Karen Armstrong introduced her History of God with a seemingly contradictory statement about her subject matter:
Other rabbis, priests and Sufis would have taken me to task for assuming that God was—in any sense—a reality “out there”; they would have warned me not to expect to experience him as an objective fact that could be discovered by the ordinary process of rational thought. They would have told me that in an important sense God was a product of the creative imagination, like the poetry and music that I found so inspiring. A few highly respected monotheists would have told me quietly and firmly that God did not really exist—and yet that “he” was the most important reality in the world.
Armstrong is a mystic who believe that God cannot be defined but can be experienced. That idea, that God is not real but is a reality, is a complex one that underlies certain kinds of liberal religion. The Reverend Jonathan L. Walton, a new minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church, gives another take on the same idea but focuses on the actions of the non-believing believer:
Meanwhile, Francis Spufford, author of the history/novel Red Plenty, is publishing a new work titled Unapologetic, with the tagline “Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense”. Judging from a review at Crooked Timber, Spufford is at work in the same fields as Armstrong and Walton:
Belief is revealed by action, Walter said. “It does not matter if Christianity is true, but rather can we, as those informed by the teachings of Jesus, make it true. Hence at the end of the day, our faith is not something to be professed, as talk is cheap, but something primarily to be done.”
Spufford isn’t trying to establish theological foundations, and he is briskly dismissive of the usual theodicies, or attempts to justify the ways of God to human beings. Rather, he describes what religious belief is like by developing two broad themes. The first is experiential: he evokes what it feels like to have glimpses of the ‘all-at-once perspective of the God of everything’ behind ordinary life, the brightness that sustains everything, a presence in silence. The second is the importance of narrative and imagery in expressing these intimations and what they mean.
I doubt this message will become popular in America. It runs counter to the religious trends that have been playing out here for centuries. These ideas are antithetical to the view that Christianity is “common sense” and that the Bible is clearly the inerrant word of God. This idea that the whole religion is an emotional, ethical poem isn’t going to play well in the Bible belt.
Despite this, I suspect the favorite target of these liberals will not be the megachurches but will instead be the atheists. So get used to hearing about how Christianity can’t be believed but must be experienced.