Dear John

by Ken Petrie

© Ken Petrie 2005. The right of Ken Petrie to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 Sections 77 and 78.

Dear John,

I read your book recently. I know that was rather late, but I had not felt ready before. I wish now I had read it earlier, because then I might have had a chance to send this letter, and it might have thrown some light on your thoughts before it became too late. As it is, I can never send this, and it cannot help you. Yet I am writing it, as an expression of what I thought when I read your words, and how I would like you and others to understand the concepts you have raised.

Alas, it is too late to help you now, but not too late for others who read to reflect, and maybe it is I who am missing the point, and you were there all along, or maybe it is not, and all is as it seems.

I found your argument confusing at first, because you seemed to be dismissing ideas no one would seriously hold, and you seemed to think you were saying something new and revealing, when it seemed obvious and superficial to me. I wondered why your book had been controversial in its day. At least, people had said it was controversial. Possibly it was controversial only to those who did not know what you were talking about, and assumed others would find it controversial because it contradicted assumed beliefs or, to be more precise, beliefs the reader assumed other readers might have, or must have, since you were taking the trouble to write about them.

You seem over-literalistic in your understanding of what you rejected, as if you did not understand that all language about God relies on metaphor. Even our Lord, when he was on earth, used parables to express the truth about God. For the truth about a God who is so transcendent, and of whom we are feeble and Fallen images, as the one who created the universe in which we live, is unlikely to be something we could comprehend directly, and metaphorical approximations are therefore the best we can manage. So when you concluded that God is not located “out there” any more than he can be found “up there” you seemed unaware that most people would not expect to be able to peel back the blackness of the night sky any more than the blue of the day, to discover God crouching behind it, possibly in his underwear, probably in some moment of personal embarrassment when he thought he was unobserved. No, this is just language to express the transcendence of God, as you theologians say. No one believes in a cosmic arras, except as a metaphorical device to help us visualise the invisible.

The same applies to God as Ground of Being. This is an attempt to express the relation between God as imminent and his creation. It suggests that the creation does not exist apart from God, but is somehow dependent on him for its continuing existence. It cannot explain how. It is a vague expression to cover our ignorance. Yet it suggests, in some way, that God is the very basis on which all existence depends

However, I cannot help wondering whether you understood this correctly. For, as I know the expression, God was always described as the ground of all being, whereas you seem to interpret him as the ground of my being. This cuts out his transcendence and internalises him. Well, no, he is still external to me, but only just, for he is now only my God rather than the ruler of the universe, and it is inside myself I am supposed to look to find him. I have no doubt I will find him there, but only because his omnipresence locates him there as well as everywhere else and also because, as a Christian, I am indwelt by the Holy Spirit. However, while that reflects God’s basic nature, I do not believe his presence related to me is his fundamental nature.

The result was a concept of God who was too small, concerned only with the intimate and the personal, and not with the public and the global. But would not that give us hope in this life only, as St Paul put it, and would not that make us most pitiful? Would that not reduce God to a childhood imaginery friend, indicating only our need to grow up and take responsibility for ourselves?

From the philosophical viewpoint, does this not squeeze God into a small gap from where, presumably, you hoped even science would never be able to tease him out? For the subjectiveness of the individual experience is something beyond science’s reach. That is not to say neurophysicists will never be able to explain how thought and conscience works in terms of electrical, chemical, and biological activity within the brain. Nonetheless, it is doubtful that science will ever be able to do any more than describe the aesthetic experience. It is unlikely it will truly be able to assess or define cultural values in the way an individual person experiences and responds to them. Scientist may one day be able to explain the processes behind belief in God but, perhaps you hoped, would never be able to reach the God in whom those processes believed.

It is, perhaps, time to stop playing the game of God of the gaps. Yet, in another sense, perhaps we are not the ones playing it. For God, is surely also responsible for the game. The only reason we humans played it was scientific method’s total failure to find conclusive proof of God, as if he is hiding from us or, at least, that kind of search for certainty which science represents. So maybe it is God who is choosing to hide in the gaps but, if that is so, we can be sure that, as creator, he will ensure there are gaps which are genuinely apart from science, and of which we will never suspect the existence, in which to hide.

Whatever the reason, it seems to me that your concept of God is too personal and insufficiently transcendent, that both aspects are not given equal weight. That puts human beings too much at the centre and ignores the rest of the creation. It makes everything in our image, and even God is in danger of becoming our construct. Is such a small God worth trusting? Is he not just an expression of our own fears and desires?

What is the reason for this confusion? You mentioned how you grew up in the cathedral close, how it was just assumed you would follow the path into Christian ministry, that you had never had to grapple with the questions so many Christians face as they encounter God. You also described your difficulties with prayer, and how you sought others who had similar problems, because you were in such a small minority you originally assumed you were alone. This suggests to me what could be the real problem. Could it be you never knew God? Could it be you never faced the question of who he is or what he is like, until your intellectual curiosity eventually forced you beyond the childish picture you grew up with? Could that be why you started from such a limited view of him – because you never met him? Could that be why you found prayer confusing?

I cannot ask you now, because I have left it too late. However, I read and I felt sorry; sorry for the unanswered question and sorry for the possibility I could have helped. For those of us who know God know he is not “up there” or “out there” only, but also in us and around us, and in and around everything we see. If we speculate, we wonder whether he, as the ultimate reality, is ultimately the only reality, whether we are real or in some way just constructs of his mind, allocated free will to give us independent action. We can prove none of these things because we cannot be greater than the one who made us, whether in flesh or thought. We can only accept what we do know, and that is him and his reality as we experience it. This is how, to us, it seems to be. You seemed to be groping toward something similar, but unsure and amazed, and somehow thinking it must be something new, as it was, of course, for you. If only someone had been able to explain, to spend the time to find out and explain, but it is too late to worry about that now.

I would have been yours sincerely,

Ken Petrie.

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