualism spirituality? And if so, surely there’s a readership – sceptical, inquiring, respectful – that would welcome such books?
While Sheridan’s writing does leave me with questions about the thinking of some of the people he interviews for the book, it does not make me want to read any of his sources, some of which are also quoted and discussed in Armstrong and Robinson. That, for me, is a damning outcome for a book that scans the history of thought about a topic. You don’t have to agree with someone to be interested in what they’re saying, and, indeed, to disagree (or to be sceptical) but still have your curiosity aroused is perhaps the loveliest intellectual exercise a mind can have.
God Is Good For You: A defence of Christianity in Troubled Times, by Greg Sheridan, is published by Allen and Unwin.