God Without God
Michael Hampson God Without God:
Western spirituality without the wrathful king (O Books, 2008)
Reviewed by Scott McKenzie
(Reviewed September 2008)
The author’s central quest is to devise a Christianity that does not have the theistic God as its centerpiece, but retains the outward forms with a metaphoric understanding underpinning their meaning.
Let’s see where that leads:
- God is a metaphor that we use to express the mystery of the existence of our Universe, of life within it and of self-consciousness which makes humans unique; to describe the ‘ground of all being’ and the essence of all that is good.
- Within the Trinity, God the Father is pictured as that ‘ground of all being’and source of all that is good; the Holy Spirit as that which propels the emergence of godliness in mankind; and Jesus as the exemplification of that godliness – all metaphors.
- The Incarnation is the accessibility we have to Jesus as exemplar.
- The sacraments are times at which the faithful gather to acknowledge the significance of godliness in life and to gather strength to put it into practice.
Hampson clothes all this in fairly complicated ‘theology’ and is tempted to personify his metaphors. In fact it is difficult to read this first chapter without personification (which to me destroys the authenticity of his metaphorical position). He wants to get rid of the wrathful king but retain some fuzzy realist god.
What works better for me: There is Mystery underpinning our existence: the Universe itself – where did it come from and why?; life – how did it evolve?; humans as self-conscious beings – from where did consciousness arise?
It makes sense for us to show compassion for one another, to appreciate that we are alive, and to seek to live a good life: for to do so seems to give us greatest contentment.
When we come together to commit ourselves to live this way there is a ‘spirit’ among us that strengthens each person. And there are examples of people throughout history who exemplify the godliness to which we all ought to aspire. Hampson takes a similar position but clothes it in the language and concepts of traditional Christianity. I don’t believe that it will make the product any more marketable.
The second chapter looks at sin and ethics railing against the punitive model in which God demands that we seek forgiveness and can only do so because of the sacrificial death of Jesus. But there is a constant appeal to God as being compassionate and that via the liturgies of the church we are able to experience a restored harmony with him, thus ensuring our own good health and wellbeing. Hence sin is seen as something that can lead to the disintegration of our inner selves and thus is to be avoided or if not, then repentance sought.
What works for me: When we do what we know to be wrong we pay a price, internally, one that might not be immediately (or ever) recognized. We need mechanisms by which we forgive ourselves e.g. the forgiveness of others we have sinned against, forms of self-imposed penance, etc. Sometimes we need to have it pointed out that we have ‘sinned against’ another. We can use examples such as Jesus provides as criteria for our goal of godliness.
The third chapter is an investigation into the Bible highlighting its human origins and recounting where, when and why its various books were written, and how it is a compilation of hundreds of such books. The Bible is held up as a source of great wisdom and example. Little or no regard is given to literature that might be even better in these roles. Chapter 4 considers the Nicene Creed. And it seems to survive the author’s scrutiny:
- the Return – the end will come eventually (billions of years away)
- the Resurrection – a puzzling story, but something significant happened (and continues), but its reality isn’t the point – its continued metaphorical point is (the hope of the faithful)
- the Virgin Mary – many theories are examined with no conclusion other than that it continues to be a mystery
- the Holy Family – again lots of theories, a plea that Mary is more significant than Protestants are prepared to concede, the invisibility of Joseph is another mystery, the likelihood that many of the disciples and followers of Jesus were relatives.
There is no clarity of the standing of the Nicene Creed other than a comment that it is an affirmation of the church community – a humanistic creed for a humanistic faith.
For me this is disingenuous. The Nicene Creed is a statement of faith in a Creator God, Jesus as Son of God begotten of the Father before all time … begotten not made ., of the one substance etc, atonement, Virgin Mary, Resurrection, Ascension, resurrection of the dead, the Return. All problematic.
Chapter 5 addresses prayer but spends most of the space on a recounting of the miracles purported to have been carried out by Jesus, making the point strongly that the healing wasn’t the point Jesus wanted to make but what he preached and taught at the same time. Prayer isn’t something that Jesus referred to much. Prayer is a submission to the will of God.
Continues to be disingenuous. Few people believe these days in the miracles as written. Many are skeptical of intercessory prayer. But prayer as a way of committing oneself to another course of action, or expression compassion for others, is more acceptable.
‘Community and sacrament’ is Chapter 6 which looks at the meaning of the Mass, particularly in the context of community: an act of worship together. There is a hint of the metaphorical but the language pushes us towards realism. The wrathful king might have gone, but you’d never know it reading this explanation of the sacrament of Holy Communion. Interestingly the author explains what is probably the original intention of trans-substantiation: that the body and blood of Christ existed in the Platonic realm of true essence, not in the reality confronting the worshipper. Not that the worshipper was able to make such a significant distinction!
For me taking a meal together is a sign of community, and community is something we naturally seek to be part of, particularly if the context is spiritual. But it needs to be authentic, and for many of us free of the hocus-pocus of the Mass. The final chapter is Eros and the Seventh Sacrament an examination through the lens of scripture and church teachings, of a wide range of topics related to sex: marriage, sex before marriage, puberty, celibacy, eunuchs, pornography, promiscuity, LGBTIV implications(lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-gender, inter-sex) and so on. It is by far the largest chapter and its relationship with the rest of the book somewhat tenuous (at least in this much detail).
The author starts with the intention, having rejected the god that atheists decry, of showing what Western Spirituality (actually Christianity) would look like. He in fact gives us traditional Christianity with a fuzzy concept of God: supposedly a metaphor that we use to express the mystery of the existence of our Universe, of life within it and of self-consciousness which makes humans unique; to describe the ‘ground of all being’ and the essence of all that is good. He concedes that it is difficult to think about this metaphorical concept without personification (which destroys the authenticity of his metaphorical position). It appears that he wants to get rid of the wrathful king but retain some fuzzy realist god.
It doesn’t work for me – at all. In fact I became resentful of the time I was putting in to reading and thinking about this book. That is, until I decided to work out for myself what Christianity might look like with the realist God.
Where Michael Hampson considers that the traditions of the church are able to continue without the ‘wrathful king’, I doubt that many of us will agree or that many of those who have become disenchanted with the church will feel a new found desire to return. This is a mild cosmetic makeover.