God versus the Idea of God

Divinity is what we think.
Faith is what we experience.

God Versus the Idea of God, is about that pernicious, nerve-wracking emotion, “doubt”—in this case personal religious doubt, or skepticism—affecting our religious inclination; our faith, or lack thereof, in the divine. It raises that question “I wonder?” over and over. The question and the doubts many of us have and live with are not that new, but TR’s probing of the Western Christian religious traditions in light of today’s cultural understandings offer a new perspective on the broad issues we face as we try and believe. It’s not easy for a lot of us today to “keep the faith.” Just look at recent religious statistics and trends.

So, is this book really necessary?

No, probably not, but you decide. I believe many will find it not only highly interesting and informative but more importantly, personally beneficial. Why? Because it talks frankly about religious matters that might often be on peoples’ minds; “I wonder?” type questions we all ask ourselves; thoughts about doubts considered but seldom brought out into the open, discussed or questioned. Too often we feel we are the only one who harbors such uncertainties, and to voice them would open us to criticism. Who wants or needs that!

How many of us who profess to be Christians are ready and willing to openly discuss whether or not the god of the Judeo-Christian Bible exists? How unquestioningly are we to accept what is written in the Bible? Was (is) Jesus God? Is what the Church teaches today, based upon events and worldly understandings two thousand years ago still relevant today? Am I (and everyone else) really a sinner? Are heaven and hell real after-death places? Sometimes the list of our questions, our doubts, seems endless.

But these doubts, these privately held and too seldom openly discussed internal perplexities, your “I wonder” thoughts, are valid—they are! You can discuss them with your minister or priest, and this may well help. Still, you may be reluctant to do so. You may fear being typed as one “lacking in faith”. This often leads to feelings of guilt. Again, who wants or needs that?

God versus the Idea of God was written with you in mind. It opens up on all of these perplexities—and more—and demonstrates that you and your doubts are not unique. There is no need for guilt, of any degree, in the author’s mind. Here’s a seldom thought of situation: the Church in many respects has these same questions on its institutional mind. Its problem is worse than yours. It not only thinks about these kinds of issues, it ponders how to rationally answer them for itself and especially for its followers in the twenty-first century. It’s a real problem; it’s a serious problem apparently not easily resolved solely through revelation and traditional Church dogma.

One of the primary things you need keep in mind as you ponder these issues is that they are less issues of right or wrong than ones of true or false (credibility) in the context of today’s modern Western culture. Religious belief is a matter of faith. Disbelief is a matter of lack of faith. Faith is ultimately dependent upon the credibility of the pillars upon which belief is built—the Bible and Church teachings. This book, among other objectives, humbly encourages the Church to reflect on the relevance of its teaching in this regard, in the context of all that we have reason to believe we know and understand today.

The book is the writing of a religious layman—experienced and mature—but still a layman. Thus it is hardly a scholarly work. It was specifically written for the potential benefit of other laypersons. I trust it will be for you.

Construction-wise, the book is divided into two parts: The first six chapters are devoted to the Church and making the case that what is significant and meaningful in religious belief—and always has been—is the idea of God as opposed to the reality, or not, of the god of the idea. Chapters seven and eight address themselves to what the book calls The Jesus Phenomenon—and I believe that is a good description of it: something that impresses the observer as extraordinary. Chapter nine and the epilogue wind down with a bit of a forward look at what the author holds the Western Christian Church may be facing as we move ahead.

For your ready reference, here’s a listing of the Table of Contents for God versus the Idea of God, followed by some brief extracts from the book.

To those of you so inclined, I wish you good reading!


Table of Contents

Prologue: God and me, a Shaky relationship at best 1
Chapter One A Steep Hill to Climb 9
Chapter Two Looking Back to Look Ahead 15
Chapter Three The church’s Story 23
Chapter four The church’s Story II 34
Chapter Five Religious Reality: God vs. the Idea of God 43
Chapter Six The Purpose of God 64
Entr’acte 75
Chapter Seven The Jesus Phenomenon 76
Chapter Eight Does Jesus Equal God? 107
Chapter Nine Picking a Path: The church’s Continuing Role
Providing For Man’s Non-Material Needs 115
Epilogue: Moving On 131
Appendix A: An example of the Problem of Change 137
About the Author 141
Notes on Resources & References 143
Bibliography 149

Excerpts from God versus the Idea of God

“It’s acceptable today to express skepticism—just why I’m not sure—but not outright disbelief. I’ve hunkered down behind the cloak of skepticism for years. Now seems the time to shed it. While taking this overt action may invite criticism, even ostracism, fortunately today no longer burning at the stake (Hallelujah!).”
“If an infinite and perfect God (by definition) exists outside of time (history)—always as, does and always will—while finite mankind exists in time (history) how can there be any intercourse or relationship or even awareness between the two? Thus, for us finites, God—assuming God—must be unknown, even unknowable. To God as presented we must be, if anything, but a blink of an eye: poof!
Well, what about the Church’s historical presentation of Jesus of Nazareth? What about it? People have been worshiping gods, and the God of the Hebrew Bible for some time prior to his appearance in the public domain, and since. For the Christian Church, Jesus, the Christs, represents God active in history. It’s their solution to how we can know God. For the Church, Jesus—declared fully human and fully God by this institution—is the necessary “bridge” connecting the finite to the infinite. For many it’s a persuasive argument; for what appears to be a growing number it seems to fall short. We will take up this serious Jesus-God relationship in depth in chapter Seven. It is of course an important—critical—subject within Christianity. But here it’s a subsidiary aspect of the central question, the conundrum, of God vs. the Idea of God.” (Prologue)
“The main Christian proposition my intellect (rightly or wrongly) anguishes over is the Christology, the theological nature and character of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. In fact, it is more than just that. It’s the very believability, or truth, of the claims Christianity makes about this indispensable prerequisite historical religious figure that I wrestle with. Here is a mustard seed in the granary of history. But in milling it the Church has transformed it into a finished flour both pungent and potent appearing.” (Chapter Three)
“The late American mythologist Joseph Campbell said that myths guide us through time and the trials of life; God is a manifestation of the mind [a coming into being, or evidence]. Divinity is what we think—the idea; faith—the subjective reality—is what we experience. If this be the case, then the decline in religious identification and church attendance as evidenced earlier is no doubt due in some part to the nature of the experience of faith in the Church today, versus our thoughts about divinity, be those thoughts considered orthodox by the religious establishment or not. At least in the West, the Christian myth is apparently not serving many of us well today as we ‘move through time and the trials of life’.” (Chapter Five)
“Some whose career and/or orientation is today religious deplore the pursuit of a historical Jesus as if there was something to fear from this. But if Jesus was truly a man as well as true God (as the Council of Ephesus in 431 specified), there must be a historical side to him that is worth pursuing. Interest in the historical aspects of Jesus is not a recent pursuit. Almost 200 years ago now, the German liberal protestant theologian and writer David Friedrich Strauss’ (1808-1874) 1836 book, The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, ‘scandalized Christian Europe with its portrayal of the Historical Jesus.’ And more recently as the late Catholic priest and Biblical scholar Raymond E. Brown pointed out, if Jesus does not have a historical reality, Christianity becomes myth.” (Chapter Seven)
“R.R. Reno, editor of the conservative periodical First Things recently wrote, ‘We are living in a strange historical moment. The culture of the twenty-first century West lives at a greater remove from the perennial human desire to obey divine authority – a far greater remove – than any culture in human history.’ Mr. Reno describes our public culture as one of limited horizons and a pessimism that finds countless reasons why nothing new or bold can be done. ‘Stainability’ is our default aspiration. In a world without divine authority, tomorrow can only be a recycled version of today.
I certainly can’t argue with Mr. Reno. I would only ask about the causation producing this condition. Mr. Reno implies it lies at the feet of cultural change. But for well over a millennium the Church, broadly speaking, was highly influential in cultural norms and their formation. What has brought about this apparent (sudden?) fall from religious cultural influence?”
(Chapter Nine)