Why we need to rid ourselves of the 'god of the slots'

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
27 Apr 2007

For anyone who knows about the history of the post-Enlightenment relationship between religion and science, the term “god of the gaps” has a particular meaning. It denotes the way in which the church began to dig an intellectual grave for its message by falsely seeking to defend a notion of the divine as primarily occupying the knowledge spaces left by the natural sciences. It was a disaster, one from which we have still not recovered.

Yet there is a significant parallel to be drawn between the way in which Christians ended up falsifying a sustainable account of God’s relation to the world process described by the sciences, and the way in which many church leaders today are digging a cultural grave as they try to “defend God” against secularity by demanding special “slots” (gaps) for “religion” – presumably because they think, contrary to much biblical evidence, that God has a major interest in religious activity and is therefore keen on sneaking it into broadcasting schedules!

Such an approach fits well with the residue of a ‘Christendom mindset’, where God’s interests are identified with the preserve and privilege of religious institutions that reach an agreement with the governing authorities which goes something like this: we will bless you and avoid rocking the boat too much, provided you give us special access to power and maintain particular social spaces where our authority stands unchallenged.

That Christendom order is now eroding. And rightly so, both because it is unfair (according to the standards of a democratic and plural society) and because (in theological terms which should be even more important to us) its procedures have little if anything to do with what is central to the Gospel – life in all its fullness, beyond the limits we establish and recognise.

Instead the Christendom arrangement submerges God into the status quo, into religious interests which are about ruling not serving, and into outmoded patterns of thought which “box the divine” within limiting categories. The result is that God becomes unbelievable, and indeed not worth believing in – unless you are mainly concerned with propping up religious edifices.

However, quite a bit of inherited church thinking is slow and unwilling to catch on to this problem, pursuing instead an agenda over-conditioned by the passing era. The two most recent examples in the cultural arena are the attempt to defend BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day (TFTD) from access to those whose take on a spirited life is not sourced in religious beliefs, and the demand from Anglican and Catholic bishops for a chunk of time for “faith perspectives” on BBC Radio 1.

In the latter case, it is probably just a matter of cultural lag. Many bishops grew up in an era when Radio 1 was “trendy” (even though, or perhaps because, they weren’t listening to it) – and, moreover, the only show in town. Today, for those in the know, it is no longer the cultural force on the music and club scenes. But it still causes anxiety to men in funny gear, it seems.

In the former case, the claim is overtly made that the distinctiveness of Thought for the Day is as “a God slot” in the midst of a schedule that otherwise ignores God. The assumption that God is absent when not named by religion is an oddly faithless one for a Christian to hold, in my view. If you think that, there is something wrong with your view of God. It is also the obverse side of the other mistaken assertion – namely that programming which does not explicitly mention God is somehow a continuous propaganda loop for the British Humanist Association: a daft idea that the good people at the BHA, in seeking a space for their own contribution, are understandably quite keen to challenge. If it was true, they wouldn’t need to bother.

Moreover, it remains the case that different religious traditions think of God in different ways, and often disagree over whether they are even talking about the same reality. Not all are theistic, and some (in Buddhism, say) are non-theistic. On the other hand, many strands of non-religious thought (when not wholly defined by what they consider themselves to be against) often have profound points of consonance with approaches to life otherwise defined as “religious”. Humanism, Judaism and Christianity share some common roots, for example. So defining (let alone defending) “a God slot” becomes more and more difficult, when you think about it.

Further, as theologian Nicholas Lash (a sinewy exponent of creative Christian orthodoxy) points out: believing in God does not mean positing some extra fact about, or in addition to, the world. It means understanding the whole world in relation to an excess of love and possibility which cannot be contained by it, which we keep encountering (when we are not busy closing it down), and which is not experienced over and against “the natural order” but through it – supremely, for Christians, in the disarming humanity of Jesus.

To use the traditional theological language, God can engage what is not-God without overpowering, displacing or getting confused with it because God is “transcendent, immanent and uncreated” – and is certainly not, at least in Thomistic and other reflective Christian thought, the kind of trivial “supernatural entity” mocked by A. C. Grayling and others.

What this means is that the God of whom Christians traditionally speak (the source, transformer and destiny of life) cannot, by definition, be fitted into a gap, a box or a slot. Ironically, many outside the church seem to understand this better than those inside it – even though those in it, especially if they are bishops, are supposed to have learned at least a bit of theology.

Moreover, there is a biblical case for saying that the God of the prophets and of Jesus is supremely uninterested in “religion” as a specialist activity extricated or set against the rest of life. On the contrary, the prophets oppose ritual devoid of ethical commitment and human solidarity. Similarly, Jesus challenges the Temple system and the monopoly of religious leaders over the ordinary people, and Paul says that the important gifts of the Spirit are a new way of living not a spiritual ego-trip.

All of this ought to be relatively uncontroversial to a church that has come to terms with the dynamic of the Gospel that formed it. But instead its mind has been seized by fear, and by “religious” distortions of its message shaped by an alliance with governing powers and ideas – ones that have encouraged an essentially dualistic mindset.

Because the world is continually foisting “religion” (which depends on an idea of a god alien to the world) upon us, an alternative community is needed to sustain a different, non-dualistic understanding. It does this through worship (learning not to mistake anything in the world for God, and not to reduce God to anything in the world) and through prayer (learning to receive life as a gift to be shared not a product to be manipulated to our advantage). Strictly speaking these activities therefore have nothing to do with “religion” as it is conventionally defined these days. In fact they stand in opposition to it.

The upshot of all this is that the Christian Gospel, at least – I don’t seek to speak on behalf of other faith perspectives – cannot and should not depend upon obsessively ring-fencing bits of worldly life for God, as if God needed or asked us to do this.

So if Christians are invited to share their experience, insights and understanding on TV and radio, great; but they should not try to keep others out. Indeed they should welcome conversation and dialogue. Otherwise they are contradicting their message, which is about gift not possession. [On a practical aside: this is why Ekklesia has argued that TFTD is an important space for looking at how beliefs-in-practice view the task of living, but it does not have to exclude those who do not fit a questionable definition of "religious".]

Similarly, the job of the church is most definitely not to give people the entirely false impression that God is only present when they are in power, or that the presence of “secular” persons or ideas means the exclusion of God – as if God were a competitor for space within the world, constantly in danger of being “squeezed out”.

The message of the incarnation, on the contrary, is that – in opposition to what is usually supposed – God, while remaining beyond our grasp, is a life-giver who is not against the flesh, but who comes to us in and through it, affirming and transforming “the earthly” in the direction of a living which is truly unrestricted, unlike a good deal of our rather mean attempts at it.

This means that the job of the church in post-Christendom has nothing to do with defending Christian oases in a spiritual desert, or demanding, as of “right”, the sort of “God slots” which actually end up confirming people’s suspicion that God is a weakling in need of propping up, or a human-crafted consumable alongside others – albeit with a distinctly unfashionable religious label.

Instead, the job of the church is to speak and act in such a way that people can look at life and other people and see – not something less than what is around and in them, but something bigger, something more beautiful, truly liberating and hopeful beyond mere calculation. This is tough, because life is also tragic and difficult. Not denying its underlying goodness takes guts, imagination and self-giving.

There is a political dimension in this, too, and it connects us back with the broadcasting issue. In a post-Christendom era, Christians cannot expect the education system, government or the media to do their job for them or make other people Christians. If they do that they will be constantly disillusioned, they will be despised, and they will lose the capacity for independent thought and subversive action.

There are two sides to this: exercising freedom, and recognising limits. Rowan Williams put it well in his BBC Newsnight interview on Tuesday 24 April. First, in response to the question about whether Bush and Blair had prayed over the Iraq war, he turned the issue on its head. Politicians are not there to pray. But if, by chance, these powerful individuals had prayed, maybe they would have opened themselves to a decision that went against their instincts and interests – maybe the Prince of Peace, whom they both name, would have convinced them not to put their trust in armies. Who knows?

Then Dr Williams said this: “I don't expect government to be talking religion. I do expect government to be giving space and opportunity for the kind of moral discussion informed by religion, as by many other strands of humanistic thought.”

That is both pluralistically defensible and theologically appropriate. Taking “religion” to mean, in this case, the life and testimony of a group of people (rather than the institutional abstraction I have criticized), the Archbishop seemed to be suggesting that both those of faith and those whose commitment to human flourishing is otherwise defined should be part of a conversation sustained by public space, but without expecting government to talk their language or do their work. (He then spoiled it all by defending bishops in the House of Lords, but no-one is perfect).

All of which makes me wonder… if Christians were to stop bleating on about protecting their preferential “slots”, and were instead to focus on what they had to offer in terms of peacemaking, hospitality, community-building, forgiveness, and many other gifts of the Gospel, people might just be interested in broadcasting them – not because of a “religious label”, but because they had something worthwhile (and a bit quirky) to say.

Then again, that might not happen. In which case other ways of ‘speaking into’ the public debate need to be cultivated – and indeed exist, not least in cyberspace. There is no need to get anxious, there is no need to demand control over others. Above all, there is no need to re-create a “God of the gaps” in the wider culture – a ‘god’ whose existence is subsistent on a decreasing “space” offered by the world, and who is therefore no God at all, but the kind of thing fit to be denounced by Richard Dawkins as a delusion.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out many years ago, the “religious” god is destined to die, because this is not the unconditioned God who is met – paradoxically – in the tortured body of Christ, in the poor, and in all kinds of “non-religious” people and things which have much more to do with fullness of life (what God gives) than organized religion and metaphysics. God does not need self-appointed political defenders, but those who live life unconditionally.

See also: Losing our (radio) religion?

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