Bob Greaves is one of the regular contributors to the New Covenant Group broadcasts, where they aim to bring atheists and theists together with a view to learning from each other more of the Realities of Life. I’ve had the chance to listen to and read much about Bob’s journey over the last five years. We have been on such different journeys but when I highlighted some of what Bob had written in 2012 a friend of mine suggested, “it’s almost as if Bob has crawled into your heart and communicated the essence of your faith”. I’m no scholar and I don’t listen to many of the broadcasts now but there was one in August 2015 that was prompted by something Bob had written on Facebook.
The introduction to the broadcast suggested that Bob was on fire – and that we might share it if it resonates with us. The broadcast (1hr 31m) caught my attention almost immediately and I subsequently made the following notes after listening to it a second time, highlighting what I thought was particularly significant.
Being a theist or an atheist is more a feeling than a reason. We come up with reasons to justify the feeling because we think we have to somehow justify it.
Bob says that he looks at what people are doing rather than what they say they are doing. People argue about whether there is a god and there are many good arguments both ways. Ask someone to really tell you why they believe / not-believe and the answer is not likely to be very convincing. How convincing would your story be? The truth seems to be that nobody ever became a believer / non-believer because of arguments; they came to conclusions long before they thought of their arguments.
Bob knows that he is a believer in God but he doesn’t know why. There was a time when he tried to explain it; trying to satisfy a demand for him to explain (the material that I found on Bob’s blog in 2012?). He suggests that it involves notions or ideas that we were not entirely in touch with at the time we realised that we do believe in God, even if it doesn’t always make sense. It is he says, really more of a feeling. I can relate to this, but my experience was very different to Bob’s. That feeling really only came to the surface in 2006, but that is itself a lengthy story.
The idea of god either feels right to you or it does not, there is no reason. People either feel a presence of an otherness or they do not. And those who do sense an otherness usually develop a framework that allows them to explore it.
Bob is suggesting that nobody is competent to think about god because the basic notion is so other than what we normally deal with. He wonders if there is any time that we could work out ‘What is God?’. He then suggests that when we have this sense of presence we have a desire to explore it, but because we don’t know how to we just make up stuff (could this be true of all religion and philosophy?) as best we can. These are the frameworks that will eventually fail because we are trying to explore an inarticulate experience that we don’t know how to talk or think about.
It was suggested to Bob that what he is saying doesn’t tie up with John 3.16 – For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3.16) – but Bob doesn’t see God’s giving here as having anything to do with the cross – not so much about the text as what he is experiencing while not avoiding the ancient text (I understand something of what Bob is saying here – but it does need some explanation). Bob went on to compare it to science and some of the embarrassing conclusions as a result of a lack of later knowledge. In a sense we are growing up as a human race – we know far more about what it means to be who we are – we know more about ‘Realities of Life’ (see here – something I would like to consider based on some of Bob’s other thoughts) and how thoughts functions. Biblical texts made sense to them given their limited insight. We are trying to make better sense of things than people did in the past – even if we are still not getting it right.
The suggestion that politicians seem to have been listening to the same old story, and just trying to say what they say more powerfully. Are theologians any different? Agendas hinder thinking – filling the mind with noise. Try thinking outside the box! The need for an approach to the Bible not to understand doctrine, but to understand the ancient people. We may not agree with their viewpoint but it helps if we understand why they had these views. A framework for discussion that needs to be more honest! A need to move away from the debate mentality towards that of discussion.
There are a lot of problems in believing or not believing in God. It’s important to discuss them. Bob is grateful for many of the views that have been expressed by atheists. They help to show up flaws in the framework he had been working with.
Neither the theist nor the atheist has anything of which to boast over the other and no just cause in seeking to humiliate the other or try to make as if the other possesses some flaw of rationale for being in such a state as belief or unbelief.
Why would people be believers if they don’t have this sense of otherness?
We live in a culture that wants an explanation for everything!
From an intellectual or rational perspective we don’t know but we may feel God!
We must not humiliate alternative views. If there is a God, God would be an idiot making God a prerequisite to anything. Let’s learn from each other!
One would have to be God to understand God.
The question of God is one that people can’t really ignore – they don’t let go of it!
We are not competent to come to conclusions.
The need for love and compassion from both theists and atheists.
Bob was a very passionate (IFB) preacher who wanted people to feel so lost that God would be their only hope – the need to rob them of their every hope except Jesus. He really felt that their souls were in danger – now feels embarrassed for the victims of his preaching.
Bob is tired of the dogma. He’d like to give people the freedom to talk about where they have come from; how they see things without turning it into a contest or debate – open and honest discussion – recognising that people are able to describe where they are and how they see things from a specific vantage point – and able to share many views.
In one sense that one paragraph seems to say it all – that’s almost exactly what I had in mind when I suggested that we can learn so much from each other’s stories.
There’s a lot of additional thoughts from the broadcast that could be the basis of numerous discussions.
The suggestion that we should look beyond what the scholars are saying – let’s look at what everyone is saying. Many older people in particular have a better understanding of so many of the things that researchers in so many fields are researching! I found it very interesting recently to hear how the authors of “Church Refugees” found that their original thoughts about why people leave churches were not borne out by their research. What they are now reporting is what many of us who have been on this journey for several years have long understood – and that surely adds credibility to what these particular researchers have done – see “The Dones”.
Most scientists don’t do science – they just practise what they have been told is science – not really experimenting or bringing skeptisism – just following procedures based on the things that science has already told us is the truth.
What happens when someone starts pushing against the status quo? against current conclusions? Einstein imagining he is travelling along a beam of light at the speed of light wondering what the world looks like from there – thinking outside the box that changed the world of physics – he was willing to break out of the paradigm and swim upstream. Most are stuck in safety and conformity.
There was one comment made during the broadcast that really rang a bell:
The mind is like a parachute – it only works when it is open. Most have closed minds. It was only recently when I was talking to my grandson that I realised that for me, there had been two quite separate journeys taking place at the same time in my life – something else I would like to be able to explore.
How many of us have had closed minds for large parts of our lives?
It was also suggested that what we need is not teaching, but a chance for people to talk about their experiences on the basis that if someone is telling you a story, you listen. Bob has a way of telling his story that first captivated me three years ago and still does. There are times when some of what he says goes over my head. Although I have had limited formal education, I may have learned far more in the ‘school of hard knocks’ than many academics!
There was a suggestion that there are dangers in a mind that is too open and that perhaps there is a need for a defensive fence – or the need to find the balance between isolated arrogance and gullibility, with a need to be a little arrogant – provided there is a willingness to accept that you might be wrong.
There is this otherness that theists sense – a presence that we can’t explain to others – something that we can’t deny – an inarticulate theology – that just is. Do some atheists also experience an otherness that they might explain in a different way? The suggestion that something you cannot explain is not something to be afraid of – a compelling rational argument is not essential.
Why shouldn’t we make pragmatic decisions and then find logical explanations for that choice later?
We live in a very imperfect world. There is a need for people who care and who are willing to reach out – giving a taste of what hope might feel like (the world we live in now is so different from the world I knew as a child in WWII when almost everyone was ready to help those for example, whose homes may have been damaged or destroyed by the bombs).
So much suffering – many seem to have nothing to live for – they need something that is outside the great debate that is not satisfying the thirst of every starving person on planet earth. Some need food, others need relief.
Are we focusing on a ‘dot’ instead of the whole picture?
[Part of the dot might be the emphasis on LGBT?].
We all have our own limits – some atheists have empathy with others – but can’t give any reasons – that’s the way it is.
If there were compelling answers either way the discussion would have been closed. An open question that will never be resolved? Why compete in a race that never ends (or can’t be won)?
A privilege to share with others who see things differently – especially over beer or a meal!
The place of friends and dignity – so much more important?
Eye has not seen; ear hasn’t heard what it would look like if atheists and theists became one and moved forward together.
[How would other religions fit into this picture?]
It’s not about heaven but what we can do together to make a better future – differing perspectives? Can we accept each other?
People with gifts and abilities that can address many of the issues. Why exempt the talent and the skills that many possess?
It’s true that many theists are guilty of having an attitude of certainty and superiority. That is divisive!
MLK’s dream – he wanted humanity sitting down together?
There are differences in the way we see things.
We are all just trying to make sense of the life we have been thrown into.
Beware of ‘tribal’ divisions.
There are times when we all need hugs – why do we hold back? Some people live life without others expressing care or love toward them – and not therefore having a chance to respond.
If only we would learn from other people’s experiences.
It’s one thing to write something of our story but will anyone really be interested? Maybe we need to be able to sustain our beliefs with an interesting life. As someone said, “Show me who you are and I’ll probably listen to you”. Do we have a desire to communicate with interesting people who might have something new to say? How do we bring in more of the human elements into the issues we discuss so that people can connect and relate authentically?