A CHRISTIAN HUMANISM
Christianity in the Emerging Post-Modern, Post-Secular, Post-Christian Age
Exploring a Christian theology capable of constructive engagement with the post-modern, post-Christian, post-secular culture of today and beyond.
5 – ORAN MOR
The Oran Mor, the primordial melody is like a Celtic knot, weaving throughout the entire universe, knitting an interwoven, cohesive reality.
– Philip Carr Goman
THE GREAT SONG OF BEING
In the pre-Christian Celtic imagination, the world came to be and was kept in being by a song – a symphony performed by the interconnected natural world. Every part of nature contributed to the music, and only those with ears spiritually attuned could hear the melody. This is the ancient Celtic concept of Oran Mor – the Great Song.
There is much ambiguity concerning the exact meaning of Oran Mor, and while we should not put words in our ancestors’ mouths, we may still reflect on their meanings and employ the term anew within our modern context.
Part of the ambiguity lies with the sometimes conflation of Oran Mor with God or concepts of divinity. Was the Oran Mor the creative God? Or was it the song sung by deity to create the world and maintain it in being? Was it nature itself singing? The sparse remnants of the Celtic traditions do not offer clarity.
Despite being polytheistic in its early stages, Celtic culture moved toward various expressions of monotheism until it was pushed fully into that camp by Christianity. Yet throughout all its stages, Irish, Welsh, and Scottish thinkers cultivated notions of God that resisted reification and saw divinity as deeply interwoven in the natural world.
God to much of the Celtic imagination is the ground of being and not a thing among other things, but rather the creative wellspring of all things. The Oran Mor is the metaphor for the life giving creative force in the cosmos. (See Jason Kirkey’s, Salmon in the Spring)
For eons, the Celtic spiritual imagination has heard the Oran Mor in the turning of the seasons, in the flowering of the fields, in the harvesting of crops, and in the patterns of the sun, moon, and stars. The divine infused within all the world, an immanent vision that led the Celts to deem nature sacred.
Our secular culture, with its ears tuned by naturalism struggles with any notion of divinity, especially assertions of a personal God who interacts directly with humans. This leads to difficulties accepting the status of anything as sacred or transcendent as well. My sense is that within the Celtic concept of Oran Mor, resides much of value to our present concerns.
BEYOND THE DEATH OF GOD
Many people misunderstand Nietzsche’s prophetic and savvy proclamation that “God is dead.” This mocking announcement was not the heralding of a blanket atheism (as many mistakenly think), it was the recognition that the West had killed off and moved beyond many of its ideas about God and that, for all intents and purposes, the God of the common culture, was in fact, now dead.
Notions of divinity and God have always been in flux. God as creator, God as ground of being, God as source of life, God as person, God as force or power, God as omniscient, God as limited in some manner – the language is always lofty, as it should be when trying to describe ultimate reality, yet it should surprise no one that such language is also ambiguous, and often vacuous.
More problematic, many of the claims that we make about God – as healer, benevolent influence, bestower of blessings, source of all goodness, kindness, and love – don’t always align with our experience of reality. Any honest person understands the disconnect between the all powerful, all loving God of goodness and providence, and children dying of cancer, tornados wiping out homes and lives, genocide, famine, even the simple setbacks in life and the inevitable decay of ageing and the loss of death.
Further, the intellectual need for God has shifted. Science has improved and advanced to narrow or even eliminate many of gaps where we once filled with God. People recognize that prayer might seem appropriate, but it has little influence on whether the chemotherapy will work, whether a loved one gets that job, the weather improves, or our children flourishing as we’d hope. Intercessory prayer may satisfy some deep seated human need, but its results and efficacy are undemonstrated at best.
Theodicy, science, globalism, technology, modern medicine, new philosophies – our modern and even postmodern reality – require of us a revisioning of our philosophy and theology of the divine.
Foundational to naturalist philosophy is the conviction that nature is a closed system, that there is only one reality – the natural universe composed of matter and energy. This conviction exists because the sciences have no evidence for anything supernatural – no reliable, repeatable, verifiable evidence for miracles, deities, spirits, and so on.
The New Atheists, and some of the old ones too, have put forward cogent and convincing arguments that pick up where Nietzsche left off. They have, rather successfully, summarized and shown the futility and even absurdity of certain popular ideas about God. But rather than bury God, they’ve merely buried certain ideas about God, most of them related to Evangelical and popular culture notions of a personal God who closely resembles Santa Claus.
For religious people who are theists, for those who find some value in maintaining a God-concept, the challenge is to reconcile their thinking about God with an accurate and true understanding of the world and to demonstrate the usefulness of holding onto to such notions at all. To render the concept of God tenable requires making such concepts intellectually meaningful to educated people operating in the secular culture.
The above task cannot be fully undertaken without consideration of the work of the New Atheists – Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens, among others. The work of these thinkers have successfully challenged much of the faulty thinking and fantasy spirituality that exists concerning God today.
Sadly, and almost humorously, many defenders of the Divine-Status-Quo scoff at these thinkers without having read them and when they engage their ideas, do so with incomplete and partially understood arguments from Aquinas or Anselm or some other thinker they barely comprehend and have likely also never read.
The New Atheists are right in much of what they say. But they are also quite limited in their analysis. Once one gets past the projection onto all Christians of Biblical literalism and fundamentalism, (their assumption that all or most Christians are fundamentalists and literalist is annoying, at best), the thrust of their work takes a two pronged approach.
First, the authors argue that the concept of God is unnecessary (some argue the concept is also meaningless.) God is not needed in today’s theories of evolution, emergence, and so on. In The God Delusion, Dawkins contends that complex, improbable design in the universe arises from simple origins and principles. According to Dawkins, there is no need for God as part of the explanation. Stephen Hawking, Steven Weinberg, and other astrophysicists concur.
Second, they argue against God in terms of theodicy – the conflict that arises between assertions of an all powerful God of love, on the one hand, and the superfluous suffering of humans, (children in particular), as well as the randomness of much disease and natural disasters. If God is all powerful and all loving, then either God can do nothing to stop suffering, or cares not to. God is therefore either impotent or evil. Suffering is visceral, God is not.
Five hundred million people died of smallpox in the 20th Century, many of them infants. God’s ways are, indeed, inscrutable.
– Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation
A prominent defender of classical theism, as well as critic of the New Atheists, is Orthodox theologian, David Bentley Hart. Hart argues that the New Atheists make many valid points, but that the bulk of their work is spent debating nonexistent deities, strawman arguments, and limited, yet admittedly common, understandings and expressions of Christianity.
For example, Sam Harris’ work, Letter to a Christian Nation is a well done polemic that rightly criticizes many aspects of today’s superficial pop-spirituality and its subsequent magical thinking. However, Harris seems to overlook the work of the Patristics, centuries worth of diverse Christian philosophy, and any nuanced theology, some of which aligns with Harris on many points.
The New Atheists are largely correct, but within limited conversations. Certain notions of God must be reformed, if not outright rejected. The tendency in today’s pop-spirituality is to treat God much like one treats Santa Claus. The implied spirituality being that if one is a good boy or girl, one will get gifts or have good things happen to them. Contractual arrangements with the divine also abound – if I do x, God will do y! One only need briefly examine name it, claim it spiritualities to see rudimentary wish-projection. Accompanying these spiritual approaches is often an overconfident sense of intimacy with the divine, with God speaking clearly to the individual much as one speaks with a friend over coffee or a beer.
However, this is not reality. Good boys and girls, from time to time, suffer, experience setbacks, and will all eventually die. Daily Mass, rosary, novenas, hours and hours of bible study, and even devoting one’s life to the poor may have merit, but it’s certainly not going to control events or God, or both. God is much more than a gift dispenser. Notions of an intimate, personal God are highly subjective. History, life, and reality simply do not support such saccharine, limited notions of divinity.
How then to make sense of God? What reality are the scriptures speaking of when they speak of God (mythopoetically)? What is behind the religious experience that many claim? Complete answers are impossible, but a possible way forward, akin to the thinking implied by Oran Mor, recommends itself. But first, a detour.
PROVING GOD’S EXISTENCE?
Before exploring alternative ways to speak about God, a central question arises. Can the existence of God be demonstrated or proven? Asking the question begs at least another – what do we mean by God? What is it we’re seeking to prove or disprove?
The Western tradition has offered the world the vision of classical theism – the all-perfect, transcendent, personal God who created the world and sustains it. Variations of this vision exist, some deemphasizing God’s power, some shifting the meaning of transcendence, and some arguing against God’s personal nature. For the most part, they share in common the claim of an ultimate reality that underlies the natural order.
With the exception of Anselm, the vast majority of the arguments have taken the form of reasoning from the existence of the world to the existence of God. We find a world of beauty and of order, a world that seems to call for an intelligent designer behind the material veil. Some of the arguments have taken a slightly more abstract form, noting the seeming contingency of the world, the insufficient reason for existence, the surprising, but unnecessary fact that there is something instead of nothing. And some arguments take the form of arguing from causality, eventually reasoning to an uncaused cause that grounds the dynamism of the world.
Are any of these arguments conclusive? In all honesty, no. That’s not to note that some of the arguments don’t have merit, especially the ones concerning contingency and necessity. Yet no one has produced an irrefutable argument for God’s existence in clear, deductive form. Further still, no one has produced a definitive description or summation of what God is (thus the charge leveled by the New Atheists that God is a meaningless concept).
And given our inexactitude and ambiguity about God’s nature, our arguments are generally asserting some ultimate, eternal ground or source of reality. Arguing for an uncaused cause or noncontingent creative source is a far cry from logically reasoning to trinities, Jesus as God, miracles, God as person, and so on.
One aim of evidential theology is to seek clarity in our claims and ongoing attempts to justify those claims in a reasonable manner. Yet another aim is remembering humility when making theological claims, particularly since many are speculative by nature.
Like most fundamental questions, answering the question of God’s existence, simply leads to further questions – whether one affirms God’s existence or not. The consequences of our answer touch upon issues of meaning and purpose, causality and necessity, and even philosophical anthropology, which amounts to our own self understanding.
If admit we can’t prove the existence of God, then we also can’t prove assertions that we understand God’s will with certainty, either, and should maintain a degree of humility, and even a dose of skepticism, when asserting such, and other related claims.
Lacking certainty concerning God’s existence doesn’t invalidate religion or theology, and why should it? There are other fundamental issues that also resist the certainty of deductive reasoning – questions of value and morality, questions of character, questions of beauty, and questions of meaning and purpose. In a sense, even the existence of the material world cannot be proven or deduced. Religion addresses normative, qualitative, and existential issues, matters that slip through the deductive and scientific nets.
Whatever position one decides upon, sloppy thinking, poorly reasoned arguments, and incomplete grasp of the issues simply won’t do. Such will not be convincing or credible to the educated, naturalist-minded, individuals living secular lives.
THAT WHICH IS BEHIND AND BENEATH AND WITHIN ALL THINGS
Humans have long recognized the patterns of order within the world. Despite imperfections, there is a regularity, a measure of harmony, and predictability to reality, enough for the ancients to speak of the nature of our world as cosmos as opposed to chaos – meaning an ordered world rather than a random, disordered one. Cosmos implies an interconnected system of cycles and rhythms, a dynamic harmony of changes, not all perfect or good, but more or less ordered and balanced. Further, cosmos also implies a world of meaning, whereas chaos implies a nihilistic reality.
The ancients intuited the unity of the diverse world around them and attributed that unity to the divine. They also intuited the life-giving, creative orientation of nature in general, and attributed that force to the divine as well. Therefore, God served as the metaphor-symbol for the ongoing creativity in the universe – the life-giving, creative, ordering power within the emerging into being of all that is. God is a unified shorthand, a metaphor, for the totality of creative-ordering forces in the universe. God is the metaphor for those powers permeated throughout a unified reality.
Recent developments in cognitive neuroscience and linguistics have helped us see the crucial role metaphor serves in the mental inference that makes thinking and the imagination possible. The common stereotype is that a metaphor is something imaginary and not real. On one level this may be true, but at the level of neuroscience and cognition, metaphor is, literally, everything. It is a basic working cognitive unit of our minds and it is by using metaphor that our concepts are formed and learned.
Retaining God as a metaphor aligns with the Western concept of monotheism as the apprehension of a unified transcendent value source. The creative mystery that some call God serves as a foundational symbol for our culture. For many people, it functions as a primary focus for orientation to the sacred, creative principle driving the mystery of reality – that there is something and not nothing, and that this something is orderly, interconnected, and produced conscious life that can ponder questions of meaning. Such notions underlie most mystical experience.
There is a sense that there exist ultimate concerns – concerns that seem rightly grounded in a reality transcendent to human whim. Such analysis offers the divine as the symbol-metaphor for ultimate values and meaning in all their dimensions. It connotes that such should exercise a claim on our loyalty. It bespeaks a sense of how we should order our priorities and commitments. It’s positing a divine dimension to teleonomy.
THE GOD OF THE NEW TESTAMENT – DIVINITY AS LOGOS & TRINITY
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, but neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
– T.S. Eliot
From Greek philosophy came the notion of the logos, with varied meaning approximating word, reason, logic, idea, and order. Jews had the concept of Memra, which wasn’t the exact equivalent of logos, but implied a sense of underlying order in the world rendered by God’s word or action.
Trinitarian theology is rooted in Greek philosophical concepts overlaid on the early Christian communities’ understanding of divinity within Jewish contexts. The assertion of the Trinity is based in the Christian experience of the divine in three experiential centers of focus. The early Greek Fathers spoke of emanations of divine energy in the world and understood this emanation to have a three-fold nature – God as the order in creation (the Father), God as they encountered in Jesus, and God as the enthusiasm and power of transformation that was experienced interiorly (the Holy Spirit).
Seeking to maintain the Jewish insight of monotheism, whatever the nature of these centers of divine energy, the tradition insists that the fullness of divinity should be understood in terms of their unity.
The Divine energy at work in the world is like a wave of the sea which, rushing up on the flat beach, runs out, even thinner and more transparent, and does not return to its source but sinks into the sand and disappears.
Later Christian thinkers would interpret the scriptures along these same lines. In the early centuries of Christian theology, and at the Council of Nicaea, with the formulation of the Creed, the Trinity became an established part of the Christian tradition.
From the perspective of evidential theology, we must recognize the abstract nature of Trinitarian theology, probing the practical meaning of these claims. At the same time, we must accept that the concept and language of the Trinity is engrained in Christian experience and theology, and therefore must be taken into account.
To apply the term ‘God’ (in the Christian sense) is to say that we perceive intuitively a connection between the marvels of the natural world, the moral law, the life of Jesus, the depths of the human personality, our intimations about time, death and eternity, our experience of human forgiveness and love, and the finest insights of the Christian tradition. To deny the existence of ‘God’ is to say that we cannot (yet) see such connections.
– British Society of Friends, Faith & Practice, 5th Edition
God is not a supernatural entity among other entities. Instead, God is the inexhaustible ground that empowers the existence of beings. To paraphrase St. Maximus the Confessor, a great Eastern father – God is truly none of the things that exist, and is, properly speaking, all things, and at the same time beyond them. God is present in the logos of each thing itself, and in all the logoi together, according to which all things exist. God is whole in all things commonly, and in each being particularly, without separation or being subject to division, and on the contrary is truly all things in all, never going out of its own indivisible simplicity.
God is the eternal, unifying, creative, sustaining reality behind the world and beneath reality. And this underlying reality is logos, best interpreted as meaning. And further, while anthropomorphizing is dangerous, at best, it does indeed seem that this reality, while perhaps not personal in any sense we humans can grasp, is relational.
The world, and all that is in it, is therefore a sacrament – an outward and visible sign of an underlying grace. We never encounter God directly, and our knowledge of the divine remains clouded at best. But we do encounter God in all things, in others, in beauty, in love, in kindness – mediated through the reality it sustains and permeates. Above all, we encounter God through the church, a sacrament as well.
At the heart of Christian history and experience is the claim that God/logos is embodied in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the human face of the West’s apprehension of the unified transcendent value source. The prologue to the Gospel of John, while at times poetically vague, does directly reference Jesus as the logos made flesh.
In this sense, Jesus serves as the icon – the sacrament of God, understood as logos. The witness of the first Christian communities is that Jesus embodied the divine dynamism of creating cosmos out of chaos – they found meaning and order – a redemptive creativity – in Jesus’ teachings and example.
All content copyrighted with all rights reserved. Gregory Gronbacher, 2021. (C)