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Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic by Lloyd Geering
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“When people today say ‘I believe in God’, they are often simply expressing their opinion or conviction that there exists a spiritual being called God. But that is not what people meant by ‘belief in God’ four centuries ago. To be sure, it was their common conviction that a supernatural being called God had created and continued to control the world. But to them that seemed so self-evident, that it 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 that some people today will say they ‘believe in the Devil’. No medieval Christian would have dreamed of saying such a dreadful thing. Of course it was their 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 would have been not ‘I believe in the Devil’, but ‘I renounce the devil’— meaning ‘I will reject all suggestions made to me by the Devil’. Similarly, ‘I believe in God’ did not mean ‘It is my opinion that a God exists’, but rather ‘I give my allegiance to God’ or ‘I entrust myself to God’. Obviously, it would have been unthinkable to say, ‘I entrust myself to the Devil’.

This earlier meaning of ‘believe’ is also apparent from its roots in Latin, which of course was the universal language of Western medieval Christendom. The Latin word credo, which also gives us the word creed, was translated in English as ‘I believe’ and its etymology is very revealing. It is made up from do (I give) and cor (heart). Originally, ‘credo’ meant ‘I give my heart to’. The Latin word for ‘believe’, as 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— for instance, that the world was created by and is ruled by a supernatural personal being.”
Lloyd Geering, Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic
“Today, many adults are finding it necessary to move to the margins of traditional Christian orthodoxy in order to rediscover a genuine faith—one that is much more than words and beliefs, one that can never be adequately expressed in words, one that is the positive response of the whole person to life, that involves the emotions and the will just as much as the mind.”
Lloyd Geering, Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic
“As the ancients tried to understand the forces they encountered in the natural world, they invented personal names for them, much as weather forecasters still do with hurricanes. Further, they unconsciously projected their own consciousness into these storms and other natural phenomena. This is how the human mind first came to create the idea of personal spirits and gods; they were a class of unseen beings that were thought to be responsible for everything that happened in the natural world. We can easily understand how and why the ancients arrived at their polytheistic world-view, because even today we might find a two-year-old who hits his head on the table corner turning round to address the offending object by saying, ‘You naughty table!”
Lloyd Geering, Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic
“We humans now increasingly share in what used to be regarded as the omniscience and omnipotence of God.”
Lloyd Geering, Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic
“To identify faith with the holding of a certain number of beliefs that come to us from the distant past actually makes a mockery of Christian faith and reduces it to the schoolboy’s definition: “Faith is believing things you know ain’t true”.”
Lloyd Geering, Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic
“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.”
Lloyd Geering, Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic
“[T]he ancients, knowing nothing about vaporisation, drew an absolute line between solids and liquids on the one hand and what we call gases on the other. The name they gave to what we call gas was spiritus (Latin), pneuma (Greek) or ruach and neshama (Hebrew). In each case the word could mean air, breath or wind. The ancients thought of the wind as the breath of God.

So when the Hebrews offered their account of the world’s origin, they said the powerful wind (ruach) of God fluttered over the waters. And when they told of the origin of humankind, they said that God made humans out of the dust of the earth, breathed his gentle breath (neshama) into them and they became living persons. Further, it was as obvious to ancients as it is to us that the best way of distinguishing between a living person and a corpse is to look for breath— for a living person breathes. Breath was believed to be the very essence of what constitutes a living human being, and thus the very principle of life. But for the ancients breath, air and wind were all the same. When a man dies, said Ecclesiastes, “the dust returns to the earth and the breath returns to God”. When Jesus died on the cross, according to Luke, he said, “Father into your hands I commit my spirit (pneuma)” and, “having said this he breathed his last”. Of course we are used to hearing the word ‘spirit’ in one place and ‘breath’ in the other, but in the Greek original the same word, pneuma, is used. Similarly in the King James Version (still nearer to the medieval world-view than we are) Matthew reports that “Jesus cried with a loud voice and gave up the ghost (pneuma)”.

During the transition to the modern world people continued to speak about spirit without realising that they were no longer talking about something originally conceived to be as tangible as the air we breathe. Christians continued to speak of God as spirit and referred to what they called the power of the Holy Spirit. Preachers continued to expound the story of Jesus and Nicodemus in John’s Gospel (where being born again of the spirit is described in terms of the blowing of the wind), but failed to draw attention to the fact that in this story the same word is sometimes translated ‘wind’ and sometimes ‘spirit’.

Only slowly has it dawned upon us that in talking about spirit we are talking about something far less substantial than wind or the air that we breathe. Indeed, spirit has no substance at all. It has become a purely abstract term that has no external referent. It continues in usage as a frozen metaphor from a now obsolete worldview, and its only possible meaning is a metaphorical or symbolic one. Conservative Christians continue to speak about the Holy Spirit, the power of the spirit and so on, as if it were an oozy something that operates like the wind. Without being wholly aware of the fact, they live in the medieval world for religious purposes and return to the modern world for the mundane business of daily living.”
Lloyd Geering, Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic
“The general public today tends to imagine that religious faith consists of holding a certain number of specific and often irrational beliefs. It is particularly in connection with Christianity that this perception is most widely to be found, and unfortunately it is often strongly promoted by the churches themselves. At a very early stage Christian conviction came to be referred to as ‘the faith’ and this subsequently led 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. Of course, that conviction itself is simply another belief that underlies the rest.

As Wilfred Cantwell Smith, an American scholar of international repute, pointed out, the perception that faith consists in holding a certain set of beliefs is actually quite a modern phenomenon. He put it this way: “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 in blunt and overly simplistic terms, we may say that in premodern times people put their faith in God, whereas today too many put their faith in such beliefs as the inerrancy of the Bible. This modern error of equating faith with holding certain beliefs began to develop in the nineteenth 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!”— to which 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 that come to us from the distant past actually makes a mockery of Christian faith and reduces it to the schoolboy’s definition: “Faith is believing things you know ain’t true”.”
Lloyd Geering, Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic
“What enables us to put fantasy behind us and grow to maturity is the capacity to doubt. When a child of six or seven begins to doubt Saint Nick’s ability to get down the chimney or to be in so many different places at once, then he or she begins to doubt the objective reality of this mysterious person. The same capacity to doubt emerges during the often turbulent period of adolescence. We first doubt and then challenge the validity of our parent’s authority. We come to recognise that these once authoritative and almost divine figures are quite human and fallible after all. The perplexing process of alternating between doubt and trust, rebellion and obedience, is essential for our growth to mature adulthood. Persons of fifty who still rely on their parents for guidance in everyday matters are clearly suffering from stunted growth.

And so it is with the evolution of culturally defined opinions. Without the capacity to doubt, we cannot grow from childish beliefs to the maturity of faith. Doubt is not the enemy of faith, but of false beliefs. Indeed, our entire catalogue of assumptions and beliefs should be continually subjected to critical examination, and those found to be false or inadequate should be replaced by those we find convincing within our cultural context. Yet expressing or even entertaining doubt sometimes takes so much courage that we may say it takes real faith to doubt.

Thirty years ago an anonymous well-wisher sent me through the post a little book entitled The Faith to Doubt by the American scholar Homes Hartshorne. I found it an exciting text and have treasured it ever since. Among other things it says, “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”.

Far from demonstrating a lack of faith, the very act of discarding outworn beliefs may in fact do just the opposite by opening 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— and childlike faith is vastly different from childish credulity”
Lloyd Geering, Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic