‘God’ – sophisticated idea or comfort blanket?

How should we understand and use the idea of ‘God’? That is one of the main themes in Through Mud and Barbed Wire, my book about religious responses to the First World War.

The book blends the accounts of war experiences with biography and a serious look at the use and misuse of the idea of ‘God’ over much of the 20th century. Whatever your interest, it might be worth risking 99p to buy a copy!


Here’s Teilhard de Chardin (on the right) getting to grips with a cup of coffee at Verdun in 1916.

For those interested in the theological side of this, here’s an extract from a chapter describing debates from the 1920s…

‘The debate between Bultmann and Otto reflects another major dividing of the ways when it comes to God and religion: the one approach sees religion as offering reassurance, comfort, compensation, a sense that – in spite of all the horrors that this world can throw at us – all will be well in the end; the other sees God as a term for the exploration of the reality of life, a reality that can be destructive as well as creative, that takes into itself the fact of human fragility and the inevitability of death….

This fundamental divide reflects another, which continues to this day. On the one hand there is the ‘sophisticated’ view of academics and intellectuals – a god compatible with science, culturally embedded, an expression of human qualities taken to an ultimate degree. It is a view that would not shame Feuerbach in the 19th century – God as the projection of humanity’s highest aspirations. It understands the word ‘God’ to be a shorthand term for a whole range of qualities and intuitions about reality and our response to it. On the other, and often dismissive of the intellectual approach, is the ‘simple’ faith in ‘God’ – the word being used almost as a proper noun – a being with whom one might speak, whose power might well divert shells or cure disease; a being to whom one is committed, even though the implications of his existing might be incompatible with what most people believe most of the time about the ordinary workings of the world.

By the time I came to read Tillich, in the 1960s, the sophisticated branch of the divide had already moved in the direction of Christian Atheism…  It was a form of spiritual and moral challenge that did not require ‘God’ in the literal sense. The problem, however, was that the God that Christian Atheism rejected was, to all intents and purposes, a literalist view of God that was less than 50 years old. What its arguments did not reject was the liberal sense of ‘God’ as a word for the depths of reality. Indeed, the removal of the recently devised ‘literal’ God seemed a prior requirement for any serious exploration of the place of human existence within this world. The world of Schleiermacher and Kierkegaard, or back to Augustine, was far more accessible and ‘real’ than the arguments for or against the existence of God that were presented by Anthony Flew and others. There was almost a delight in showing the failure of such arguments, for setting aside the literal God was a necessary step in understanding what religion might become.

Through Mud and Barbed Wire is available through my website and on Amazon – at £7.99 for the paperback and 99p for the ebook.  Click here, to visit the site.







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