Faith and Doubt On The Margins
Presented at the SOFN (NZ) Conference 4 October 1997
To explore the topic of faith and doubt on the margins, I intend, first, to discuss the very important distinction to be made between faith and belief, then turn to the relationship of faith and doubt, and, after that, to explore what it may mean, within a Sea of Faith context, to say, "I believe in God" .
There is a widespread perception today in the community that religious faith consists of holding a certain number of specific and often irrational beliefs. It is in connection with Christianity, particularly, that this perception is most widely to be found, and unfortunately it is often strongly promoted by the churches themselves. Christian faith, at a very early stage, came to be referred to as "the faith" and this led, much later, to the identification of faith with giving assent to a set of unchangeable beliefs, referred to as the creeds or standard Christian doctrines. These doctrines came to be regarded as absolute and unchangeable on the grounds that they had been revealed by God, the source of all truth. That conviction in itself is simply another belief, a foundation belief, underlying the rest.
W.Cantwell Smith, an American scholar of international repute, pointed out that the perception that faith consists in holding a certain set of beliefs is actually quite a modern phenomenon. He wrote this:
"The idea that believing is religiously important turns out to be a modern idea...the great modern heresy of the church is the heresy of believing. Not of believing this or that but of believing as such. The view that to believe is of central significance—this is an aberration".
To put the matter bluntly and over simplistically we may say that in pre-modern times people put their faith in God; to day, in contrast, too many put their faith in beliefs, such as the belief that the Bible cannot be in error. This modern error of equating faith with holding certain beliefs began to develop in the 19th century. That is why Lewis Carroll poked fun at it in 1865 when he wrote Alice in Wonderland. There he portrayed Alice as saying, "I can't possibly believe that!". The Queen replied,"Perhaps you haven't had enough practice. Why, I have believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast". To identify faith with the holding of a certain number of beliefs which come to us from the past actually makes a mockery of Christian faith and reduces it to the schoolboy's definition of faith—"Faith is believing things you know ain't true".
Let me first show how we can easily be misled, and indeed largely have been misled, by the way language changes over the centuries. (Incidentally, language is basic to the human condition. We are all products of a language-based culture. Every religion is clothed in a specific language and expressed in a set of verbal symbols. This is why, in part, the medieval western church was reluctant to allow the Bible to be translated into the vernacular. It is why Islam refuses to accept any translation of the Qur'an from the original Arabic. But more of that later.)
Wilfred Cantwell Smith, wrote two books — Belief in History and Faith and Belief — which meticulously trace the radical changes which have taken place in the meaning attached to such words as "belief" and "faith". These books ought to be required reading in every theological college.
These show how our words "belief" and "faith" have changed in meaning since earlier times. When people today say "I believe in God", they often simply expressing their opinion or conviction that there exists a spiritual being called God. That is not what was meant by "belief in God" four centuries ago. Of course, at that time, it was their common conviction that a supernatural being called God had created and continued to control the world. To them that seemed self-evident, and did not have to be spelled out. When they said "I believe in God" they were saying something much more than that.
The difference between their use of the word "believe" and ours can be best illustrated by noting the way in which some today also say they "believe in the Devil". No medieval Christian would have dreamed of saying such a dreadful thing. Of course it wastheir opinion that the Devil existed. But to say "I believe in the Devil" in those days meant giving one's allegiance to the devil. The appropriate expression was not "I believe in the Devil", but "I renounce the devil", meaning, "I will reject all suggestions made to me by the devil". In contrast, when they said, "I believe in God" they did not mean "It is my opinion that a God exists. They meant "I give my allegiance to God" or "I entrust myself to God". It was unthinkable to say, "I entrust myself to the Devil".
A further way of showing the earlier meaning of "believe" is to go back to Latin, which, after all, was the universal Christian language in Western mediaeval Christendom. The Latin word credo, which also gives us the word creed, was translated in English as "I believe". The etymology of "credo" is very revealing. It is made up from do (I give and cor (heart). Credo meant originally "I give my heart to". On the other hand, the Latin word for "believe", in the way we now understand that word was opinor, which gives us our word "opinion".
Thus, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, "belief was the earlier word for what is now commonly called faith". "Belief in God used to mean "putting one's trust in God" but it now refers to an opinion about reality, namely that the world was created by and is ruled by a supernatural personal being.
This belief, like all beliefs, is human in origin and expression. Human beliefs and opinions are always changing in the course of developing culture. This belief has never been universal to all humankind, and in the Western world, where it was once practically universal, it is now held by increasingly fewer people. In mediaeval times no one questioned the existence of unseen spiritual beings, because such a realm seemed eminently self-evident. The supreme being they called God; but just as real to them also were angels, spirits and the Devil. They did not question their existence. These were all part of the body of beliefs which made up the mediaeval view of reality. What was at stake in that context was not what one believed (in our sense of the word "belief") but in which of these self-evident beings did one put one's trust?. And that is what they meant by saying "I believe in God".
It is because we live in a cultural setting so different from either the ancient or the mediaeval worlds that the common beliefs they had no longer have the power to convince us. It can be religiously dangerous to commit oneself to the beliefs of former generations and to do so may become a form of idolatry. To regard any set of beliefs as absolute and unchangeable is to turn into an idol something human, finite and fallible. To continue to accept any beliefs from others or from the past, those beliefs should have the inherent power to convince us.
In the last four hundred years, and particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries, culture and the general knowledge which forms the base of it have been changing rapidly. So our beliefs have been changing. It is less than two hundred years since nearly every body in the Western world believed the earth was only six thousand years old, and that we were all descended from two common ancestors, Adam and Eve. Those are only two of a whole host of beliefs held by all Christians before 1800 but which are not held by well-informed people today, and not even by all Christians.
Because such now outmoded beliefs had long been woven into the thinking in which former generations expressed their faith, it came to be assumed by far too many that to walk the Christian path of faith one had to carry on believing the very same beliefs in which all earlier Christians had expressed their faith. The confusion of the word "belief" with "faith", as used in the creeds, only served to support this false assumption. The Church itself must acknowledge some of the blame for this error.
What beliefs we hold at any point in time moment depend, first on the culture which has shaped us, and secondly on our own particular experience, followed by reflection on them both. If we had lived in the middle ages we would almost certainly have believed that the earth was flat, and probably that the stars were the lights of heaven. We may have believed that if we could have been taken up into the sky far enough we would actually see God on his golden throne surrounded by angels. As Cantwell Smith says, "One's beliefs belong to the century one lives in".
Faith is something altogether different. There were people of faith in the Middle Ages. There are people of faith today. But the body of beliefs held by people at different times and from within which they attempt to express that faith in words may differ very considerably.
To recover the full significance of faith it is essential that we divorce it from any notion of commitment to particular beliefs. This may be illustrated by now showing how faith is related to doubt. The experience of doubt has too often been misunderstood and undervalued in Christian circles. Perhaps this owed something to the story of Doubting Thomas and later to John Bunyan. In his famous allegory about life, The Pilgrim's Progress, he described Giant Despair dwelling in Doubting Castle. Now it is true that the absence of faith can be described as despair. But the absence of doubt is not faith but credulity—a very different thing indeed.
The capacity to doubt plays a very important role in both personal grow th and in cultural growth. When we are children we hold child-like beliefs—beliefs appropriate to our age, such as beliefs in fairies and elves, and, most commonly still, the beliefabout Santa Claus. But if we continue to hold these beyond the appropriate age we refer to them as childish. There comes a time when we should put them behind us and move on. As St. Paul rightly observed, "When I was a child I thought like a child. I reasoned like a child. But when I became a man I gave up my childish ways".
What enables us to put them behind us and grow to maturity is the capacity to doubt. We have all seen this happening with a child of six or seven who begins to doubt whether Santa Claus can really get down the chimney or how he can be in so many different places at once. Then the very objective reality of this mysterious person comes to be doubted. It is the same capacity to doubt which comes into place during the often turbulent period we go through in adolescence. We begin to doubt, and then challenge,our parent's authority. We come to a full realization that these once authoritative, and almost divine, figures are quite human and fallible after all. This complex process in which we swither between doubting and obeying them is essential for our growthto adult maturity. If persons of fifty years of age are still relying on their parents to tell them what to do in every situation, they are suffering from stunted growth.
It is the same in developing human culture. Without the capacity to doubt we cannot put away our childish beliefs and grow to the maturity of faith. Doubt is not the enemy of faith but the enemy of false beliefs. All beliefs should be continually subjected to doubt and critical examination. When beliefs are found to be false or inadequate they should be discarded and be replaced by those which are more appropriate because they have the power to convince within that cultural setting. But it often takes alot of courage to doubt. We may say it takes real faith to doubt.
Thirty years ago an anonymous well-wisher sent me through the post a little book by an American scholar called Homes Hartshorne. The book was entitled The Faith to Doubt. I found it an exciting book and have treasured it ever since. It said such things as, "People today are not in need of assurances about the truth of doubtful beliefs. They need the faith to doubt. They need the faith by which to reject idols. The churches cannot preach to this age if they stand outside of it, living in the illusory security of yesterday's beliefs. These [already] lie about us broken, and we cannot by taking thought raise them from the dead".
The very act of discarding outworn beliefs, far from demonstrating a lack of faith, may in fact be just the opposite. It may open the door for genuine faith to operate again. Indeed the assertion that one needs to believe a particular creed or set of doctrines in order to have faith is an invitation to credulity rather than to faith. There is a very big difference between child-like faith and childish credulity.
Neither is faith reached by the path of logical argument and convincing evidence. Those are the ways by which we test our beliefs. But faith does not rest on proof. That is demonstrated by the story of doubting Thomas. He said, "Unless I see in his handsthe print of the nails and place my finger in the mark of the nails and place my hand in his side, I cannot have faith". The reply to that was, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have had faith". In other words, blessed are those who have faithwithout asking for any proof. Faith that requires proof or demonstration is no faith at all. The person who tries to defend the truth of Christianity by proving it, is actually showing lack of faith.
Does this mean that we are free to believe anything we like? Yes and no! First let us note that our beliefs are not embraced by choice. That is why people quite properly say, "I cannot possibly believe that!". Our beliefs take shape in us as a result of our experience and of the impact of our cultural tradition upon us. But we must be left free from the constraints of external authority to formulate our beliefs in the way that preserves our honesty and integrity. We rightly resist having other people's beliefs imposed upon us, for that would lead us into a stage of intellectual slavery. To be encouraged to repeat as our own the creeds of former generations is to allow ourselves to be turned into a ventriloquist's dummy.
But while we should be free to believe what experience leads us to believe, it does not follow that it does not matter what we believe. To believe that we can jump off a high cliff without coming to any harm is a very dangerous belief. It is possible to hold some very dangerous religious beliefs, as the Jonestown disaster so clearly illustrates. It is because all beliefs should be continually subjected to critical examination that the importance of doubt comes into its own. Doubt has the positive value of delivering us from dangerous beliefs and, at the same time, of opening the door for genuine faith.
As soon as we disjoin faith from some of the now outmoded beliefs traditionally associated with Christianity we come to see that the Christian tradition has no monopoly over faith. This is why Jesus was able to commend the faith he found in certain Gentiles. They clearly did not share the Jewish beliefs which he himself had. Faith is much bigger and more widespread than any particular set of beliefs and practices.
Faith is a quality of human living. Nearly every body has some faith, however small. "Everywhere, and at all times humans have lived by faith, both individually and corporately", said Cantwell Smith. To have no faith is to be in a condition of absolute despair. It is to find no meaning or significance in anything. It is to feel that life is not worth the candle. If such a condition persists for long our physical health soon deteriorates and we die—or in more extreme cases we may take our own life.
So it is not a case of dividing people into those who have faith and those who have none. It is rather the case of having great faith or only a little faith. And of course through life our faith may ebb and flow according to the changing circumstances in which we live. As human beings we all have the capacity for faith. We are all born with that capacity, which is why children, from infancy onwards, have a great capacity to respond in trust to those around them. Today, it may be actually necessary to move to the margins of traditional Christian orthodoxy in order to walk again the path of genuine faith.
Faith, therefore, is much more than words and beliefs and can never be adequately expressed in words. Faith is the positive response of the whole person to life—a response which involves the emotions and the will just as much as the mind.
We are all born with the capacity for faith as the trustful response of the youngest infant illustrates. But the way we grow in faith is quite complex. Faith is caught rather than taught. From early infancy we are catching it from others—our parents, our friends, our peers, our teachers, the people we work with, and the people we come to admire. People of faith are a great boon to society for they have the effect of fostering faith in others and inspiring them with trust and hope. We feel drawn to people of great faith for, unconsciously perhaps even more than consciously, we sense that they have what we need and by being near to them, and that some of it may rub off on us so that we too may grow in faith.
Further there are many different things in our experience and cultural environment which serve to nurture faith. That is the role played by the verbal symbols and the beliefs systems in a particular culture. All the great religious traditions originated from men and women of great faith, vision and hope. They have continued through the centuries wherever they have inspired people to walk the path of faith. Christianity is not the only path of faith. This is acknowledged in the title of one of the standard text-books we used to use in religious studies classes. It was called simply Paths of Faith
The closest synonym of faith is therefore not belief but trust. Faith is a total response of trust towards the world in general, towards people and towards the future. Faith has a strong affinity with hope. This is reflected in the letter to the Hebrews,"Faith is the assurance of things hoped for" and in the famous hymn where Paul coupled it with hope in his trinity of the things which last for ever—faith, hope and love.
Faith is also closely allied with integrity. Integrity means wholeness. It abhors intellectual contradictions and moral inconsistency. Openly to embrace beliefs which you may secretly doubt undermines faith instead of promoting it, for it means that you are at cross-purposes with yourself. This is well illustrated by a well-known verse from the prophet Habakkuk. It is commonly translated as "The just shall live by his faith". A better translation would be, "The righteous man shall live by reason of his integrity". The word translated as "faith" or "integrity" has to do with steadfastness, fidelity, reliability. It comes from the same verbal root as the word "Amen". And it is this idea which lies behind the references to faith in the New Testament.
It is also reflected in the words of Jesus to the woman who clutched at his garment in the hope of being made well. He said to her when she found herself healed, "It is your faith that has made you whole". He did not mean for one moment that she had the right beliefs. He was referring to her attitude of trust, fidelity and inner steadfastness or integrity.
Our Christian cultural heritage will continue as a viable path of communal faith in today's global village only if it leaves us free to believe what we find personally convincing and at the same inspires us to walk into the unknown future with hope and faith.
It is just such a model of faith we find in Abraham. Whatever his beliefs were they were certainly very different from ours. He knew nothing about Moses and the Torah, yet he is honoured by the Jews as their spiritual father. He knew nothing about the Qur'an but is honoured by Islam as the first Muslim. He knew nothing about Jesus Christ and the so-called Christian Gospel, yet the first Christians honoured him as the very model of a man of faith. "By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out not knowing where he was to go".
The story of Abraham as the model of a person of faith transcends all the different beliefs there are among Jews, Christians and Muslims and pinpoints what seems to be essential to faith. But it still leaves us with a problem. Abraham is said to have obeyed God. So is some kind of belief in God, or belief about God, essential to faith in the modern sense of the word "belief"? In turning now to this question we shall also be dealing with the often posed question, "It is all very well to talk about faithas trust, but in what or in whom are we to put our trust?" The short answer to this latter question is that in the monotheistic traditions faith has always been understood and expressed verbally as faith in God. But this very fact begins to bring home to us just how culturally insular we have become. Buddhism is a path of faith but abandoned the concept of God or the gods at its very beginning. Confucianism is a path of faith but there is no word for God in the Chinese language. When the Christian missionaries first went to China they had to invent a word for God. Actually they chose an already existing Chinese word and gave it a new meaning. Unfortunately the Protestants chose one word and the Roman Catholics chose another. All serves to bring home to us how much we are depend on language for religious understanding and indeed for our humanity. And language is something which we inherit from the past, where it slowly evolved and is still evolving.
The evolution of language is actually the key to human culture in general and to religion in particular. (And this I have written about at some length in Tomorrow's God.) At birth we enter a language based culture and it nurtures the development of our own individual consciousness and the way we see reality.
As Don Cupitt has well said, "Language is the medium in which we live and move and have our being. In it we act, we structure the world and order every aspect of our social life. Only Language stands between us and the Void. It shapes everything".
Human existence is dependent on language. Every human culture is based on a language. Every religious tradition depends on a language for its expression and cognitive understanding. In the monotheistic cultures the most basic word, the one which holds all the rest together, is the word God. But how did the word "God" come to us, and why? Until modern times few people paused even to ponder the question. In the cultural context in which people lived until recently there was every reason to believe that human knowledge of God went back to the time of Adam and Eve, only a few thousand years ago.
Only recently have we humans been in a position to say that the word "God", indeed the very concept of God, like all concepts, has not only been created by the human mind but it has quite a long and fascinating history, as Karen Armstrong has so clearly demonstrated in her book, History of God.
There is no time to trace that history here. It must suffice to point out that The word "god" originated in ancient cultures as a class of invisible beings by which to explain the phenomena they observed in the natural world, so full of mystery and wonder. The gods thus came to birth as the creation of the collective human mind. Theprocess of conceiving and naming the gods, all made possible through language, was a way of ordering their world and of providing a rational explanation of everything they observed and encountered in nature. They referred to the sky as father (still reflected in the words "our heavenly Father") and the earth as mother.
As we look back to the birth of the gods in ancient times, from a cultural context which has long abandoned primitive polytheism, we too often fail to appreciate that the "gods" were just as much concepts of primitive "science" (that is, knowledge of reality) as they were of primitive religion. Where modern physicists coin such terms as electrons, quarks and black holes in order to explain natural phenomena, the ancients coined such terms as spirits, jinn, angels, devils and gods. We now regard the ancient gods as imaginary figures, because they are not part of the way we understand the world. For the ancients, however, they were very real figures indeed.
The time came, however, when the objective reality of these terms did come to be questioned. That is how the human capacity to doubt brought about the next stage in cultural growth in the long human path of faith. At first doubt was openly expressed onlyby a few very brave souls, but it was out of their pioneering thinking some two and a half thousand years ago that there emerged the new and fruitful paths of faith we call the great world religions.
There we find a very interesting thing happening to the concept of the gods. In Chinese the concept of the gods, if it had existed, dropped out of use. In Buddhism the concept of god was deliberately bypassed. In both Greece and Israel the concept of god was retained but quite radically transformed in meaning. The gods were replaced by one God, enabling this symbolic word to continue to perform the religious role of being the centre of a meaningful world.
Plato's God was the essence of goodness, the creative source of everything, the universal, impersonal and eternal "form" behind the humanly conceived gods of Olympus. For Aristotle God was even less personal than for Plato, being chiefly conceived as thePrime Mover of the cosmic system. The Stoics, in turn, conceived God as the principle of rationality and order which pervaded all things.
The influence of these Greek philosophers was later to penetrate deeply into the Christian understanding of God, but there it became synthesised with the transformation which had been taking place simultaneously in the tiny nation of Israel at the instigation of their prophets. The "gods" as a class of beings were scornfully banished from reality in favour of one supreme invisible spirit known only through speech. The transition took place in stages over several centuries.
It is important to observe that the Israelites, in spite of their demolition of "the gods" as a class of beings, retained the actual Hebrew word for "the gods", elohim (still plural in form), but gave it a new connotation, just as the Greek philosophers had done with theos. The word has a double use in the Old Testament. When it refers to the gods of the nations it is intended to be treated as plural, but when it refers to Yahweh it is intended to be treated as singular.
This is why, in the Bible, God is sometimes treated as a proper name and sometimes not. We find the word elohim frequently attached to people—as in "the god of Israel", "the god of Abraham", "my god", "your god". We see the word god being increasingly used in a symbolic way to refer to whatever values a person or a nation treated as supreme. For example, if you were to ask, "Where shall I find the god of Abraham?", the appropriate answer would be, "Watch how Abraham lives his life. Look for what he regards as his ultimate; that is all you will ever know of the god of Abraham. His god consists of the values he lives by and the goals he feels himself called to achieve."
What eventuated as the classical Christian understanding of God owed almost as much to Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics as it did to the Israelite prophets. The transcendental, other-worldly, unchanging God of Plato was united in uneasy tension with the immanent, this-worldly, history-guiding God of Israel. The tension was prevented from falling apart by the formulation of the symbolic doctrines of the trinity and the incarnation. Strangely enough modern philosophers of religion who defend traditional Christian theism often completely ignore these two doctrines. This leaves them defending the god of Plato and Aristotle rather more than the biblical concept of God.
In western theism the break with Plato began a long time ago with the Franciscan theologian William of Occam, who initiated the philosophical tradition known as nominalism. He denied that Plato's "forms" or universals had any objective reality; they were simply names, he said. They were words or concepts invented by the human mind. Since, for Plato, "God" was just such a form or name, the implication of William of Occam was that "God" also had no objective existence and was simply a name invented by humans. Of course William of Occam never put it that bluntly or he would have been burnt at the stake. But he pioneered the tradition which was to develop in later people such as Luther, Feuerbach and Don Cupitt.
Luther was a nominalist. He said, "A god is that to which we look for all good; to have a god is simply to trust in one with our whole heart...the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both god and an idol. If your faith and confidence are right, then likewise your god is the true god. On the other hand, if your confidence is false, then you have not the true god...whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your god".
Already we find in the phrases "a God is that to which we look for the good" and "whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your God", an acknowledgement of how subjectively the term "God" was coming to be understood in the nominalist tradition. Not surprisingly, therefore, it was the nineteenth century theologian and philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) who expressed quite boldly the implications of Occam's nominalism by asserting that "God" is a humanly created concept. Feuerbach concluded that "God" was an unconscious objectification of all that the human mind felt to be of worth. "God" had been created by human imagination to contain, symbolically, the highest human aspirations and values. "By his God you know the man, and by the man his God; the two are identical."
"God" is a verbal symbol, humanly created. All talk and discussion about God (theo-logy means god-talk), said Feuerbach, is really an exercise in human self-understanding. By referring to the God-symbol we are discussing the meaning of human existence. "God" is the symbol most central or basic to meaning. In the long history of the word "God", Feuerbach's thinking marked a turning point as radically significant as those marked by the Israelite prophets and the Greek philosophers.
At last we have reached the point where we can acknowledge that "God" is a word, a very important word, a symbolic word. It has no external referent which is open to public confirmation. The word "God" has become a functional term whose content depends on what we (subjectively) put into it, and this process, we have seen, had its beginnings in the Bible, where the prophets denied the objective reality of the gods but retained the word "God", for that to which Israel should give its allegiance.
The word "God" performs a very important function in our reflection about the nature of human existence, but the content or meaning of the word needs to be supplied by us. The content with which we invest it is the set of values and aspirations which we find making a moral and spiritual claim on us, or, if one prefers to put it this way, the supreme values and goals to which to which we feel ourselves drawn.
The way in which the content of the word "God" differs from person to person, may be clearly illustrated by the fact that, at the collective level, Jews, Christians and Muslims, while all claiming to be monotheists, cannot be said to worship the same God. The only criterion we have for determining the identity of God are the "attributes" of God. The attributes constitute the content of the word "God" and we humans are the ones who enunciate for ourselves what those attributes are. For example, for the Jews, God is the One who delivered their forbears from slavery and gave them the land of Israel. For the Christians, God is the One who became incarnate in Jesus Christ. For the Muslims, God is the One who appointed Muhammad as the last of his prophets andthrough whom he delivered the Qur'an. In each case the attribute is a sine qua non of the tradition in question, yet in no way can it be reconciled with the others. Indeed, God is not a word which as ever had one fixed meaning for all people.
That seminal Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote a book called The Eclipse of God. He had been greatly influenced by Ludwig Feuerbach in his younger days. Buber recognized that from modern times onward the word "God" could no longer mean what it had commonly meant in the past. Yet he still saw an essential use for the word and so he spoke of the idea of God as being temporarily eclipsed. In the beginning of his book he described his meeting with an older Jew whom he refers to as "a noble old thinker". Buber was staying with him while visiting another university to lecture to some theology students. The man asked Buber to read to him some of his lecture. When he finished the old man said, "How can you bring yourself to say "God" time after time? What word of human speech is so misused, so defiled, so desecrated as this! All the innocent blood that has been shed for it has robbed it of its radiance. All the injustice that it has been used to cover has effaced its features". Buber remarked that the man'skindly eyes flamed with emotion and indignation. They sat together in silence for some time until the Buber replied, "Yes, it is the most heavy-laden of all human words. None has become so soiled, so mutilated. Just for this reason I may not abandon it. Generations of people have laid the burden of their anxious lives upon this word...Where might I find a word like it to describe the highest! ...We cannot cleanse the word "God" and we cannot make it whole, but, defiled and mutilated as it is, we can raise it from the ground and set it over an hour of great care". The old man stood up, laid his hands on Buber's shoulder and said, "Let us be friends". Buber completed the story by adding, "The conversation was completed. For where two or three are truly together, they are together in the name of God".
Whether any of us continues to use the word god or not has now become a matter of personal choice. But this is so with all the vocabulary of the language we use. There is no necessity for us to use the word "God". It is not even essential for us to use it in order to talk about faith. If we do use the word, we open ourselves to misunderstanding and confusion. In spite of that I am inclined like Buber to keep on using it.
If we want to use one word in order to refer to that in which persons of faith put their trust it is still as good a word as any. But each must be free to spell out for themselves just what that word contains for them. It certainly does not mean for me what it meant for the ancients, including even Jesus of Nazareth, or what it meant for the mediaevalists or even what it means for traditional theists of today. I do not believe, for example, that the word is name of a spiritual being who planned and created this universe and who keeps it in his control. From what I have learned about this universe it operates according to chance as much as any kind of design. My own existence and the particular DNA formula which makes up the unique physiology of my physical body are themselves the result of a chance meeting of a particular ovum with a particular sperm.
It is my belief that there is no ultimate meaning or purpose permeating this universe, amazing and mysterious though it is. The universe just is as it is. If we want to find any meaning within the short time any of us is here, we have to create that meaning for ourselves. And we create the meaning of our lives by the way we live. For me "God" is a useful symbol, inherited from the past, to refer to that meaning, to those values I find to be supreme and to those goals I feel myself called to aspire. So when I say "I believe in God", I mean something like this "God is the symbol which holds together in a unity all my bits of knowledge abut the world and all the virtues I have come to value, such as love, justice, compassion. The more I respond positively to all this and learn to trust my fellow-humans and the world at large, the more I find human existence to be of great worth and meaningful. Surprisingly, I find much of the language of the Bible and the Christian tradition is still very helpful to me.
For God, as I understand this word, is to be found in people, in human relationships, in my own thinking, as well as in the mystery of all living creatures and in the stars and distant nebulae." So when I say "I believe in God" I mean a whole bundle of things, including such things as: I trust my fellow-humans. I trust the world. I say "Yes!" to life. I look forward to each new day in hope and faith.