‘The question of God remains an essential one to ask, whatever answer we want to give.’
In the twenty-first century, many do not take the existence of God as certain. We are, some say, too sophisticated for that. But we have reached a tipping point where it is not God as answer that is at stake, but God as question. The question of God remains an essential one to ask, whatever answer we want to give (and who, after all, can give an answer?). There is a relationship between it and our own humanity – our existence as human beings, rather than just bits of thinking biology.
If humanity ceases to have the idea of God, at least as a question, then, as the theologian Karl Rahner argued (in, sadly, the gendered language of his day): ‘Man would never face the totality of the world, and of himself, helplessly, silently and anxiously ... What would he be like? We can only say he would have ceased to be a man. He would have regressed to the level of a clever animal. Man really exists as human only when he uses the word “God” at least as a question.’
Rahner is telling us here that our thinking about God involves sub-questions such as: Why are we here? Does life have a meaning? What is it? How should I live and why? And so on. These are the important questions we all come across, usually as we emerge from childhood.
Some, like Ludwig Feuerbach, suggest that religion is a projection of these human, ordinary questions into a somewhat mistaken, otherworldly metaphysical space. We see, in heaven, the answering reflection, cut off from us, of our own unspoken questioning. Nevertheless, it remains true that unless we allow ourselves these self-reflections we are only clever monkeys who can count past ten. We are not truly human, both the atheist Feuerbach and the Christian Rahner agree, unless we have the idea, the category, of the religious.
Another way of putting this might be to say that unless we can at least conceive of the religious, we have lost our souls, and replaced them with functional minds or brains to shape the world. As global warming indicates, we are not even making a good job of that. Indeed, it looks as if we might be heading towards catastrophe. Perhaps this, in itself, is some function of spiritual amnesia, as rehearsed in exploitative global capitalism, and neo-liberal economics. Humans are reduced to consumers, and to cogs in the machine of profit generation, having lost our sense of wonder at being in the world. Max Weber, the German sociologist, called this the disenchantment of the world. It is also our disenchantment.
By eliminating the God question, Rahner says: ‘Man would have forgotten his humanity, and at the same time, if we can put it this way, he would have forgotten that he has forgotten.’ He concludes: ‘The absolute death of the word “God” including even the eradication of its past, would be the signal, no longer heard by anyone, that man himself had died.”
We keep ourselves human by asking the God question, even if we are aware we have no answers.
You need to login to read subscriber-only content and/or comment on articles.