The meaning of the word ‘God’ has become more than a little ambiguous in the modern world. Ours is a religiously plural world in which some religions claim to have exclusive rights to the word God, while others appear to have no use of it at all. Ours is also an age in which the acids of secularism have burnt deep into the fabric of culture, distorting our understanding and use of this term. ‘God’ can mean anything, even everything. Or it can mean nothing at all.
Yet, despite its irrevocable ambiguity, the term ‘God’ cannot be – must never be – abandoned by the Christian faith. Terms like ‘Absolute’, ‘Ground of Being’, ‘Transcendental Other’ are sometimes used as substitutes. But they do not enjoy the same universal acceptance and history as the term ‘God’ does in the Christian tradition. The solution to the problem of ambiguity is therefore not substitution, but clarification. Indeed, in the modern world, Christian theology has to clarify what it means when it speaks of God again and again amidst the flood of competing alternatives.
This assertion is, to be sure, offensive to the modern mind. To the modern mind, such exclusivism bespeaks of a kind of religious imperialism that is off-putting to sensible people used to a culture of tolerance and political correctness. This form of exclusivism also offends those who wish to embrace a philosophy of religious pluralism. A distinction must be made between recognising the fact that we live in a religiously plural world, and a philosophy of religious pluralism. The former has to do with the recognition of religious plurality as a reality. The latter is an attempt to explain that reality on the basis of certain philosophical presuppositions.
The philosophy of religious pluralism is often associated with philosophers like John Hick. Hick tries to demonstrate that no single religion has a monopoly of the truth, and that all religions are related to the same Ultimate Reality. The differences in doctrines and worldviews in the various religious are due to the fact that Ultimate Reality is ultimately incomprehensible, and each religion has but a partial and fragmentary glimpse of it. Furthermore, the varying religious expressions of this one Reality are due to the fact that they are embodied in different cultural forms. Thus no single religion, Hick insists, can claim monopoly of the truth – each has only a blurry and perspectival grasp of Ultimate Reality.
But this attempt to relativize the religions actually fails to take into account of just how important dogmas are to the religions. Most religions claim that their doctrines are truth-claims that say something true about reality. To insist as Hick does that religious dogmas are just culture-laden expressions of vague religious experience would be to treat them as purely subjective. Furthermore as a philosophy, religious pluralism’s attempt to counter what it opines to be a form of religious imperialism has in fact resulted in another form of imperialism. It forces the religions to accept its paradigm, and it insists that its particular view of religions is right.
In other words, it is also making a truth-claim. It is forwarding a dogma. Finally, pluralists like Hick claim to have knowledge that none of the world religions have discerned. Hick claims that Ultimate Reality is in the end unknowable, and that all the religions are in fact expressions of this Reality. The question is, How does Hick know this? How is it that he is privy to knowledge about God that eludes the great religions despite their centuries of tradition? Furthermore, how less exclusive is Hick’s claim about the religions than, say, the Christian’s claim that Jesus Christ is the only Saviour of the world?
If Hick’s approach is an attempt to ‘save’ the idea of God from secularism (although it is not totally unaffected by it), philosophers like Feuerbach and Marx have sacrificed that idea on the altar of secularism. For Feuerbach, God is man’s extension of himself, an image he has created with his mind, a projection of an ideal humanity. Such a notion of God does not of course make religion unimportant. Religion is a culture’s way of coping with problems and difficulties, some of which may appear to be insurmountable. The ‘God’ of religion ‘rescues’ human beings from such difficulties, and provides human beings with solace and hope. ‘God’ is a religious illusion, but a necessary one in the face of life’s vicissitudes. But once human beings (and human societies) come of age, there is no need for such a ‘God’.
This indeed is the proposition of Karl Marx. Religion is the opium of the people. Once the civilised world – whatever this may mean – has come of age and human beings can surmount life’s problems and inequalities, then ‘God’ is no longer needed. Human progress will bring about the ‘death of God’, that is, the negation of the religious illusion. Some such utilitarian use of the concept of God is found in modern science as well. The ‘God hypothesis’ is needed to bridge the gaps in modern scientific knowledge. That is to say, when science is unable to explain certain a phenomenon, it appeals to God. ‘God’ becomes the ‘God-of-the-gaps’, filling those crevices in modern scientific theories. But as more and more ‘mysteries’ are solved by science, the ‘God-of-the gaps’ shrinks, and will one day disappear.
The pluralist and secular concepts of God fail to satisfy. ‘God’ in the Creed cannot be seen to refer to the diverse conceptions of deity sprinkled on the vast intellectual and religious canvas of our modern (some say post-modern) culture. For God, the God of the Christian Faith, is ‘the highest’, the one who cannot be comprehended. He is the one who cannot be imagined. He is beyond our highest strivings, our deepest intuitions, our thoughts, however sublime and sophisticated. ‘God’ here refers not to a general notion of Deity, not Reality-as-such, not some transcendental Being. He is not the magnitude of our conceptions of Deity. The God the Creed professes is unsearchable and inconceivable, beyond the grasp of the human mind.
But this God has revealed himself to us. He who is unknowable has made himself known to us in his revelation. He has condescended to us, and disclosed himself through his acts in the history of Israel, and supremely in the person of Jesus Christ. ‘God’ in the Creed refers to the One who has thus revealed himself. And because (and only because) he has spoken to us, we can now speak to him and of him. He has revealed himself as God the Father, the Almighty and the Creator.
Further, ‘God’ in the Creed refers to the One who is Father, Son and Holy Ghost, the triune God, who through the death and resurrection of his incarnate Son has brought salvation to the world. He has become one of us so that we can be like him. He has made a covenant with human beings and he embraces them with his everlasting love. This God, the true God, challenges all our concepts of God. He is not the continuation of the concepts of God found in philosophy, but their dethronement. For he comes as a pure surprise! As One who cannot be imagined!
‘God’ in the Creed refers to this God and no other.