Simon Barrow

The God elusion

By Simon Barrow
March 26, 2008

To paraphrase Augustine, and subsequently John Caputo, "what is it that we love when we love our God?" I'm constantly amazed by what some people, both non-religious and religious, assume I must be committing myself to in order to "believe in God" (as I do, though not in the way they are thinking). Six intangible things before brunch, I guess - before resuming my near approximation to "life as normal".

So what lies behind this presumption, a clearly growing one, about the inherent incongruity of bothering with God? (God being a notion which more than a few people in my cultural orbit think less interesting or relevant than porridge, frankly. I don't blame them for that, given what I'm about to say).

Much of the agitated and high profile media to-ing and fro-ing about whether God is 'great, or not' presupposes the most astonishingly naive and positivistic forms of theological or anti-theological realism. Viewed one way, it is mind-boggling that someone as intelligent as Stephen Hawking can dismiss, as he recently appeared to, all philosophy and theology as essentially valueless. But for some it is becoming par for the course.

In a sense, this is not Hawking's fault. In the modern environment it is common for people to use a form of thought developed to accomplish one set of things in order to try to accomplish quite another set of things -- without noticing that this is what they are doing, that it may entail some very basic category mistakes (like thinking of God as a 'thing', for instance), that there are other ways of proceeding, and that we may lack the tools (which are philosophical) to diagnose and posit alternatives to the thought disorders that emerge as a result of our misplaced reductionisms.

Moreover, near ignorance as a basis for commentary on such matters as theology and religious studies (a set of intra- and extra-disciplinary tools for reasoning about belief) has become almost a symbol of intellectual virility in some virtuously anti-God circles. As a consequence of this, and of the corresponding dominance of religious discourse by neo-fundamentalisms of various kinds, what is reckoned to be a debate about the plausibility or otherwise of the divine, hogged by the so called new atheists and their conservative religious polar attractants, is in fact nowhere near it. It is much nearer to nowhere, in fact.

In his sometimes astute and sometimes patchy New Guide to the Debate about God (SCM, 1992), following on to a certain extent from David E. Jenkins' 1966 Guide in the aftermath of John Robinson's Honest to God, Martin Prozesky made a very important point which has largely been overlooked recently. In the aftermath of Heidegger, Nietzsche et al, it is popularly supposed, he pointed out, that the post-Enlightenment world has pretty much reached the end of God-talk. In reality, however, we may be only just scrabbling to get out of the kindergarten.

If that were so - and the incapacity of much reasoning about matters of belief and rationality suggests it is - then the estimate of the whole situation about how we are trying to tackle 'religion' and its cognates changes significantly. Following falteringly in the footsteps of the the remarkable Nicholas Lash, I tried in 2007 to offer some semi-technical and semi-popular reflections on What difference does God make today? In a similar vein, here is a further excerpt from another paper, What is radical about Christianity?, which was originally conceived in relation to a constructive series of discussions between humanists and religionists (it is of course possible to be both). It sums up where I am at on 'the God question', and why I don't think the present vituperation between a certain kind of non-believer and a certain kind of believer is very useful:

It is popularly supposed (by both religious and non-religious people) that the divine and the creaturely are exclusive of one another, so that the more you have of one the less you have of the other.

The alternative vision, narrated in the life-givingness of Jesus, is one which breaks the hold of this lie, and which proves capacious and inviting enough to habituate our unending growth in understanding, in relationship, in prayer, and in practical action for change.

By ‘God’ I mean a gift, giving and giver, transcending our description or manipulation, but nevertheless signalled and expressed in the self-dispossessing attention to ‘the other’ that we call love. This, I realise, needs some unpacking.

To believe in God is to live with (better, following Augustine, to ‘live into’) a passion for ‘the impossible’ (John Caputo) -- to live towards a degree of personal and communal transformation untamed by ‘what presently is’. This is an orientation which affirms rather than subjugates our deepest human longings for relationship, joy, beauty and truth.

Life in the presence of God, whose intrinsic completeness renders domination redundant, amounts, one might say, to ‘living beyond our means’.

‘Faith’, therefore, is not about submission to proposition, the refusal of reason or clinging blindly to dogma. It is the opposite of these things – it is a letting-go which goes on trusting beyond the ‘full-stop’ of certain kinds of rationalism, because it does not (and cannot) claim the power to impose limits on the love it encounters.

Faith is continual ‘reasoning with a mystery’, without allowing yourself to be deceived into thinking that you can have an adequate handle on either reason or mystery, or that you can abandon one for the other – the temptation of both the ideologically religious and the ideologically non-religious.

God cannot be established, discounted or circumscribed by metaphysics (the game of analytical theism or anti-theism played, in opposing but essentially commonly constructed ways, by people like Richard Dawkins, Richard Swinburne and Don Cupitt).

All speech about God is metaphorical (including forensic terms which claim not to be), since all speech is humanly derived, and since God is not a feature of the world. But this does not mean that it is false, merely provisional about its capacity to make analytic truth-claims – because it is properly cognizant of the ineluctable ‘otherness’ of which it speaks.

Much the same could be said about our attempts to ‘know’ other persons. And indeed the Christian faith has as its core the conviction that God comes through to us not as a text, a formula or a theory – but in a person who remains on what I would call ‘the disturbing margins’ of our attempts at world-construction through empire, religion and rational control.

This is so because God is not a hypothesis in or about the world, but, for those of us who find ourselves believing in(to) God, is discovered in the sheer giftedness of life. It is consciously phenomenological, narrative and linguistic forms of philosophy which are perhaps best equipped to speak of God in this way nowadays. That may change. God-talk is always running to catch up.

Indeed, God-talk works best (though not most conveniently) when it recognises that it cannot ever 'succeed', if it is to be true to what it purports to be about -- the God who is revealed to be necessarily elusive; the God beyond 'God' who confounds our constant attempts to mire God and ourselves in loveless manipulation.


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He blogs at, as well as contributing to the Guardian's Comment-is-Free, OpenDemocracy and other media outlets. See also

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