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The Human Evasion by Celia Green

Chapter 7 : The Sane Person Talks of God

The human race has always been unable to distinguish clearly between metaphysics and morality. Thus the word "God" can be used to mean "origin of existence" or it can be used to mean "intelligent being interested in the social behaviour of humans". These two concepts are not, however, the same, and any relationship between them would have to be carefully established.

In the same way "religion" could mean two different things. It might mean something like "a person's attitude to the Outside in general, and the fact of existence in particular". As it happens, it does not mean this, and no one expects it to. It is actually used to mean "a person's attitude towards social interactions with other people, with some reference to a supposed intelligent being who is interested in these interactions". The last clause is dispensable. Most people would have little hesitation in accepting as "religious" someone who showed the required behaviour patterns, whether he said he believed in a God or not.

It is usually impossible to make sense of passages in which the word God appears at all often. Consider, for example, this description by Erich Fromm of an up-to-date, sensible kind of religious person.

The truly religious person, if he follows the essence of the monotheistic idea, does not pray for anything, does not expect anything from God; he does not love God as a child loves his father or his mother; he has acquired the humility of sensing his limitations, to the degree of knowing that he knows nothing about God. God becomes for him a symbol in which man, at an earlier stage of his evolution, has expressed the totality of that which man is striving for, the realm of the spiritual world, of love, truth and justice. He ... considers all of his life only valuable inasmuch as it gives him the chance to arrive at an ever fuller unfolding of his human powers—as the only reality that matters, as the only object of "ultimate concern"; and eventually, he does not speak about God—nor even mention his name. To love God, if he were going to use this word, would mean, then to long for the attainment of the full capacity to love, for the realization of that which "God" stands for in oneself. [1]

Let us see what becomes of this passage if it is rewritten with the term "God" understood to mean "reason for existence" throughout.

"he truly religious person, if he accepts the idea of a single overriding cause which originated all that exists, does not expect this cause to be directly related to what goes on in his own life, and does not expect it to do anything for him. He does not ask it for anything and does not expect to enter into a security-giving personal relationship with it. He realizes that he is a finite being, and that the reason for existence is inconceivable to him. He realizes that he is one of a certain race of animals which has evolved on a certain planet of a certain star in a certain galaxy, and that as they evolved these animals formulate certain ideals at which to aim. The reason for existence becomes to him a symbol for the security and consistency which his race of animals would like to have. He considers his life only valuable inasmuch as he considers it valuable. He regards what interests him as the only reality that matters, and the only object of any importance to the overriding cause which originated all that exists. Eventually he does not ask any questions about the reason for existence—nor even refer to it in passing. To desire the knowledge of the reason for existence would mean to him, then, to long for the attainment of the full capacity to have an intense interest in the welfare of other members of his species. This is the realization of that part of one's psychology for which the words 'reason for existence' stand."

Modern thinkers are at last feeling free to divorce the ideas of "God" and "religion" from any direct connection with the fact that things exist. Some go further. Not only has "God" nothing in particular to do with the origin of existence, but also it has nothing whatever to do with anything human beings do not understand about—that is, it has nothing to do with the Outside.

Fromm's treatment of the idea of God depends on never defining it. A further advance has been made by the Bishop of Woolwich, who admittedly does not define it either, but says explicitly that it isn't there.

What is of interest about the Bishop of Woolwich is not that he is supposed to be a Christian (which is a matter of definition), but that he is human. One might say that he is very human. He speaks for his time; not only for the Christianity of his time but for human psychology as it stands facing the unknown—or rather, with its back to it.

I do not mean to be unduly condemnatory of human beings for standing in this position. It is the done thing. In fact, it has always been the done thing, although formerly some pains were taken to disguise the fact. When people talked about "God" they used to pretend that what they said had something to do with questions about the meaning of existence and the purpose of life.

The splendid discovery made by the Bishop of Woolwich is that the human race is completely uninterested in such questions, but now it is all right to say so. Man has "come of age".

It is not very easy to understand what the Bishop of Woolwich is saying, but it is easier if you start by ascribing a zero value to the term "God". What I mean is that you need to leave a sort of blank hole in every sentence in which the word "God" appears. It is never defined, and so it is semantically redundant.

However, though he does not say who or what God is, the Bishop wants most earnestly to assert that God is not Out There.

But the signs are that we are reaching the point at which the whole conception of a God "out there" ... is itself becoming more of a hindrance than a help ... Suppose belief in God does not, indeed cannot, mean being persuaded of the "existence" of some entity, even a supreme entity, which might or might not be there, like life on Mars? ... Suppose that all such atheism does is to destroy an idol, and that we can and must go on without a God "out there" at all?[2]

What can we make of these statements? Something (unspecified) is not Out There. Does this mean nothing is Out There? Or nothing of any significance is Out There? A little reflection convinces the questing mind that what the Bishop really means is "There is no Out There."

To make this a little more grammatical, let us rephrase it as "There is no Outside". As we have mentioned, we define the Outside as "that which falls outside the comprehension of the human race". Now whatever else God might be supposed to be, one would imagine that he, she or it was unquestionably Outside.

But the Bishop has two reasons for supposing that God is not Outside.

One of them is that the Inside is getting bigger. We are better at science than we used to be, and our expectation of life is increasing. We can make aeroplanes and control malaria. We do not know what everything is existing for, but neither do we care.

God is an "x" in the equation whom we cannot get on without, a cause, controller or designer whom we are bound to posit or allow room for—this hypothesis seems to men today more and more superfluous.[3]

Note, incidentally, a nice piece of sane writing. If you talk of "God" impersonally as "a cause" it is difficult to reject the hypothesis that "there is always room for a cause we do not know about." If, however, you talk of God as a "designer", you are obviously bringing in all those anthropomorphic associations which make the idea of God ludicrous. This is where apposition is so useful.

But the Bishop's main reason for supposing that God is not Outside is that we are none of us interested in an Outside, and we are interested in other people.

The world is not asking "How can I find a gracious God?" It is asking "How can I find a gracious neighbour?"[4]

So if "God" is to be of any interest, it must mean something about human relationships. (Just what about human relationships it could mean is never clear. The Bishop's only elucidation takes the form of periodically intoning such words as "depth" and "ultimacy".)

Of course, the Bishop is not alone in all this. He quotes extensively from Tillich, for example.

When Tillich speaks of God in "depth", he is not speaking of another Being at all. He is speaking of "the infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being", of our ultimate concern, of what we take seriously without reservation.[5]

(I leave the reader to work out how many of the techniques described in "How to Write Sane Books" are used in those two sentences.)

Tillich maintains that God is the "ultimate concern" of every man. I think all modern theologians would agree. However, the question is whether you take "God" as defining "man's ultimate concern", or take "man's ultimate concern" as defining "God". Naturally, in this democratic age, the latter procedure is usually followed. (There is only one of God whereas there are a number of human beings; it would obviously be undemocratic to take God as a standard.) I am happy to see the old opposition between God and man has all but vanished from modern theology. There is now the most extraordinary sympathy, not to say identity, of outlook.

We must—even if it seems "dangerous"—affirm that the glory of God and the glory of man, although different, actually coincide. There is no other glory of God (this is a free decision of his will) than that which comes about in man's existence. And there is no other glory of man than that which he may and can have in glorifying God. Likewise God's beatitude coincides with man's happiness. Man's happiness is to make God's beatitude appear in his life, and God's beatitude consists in giving himself to man in the form of human happiness.[6]

So far we have only considered the modern kind of theologian, who does not believe in God. This should not be taken to imply that the human evasion has only just started to operate in this area.

Even when people believed in God you may remember that there was a certain difficulty in driving any metaphysical argument with them beyond a certain point. They would suddenly round on you, with or without a sweet smile, and say, "Ah, but the important thing is that God is a person." This effectively prevented any further discussion of his possible existence or attributes, particularly as the concepts "person" and "personality" appeared to defy analysis.

It is, of course, entirely compatible with the human evasion that it should suddenly interpose the "personal" and the reason for existence—by whatever name it calls it. It is no less compatible with it that the people who disbelieve in God should do so on the grounds that he was a personal God. "It is evident", they say, "that when people believed in God they were thinking of something like a human being with whom one could have emotional interactions. This is Freudian. It is obvious that there is no Outside because when people thought there was, they treated it like a person. I am well-adjusted and do not need a God to have emotional interactions with. I can have them with other people. Consequently there is no Outside."

[1] Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, Allen and Unwin Paperback,
    1957, p.54.

[2] John A. T. Robinson, Honest to God, S. C. M. Paperback,
    1963, pp.15-17.

[3] John A. T. Robinson, The New Reformation, S.C.M. Paperback,
    1965, p.108.

[4] Ibid., p.33.

[5] John A.T. Robinson, Honest to God, S.C.M. Paperback, 1963,

[6] Karl Barth, The Faith of the Church, Collins Fontana Books,
    1958, p.13.

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