An agnostic philosopher, an Eastern Orthodox scholar, and a Unitarian Universalist minister have some words to share about God. No, that's not a setup for a joke; it's an observation that, for many, trying to comprehend the concept of God takes more than recognized scripture. Each recently published a book with God in the title, but the approaches are as varied as the authors' backgrounds.
Philosopher Gary Cox wrote The God Confusion: Why Nobody Knows the Answer to the Ultimate Question (Bloomsbury). Scholar David Bentley Hart's book is The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (Yale University Press). And the Rev. Galen Guengerich offers God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age (Palgrave Macmillan).
Mr. Cox answers the “why” using his philosopher's practice; the agenda for the book is “to conduct a philosophical investigation into questions concerning the idea and existence of God.” He takes 216 pages to reach the point that the most responsible philosophical position, he stated, is agnosticism—while also saying, “it is perhaps not wise to live and die as an agnostic.”
Mr. Hart's experience is that a definition of the word “God” is needed, because “while there has been a great deal of public debate about belief in God in recent years … the concept of God around which the arguments have run their seemingly interminable courses has remained strangely obscure the whole time.” In the 376-page book, his “chief purpose is not to advise atheists on what I think they should believe; I want merely to make sure that they have a clear concept of what it is they claim not to believe.”
Both Mr. Cox and Mr. Hart have concerns about defining terms, one of the ground rules for scholarly argument—what God is or isn't (regardless of whether God exists or doesn't). They're not extremely restrictive about it, but there are boundaries, and Mr. Hart covers several religions, Eastern and Western, to discuss the concept of God.
Mr. Guengerich isn't debating existence; his 240 pages deal with change, what God can be, stretching the bounds. He gives some personal stories, such as his faith journey from studying to be a Mennonite minister to where he is now, senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, and along with the changes in his faith, he writes about changes required by science. “The evidence now demands that the idea of a supernatural God, like the idea of an Earth-centered universe, must be revised.” So he suggests some revisions by writing about the experience of God, the challenge of humans, the need for religion, and about gratitude and ethics. Instead of taking a position of either religion or science, he brings up “a third option: an approach that begins with the scientific question of what we know about ourselves and our universe, and then moves—without magical thinking—to the religious question of what our knowledge means to us.”
Who among the authors is right or wrong, which content is good or bad, is not my concern. I have a fascination with continuing texts about God, a word most of us seem to understand whether we're believers, doubters, or dismissers. Books with “God” in the title have abounded as long as publishing has been in existence. Some “God” books affirm traditional religious views of a supreme being's power and might, others interpret what a universal creator might desire in an individual's way of living, and then there are books that take sides in ongoing arguments—or straddle fences in attempts to bring people together. It doesn't matter if the author is a believer, agnostic, or atheist, “God” seems to be an important word in getting a book marketed.
The Rev. Guengerich will be at the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor, 4001 Ann Arbor-Saline Rd., for a talk and book signing today from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and will speak at the Sunday services tomorrow at 9:30 and 11:30 a.m.
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