Thought for the Week: The idea of God

G Gordon Steel reflects on the idea of God

Among Friends there are two common ways of looking at the idea of God. First, as an eternal being or presence that permeates the universe – a being or presence that is beyond human comprehension and, yet, fundamentally real. Second, a more specific belief in which God has a role in human affairs and human lives, perhaps (but not necessarily) mediated through the person of Jesus Christ.

To many Friends, the first of these is a view that they take for granted. It seems self-evident that the world had a creator and the feeling that he/it permeates the world is a widespread spiritual experience. But this God is remote and without influence in our lives: some of us feel that we can, without strong feelings, take this view or leave it.

The second view of God is much warmer and more comforting: God is a being to whom we can relate and to whom we can pray. This is a God who is concerned for what happens in the world and in our lives. We may go along with the orthodox Christian view that Jesus was used by God as a unique link into human affairs. Inevitably, though, this leads us into well-known problems.

Only by ignoring a great deal of evidence to the contrary can we believe that God influences natural processes (winds, waves, earthquakes…) to our benefit. The natural world is often cruel. And the belief that God acts through human beings throws up further problems: why us (an insignificant grain of sand within a vast universe)? Human lives can be glorious or tragic and many good men and women die young. As Epicurus is said to have put it: ‘…is God able but not willing? – Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?’ Only with a selected view of evidence, or rose-tinted spectacles, can some of us see the hand of a loving creator.

It is because of these issues that other Friends prefer not to use the God model but still feel that they can sit comfortably within the Religious Society of Friends. They retain much of what can be recognised as characteristics of present-day Christianity: a sense of wonder at the world; thankfulness for being alive; a sense of inwardness and humility; a profound spiritual sense of love perceived in human relationships; a sense of compassion, particularly for the sufferings of other people but for all living things; a determination to play our part in working towards a better world. These Friends say that they experience the depth of a gathered Meeting. And they are aware of the tensions between how they describe their beliefs and more traditional Quaker ways of speaking and writing.

The Religious Society of Friends in Britain urgently needs a greater sense of inclusiveness and understanding of these different and strongly held opinions. We live in a time of great change in all areas of life and tensions of this type are understandable and typical of forward movement in religious thought.

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