Monday, 17 August 2009

How do you know God exists?

C4 Sunday 16 August 2009 7pm

Revelations: How do you know God exists? Written and produced by Anthony Thomas

An arresting opening image: a burning effigy on a busy western city street. We try to figure out what it is- some religious protest against the Mohammed cartoons, perhaps?

As it turns out, it's a model of a banker.

In commencing his contribution to the Revelations series, Anthony Thomas may be trying to show how materialism has failed as a concept, and that as western capitalism turns on itself, religious solutions to man's dilemmas may begin to reemerge.

Thomas chooses five leaders from major world religions (Judaism, Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism and Hinduism) to explain to him and the viewer how they know there is a God.

The five men (and they are men, as my wife dryly observes) are Jonathan Sachs (chief rabbi of Orthodox Jews in the UK), Rowan Williams (Church of England Archbishop of Canterbury), Vincent Nichols (Catholic Archbishop of Westminster), Tariq Ramadan (Islamic academic) and Sadhu Paramtattvadas (Hindu holy man).

Jonathan Sachs opens with saying: God enjoys adverts on the sides of buses. By this he is alluding to the 'There's probably no God. Now stop worrrying and enjoy your life' atheist campaign. How he has insight into the mind of God towards this kind of cheek, he doesn't explain. But it's a quirky way to kick off a documentary.

Thomas now brings things round to a more conventional overview: 4/10 believe, 4/10 aren’t sure (think there is something spiritual), 2/10 don’t believe in the UK today. Where these stats come from, again, I have no idea, especially given the 2001 Census which recorded 71.7% as calling themselves 'Christian'.

The rest of the programme follows the format of asking questions of each of the five leaders, interspersed with graphics and commentary. The 'starter for ten' is the title question - How do you know God exists?

  • Rowan Williams (RW) - he is “confident or trusting, rather than knowing… in the presence of something greater than you can conceive… something I can’t put words to.”
  • Jonathan Sachs (JS) encourages us to “judge an idea by what it does to the people who embrace that idea.”
  • Vincent Nichols (VN) is convinced that “beyond all the distress of this world… there is a Father, a figure who has our fate in his hands. And we can approach God through the person of Jesus, through the crucified Saviour.”
  • Tariq Ramadan (TR) says, “I really deeply believe God exists… It’s a relationship between what my eyes are seeing, my heart is feeling and my mind is understanding.”
  • Sadhu Paramtattvadas (SP) avers: “God is the highest, purest, most transcendental being there. It’s faith. It really is as simple and as powerful as that.”

Thomas quotes Jesus' affirmation that God has counted every hair on our heads, but then asks if it is really possible that the Creator of this vast universe could have a relationship with you and me:

“Yes. God is absolutely present in every bit of creation. His energy is at work in every part of the universe.” RW (CoE)

“God pervades his entire creation… animals, every aspect of nature… everywhere, he’s all around us.” SP (Hindu)

Has there ever been moments when your faith is tested? pursues Thomas.

“Challenges, yes. Every day in fact. Some of the deepest moments of reflection can be in response to these – so they become not the enemy of faith, but the reinforcer.” SPT (Hindu)

“Doubts, when exposed to someone’s suffering.” RW (CoE)

“Doubt is an intrinsic part… never free from it....I do remember standing in a crowd at Anfield, and calling out to God, ‘Leave me alone! Let me be one in a crowd. Let me lose myself. I do not want this.’” VN (RCC)

What keeps your faith alive? says Thomas.

“The testimony of so many good people… their goodness is contagious… and also my own life of faith. The great privilege of celebrating Mass, where we stand before God… and having the immense privilege of the priesthood. Christ uses my voice to speak his words, my hands to perform his actions. My own experience of faith is real…and at times very encouraging.” VN (RCC)

Thomas moves things along by asking about the nature of God: can He be defined? In doing this he pits orthodox Judaism and Islam against Catholicism and Hinduism in terms of whether God can be presented in images. He seems to lump Protestantism in with the pro-image group, though he does say, very much in line with Colossians 1:15, that "in Jesus, Christians have an image of God."

Tariq Ramadan responds:

“In the Islamic tradition we have 99 names helping us understand the way he acts, the way he behaves, but not a definition or representation… and I think he’s indescribable.”

But even among Christians, argues Thomas, there is often a need for more… Mary the mother of Jesus, a whole pantheon of saints, etc. whose status is almost divine. Though the premise of the programme is that there are five different religions (i.e. Protestantism and Catholicism are separate faiths), he makes no attempt to distinguish between them at this point.

Among Hindus, he says, this need is every stronger.

“Most Hindus accept one supreme reality, but we also accept lesser divinities. All these images were concentrated in a special vedic cemetery… they become sacred… Coming before God, we are being seen by him… We believe God is actually present in these images.” SP

Thomas then focuses on the afterlife.

“I’d rather concentrate on life down here, than life up there… this is a profoundly Jewish insight,” admits Jonathan Sachs rather sheepishly, seeming to realise that this is a little inappropriate for religious figurehead to espouse.

“All I know about the afterlife, is that God has promised to be there," says Rowan Williams.

“Hindus believe in an immortal, immutable soul… an eternal journey, passing through many lifeforms… it takes on a different body according to its karma. And in each life it develops spiritually, with the ultimate aim of liberation from this cycle of births and deaths… The soul will leave this body and enter the abode of God… A place of eternity, bliss, calmness, no desires, being engulfed with peace and serenity forever,” the sadhu enthuses. He doesn't explain how a soul can be immutable and yet develop.

Fifty years ago, packed churches were commonplace, according to Thomas' research. This is something of an exaggeration, with Anglican attendance roughly halving, and with many other denominations on the rise (such as Black Majority Pentecostalism in the cities). Nevertheless, the point is to show the loss of confidence in 'organised religion' as a viable force in society.

So the next questions are: What do religions have to offer that could make Britain a better place? Is this the root of our problems, that we have let religion die? Can people of faith really lead us to a better world?

“Religions are good at binding people together as a communion… Judaism is a family religion… Transmitted from generation to generation in the home…. When religion dies in society, it affects relationship, bonds of love,” opines Jonathan Sachs, convincingly enough, though as with almost all of his comments, religion is presented as something mostly 'horizontal', a kind of social glue, rather than a communion with a real, supernatural being. Having said this, he continues in a more transcendent vein: “Religious people offer a sense of accountability… relating to a being who existed before the universe… therefore, we as his people must safeguard the environment for a future generation… if we are to preserve a heritage of trust.”

The topic shifts to the credit crunch.

“Some people are taking money and they have no ethical attitude, nothing. The creation is telling us – If you carry on acting like this, you’re going to destroy nature and yourself.” TR

“Your value as a human being does not depend on possessions, control, acquisitions… Jesus' parable on the rich man finishes with 'You idiot, you’re going to die tonight!'... The Church doesn’t have a very clear voice in the media – conflict-ridden, and obsessed with house-keeping matters.” RW

Was there a time when religious values dominated?

“I don’t see that there was a golden age back then. There may be a lot wrong with our society, but we don’t burn heretics at the stake or hang children for stealing a loaf of bread." VN

Does one need religion to be ethical?

“Lots of atheists do have moral values, very impressive ones. My only question is: where do they get them from? There’s something more profound in the universe that pushes us to moral questions. The atheist is, like it or not, benefiting from the effects of that,” is Rowan Williams' challenge.

Perhaps inevitably, the 'religion causes all the wars' chestnut pops up, with the astonishingly sloppy claim that most conflicts in the world since the fall of communism have been due to religion (never mind, say, both Gulf Wars). Images of 9-11, still shocking in their senseless devastation, fill the screen. A Catholic chaplain who died that day is praised. Muslims and Christians both sacrificing their lives that morning, some to kill, some to save, is the comment made, without any exploration as to why the Islamic and Christian views or martyrdom are so different.

Jonathan Sachs is given the opportunity to lament (understandbly) the history of anti-semitism in the “Jewish experience of Christian Europe [which] was for nearly 1000 years was a tragic experience… it added words to the vocabulary… expulsion, forced conversion, pogrom, Inquisition, auto-da-fe.”

However, Catholic archbishop Vincent Nichols takes a conciliatory stance:

“Just before the Millennium, JP2 knelt before a crucifix and admitted failures… talked about Inquisition… included betrayal of trust that had been placed in the Church… In a very small scale, that’s what we do before every Mass… confess our sins.”

Next: Does hell exist?

“My concept of hell is being stuck with myself forever and no way out. If anybody ever gets to that point, I have no idea… Stuck with my selfish little ego for all eternity…” conjectures Rowan Williams. Rightly, Thomas challenges him as to how this squares with Jesus' clear statements about eternal hellfire in the gospels, but Williams sticks with his 'stuck with your ego' version of hell, which perhaps nobody ends up in anyway.

The fact that the leader of the established church in England is neither capable of giving a clear Biblical picture warning of the true nature of hell, nor able to accept that there will in fact, sadly, be many who go there (Matthew 7:13), is deeply disturbing, and offers false comfort to any agnostic or undecided viewers, and indeed the film-maker himself, who spots that something is amiss.

As Thomas puts it, in the Gospels hell is "real enough, [with] no ambiguity, no room for gentle explanation."

But to be fair, Williams is not the only one to fudge the issue. Even Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan bends over backwards to avoid the most politically incorrect statements in his holy text:

“No one can deny that corporal punishment or the death penalty are in the Qur’an. Also beating the wife. You cannot take these verses literally. You have to take it in the whole context. Beating your wife is against the Islam tradition.”

I cannot understand how easily the 'you can't take it literally' and 'you can't take it out of context' gambits are employed and accepted. So how can you take it, if not literally? So what context should wife-beating be taken in, Professor Ramadan? Isn't this just another way of saying, "I want to be a Muslim expert, but I don't want to explain the stuff about my religion that is embarrassing in a modern, TV-friendly, pluralistic, post-feminist western society."

Back to Rowan Williams, who proceeds (in my view) to damn the Bible with faint praise:

“I think we need to come to the Bible with enormous openness… I don’t think you have to come every verse in Genesis as history as we now understand it."

Shouldn't we rather to come to the Bible with enormous submission?Because if certain human pseudo-scientific, non-demonstrable theories trump the self-revelation of God in the Bible, then the enormous openness to the Bible is subject to the enormous submission that liberal leaders have to what men in white coats tell them (and by the way, by no means all the men in the white coats accept evolution). And if we are told 'it must be millions of years and Adam's father must have been an ape-like creature or you're an idiot', then our enormous openness to the Bible becomes enormously closed pretty quickly, doesn't it? Rowan, Rowan, Rowan. [That's my bit done. :-)]

Sachs does his bit to add more fuel to the liberal fire: “Fundamentalism is the attempt to move from text to application without interpretation… and that is something that orthodox Judaism regards as heresy… We believe in Judaism that God discloses himself through the arena of time.”

None of these men seem concerned in the slightest that they are all espousing a Humpty Dumpty form of religion ("when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less", pace Lewis Carroll).

Free yourself from literalism and the conflict between science and religion is over, concludes Thomas. Even evolution can be seen as God’s design. Nevertheless, Thomas can't avoid the fact that Darwin himself wrote, “Creation offers nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."

Chief Rabbi Sachs shrugs. “Things die so that other things shall be born… I don’t see that as tragic…”

The Archbishop of Canterbury tries a little harder: “I see the Darwinian picture of creation is a ‘three o’clock in the morning’ perspective – it’s all so futile. But we’re capable of love, meaning, prayer… and that’s valuable whether or not it lasts forever.” Not really, if you listen to the apostle Paul who said, "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men" (1 Corinthians 15:19). Does his enormous openness extend as far as listening to what the divinely-inspired apostle wrote?

The personal motive for the programme finally emerges. Thomas confesses: "My mother died recently… unable to eat, speak, recognise anybody. At what stage did her spirit leave her?"

Williams, a naturally sympathetic and charismatic man, says movingly: “Nothing more distressing to watch someone disappearing before your very eyes… What happens isn’t that the body’s left and that something has gone somewhere else, but that God is doing something at a level we don’t know anything about it.”

Thomas is clearly touched by this, because his final verdict is that these were "five compassionate men… closer to each other than previously thought!"

But he seems absolutely none the wiser as how to know God exists. What a shame that Christ was barely touched open, his Cross and resurrection even less, and his gracious atonement for millions of sinners like Thomas never explained.

May God in Christ graciously save all five leaders and Thomas too.

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