Friday, 29 February 2008

Is it important to posit that God is real?

A critique of Anti-Realism

In dealing with this question my main area of concern is with the concept of the reality of God within a postmodern context rather than positing arguments for the particularity of a supreme being; although it will become evident that arguing for the first, leads naturally into speculating about the second. As Don Cupitt is a proponent of anti-realism, his writings are specifically referred to. It is also relevant to briefly discuss what exactly the postmodern context is, and whether in fact it is not a context at all, but a pretext. In other words has deconstructionism done enough work now to allow the possibility of reconstruction? It is not my intention to give a résumé of all the different apologetic and dogmatic responses, but to put forward one or two contrasting views and draw conclusions from them.


When those who participated philosophically in the Enlightenment managed to reason God onto the sidelines, no-one could have predicted the outcome for those of us living at the end of the twentieth century. The theological can of worms was well and truly opened and it has affected, not just those involved in the Christian religion, but the whole of western society. In an attempt to respond to the prevailing situation, churchmen did not maintain the theological status quo by affirming the age old doctrines of the church. Instead, they bravely or naively (depending on one's view) opened up the bible to the same kind of rational scrutiny that everything else was subjected to. The results have been far-reaching and pervasive. One of the most interesting ramifications of this has been to see how theologians have dealt with the possibility that the Judeo-Christian God of the bible does not in fact exist. It would be far too simple to blame everything on the higher-critics. In this century, the devastation of two world wars did a great deal to turn modernity in on itself, and along with it the disillusionment that the utopian ideal was an unattainable goal. Existentialism responded with its incipient nihilism and philosophers such as Sartre and Camus are famous proponents of this view. Colin Gunton comments:
  • I believe that with the loss of God, man has lost a kind of absolute and universal system of coordinates, to which he could always relate everything, chiefly himself. His world and his personality gradually began to break up into separate, incoherent fragments corresponding to different, relative coordinates.[1]

The Empirical God

It is clear that the fully autonomous human being signifies the final nail in the coffin of the transcendent God, and this view leads quite naturally to the deification of the human consciousness. God is dead. Long live god. But is this a good thing or a bad thing? Colin Gunton's quote, above, could be taken either way. Do we need an "absolute and universal system of coordinates" in order to function as individuals and as a society, or are the "separate, incoherent fragments" a basis for building a new utopia which is free of pre-existing notions of a transcendent Being? Don Cupitt states:
  • All the sources from which our lives are inspired, guided and nourished have in this way come to be seen as welling up within us instead of being (as they used to be) an objective pre-existent order into which we have been inserted. In the old world meanings and values came down from above, but now they come up from below. We no longer receive them; we have to create them.[2]

Taking this viewpoint, human beings are totally autonomous and therefore are the creators and the maintainers of their own mortality. The growth of the cult of the individual is a result of modernism and would appear to have found its spiritual home in present day secular humanism. Cupitt's views are discussed in more detail below.
The utopian ideal (mentioned above) of the modernistic mindset was the new religion heralded by the Enlightenment. This age of scientific reason was the age where it was posited that 'truth', along with everything else, would have to be empirically verified before it was accepted:

  • Revelation was ruled out as a means of knowledge, and a belief in a supernatural realm that transcended the visible universe was dismissed as primitive superstition. ….Modernists genuinely believed that science would answer all questions and that the application of scientific principles would solve all social problems.[3]

With the emphasis on the material world, what modernist scholars failed to take into account was the fact that such is the desire in humanity for 'spirituality', that if traditional modes of expression were removed from them, people would find other ways of 'being religious'. The combination of higher-critical studies within the theological world, and the failure of science to answer all the questions relating to humanity and its place in the cosmos, has resulted in a society that is fragmented and obfuscated. Hitherto, truth, in the western world at least, had been personified in the Judeo-Christian God of the bible. But the initial sidelining of God during the Enlightenment was for many people just a precursor to the declaration that "God is dead" and the affirmation that he exists is no longer relevant. Whereas at one time the issue was what is truth and how is it known, now truth is just a human construct defined only by language. So, any discussion that includes the terms 'objective truth' and 'transcendent God' could be deemed by some to be not only irrelevant, but unhelpful.

This seems to be a rather pessimistic view of the way things are and I know that the charge of over-simplification is valid. However, this is how I believe we have got to where we are now, but it cannot end there. Without the right tools and materials, it is virtually impossible to construct anything that will last, so if one wants to build a philosophy of religion that will last, it is necessary to find out first of all, if it can be done, and secondly what are the tools and materials needed. Also, is it objective or subjective pragmatism that establishes the foundation; and if not either of those, where does one start?

Postmodernism - a context or a pretext?

Before going on to debate the anti-realist view of Christianity, the framework for discussion needs to be established. When it comes to explaining the terms 'postmodern' and 'postmodernism' there are as many definitions as there are elements to comprehend. Graham Ward maintains that postmodernity can be described as a "condition" and that it "does not delineate an epoch at the end of modernism" but is a "moment" within it. He goes on to say that:
  • Meaning is local, community is tribal, society is pluralistic, and economics is the pragmatics of the market place. This is the age of the sign.[4]

D. Martin Fields makes a distinction between postmodern and postmodernism. "Postmodern refers to a period of time, whereas postmodernism refers to a distinct ideology".[5] Although it might be more accurate to say "ideologies".
David L. Edwards describes postmodernism as a "new stage in modernity's decline" and goes on to state that "[a]though the age has no 'centre' it has a style".
[6] Later on when discussing the "decline of the authoritative book", he asserts:
  • The postmodern culture believes that no grand narrative with a climax corresponds with the realities of experience: even the structured novel of the nineteenth century is abandoned. Postmodernism 'deconstructs' any text - any writing or series of images - in order to discover what is the vision, the 'construction of reality', which the author is trying to put across by his or her 'signs'. It finds in the text a variety of equally legitimate meanings which are available for the person who wishes to 'construct reality' by choosing a vision or seeing an 'horizon' which is not the authors.[7]

Although this is specifically speaking about text, the principle can be said to be the same for every aspect of the human experience. Each individual is responsible for determining his or her own framework for making sense of life. What is 'true' for one person, might not necessarily be 'true' for another, and as Colin Gunton said each has a different set of relative coordinates. Instead of a universe, now we have a multiverse; a human cosmos consisting of millions of different 'planets' each with its own system for sustaining and regulating life.
The postmodern ideal glorifies in diversity, however, it is my hypothesis that at the very heart of diversity there is, necessarily, the desire for some kind of unanimity or harmony. No individual human universe with its own formulated worldview (however haphazardly put together) remains isolated, because it is part of the human condition to search out others who have similar views and by a constant and consistent process of interaction and discussion reach understanding and agreement. The crux of the matter is that there is always an underlying set of accepted values and presuppositions from which the subsequent philosophy is constructed. It is these that form the praxis which defines the community and gives it its identity, whether it be national unity, ethnic diversity or religious conviction that is the driving force. In order that there isn't continual division and subdivision, the internal coherence of the value system that initially sets it all in motion has to be constantly re-negotiated and reinterpreted in keeping with the ebb and flow of changing societal conditions. This, as we know, does not happen often enough. Hitherto, the strength of society lay in the inherent belief that 'the greatest good for the greatest number' prevails, but we are now living in a time when there are too many competing interest groups and subcultures. Gene Veith makes this point concerning American culture:

  • Just as the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe has given way to bloody conflict between ethnic groups, the unity of American culture (on a much smaller scale) is breaking up into new tribalism, evident in everything from group entitlement schemes to the warfare of urban gangs. If values are all relative and culturally determined, no consensus is possible. If truth is relative, rational persuasion is also futile. Disagreements can only be resolved by naked power, unrestrained by reason or morality.[8]

If this is true, then the future looks grim. However, it is this fragmentation and relativism that has within it the seeds of new growth, that which was not apparent during the modern period when science and human reason were 'god'. Fields states:
  • With the demise of the absoluteness of human reason and science, the super-natural, that which is not empirical, is once again open to consideration.[9]

In the western world, belief in the supernatural did not die during the modern period, despite the emphasis on rational thinking. Now, in this time of flux and change, the search for spirituality has taken on new significance. Its almost as though people are looking outside the material and rational for peace and stability. And for many, the search for the spiritual, does not now include accepting the doctrines of the Christian Church and often does not include the traditional belief in a transcendent God as depicted in the bible. But many of these people would still call themselves Christians.

"Sea of Faith"

Among those who claim this is Don Cupitt, whose approach to faith seemed to start in Christian orthodoxy, but has evolved and developed to such an extent that he now sees himself as more of a 'Christian Buddhist'.[10] He is, in some respects, to be applauded and not vilified for his candour in trying to relate theology to the issues which affect humanity in the world in which we live. However, the conclusions he comes to are contrary to biblical Christianity which has claims grounded in history. It is this point that needs to be clarified, because if biblical Christianity is not relevant today then the whole of Church tradition is, as anti-realists claim, purely a human construct. The much flaunted word 'relevance' has been used to good effect by many, as they attack what they see as the outmoded concepts of traditional Christianity. Stephen Ross White construes:
  • There has been a widespread conviction that unless faith, and the theology which undergirds it, has something to say to the world in which we live, and about the way in which we live in it, then it has, in fact, nothing to say at all and had better remain silent in the face of other disciplines which have.[11]

Early on his spiritual quest, Cupitt was determined to tear down the walls of traditional perceived orthodoxy and try and find the original Jesus Christ, God incarnate, who was the cornerstone of primitive Christianity before the contamination of centuries of 'tradition' took its fatal hold. Ross White quotes Cupitt from Jesus and the Gospel of God:
  • To throw off the legacy of Christendom, however, and return to the teaching of Jesus and the primitive faith requires not only that we rescue Jesus from dogmatic captivity, but that we rescue God from metaphysical captivity. The earliest faith was practical and purely religious in its categories, but Christianity gradually became so extensively permeated with dogmatic, philosophical and cosmological ways of thinking that by now many people find it hard to recognise the purely religious as a category at all. Thus in our talk of God the non-religious God of the philosophers has held the field more or less continuously since the thirteenth century, and in spite of numerous valiant attempts a truly religious understanding of God has not yet been restored to general currency.[12]

It is quite obvious from this that Cupitt's complaint, at that time at least, was not with Christianity as such but the misconstructions and reductions introduced subsequently by the church. His concern for the 'purely religious' caused him to condemn what he saw as the humanistic tendencies in Christianity:
  • … in modern humanistic and liberal theology both God and Jesus tend to become mere symbolic reinforcements of a concern for the human in general. Does this not in the end approximate to Comtism - human self-infatuation tricked out in evocative religious metaphors?[13]

Although his complaint is valid, he failed to note that this attenuated theology which he perceived within the church was in actual fact an attempt by the church to become 'relevant' in a society that was increasingly weary of seeming irrelevant and outmoded religious interventions. Because Cupitt has never given up his quest for the 'purely religious', his search has taken him into uncharted territory.
The "Purely Religious"

In his book Taking Leave of God published in 1980, Cupitt lays out his thesis of non or anti-realism and although he has built on that over the years, he has not deviated greatly from the fundamental 'doctrines'. He concedes that human beings have an innate need for some kind of religion, but he sees that:
  • … conservative religion of the sort that sets God authoritatively over the believer nowadays sounds as if it is spiritually backward and not fully conscious of itself. It has become an anachronism; it is spiritually behind the times. Objectifying religion is now false religion, for it no longer saves.[14]

If 'objectifying religion' does not save now, then it would not have done in the past either, because the term 'being saved' by definition means someone or something is taken from a place of peril to a place of safety by the intervention of an outside entity (person or thing). This is a physical act that is carried out externally and has nothing to do with any internal search or quest for religious fulfilment or certainty.

Cupitt, in his desire to retain "something of the spirit of religion" introduces three converging lines of thought:
1) The internalisation of meanings and values
2) The autonomy of the human spirit
3) The New Covenant - indwelling of God within believers
Having attained this freedom, Cupitt states that it would be a sin to return to dependency.[15] God already indwells the believer and it is only spirituality that matters. God is a unifying symbol and the religious concern, reified.[16] Religious activity therefore has to be:
  • … purely disinterested and cannot depend upon any external facts such as an objective God or a life after death. Furthermore, spiritual autonomy must not on any account be prejudiced, because there is no salvation without it. ….. It is spiritually important that one should not believe in life after death but should instead strive to attain the goal of the spiritual life in history. It is in this life, and in relation to social and economic conditions objectively and presently prevailing, that we have to struggle to realise religious values.[17]

So according to Cupitt, salvation is reliant upon complete spiritual autonomy. But in actual fact what he is proposing is 'spiritual humanism', pure and simple. Spirituality is attained by adopting a "higher" attitude to life and in doing so freedom is gained. If this is true then anybody can achieve this through any means they choose and it is therefore a true postmodern experience. There is then no need to posit the reality of any god, because it is the spiritual journey that is important not the worship of any external being. This fits in very well, as Cupitt says, with the Buddhist mindset and can be rightly termed 'purely religious', if the definition of the term is to do with the metaphysical only and does not include the numinous.
Religious Desire

If it is true (and there is much evidence) that human beings have a need for spiritual fulfilment, I also, like Cupitt, wonder if it can be met by belief in the Judeo-Christian God of the bible. In fact it is my hypothesis that this thing which can be called 'religious desire' and the ways we try and satisfy it are totally unrelated to the claims that Christianity makes in the bible. The so-called 'God-shaped vacuum' could be just part of human nature and we try and fill this hole with all kinds of things - religion, music, art, football, drugs, relationships. But it is wrongly called religious, it is just purely 'desire' and it can be assuaged in many different ways, some are spiritual or religious and some are not.

If, as the bible maintains, God sent his Son into the world as part of the plan of redemption to give us the opportunity to be reconciled to himself, acknowledging this is not something that can be regarded as an experience, but a personal paradigm shift from non-relationship to relationship in an eternal sphere. Therefore, the part of the human brain that initiates 'desire' is wrongly interpreted as being religious in essence. It can be posited then that religion is totally separate from Christianity in that respect.

In trying to reconcile 'desire' to biblical Christianity there are bound to be problems, not the least of them being the truth claims of the bible. As Cupitt says, the idea of an authoritarian God standing over humankind is not readily acceptable today in a society that revels in the autonomy of the individual. Unfortunately, it is not possible to adhere to the Christianity of the bible and remain autonomous. And if that is true then it follows that a big part of being a Christian is acknowledging dependence on something or someone outside of oneself. If this is the case then it seems that for a Christian positing that God is real is a philosophical and theological necessity.

The Christian Bible

I have been particularly careful so far, when talking about Christianity, to make it clear that it is Christianity as delineated in the bible that I am referring to, because insofar that Christian tradition has developed, especially since Constantine, there has been re-interpretation of Christian tenets to the point of re-definement. And in this I totally agree with Cupitt who, as Ross White says, has taken on the task of:
  • … nothing less than the rescue of religion from the clutches of obsolescence, ineffectiveness and inadequacy, and the church can hardly deny the need for such a rescue, even if it is unhappy about the means by which Cupitt proposes to effect it.[18]

But whereas Cupitt posits a rescue of religion, what must be said is that biblical Christianity and religion are not synonymous and it is a mistake to equate one with the other. If one wants to make a better world, then anything that encourages human beings to get along is valid; no religion has the monopoly on that. The mistake that is being made is that people are rejecting Christianity because they say it doesn't seem to work, when they are being told contradictory statements from clerics and theologians, who are trying to apply principles that are eternal, to a world that is in terminal decay. What the bible teaches is as much about the celestial as the terrestrial (if not more) and of course this is difficult to accept without a large amount of that worn out commodity called faith.

Who is the Postmodern God?

I hope that so far I have managed to make it clear that there is a difference between what the anti-realists propose and what biblical Christianity proclaims. If religion is a human construct as they maintain, then it really doesn't matter whether God is posited as real or not. And if 'real' means 'true', then truth becomes a truism, determined by the majority vote, and open to discussion and debate. If, as they also claim, absolute objective truth is impossible, how can this be affirmed without falling into the trap of absolutism?

In his latest book The New Religion of Life in Everyday Speech Cupitt asserts that 'Life' has replaced 'God' in modern speech patterns.[19] So he says God is real insofar that language creates him in the image of whatever the current leitmotif is. If, at the moment, 'Life' is 'God', we still have to acknowledge that life is finite, and construe that, so then, must be God. Cupitt gives a full treatment of his 'belief in language' in The Last Philosophy published in 1995.

So having taken leave of God, all that is left for the postmodernist is the pragmatic ideology based on the meaning conferred on words, which combine to make language, which in turn construct reality. Language then is the religion of postmodernity and its god is the human consciousness. As James Sire states, "there has been a shift in 'first things' from being to knowing to constructing meaning".
[20] 'Constructing meaning', therefore, is a human act of creation.


As I have already mentioned, within the postmodern mindset are the seeds for reconstruction, because I believe there is sufficient evidence to show that, within human nature, there is an innate need for a sense of unity and identity. I have also stated that spirituality, or religious desire, is something that is separate from theological truth. And this is proved by the fact of the diversity, and multiplicity of ways, in which people aim to satisfy human 'desire'.
Proving theological truth is not something that can be done easily, and it definitely will not be universally accepted, but I believe that as well as being a pretext, postmodernism (whether it be a style, period of time, or condition), is a chance for recuperation. The resurgence of 'spirituality' could very well be a reaction against modernism, but this will eventually necessitate some kind of glue to stick the fragments together. That is human nature.

Positing that God is real, and exists outside humanity and the known world is asserting a theological truism. The only way that this can be accepted as a universal truth is by universal acceptance, but this doesn't necessarily make it true. Diogenes Allen quotes Austin Farrer when he makes this statement:
  • The way to subdue rivals is by considering nature, history, human nature, and the gospel story. But one has to appreciate the notion of deity if the evidence for deity is to be apprehended in nature, history, human nature and the gospel story. "Without the readiness of [Initial] faith, the evidence of God will not be accepted, or will convince… [Initial] faith is a subjective condition favourable to the reception of the evidence.[21]

So it can be said that faith is the door to receiving the evidence. The bible itself makes the statement that unless one first believes he exists, approaching God is a waste of time:

  • NRSV Hebrews 11:6 And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

From that, one can assume that approaching God whilst in effect denying his existence has the same result as if he did not exist at all. And there lies the rub. John 3:18 says that those who don't believe are "condemned already". It is as if God doesn't exist for them. However, if the evidence of faith is the way of knowing God, then it is important that God is posited as real.

The word 'God' is a loaded term, and in keeping with the postmodern mindset, it can be said that God, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. So the way one person perceives or understands the notion of God will be different from another. However, the different ways of seeing God have to be contiguous with the actual reality of God, if he exists. Otherwise, what people are seeing and experiencing are just extensions of there own psyche. This, I believe, is what the anti-realists have done. And in rejecting the actuality of a transcendent God have disengaged themselves from the possibility of knowing him.


As the bible the most important evidence we have, it is important to study its claims in their entirety. It will be found to be unequivocal on the principles of the redemption plan. So either it has to be accepted in its entirety or rejected on the grounds that it is not true. It very clearly points to a God that is real and evident and to accept Christianity is to accept that fact. For those who wish to call themselves Christians it is only fair that they accept the Christian God as real and "there". If they don't, then it would be more honest to identify themselves in a more appropriate fashion.

This has been a difficult subject to tackle, but an important one for the future of, not just theology, but also Christianity. I have not done it justice, but I hope that it has been shown that, for the Christian, the importance of 'accepting' that God is real is a philosophical necessity, much more so than 'positing' a God who might, or might not, be there.

[1] C. Gunton, The One, The Three and The Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983) p. 135
[2] D. Cupitt, Taking Leave of God (London: Xpress Reprints/SCM, 1993. First published 1980) p. 3
[3] G. E. Veith, "Postmodern Times: Facing a World of New Challenges & Opportunities", (Premise, Vol 2, No. 8, Sept. 27 1995) p. 7. Taken from Website.
[4] G. Ward, "Postmodern Theology", in The Modern Theologians (second ed.) D. F. Ford editor, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1997) p. 585
[5] D. Martin Fields, "Postmodernism", (Premise, Vol 2, No. 8, Sept. 27 1995) p. 5 Taken from Website
[6] D. L. Edwards, Christianity, The First Two Thousand Years (London: Cassell, 1997) p. 592
[7] Ibid, pp. 593-4
[8] G. E. Veith, "Postmodern Times"
[9] D. Martin Fields, "Postmodernism"
[10] D. Cupitt, Taking Leave of God, p. xii
[11] S. Ross White, Don Cupitt and the Future of Christian Doctrine (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1994) p. viii
[12] Ibid p. 13
[13] Ibid p. 15
[14] D. Cupitt, Taking Leave of God, p. 5
[15] Ibid pp. 3-4
[16] Ibid p. 9
[17] Ibid p. 10
[18] S. Ross White, Don Cupitt and the Future of Christian Doctrine, p. 105
[19] Review in The Independent, 27th Feb 1999.
[20] J. W. Sire, The Universe Next Door, 3rd Edition, (Downers Grove/Illinois: IVP, 1997) p. 175
[21] D. Allen, Christian Belief in a Postmodern World, The Full Wealth of Conviction, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989) p. 12

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