DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Questions

Two contributors present brief essays in response to some perennial questions. Each writes independently of the other. One comes from a person closely linked to a Christian denomination. The other comes from a person at the fringes of the traditional Church.

4. Can we know God's will?
A
s I thought about God�s will I became increasingly perplexed by the definition of the word will. I consulted a few dictionaries and came up with a number of definitions. They include: desire, wish, disposition, inclination, appetite, passion, request, command, disposition to act according to principle, power to chose action, a choice of one having authority, having one�s way. 

The nuances of differences between the various definitions challenged me to provide a synthesis of what God�s will means to me.

If one believes God is the Creator or architect of the universe there must be a blueprint of the universe that he established. It is this blueprint that governs the course of the universe and is inviolable. Thus, I see God�s will as design and plan that defines reality and which is perfect. We cannot escape its principles.

It is my belief that the reality of the universe can be separated into two spheres, the physical/material and the moral/non-material. Yes, I am a dualist.

To know God�s will means to me that we try to determine the outlines and principles of the divine plan. In the case of the material universe our knowledge is provided by observation and experimentation. 

Confidence in the results is assured by the conviction that physical laws are unchanging and universally applicable. If there were no conscious observers present, the universe would progress and evolve according to physical laws, but it would be of no concern except to the creator observer.

With the advent of conscious humans, a window was created to the moral/non-material universe. Unfolding of the universe came under scrutiny and concern. It was consciousness that gave us the ability to make choices and moral decisions. It was consciousness that gave us free will. Our choices may be inconsequential or of profound positive or negative effect on the human condition.

We attempt to ascertain the moral/non-material nature of the divine plan in at least two ways. Similar to materialist investigators, observation is important. Human activity and thought are observed and analyzed leading to certain conclusions.

There is also a component of revelation. It is revelation that is most controversial. The obvious question is, how reliable is the prophet who claims a special line of communication to God and knowledge of the divine plan? What standard can be invoked to test prophetic authenticity?

The Apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 1.9-10: 

For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

It is Jesus that Christians hold up as the standard to judge all prophesy. It is through Jesus that we know God�s will.
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That Christianity claims to be a historical faith is disputed by nobody. Christians define themselves by trust in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth.

There are two main ways of regarding history. The first is that God is in charge of the ebb and flow of events in our world. If so, God sometimes acts to change events and sometimes lets things happen as they will. In either case we should co-operate with God's intentions.

The second option is that the world operates independently of the divine. If this is correct, then events flow on their own and God's will, in the traditional sense, apparently doesn't enter into the equation.

Only the second allows history. Any event caused by God disrupts the complex system of cause and effect which historians seek to unravel. To do history at all in a providential universe, we must be able to definitively distinguish between a history-event and a God-event. As far as I know, this cannot be done.

This option has its difficulties. If a God who is "outside" everything doesn't influence our lives, then it's difficult to imagine a personal relationship with the divine. Moreover, according to traditional Christian teaching, it is heretical to deny a personal God.

Is it possible to understand the world in a way which allows history and also allows us to know God's will just as we might know what a friend wants of us?

A potential path ahead lies in finding God in and through creation itself.

This implies that the information for our choices is to be found in the created world. It is as though everything we need has been saved onto the hard drive of the universe, from which we are to decode God's will. Second, it implies that to be fully human is to be maturely autonomous. We are to give up the idea that God orders us around. Instead, we are called to make our own choices. 

Traditionally, we discover the divine will by tuning in to God through prayer and meditation. Another traditional way to know God's will is to consult ecclesiastical oracles - be they popes or bishops - or to cast lots (usually by voting) in gatherings of the faithful. If we are to preserve the possibility of history, it seems we have to recognise that these human functions are how God speaks to us. God doesn't speak through them. They themselves are processes which reveal how God does things in our world.

  • In prayer and meditation we allow the depths of our being to speak. Recognising that we have unconscious needs and desires, we cultivate calm reflection so that they can rise to the surface. We also surface decisions from our unconscious by reducing distraction from irrelevant concerns and incoming data.

  • In a corporate setting, we move through processes of attentive mutual listening followed by sacrificial negotiation and compromise. God's will is not likely to be revealed by ideological argument and power-plays.

To sum up: Our knowledge of how the universe works appears to foreclose on the likelihood that God intervenes in its processes. In addition, without history, Christianity becomes myth. We know God's will by immersing ourselves in the world, for in it lie all the answers we need.

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