Creating God, Re-Creating Christ

The following is a review by Noel Cheer of, and a response to, Ian Harris' book Creating God, Re-Creating Christ published in 1999 by The St. Andrew's Trust for the Study of Religion and Society, Wellington, New Zealand. This book has been reviewed also by John Bluck

His Mission

This book had its origins in a lecture (subsequently published as Creating God) which Ian gave at St. Andrew's On The Terrace, Wellington in 1994 under the auspices of SATRS. This present book, also presented as lectures in 1999, is an update of the earlier book to which has been added a sequel, Re-Creating Christ. Full details appear on the SATRS website.

Ian presents two theses which are conflatable into one—that since we create both God and Christ then its time that we looked at doing both better.

In writing these books Ian's mission was to attempt an answer to the question "what does an authentic experience of God comprise?". He proceeds by attempting a cross-pollination between Christianity and secularism and by proposing that a freshly-articulated Christianity "could become the starting point for a new faith exploration". In addition he hopes that religion can be made credible again and that Christians today could be as creative as were Christians of the first four centuries in peridoically re-conceiving the Christ of Faith.

Creating God

In "creating" God, Ian is not joining the anthropologists who say that we humans have created God, or the gods, in order to placate or coerce natural forces such as the weather and death. His "God" is latent in the human condition as something even more than "the sum of all our values". "God" embraces all that we think and do to express our aspirations for transcendence.

Ian is surely over-estimating the demand for, and the ease of, implementing a better way of creating God for, on page 10 he writes: "The last victory of secularisation will be to free the process of embracing the Christian religion from the controlling hand of the church. ... Men and women of the secular culture are now free to do consciously what generations have done without realising it: they can knowingly create the God who will henceforth act in and through them." While freedom of choice and action is always welcome, this sounds like the optimism of, for example, those who advocate personal tax decreases in order that private donations to charity will flourish. In both instances, gravity doesn't seem to operate in the assumed directions.

At about this point (page 11) he introduces "Godness" in terms that fans of Martin Buber (of which I am one) will recognise: " .. it is in the electric spaces between man and man, man and woman, woman and woman, that the essential spark of Godness is to be found" leading us away from the tired old "does God exist?" discussions and into the more fruitful ground of people creating God (that is, exercising Godness) in the way that we live. But in wanting to steer away from "relegating" God to a sort of "spiritual nimbus", he seems to leave no room for mystery in our relation to God. Is God immanent ("inside us"), transcendent (in some sense "over and above") or, as seems most likely to this reviewer, both?

His description on page 15 of what would make up "an authentic experience of God", while a bit short, is food for thought. What he characterises as "the quintessential religious process" I have elsewhere (SoF Internet discussion group) characterised as "scratching the itch that our capacity for faith gives us."

In the second section (to which we will return) he expands on the point that Christianity is less concerned with what Jesus actually did or said and is more concerned for the efficacy of the myths that grew around him, especially in their role of stimulating Godness in his followers. Although this point is not novel to most SoF people, it would certainly come as a surprise to most conventional Christians. By making this point, Ian disavows any obligation to defend any particular formulation of God or of Jesus. All such formulations are, in Ian's scheme of things, the best myths that the people of a particular period could come up with.

Present-day Christians should not feel bound by any of the earlier formulations because (p21) today's issues (which all responsible people must grapple with) are racism, poverty, sexism, war and the environment -- a different set from former ages. These are presented in the context of "humankind come of age": a claim that will be as surprising to SoF members as anybody else. Ian doesn't give us his criterea for proclaiming our maturity but assumes it in order to spell out our obligation to get on and fix up things. Even to suggest that humankind is maturing sounds like 19th century optimism but to have crossed some unspecified threshhold into maturity would make even Candide draw in his breath. But having castigated Ian for that, one can agree with what follows without agreeing with his given pre-conditions: that we and not some agent or agents of a supernatural order have to fix whatever is wrong. So, rather than saying that "mankind has come of age" perhaps it would be better to say that "now we know that we are alone and its all up to us".

Since Toffler's Future Shock it has become obligatory to add a section on "we live in changing times" and we are not disappointed. There's even a Luddite side-swipe at the technology that saves us time and effort as though they were the cause of the speed-up of life rather than a set of enabling mechanisms. Ian's recitation of how quickly and fundamentally things are changing is familiar but he lays at the feet of "secular culture" the charge of being so focussed on the present that valuable aspects of the past beome dis-valued. But, he might be riding with the hare and the hounds on this. Earlier (p10) he praised the secular culture for dismissing all that supernaturalism to make way for the new God-creation agenda.

On page 24 he wistfully repeats the anguish felt by many: "There is no longer any widely shared sense of meaning, no over-arching purposes that weave together religion, philosophy, the arts, the law, the major institutions and the culture of everyday life." But, and again, if Ian wants the freedom to create his own God then he must surrender the very loom that would have done the weaving. One can look in a Gothic cathedral for a vision of a totally harmonious order. One can look in a leatherbound set of encyclopaedias for the delusion that "all knowledge" could ever be discovered, assembled, published and sold door-to-door (or on a CD-ROM). In the 20th century, countries that tried to have all their citizens think the same—North Korea, USSR, China—are now either economic basket cases, obscenely undemocratic, or are moving towards democratic free-thought at a speed which, though glacial by western standards, is as fast as their gerontocracies can handle.

As this point in the book a tangential paragraph or two on postModernism would have been helpful to us in identifying the forms of Christianity which Ian is farewelling as being, at least in principle, similar to the encyclopaedists and the gushing advocates of the notion that "science will soon know everything about everything". They are all bedfellows in the Modernism which we are rapidly moving "post". The larger the group exhibiting a "shared sense of meaning" the larger should be our worry—there's a tyrant somewhere nearby defining the meaning!

Sea of Faith readers should be grateful to Ian for reminding us that the religious life cannot be lived alone. For if we accept his definitional statement that Godness is "in the electric spaces between [people]" then we must agree that the religious life is a communal effort. He says that repeatedly, even while castigating the Churches for their poor delivery of it. Chapter 5 deals with some of the practicalities.

His section on prayer in the context of a created God (pp28-30), is valuable and he draws together several threads by quoting a saying from the Russian Orthodox tradition that we should "fling our life after our prayer" in order to exercise Godness. Incidentally this is a good illustration of the operating principles of both SoF and postModernism. You can (as Ian implicitly does) severely criticise a religious system while adopting the "good bits" that you find useful. SoF members and postModernists are scavengers!

Starting on page 30, readers mystified by mysticism will be helped (though not exhaustively -- its a huge subject) by Ian's commonsense "grounding" (his term) of mystical experience as located in the human body and mind and articulated in a specific language and specific cultural milieu.

He reminds us that, in a religious context, the most appropriate synonym for "belief" is "trust". Even better, on page 78, he gives his definition of faith as: "our trusting orientation to life and its possibilities". Furthermore, something (in this case God) can be real without "existing" in an objective sense. If this notion bothers you then try asking whether your dreams are or are not "real". They true for you in a subjective domain that no-one else can access.

In a "questions-and-answers" section that makes up all of Chapter 4 he returns to what his early critics must have found to be a problem and to what most conventional Christians would undoubtedly reject: that the God we worship is of our own making. He must allow that most people inherit a concept of God which was created long ago and which has been passed down relatively unchanged for centuries. But that is a quibble. If readers are still with Ian (and me) at this point then his statement at the top of page 36 will ring like a clarion call: "The impulse to create a God worthy of the name is individual; but such a God also lead out beyond oneself."

Taking the first part, and recollecting that an anonymous 19th century wit once recast Alexander Pope's "An honest man is the nobl'st work of God" into "An honest God is the nobl'st work of Man" we are surely entitled to ask where this God-creating impulse comes from. Anthropologists, pilloried above (by me), would say that modern humans have inherited the coping strategies of frightened cave-men; Freud says that we are scared of just about everything and want Daddy to protect us; while, more helpfully, Jung would say that the impulse is the outworking of a subconscious Archetype that all of us are born with but which we all express somewhat differently—in kind and degree. It is the expectation of this reviewer that work on the human genome will vindicate a point of view somewhat like Jung's and perhaps add the rider that, in line with Darwin, there are evolutionary advantages in having and exercising a capacity to express, and then commit to, transcendental aspirations. Ultimately, it may not be a question of "finding" or even "creating" God, but "acknowledging" and giving content to a genetic heirloom. Looking to "depth psychology" for explanation is, in line with Ian's general position (expressed throughout Chapter 2) that there is no "other world" or "supernatural regime". To redirect our attention from "up/out there" to "in here" has borne so many worthwhile fruits that it probably has the merit of being largely correct.

Another burst of optimism-in-the-face-of-facts occurs on p38 in his assertion that ideas with merit will eventually flourish and those without will eventually wither. As with the earlier "humankind come of age" he does not define "merit". As an example, consider the deeply superstitious Marian devotion in Southern Spain. The author Jan Morris refers to

"all those miraculous relics which, to the cold northern mind, blur the edge between religion and superstition, and give to Spanish Catholicism an odour of wizardry. All over Spain there are miracle-working images of the Virgin, hallowed and well-loved objects with traditional powers of cure and protection. They are usually squat, primitive, vaguely Oriental figures, blackened by centuries of candle smoke and sitting up on their high plinths, their banks of flowers, or their altars like dark little idols."
What merit could this have in the unfolding secular age. Yet it appears to survive because it meets a deep psychological need. Is that sufficient to count as "merit"?

In dealing with the "myriad competing belief systems" which are filling some of the gap left by older religious institutions it would have been helpful if Ian had followed Wilfred Cantwell Smith's distinction between "religion" (what I have elswehere called the "itch") and "a religion" (the selected method of scratching the itch). Thus, the Branch Davidian sect is both "religion" and "a religion" while New Right economic orthodoxy may have the external trappings of "a religion" (dogma, mantras, apocalypticism: There Is No Alternative) without anybody make claims that it is the expression of a religious impulse.

Ian dismisses rather too lightly all aspects of "spirituality" as being both vogue and vague. He spends a page denouncing "weird expressions of 'spirituality'" but gives no acknowledgement that his agenda for creating God depends upon doing so in Buber's "spiritual" context. To again use Ian's own words: " .. it is in the electric spaces between man and man, man and woman, woman and woman, that the essential spark of Godness is to be found". Yes, "spirituality" is a vogue word, but it expresses an essential central concept to Ian's book and to the study of religion in general.

Re-Creating Christ

Although the book divides at page 56 between Part I ("Creating God") and Part II ("Re-Creating Christ"), thematically the divide occurs at about page 44 where Jesus/Christ is introduced as a possible (and for Ian, preferred) window through which Godness can be viewed. We are immediately in deep and troubled waters from which there is no easy rescue, either now or ever.

Although Ian does not agree that it should be so, Christianity is traditionally considered to be the propagation of the "message" of Jesus of Nazareth (or, better "Galilee"). If so, then it must be awarded a "Fail" grade. Scholarly work, at least from the time of Albert Schweitzer a century ago and more recently evident with the publications of The Jesus Seminar, has established beyond reasonable doubt that:

  • there are words in the Gospel record put into the mouth of Jesus that he would not have said ("I am the Way, The Truth and The Life")
  • the New Testament record reflects agendas plainly related to the requirements of the growing Church as well as the Cosmic fantasies of Paul, many of which conflict with Jesus' attitude of inclusiveness and his disavowal of messiahship. Ian more charitably refers to them as "testimonies to the evolving faith of the followers of his way."
  • later accretions (for example, worship of the Virgin) which are read back onto the life of the historical Jesus.
As popularised by The Jesus Seminar, it is now a commonplace among SoF readers that Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom, but the Church proclaimed Jesus. As their Bob Funk puts it: "the iconoclast became the icon". Or, in another context, R.H. Fuller wrote: "The proclaimer [of the Kingdom] became the proclaimed." But where is the boundary between the original "proclamation" by Jesus and the later reflections on his teachings and life events? How are we to disentangle the raw data from interpretation? Or, to use a question at least a century old: "can we discover the historical Jesus?"

In his book, Ian bypasses the problem of "The Historical Jesus" by re-directing our attention to the "Christ of Faith". The thesis of Part II is that the historical Jesus is relatively unimportant ("at best an ethic", p81) in comparison with the Christ Myth which has been created and re-created periodically by the then-current body of believers. The defining myth of Christianity is the "Christ of Faith" which arose as the result of the death of the Jesus of history. From pages 60 to 72 there is a lot of interesting background on the conditions in which Christianity came to birth. We all know, of course, that Jesus was not a Christian. Neither were Peter and Paul who died in the early 60s when the faith system clustered around the memory of Jesus was still called "the Way" and was not formally divorced from Judaism. Paul was the biggest creator of the Christ myth. He seems not to be interested in Jesus' life. To mix a couple of metaphors: for Paul, Jesus comes alive on Calvary as the Christ. Ian takes the view that we should do as Paul did.

Given this realisation, readers will surely split into two camps: a situation not unknown in the history of Christianity.

There are those who, like The Jesus Seminar, wish, in the words of one of their book titles, to remain "Honest to [the historical] Jesus" by identifying in the gospel record those of Jesus' words and actions that we can rely upon as authentic and then marginalising, even rejecting, those that are not. Ian notes (p79) "That Jesus is at best shadowy and elusive, despite the gospels ... [which are] testimonies to the evolving faith tradition of the followers of his way". In Jesus Seminar terms, this concession is pivotal and the remaining question is "where do we go from here?". The Jesus Seminar recommends removing, as much as possible, the shadows.

On the other side—on Ian's side—there are those who can concede that the historical Jesus, by his words, life and death, gave us an examplar of a life lived in Godness and upon which substrate his near-contemporaries (especially Paul and the gospel writers) and later generations right up to our own time, have built metaphors and myths which express their response to that life. As Wilfred Cantwell Smith would have put it, Christianity itself is an historical phenomenon, subject to historical mutation. This is usefully summarised on page 77 where Ian writes of the Jewish strand of Christianity emphasising Jesus' work, the Greek strand (starting with Paul and outliving the Jewish) his person.

On Ian's invitation, we are to recreate or reconceive Christ using 21st century tools of faith in the way that the earliest followers used Jewish midrash ("the Jewish way of saying that everything to be venerated in the present must somehow be connected with a sacred moment in the past.": John Spong). Later exporters of "the Way" (especially Paul and John), turned to Greek metaphysical categories. On page 83, Ian writes: "It helps ... to know what assumptions the various gospel writers shared and what audiences they had in mind, in order to see why they wrote as they did." This is an area in which to see a major difference between Ian's point of view and that of The Jesus Seminar. Ian would have us learn from and then copy the gospel writers (and Paul), while TJS would use such knowledge to discount for the biases of the writers on our way back to the original message of the original Jesus.

Our 21st century process of building a new myth would have us (pp84-85) "asking the right questions" in the context of a secular society and in an open faith community. The last point is important for SoF people with tendencies to be "loners": "Godness within humanity is a community affair" (p86).

Broken Myths

In our present context, a "myth" is not a "fallacy" as current secular usage would have it. To paraphrase Schweitzer (quoted in full on page 79) a myth is made up of religious ideas in a narrative format. From page 97 to page 100 the author deals with myth and rightly positions it as a mode of writing in which the literal or historical truth of a story is secondary to its existential truth. He gives the examples of The Fall and The Last Judgement as classic myths. A myth generally has no known author, the Apostle Paul being a notable exception. In general, a myth is usually a communal project and is subject to fine-tuning by subsequent generations.

A distinguishing feature of our times that is not often enough acknowledged is that we live in a time of what Tillci called "broken" myths. We give the name "myth" to stories of The Fall and The Last Judgement and the Virgin Birth and many others. But the mere fact of so identifying it as myth robs it of some of its authority. Yes, we can give intellectual assent to its premises and its conclusions; we can claim that The Fall succinctly describes the dilemma of requiring the possibility of moral lapse in order for there to be a moral creature -- but its "truth" for us now lies in its capacity to win our approval according to criteria that we impose on it. We have become the masters of the myth, and no longer acquiescent, obedient, believing subscribers.

That is the major point upon which Ian's agendas of "creating God" and "re-creating Christ" may founder. There is no precedent for groups of significant size inventing, in committee as it were, a myth and then submitting to it. There are numerous examples of people inventing a myth (often a secular myth) and then imposing it on others as a means of wholesale coercion—but such inventors stay "outside" the myth, while their victims are herded in. Noam Chomsky has spoken passionately that the view of the world given to us by conspiratorial tabloid media has the "bread and circusses" function of distracting the population at large from weightier matters.

On page 79 Ian values Christianity on the rather slender grounds that "the Christ of faith who, in western culture, became the defining symbol for Godness in life and life in Godness" . Christianity has shaped the culture of the West. But the book, as a whole, sees Christianity as uniquely able to provide us with a revisable substrate upon which to write, and re-write, the myth of the "Christ of Faith" and that today's Christians should (p80) "reconceive the Christ myth for today".

But, if we were to proceed with Ian's agenda, then why cannot we improve the myths by revising the scope of what can be admitted.

In respect of "God" there is a crying need to go beyond, even to repudiate, "might, majesty, dominion and power" and to introduce feminine principles of nurture and inclusiveness. A naughty dash of neo-paganism would remind us that reverence for the earth has more survival value than does the "dominion over" it granted to us by Genesis.

The "Christ" myth might usefully de-emphasise the gory death on Calvary and discard altogether the "sacrifical lamb" motif. If Christ is the pre-eminent window into Godness then a reminder that our "neighbor" could be our ideological opponent might curb the exclusivist tendency of many Christians.

Those readers who line up on the side of The Jesus Seminar may want to hold to account Ian's view that the Christ of Faith can be reconceived in each age and somehow remain true to the rather nebulous entity called "Christianity".

Those who believe that The Jesus Seminar is chasing the historical phantom that Schweitzer said was indiscoverable, will take comfort from Ian's book.

Noel Cheer