"Radical Theology: Inventing or Discovering Reality?"

John Bishop

(An address to the Sea of Faith Network Conference, Central Institute of Technology, Heretaunga, 9th October, 1998)
Our theme in this Conference is "Inventing Reality". In this talk, my aim is to consider the meaning of this theme, and its significance for the Sea of Faith Network's commitment to explore "religious thought and expression from a non-dogmatic and human-oriented standpoint".
My talk has three parts:
Interpreting the "Inventing Reality" Thesis
Realist versus Non-Realist Understandings of Religious Belief
Constructing New Theories of the Divine

Interpreting the "Inventing Reality" Thesis

"Inventing Reality" suggests the following bold claim, which I will call the Inventing Reality Thesis: what we take to be real is not something absolute, objective, or independent of us. Rather, our reality is something we have invented ... not deliberately or consciously, of course, but through our collective linguistic and cultural development. Reality isn't something which stands over against the human mind; rather, it is a construct of the human mind.
I know that members of the Sea of Faith Network are a diverse and varied group of people. You have no common dogma or allegiance to a specific creed. But you generally do share a common dissatisfaction with your inherited religious tradition combined with a sense that, nevertheless, it contains much of great value which is worth preserving. And your "explorations of religious thought and expression from a non-dogmatic and human standpoint" are often motivated by a desire to discover whether it is possible to retain what is valuable from the tradition while discarding what gives cause for dissatisfaction. Within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, certainly, many people (and I am one of them) have been searching for a way to separate the wheat of authentic religion from the chaff of outdated and otherwise unsatisfactory expressions of it. For the sake of a convenient label, I'll call this task the project of radical theology.
Within the Sea of Faith Network it is, I think, widely accepted that one of the main tools for advancing the project of radical theology is to accept and apply the Inventing Reality Thesis. So long as we think of the truths of Judaeo-Christian religionas absolute truths belonging to a reality independent of ourselves, we will have no hope of discerning the authentic core of this religious tradition. To separate the religious wheat from the chaff, we must acknowledge that religious reality depends on our own minds, and on the historical cultural context in which those minds have developed.
Don Cupitt and Lloyd Geering have both emphasised this approach. In Tomorrow's God, Lloyd Geering emphasises the importance of language in the development of human self-consciousness and in creating the world which we experience as real. And he applies this to our religious world: we create the world of our religion in the search for meaning—in order to provide a framework within which our lives and projects can be seen as worthwhile and meaningful. The creation of the world of religion is essentially a matter of constructing symbols, which are to be understood not as attempts to describe an independent reality, but as expressions of our deepest values, or (as Paul Tillich famously puts it) our "ultimate concerns". This Inventing Reality Thesis applies to all our religious beliefs, including core beliefs about God: in our theistic tradition, God is the central symbol we have constructed, the focal element in the invented world which brings meaning out of chaos.
Applying the Inventing Reality Thesis to the world of our theistic religion seems to imply a constructivist agenda for the project of radical theology. If belief in the existence of God is belief in something we have ourselves invented in order to find meaning and express our ultimate concerns, then our radical theological task will be to construct a religious world which is fully appropriate to our circumstances and values. The transcendent world of the supernatural, with the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent personal Creator God— whom I like to call the "omniGod"—at its centre, may have been an appropriate cultural construction in mediaeval times. But it is not appropriate to modern scientific culture. If we do try to carry on living withinthe framework of an invented world which is no longer appropriate to our own culture and values, we are bound to experience severe tensions and dissatisfaction. To preserve what's valuable in our tradition, then, we must reinvent the theistic world, so that it does, once again, become appropriate to our contemporary situation. And it will be a fascinating task to work out which parts of the old construction need to be retained and which rejected, and what imaginative developments of the rich resources of the tradition are needed to construct a religious world in which we can be truly at home.
There is something disturbing, though, about this picture of what radical theology should involve. If radical theologising is just a matter of "designing your own religious worldview", what then is the point of engaging in it? If we are just inventing a fictional world in order to express our deepest shared values, wouldn't it be better to cut the storytelling and concentrate on the ethical core of our religious tradition? Don't we risk misleading people if we continue to insist on inventing religiousreality as a kind of icing on the cake of our basic value commitments? Indeed, isn't it rather embarrassing to keep insisting that it's important to retain belief in God while at the same time maintaining that "God" doesn't refer to anything real and ispurely a symbol we have constructed?
A thoroughgoing constructivist radical theologian may well be able to come up with answers to these questions. I want to suggest, however, that the emergence of these disturbing questions should prompt us to question whether the radical theological task does necessarily come down to a matter of "designer worldviews". Our forebears in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, prior to this modern (or "post-modern" era), seem to have thought of themselves as discovering something about religious reality through their collective experience, and expressing something of what they thought they had discovered in their theological beliefs. Do we now have to dismiss this as a mistake? In particular, does our new sophistication about the "worldmaking" power of linguistic cultures entail that there is no room for the idea that humans can genuinely discover things about a reality which is not, purely, their own invention? Does the Inventing Reality Thesis, in other words, really entail that reality can only ever be invented and never in any sense discovered? I want to argue that the answer is "no". When the Inventing Reality Thesis is interpreted properly, I think we will see that we can accept the Thesis and still allow that there is room for the notion of human discoveries about reality—for the notion that we can gain knowledge, albeit fallible knowledge, about a reality which is not our own creation. And this applies as much to theology as to any other branch of human inquiry. Radical theology may then be understood as involving new discoveries about the nature of God—or, to put it more neutrally - about religious reality. Purely constructivist radical theology is one option, certainly ... but it is not the only option. How should we interpret the Inventing Reality Thesis, then? In what sense is reality our own construction, rather than an absolute independent of us? The Inventing Reality Thesis is a quite general claim: the dependence of truths about reality on our own creative activity applies to all truths. Now, the Thesis is itself a claimed truth about reality. The Thesis should therefore apply to itself. It will then follow that the truth of the Inventing Reality Thesis is itself something we have invented, and not something that is true independently of ourselves. But accepting this implication seems problematic. The spectre of relativism raises its head. We, relative to our contemporary "post-modern" culture, may indeed invent a world in which reality is always a cultural invention and never a mind-independent absolute; but others, relative to their historical culture (e.g., the mediaeval philosophers or contemporary fundamentalists), may invent a world where reality is absolutely mind-and culture-independent. And there seems to be no neutral standpoint from which we can say that one culture's invention of reality is any better or true or more correctthan any other's. So, the Inventing Reality Thesis, which might at first have struck us as an insightful discovery of an important truth—a truth which proponents of traditional Christianity mistakenly deny or ignore—then turns out to be merely a matter of the way we now, relative to our current cultural context, like to invent reality. Indeed, if we interpret the Inventing Reality Thesis as saying that reality is wholly a human construction, there will never be any room for the idea that we humans have discovered something about reality. There will never be any room for the idea that we have made any advance in our knowledge of the world: all we will ever get are changes, shifts, in our ways of inventing the world. Yet—I want to suggest—surely those who have advanced the Inventing Reality Thesis did in fact advance it as an important step in our knowledge of ourselves and of reality?!
This argument shows, I think, that the Inventing Reality Thesis should not be interpreted to mean that reality in itself is wholly a human invention. Such a strong interpretation would, anyway, be highly implausible. Endorsing this strong interpretation of the Inventing Reality Thesis would just shift the role of creator ex nihilo from the traditional supernatural God to the Human Mind or Human Culture (when what we should be doing, I think, is to reject the need for a creator ex nihilo altogether). Besides, human minds and cultures are the product of the lengthy evolution of a natural Universe which existed long before humanity emerged and will exist long after it has vanished. A worldview without room for the idea of independent reality won't be able to acknowledge this.
Properly interpreted, the Inventing Reality Thesis makes a more moderate claim. It claims that all human understanding and experience of reality is affected by the creative activity of human minds, located as they are in specific historical language-using cultures. What depends on us and our cultures are our beliefs about reality, not reality in itself. Our beliefs about the world, which unreflectively seem to us to reveal its independent reality, are never in fact purely objective, because they are formed through a process to which our own nature, our own mind, is one ineliminable contributor—an insight for which the philosopher Immanuel Kant is famous. But there is no suggestion that, in general, reality springs wholly from our own inventive activity. Reality is as it is in itself. It is just our access to it—our experience of it, and our beliefs about what it is like—which is always mediated by the framework imposed by our own mind. What we experience as or believe to be real can thus never be identified with reality as it is, absolutely, in itself. Nevertheless, there is a place for the idea of mind-independent reality: reality isn't itself a mental construction, though our understanding of it can never be free of dependence on our own mental construction.
Given this more moderate interpretation of the Inventing Reality Thesis, there is room for the idea that we can make genuine advances in our knowledge of reality. Such advances don't need to be reduced simply to shifts in how cultures construct their worlds. This can be illustrated by reference to the physical sciences. Our attempts to describe and explain the physical world can never grasp the way the physical world is in itself independently of us. Our descriptions and explanations of the physical world are always no more and no less than theories of the nature of that world. And a theory should never be mistaken for the reality of which it is a theory. For, all our theories are fallible: they are, in principle without limit, subject to correction in the light of new evidence. Furthermore, all theories and all the concepts used in theories are, of course, human inventions influenced by historical, linguistic and cultural context. Nevertheless, our construction of theories and our holding themopen to critical scrutiny in the light of evidence does enable us to make advances in our understanding of reality. Theories are tools which we invent for the purpose of enabling us to develop beliefs about reality which we can justifiably accept as true beliefs about reality. And—within certain very important limits—theories can achieve that purpose. For example, Newton's mechanics provides a theory of how physical matter behaves in motion. The theory is a human invention: but its empirical success in explanation and prediction—in fitting the evidence of the world as experienced in sensory perception— gives us good reason to accept it as a true account of what physical nature is like. Or at least it gave us reason for doing this within certain limits. While we would once have been justified in accepting it as closer to the truth than the Aristotelian physics which preceded it, we would not have been justified in accepting it as the final truth. Indeed, we now know that certain observationsof the physical world cannot be made to fit into the Newtonian theory, and that the overall evidence is better accommodated under Einstein's relativistic mechanics. So, strictly, what we should now say is that Newtonian mechanics is false, though it serves as a good approximation to the truth under certain limiting conditions. And our current situation is that it is now reasonable to accept Einstein's theory as truer than Newton's, and, indeed as true ... provided we don't make the mistake of regardingits truth as absolute and certain. For nothing can exclude the possibility of further evidence emerging which falsifies Einstein's theory. Thus, so long as we don't imagine that we can ever make a final discovery of the nature of reality as it is in itself wholly independent of our mental and cultural relationship to it, we can justifiably speak of making discoveries about reality and making real advances in knowledge. But we must remind ourselves that what we call making a discovery is always going to be a matter of having created a theory which, on the basis of its engagement with the evidence and with other theories, it is justifiable for us to take as closer to the truth than any of its competitors. The idea of discovery as an immediate revelatory encounter with Reality as it is in itself is an epistemological idol.

Realist versus Non-Realist Understandings of Religious Belief

Properly interpreted, then, the Inventing Reality Thesis leaves it open that we should be able to make discoveries about reality. When the Thesis is applied to the religious world there is therefore no immediate implication that that world is purely a human construct. The possibility is left open that we may think of the project of radical theology as seeking to make theological discoveries about religious reality, rather than as constructing a new framework of symbols expressive of our ultimate values. All that the Thesis implies is that we cannot make a simple identification between any set of humanly constructed beliefs about religious reality and the nature of religious reality as it is, absolutely, in itself.
Note that my point is only that the Inventing Reality Thesis doesn't entail a purely constructivist agenda for radical theology. Such an agenda may still be the right one: my claim is only that this can't be established by appeal to the Inventing Reality Thesis alone. For, that Thesis leaves open the question whether we should give a realist or a non-realist interpretation of religious beliefs. And that is the question we need to settle in order to decide what view we should take of the project of radical theology—either as pure invention, or (as I would like to put it) as "discovery through invention".
Let me explain the distinction between a realist and a non-realist (or "anti-realist") interpretation of beliefs. The issue between realism and non-realism can arise in any domain of discourse which makes grammatical assertions. Here are some examples:
  1. Auckland is south of Melbourne.
  2. Jesus was crucified under the authority of Pontius Pilate.
  3. Electrons exist.
  4. Warren has lost his job and gone on holiday in Australia.
  5. Tripe and onions are disgusting.
  6. It was right for Clinton to lie about his private life.
  7. God loves us as a parent does her children.
All of these statements are grammatically on a par. They seem to assert that something is fact, and they seem therefore to be either true or false depending on whether what they say is fact actually is fact or not. However, when we consider these statements in context, we find that some of them, though they appear to function as assertions of fact, actually serve a different function. (5), for instance, doesn't function so much as a statement of fact as an expression of a person's taste, or maybe a warning to someone else not to try tripe and onions. Thus, (5) is best given a non-realist interpretation: it is not to be understood as an attempted description of how reality is. (1) and (2) by contrast (assuming normal contexts) are to be understood in realist terms: they do attempt to describe how reality is, and they either succeed and are true, or they fail and are false. We can't assess (4) until we know more about the context—until we know to whom the proper name "Warren" refers. Suppose I utter (4) while talking about a BBC series called "This Life" (the first TV "soap", I think, that I have become an avid follower of), then it will be clear that I am referring to the young, gay, Welsh solicitor who is a character in this series. And it will then be the case that the claim is true or false of the fictional world invented by the writers of this series. Thus, my belief that Warren has gone to Australia is not to be interpreted as an ordinary descriptive realist belief. It's a non-realist belief of a "fictionalist" kind: i.e., about a purely invented or fictional person and state of affairs. (6), of course, is a moral claim. And it is a very interesting question whether we should interpret it as an attempted realist description of moral fact, or whether we should offer some non-realist interpretation of it. Are our moral beliefs true or false in virtue of moral reality, or is it better to interpret them as expressions of our most basic attitudes of disapproval (so that (6) might be paraphrased as: "Good on Clinton for lying about something that nobody else had any business to be inquiring about!"), or perhaps as expressions of some kind of command or exhortation ("Lay off Clinton for lying about his private life")? I'm not wanting to settle this question, of course, only to observe that it does arise: there is room for a dispute between moral realists and moral non-realists over the nature and function of moral discourse. Interestingly, a similar dispute arises about (3), which most people would initially interpret the realist way as a statement of scientific fact. As we have agreed, electrons are in a certain sense human inventions—the concept of an electron belongs to a certain humanly constructed theory. But, given that electronic theory has a good deal of empirical support, and that we can therefore say (within the limits I mentioned earlier) that we have discovered something about reality by inventing the theory of electrons (and atomic theory generally), it might then seem that we ought to give a realist interpretation of "electrons exist". Some philosophers have argued, however, that theoretical postulates like electrons should be regarded only as tools for giving predictions and explanations relating to the observable phenomena that really do exist. The most we can say is that reality is such that it's as if electrons exist. These "instrumentalists" would thus offer a non-realist understanding of "electrons exist" as describing only a postulated—if you like, fictional—reality.
All this leads up to the observation that when it comes to religious claims and beliefs ("God-talk")—statements such as (7)—the question whether they are to be given a realist or a non-realist interpretation arises. When we say that God loves us as a parent does her children, are we trying to describe independent reality (as best we can within the limits of our invented concepts)? Or are we doing something else—such as "projecting" our desires onto reality, or expressing our ultimate concerns by constructing a symbolic fictional world?
The question whether to interpret religious beliefs and religious talk in a realist or non-realist way is, I believe, a question which remains open even after we have accepted what I have been calling the Inventing Reality Thesis. For, the correct sense in which "our realities are our own inventions" applies across the board to all concepts and theories, and is quite consistent with retaining a straightforwardly realist interpretation of many of our beliefs. One can accept that the concept of a star, a leaf, an electron ... etc. is a human invention, and yet retain a realist understanding of our beliefs that stars exist, that leafs exist, that electrons exist. Of course some humanly invented concepts give rise to beliefs for which we would not want togive a realist interpretation: the concept of Santa Claus could be a good example—we might indeed want to affirm that, yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, while resisting any realist interpretation of that belief and recognising that Santa Claus is a fictional construct, symbolic of the joy of giving and receiving. And, as I have indicated, it can be controversial whether a given concept gives rise to realist beliefs relating to its instances ... the electron, and any other unobservable postulate of a scientific theory, is a case in point; the moral rightness or wrongness of an action, is another.
It seems to me, then, that thinkers like Cupitt and Geering have moved too swiftly from the Inventing Reality Thesis to a non-realist understanding of religious belief, and thence to an understanding of the project of radical theology as a matter of seeking to construct or reconstruct an invented world of religious symbols. A non-realist understanding of God-talk might indeed be correct ... but it isn't entailed by the Inventing Reality Thesis, and thus stands in need of further argumentative support. We need to recognise another option: retaining the traditional realist understanding of God-talk, while nevertheless rejecting the traditional understanding of God as omniGod and pursuing a realist radical theology.
Why does it matter whether we adopt a realist or a non-realist account of God-talk? And how—if it does matter—might we decide between realist and non-realist understandings?
To answer these questions, I think we have to start from an even more basic question. Those of us who think it important to retain the God-talk need to ask ourselves why we think that this is important. After all, one option is to dispense with the God-talk altogether and simply retain allegiance to the ethical values of our inherited religious tradition. Many would argue that commitment to living life lovingly becomes more straightforward when it is detached from the clutter of its historical religious origins. The emancipation of ethics from religion, many would claim, is one of the triumphs of modern human consciousness. (This option is one which can even be exercised within Christianity—but, of course, only by those who claim that, properly understood, Christianity is not a theistic religion at all, but a system of ethical values, a way of life.) So, why might we nevertheless want to reject the clean lines of this option?
One reason might just be that we don't want to abandon the richness of our cultural tradition, in which ethical commitment is indeed closely interwined with religious belief and religious ritual. This desire is not, I think, to be dismissed as sheer intertia or mere sentimentality, since accepting one's cultural "rootedness" may be essential to authentic human existence.
But if we are to give any intellectual defence of our desire to retain the God-talk as well as the ethical commitment, presumably we will have to argue that there is some good purpose that the God-talk serves. Presumably we must think that we need something more than commitment to the value of living life lovingly, and that that "something more" can be supplied through continued use of the God-talk. But what could that "something more" be?
To answer this, I think we need to look at theistic belief and God-talk from an anthropological point of view, and ask what function or functions theistic belief plays in our lives as individuals and communities. What is the function of belief in God, and is this a good function—a function that needs to be fulfilled? What is belief in God supposed to do for you that wouldn't be done for you if you didn't have this belief?
There is no single answer to this question. There are, surely, many different functions which belief in God actually performs. And there is room for disagreement over whether these functions are good or bad: some of the things religious belief has donefor people have been far from positive. As Lucretius aptly puts it in his poem De Rerum Natura: tantum religio potuit suadere malorum. (How great is the evil religion has been able to persuade people to commit!)
But those of us who think that there is an important place for the God-talk will need to argue that there are some good purposes which belief in God serves, and which would not be served by a stark adherence to ethical values.
Here are four suggestions for good purposes which belief in God might be thought to serve.
First, belief in God functions as a means of expressing and focussing communal values, and achieving a sense of solidarity around those values and strong individual motivation to respect them. Given human nature as it is, pure ethical commitment to the highest values is very hard to achieve without the support of a framework of religious belief. Religious belief thus serves a good purpose in supporting moral commitment.
Second, belief in God (and the framework of associated beliefs) secures the meaningfulness of their existence for many people and societies, and thus serves a very good purpose since people and societies cannot flourish without achieving a sense of the meaningfulness of their lives. Similarly, belief in God functions as a basis for hope in the face of limitation and death, and in the midst of adversity, suffering and evil. It is good that, in striving to live according to the highest values, people should have a foundation for hopefulness that there is some point in so doing, and that suffering, evil and death do not render their striving pointless.
Third, belief in God is belief in that which is worthy of worship, of final allegiance, of "ultimate concern". Humans have a natural desire to worship—to take something as their object of ultimate concern—and it is vitally important for individual and social flourishing that people don't worship "false ultimates": things such as the nation, power, wealth, etc. which are not worthy of ultimate concern, and whose worship counts as idolatry. The principle that worship is to be offered to God alone thus serves the good purpose of curbing idolatrous attachment to false ultimates.
Fourth, belief in God functions to provide ultimate explanations for the existence of the Universe: only if we believe in God can we explain why the fundamental physical constants are "fine-tuned" so that the Universe is fitted for life—or, indeed, whyanything exists at all rather than nothing. Belief in God thus serves a good purpose in supplying these explanations.
No doubt further functions could be suggested—more could be said, for example, about the political functions of belief in God. My point is just that, if you think that the God-talk needs to be retained, then you will have to think that the God-talk serves some good purpose—and these four suggestions give us plausible accounts of what those good purposes might be.
Realist and non-realist radical theologians agree in rejecting traditional belief in God as omniGod, while nevertheless wanting to retain belief in God according to some alternative understanding. What divides them is whether belief in God should be given realist or a non-realist interpretation. This disagreement, I suggest, can now be seen to come down to the following: realist radical theologians think that the good purpose or good purposes for which they think we need to retain belief in God are such that they can be served only by belief in God understood as realist belief; whereas non-realist radical theologicans think that the good purpose or good purposes for which they think we need to retain belief in God can be served by belief in God which is not given a realist interpretation.
Thus, one way to conduct the argument between realist and non-realist radical theologians is to get them to say what good purposes they think the God-talk serves, and then consider whether those purposes do or do not require that belief in God be understood a belief about some feature of independent reality. Consider how this would work in relation to the four functions of belief in God suggested above.
If one function for which belief in God is retained is the symbolic expression of shared community values, then it seems that non-realist belief in God could fulfil this function—though there is a question about how self-conscious awareness of the belief as non-realist can become if this purpose is to be achieved. This question becomes more acute with respect to the function of belief in God as motivating moral commitment: if God is only one's own community's fictional projection, then belief in God has no more morally motivating power than is already possessed by community peer pressure and the threat of community sanction. But there is, of course, a real issue as to whether the function of motivating moral commitment is a function which ought to befulfilled by a belief external to the set of moral beliefs themselves. Arguably, moral commitment needs to be autonomous, and is debased if supported by belief in some external authority or system of incentives and sanctions. So it could be argued that, though this motivational function would require realist belief, fulfilling this function is definitely not a good purpose for which it would be worth retaining belief in God.
Again, the second proposed function—of securing meaningfulness—seems fulfillable by non-realist belief in God. Indeed, non-realist accounts typically lay a lot of weight on this function of religious belief. But when it comes to providing a foundation for hopefulness in the midst of limitation, suffering and death, it is hard to see how belief in God could provide such a foundation unless it were a belief about some feature of reality that warranted such hope—unless it amounted to the claim thatreality is such that the point of living life lovingly is not undermined by finitude and evil. The non-realist could regard belief in God as an expression of this hope, of course, but not as any kind of justification for it that could be received as "good news". Here, too, though, there can be dispute about whether this hope-justifying function of belief in God needs to be fulfilled: perhaps the highest maturity is to commit oneself to living life lovingly knowing that there is no basis for hoping that such a commitment does have real point? Perhaps the most one can hope for, so to say, is that one will contingently be able to hope—recognising hope only as a benign pathology and not as in any way justified by "the Real"?
If God has to be the one true object of worship, then a realist understanding of belief in God seems essential—for surely it will be idolatry to worship a God whom we fully recognise to be our own mythic construction? But it could be argued that what really matters is that we should avoid worshipping anything finite, and that this is best achieved by recognising that the desire to worship is a dangerous desire that we should try to eradicate, rather than trying to tame it by directing it upon a supposedly infinite object. It's interesting to consider how one might respond to this challenge: my point here, however, is only that— to the extent one does believe that the value of worship can be defended, to that extent one will need to give a realist understanding of belief in the object of worship. A non-realist will be on difficult ground in seeking to defend the value of worship—unless, of course, some significantly reduced notion of worship is appealed to (e.g., one in which worshipping is just a name for engaging in certain rituals apt for expressing solidarity around certain values).
The fourth suggested function pretty clearly requires realist belief in God: no ultimate explanation of what is real can be supplied by reference to what is not itself real! But it is, of course, contestable whether we need any Ultimate Explainer of themost basic features of existence. Non-realists will thus need to take a low view of traditional natural theology: but that may well be an advantage rather than a cost to their position.
What these considerations show is that, for some arguably valuable functions of belief in God, non-realist belief would serve the purpose, whereas, with respect to others, realist belief would be required. So both realist and non-realist positions wouldappear to be open: though it seems there will be greater constraints on what non-realists can regard as valuable functions for which it is worth retaining theistic belief.
But what reason might a radical theologian have for wanting to be a non-realist rather than a realist? Acceptance of the Inventing Reality Thesis isn't itself a good reason (or so I have argued). So, what good reason could there be?
Many radical theologians are non-realists because they reject the supernatural and because they assume that rejecting the supernatural entails rejecting any realist understanding of theistic belief. Traditionally, realist theists have understood God to be the transcendent supernatural Creator of the entire natural Universe. God's status as creator then sets up a dualism between the natural world, wholly dependent on God's sustaining creative power, and the uncreated supernatural realm in which God belongs. Radical theologians reject this dualism of natural and supernatural, and adopt a naturalist view, according to which the natural Universe is all that exists. And in rejecting realist belief in the supernatural God, they also tend to reject realist belief in God.
But, though it has been widely assumed that adopting a naturalist position excludes realist belief in God, I believe that this assumption is mistaken. (For an example of someone who makes this assumption, see Don Cupitt, in the Introduction to his recent book, After God: the Future of Religion, who characterises non-realism in such a way as to imply that non-realism provides the only alternative to traditional belief in a supernatural omniGod. He describes 'Christian non-realism' as the "doctrine that religious beliefs ought not to be understood as stating supernatural facts, because their true function is simply to produce a way of life," (p. xii).) It may not be necessary to throw out the realist baby with the supernaturalist bathwater. You could, logically, reject belief in a supernatural omniGod without rejecting a realist interpretation of belief in God, by holding that belief in God is belief about something real but non-supernatural—that it is belief about some feature of the one, natural, Universe. For this option to be viable, some account will have to be given of what an alternative, naturalist, concept of God would amount to. And—perhaps—no such account will be forthcoming. The point is, however, that there is a further option tobe explored here: a radical, but still realist, understanding of belief in God—radical in rejecting God as the supernatural omniGod, but realist in rejecting the non-realist claim that belief in God plays a wholly non-descriptive role in Judaeo-Christian theism.
Given that, as we have seen, a good number of the traditional functions of belief in God do seem to require a realist understanding of such belief, it seems that there would be more we could retain if we could secure realism without buying into supernaturalism. As well, belief in God is belief in that which is encountered in relational experience (think of Buber's "Eternal Thou")—and this does not fit well with the idea that God is purely our own construct. Furthermore, there is also a general ethicalargument in favour of realism over anti-realism which can be applied to this case as to any other: the assumption of realism yields an ethically superior relationship with those with whom one disagrees. (This is a very important argument, but I do not have the time to elaborate it now.) So—if it can be made to work—a realist and naturalist radical theology has a lot going for it, and might turn out to be a better option than any of the prevailing non-realist forms of radical theology.

Constructing New Theories of the Divine

Let me now, then, embark on a sketchy attempt to construct a naturalist, realist, radical theology. Let me try making my own contribution to "inventing reality"—where that is construed consistently with realism. That is, what I am inventing—based on existing resources from the tradition—is a theory of that reality—that natural reality—which God-talk aims to describe.
What realist and naturalist alternatives could be proposed, then, to the traditional concept of the supernatural God?
One obvious candidate is, of course, pantheism: God is All That Is; God is the Universe, understood as forming a single all-inclusive unity. To understand belief in God as belief in the all-inclusive natural unity does account for some of the important functions of belief in God.
One of these is the way that belief in God functions to place ourselves and our own lives in true perspective, so that we overcome our self-centredness and accept our dependence on what is beyond our own control. (You might call this the "avoidance of hubris" function.) I didn't mention this function earlier—though I think it is related to God's being the one proper object of worship, which I did mention. I think this is a valuable function: we need to avoid making an idol of our own autonomy; we need to avoid fantasies of self-sufficiency and domination over the natural world. We need to recognise that we are dependent on Something Other for every moment of our existence, and that whatever autonomy we do have is limited by that dependence. Traditionally, belief in the supernatural God functioned to underpin this proper sense of dependence. All too often, however, the emphasis was skewed, so that the belief that we were dependent upon the will of a supernatural being obscured our interdependencewith the rest of the natural universe and allowed us to justify limitless human domination and exploitation of the rest of the natural world, conceived simply as a "resource". I say that this was a skewed emphasis, because I think that the principle that humans are just as much creatures as the rest of the natural universe ("dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return") was always, in traditional theology, more fundamental than the principle that humans are to exercise a degree of control over the natural universe. True, humans can exercise control over other creatures - but their control is the conditioned control that belongs to fellow-creatures, and provides no warrant for the exploitation of nature as a mere resource. Rather, it requires respect for nature and good stewardship.
It is easy enough to see, then, that taking God to be, not the supernatural omniGod, but the all-inclusive Unity of the Natural Universe itself, would preserve and enhance the function of belief in God as providing us with a proper perspective on our ownexistence and our own powers in relation to the rest of the natural world. In a related way, religious experiences of awe in the face of something immensely, unimaginably, greater than ourselves might plausibly be taken as having for their object, not asupernatural being, but rather the Universe as a whole. Pantheism faces problems, however, with some of the other arguably valuable functions of belief in God.
In particular, I cannot see how understanding the divine to be Nature Herself could secure the salvific functions of belief in God which have been so central to Judaeo-Christianity. In my earlier list of four arguably valuable functions of belief in God, this function was represented by the idea that belief in God is belief in that which vindicates our hope that living life lovingly does indeed have value and meaning despite finitude, evil, suffering and death. If God is Nature, then we get a natural and realist concept of God ... but we don't get a concept of God such that God's existence warrants hope. We don't get a God of the Christian Gospel, whose mighty acts may be received as ultimate good news.
What happens, then, if we reflect on the resources of inherited Christian theology in an attempt to construct a naturalist concept of God such that belief in God according to that concept does play this salvific role?
I think there are resources for such a construction. I suggest using three traditional Christian doctrines. The use made of these doctrines may seem unorthodox—but I'm not prepared to concede that they are unorthodox, since I would wish to leave openthe possibility of arguing that this naturalist understanding of God is consistent with orthodox historic Christianity—and, indeed, superior to the traditional realist understanding of belief in God as belief in omniGod.
The three doctrines are these. First, the Incarnation—the doctrine that God becomes human, something which leads to sheer paradox for adherents to belief in omniGod. Second, the Trinity—the doctrine of "three Persons in one God". This, too, is paradoxical for believers in omniGod, since it is hard to see how God's "omniproperties" could apply to more than a single person, and yet, if that point is insisted on, the confusion of the three persons seems inevitable. Third, the doctrine that "God is love", which is most naturally understood, in traditional omniGod terms, just as a metaphorical expression of God's being "omniloving".
The alternative naturalist realist concept of God I have in mind arises from the following ways of interpreting these three doctrines. Start with the Trinity. One way to dispel the paradox from this doctrine is to interpret it as affirming that God is primarily a relationship, rather than a single person or "supreme substance". On this understanding, the name "God" refers to a certain kind of interpersonal, social, relationship. Where persons are related in this way, they may each, in a derivative sense, be described as God or as participating in God, though, of course, none of them is any more or less entitled to this honorific description than any of the others. (Thus, to put it in received terms, the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God—each, and equally, God in the secondary sense—and yet there are not three Gods but one God, since, in the primary and strict sense, what is God is the social relationship amongst the three. This is the "social" doctrine of the Trinity, which dates back at least to the Scottish theologian, Richard of St Victor, in the 12th Century.)
This interpretation of the doctrine of the Trinity fits well with a certain literal interpretation of the claim that "God is love". If God is, not "a" person, but rather a certain kind of interpersonal relationship, then the claim that God is love may be understood as characterising the kind of interpersonal relationship which constitutes God, namely loving relationship, the supreme form of interpersonal relationship.
This line of thought also fits well with a certain understanding of the doctrine of Incarnation. Typically, this doctrine is understood as a claim about the special dual status of a unique historical person, Jesus Christ. But it may, alternatively, be read as a doctrine about the nature of God: God's existence is incarnate existence, situated within and through concrete personal existence. Taken together with the suggestion that God is the supreme form of interpersonal relationship, this understandingof the Incarnation has the effect of holding that God exists where, and only where, concrete persons stand in the required kind of relation. The being of God thus becomes something to be found in the human experience of interrelatedness (both with otherhumans and with the wider Universe), rather than something belonging to a supernatural realm.
This concept of God—as emergent from and constituted by loving relationships amongst persons—is certainly a naturalist concept of God. As well, belief in God according to this concept would be a form of realist belief in God. But would it be reasonable to think that there actually is a God of this kind? And, anyway, is it really clear that belief in God according to this concept could provide a justification for hope—could play the salvific role which belief in God needs to play?
To tackle the second question first: to justify hope in the midst of adversity, God has to be an active power in whom it is reasonable to place one's ultimate trust. What I am suggesting is that that active power could amount to something which emerges from the network of loving relationships amongst natural beings. (So far I have spoken only of loving relationships amongst persons ... but perhaps we should widen the class of things which can enter into such relationships?) Many of those who are dissatisfied with belief in omniGod would agree, I think, that the kind of power which is of ultimate worth is not the external controlling power which reaches its apotheosis (literally!) in the traditional omniGod, but the power of love which abandons external control as manipulative, which is prepared to make itself vulnerable, and which "does not insist on its own way".
People do succeed in loving one another, and the power of love is displayed in their lives. But why dress this up as the power of God? It may be clear that, if we are looking for something purely natural on which to base our hope, then the best we can do is the power of agapeistic love ... but isn't it also clear that identifying God with the power of human love is too reductionist a concept of God, too ultimately feeble a concept of God to sustain the kind of "resurrection hope" which is proclaimed inthe Christian Gospel?
Perhaps so. But this objection doesn't quite meet the proposal I am making. The proposal I am making is not that "God" refers to the mere agglomeration of loving relationships achieved within the natural Universe. The proposal I am making is that "God" refers to that which emerges from and transcends these relationships. What do I mean by this? I can explain it only through an analogy. Consider the human mind. What constitutes the human mind is the brain, or—to be more precise, the central nervous situated in its environment. The brain is an enormously complex physical system, which we could in principle describe purely in the language of the sciences (ultimately, in the stark language of physics). If you were given a complete physical description of a human brain, that description would give no inkling of the mental activity taking place—the thoughts, emotions, sensations, desires, intentions, and so on. Yet this mental activity is just as real as the reality described by the physical description of the brain. Out of the enormous physical complexity of the physical central nervous system, there emerges a whole new level of reality—mental reality, which requires a complete new vocabulary—a psychological vocabulary—which cannot be translated back into physical terms and which, in that sense, transcends the physical. Now, what I am wanting to suggest is that—in the same way - there emerges from the loving interrelationships of persons a new level of reality which requires a complete new vocabulary—a theological vocabulary—which cannot be translated back into the terms we use to describe human personal and social relations. What I am suggesting is that, just as individual neurones complexly interrelated assist in constituting a human mind with its varied mental states, so historical persons, in their loving relationships, assist in constituting the reality of the divine. And, just as it is a mistake (though a prevalent one in Western Philosophy) to hold that the mind which emerges from the physical belongs to some other world beyond the natural, so it is a mistake to hold that God's reality, emerging as it does from the world of loving interrelationship, belongs to a distinct supernatural world. Rather, God's reality, on this view, is the culmination of the evolution of the one natural universe. (The only sense in which God can be Alpha is the sense in which God is first Omega!)
Could it be reasonable to believe that God—understood in this way as an emergent reality within the Universe—really does exist? If what is meant is whether it could be scientifically reasonable to hold this belief, then I think the answer is "no". But then I would want to retain a dominant view at least within Protestant theology which holds that, although theistic beliefs are about the real world, they need to be accepted by an act of faith which goes beyond (though, I would argue, never against)what can be established as a matter of scientific rationality. (I acknowledge that, to retain this view, it is necessary to give a defence—ultimately, an ethical defence—of holding beliefs by faith ... I believe such a defence can be given followingthe arguments of William James in "The Will to Believe", but I cannot elaborate this now.) My denial that there could be scientific evidence in favour of the existence of a "naturally emerging" divinity may seem surprising, however. But I would trace that to the assumption that the scientific method is in principle able to provide knowledge of every aspect of natural reality (that, for the natural world, anyway, to be is to be able to be known) - and it seems to me that that assumption is questionable. I suspect that naturalism is yet consistent with the admission that there are some features of the natural world which transcend human knowability. Here, then, are a couple of ways in which the project of a naturalist, realist, radical theology might be pursued: first, in a pantheist direction; and second, in the direction of postulating God as the highest level of emergent "spiritual" being within the natural universe, whose nature we know as Love. These are two very different directions—and I cannot therefore resist the speculation that perhaps we need to recognise two concepts of God. In traditional theology, God was supposed to be both immanent and transcendent—and these two aspects of the divine were constantly in danger of flying apart. In the context of naturalist realist radical theology we have a similar problem—though the contrast isn't exactly between divine immanence and divine transcendence (at least as these were traditionally understood, with the transcendent being identified with the supernatural). It is a similar contrast, though—a contrast between, on the one hand, the unimaginably vast and impersonal God or Nature on whom we ultimately depend, and, on the other, the God who emerges within Nature, who is so intimately bound up with us that we participate in constituting its reality, and who—though emphatically not a person—is somehow even more "personal" than any individual person could be because his or her essential nature (and, yes, the personal pronoun is forced from us) is that best and brightest of all things capable of being revealed in the interpersonal: Love. Maybe the right thing for the naturalist realist radical theologian is just to acknowledge that these concepts of God are distinct, and that we need both of them in constructing our best attempt at a theory of the divine.



Quick links