God. But not as you know Him

God has no future, not if we have to believe in the Christian idea of a Big, Holy Bloke. So claims an ex-nun
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Behind me on the train sat a group of women in their fifties, raucous and giggling on a girls' day out: they were reading their horoscopes aloud and punctuating the astro-logical platitudes with saucy shrieks.

Across the compartment a besuited businessman was reading from a Bible study guide entitled God and Money, and cross-referring to passages in the New Testament. In the seat next to me, a serious young woman was engrossed in a chapter called "Why some prayers go unanswered" in a Scripture Union paperback entitled Are you ready for God?

This is supposed to be a secular age. Yet since God was pronounced dead by Nietzsche over a century ago, he has rather stubbornly refused to lie down, as was evidenced by the people I encountered on the journey to meet Karen Armstrong who tomorrow will address the Society for Analytical Psychology on the subject of The Future of God.

But which of the three Gods who sat by me on the train is the one with the future? Is it the God in the Sky: the controller of fate; the arbiter between free will and predestination, whose inclinations can be predicted by those who claim the ability to read the stars? Or is it God the Lawgiver, the carver of commandments and establisher of business ethics? Or is it God the Listener, the object of supplication and (occasional) answerer of prayers?

There is a massive paradox at the heart of the contemporary concept of God. For most of us have ceased to believe in Him - and yet we remain very fixed in our notions of Who it is in Whom we no longer believe. We have put behind us the idea of God the Big Bloke.

Karen Armstrong ceased to believe in Him, too. When she left her convent, after six years with the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, she declared herself an atheist and created a blaze of publicity with two autobiographical critiques on the shortcomings of the religious life. But that was 20 years ago. In researching another book, The History of God - which came out recently in paperback after six years as an international hardback bestseller - she has changed her mind. God does have a future, she has decided. Only not as a Him, but as an It.

"Most people are stuck with an infantile view of God - whether it is one which they embrace or reject," she said when we met for lunch this week. I mention the lunch because it became the source of her metaphors. "The idea is of God as First Cause, as Supreme Being. A God who is like us, only bigger," she said. "The top man. But whose behaviour we can predict, whose questions we can second-guess, whom we can imagine in our own image, but from time-to-time popping in, acting in the world, doing the odd miracle." Like a Cosmic Waiter, I said, as the fish arrived. Exactly.

It is a vision which grows out of the scientific literalism that rules modern thinking. "In it, the rational is valued more than the intuitive, and everything is viewed literally rather than metaphorically or mystically. Because we can prove that the atom exists, or Australia, even though we can't see them, we think the same must be true of God. So we have set about dealing with God in modes which are utterly inappropriate."

Her conclusions come from a comparative study of the origins of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. A God rooted in philosophy was something which the Jews and Muslims attempted to locate, too. But they gave up the attempt in the Middle Ages and went mystical. The Eastern Orthodox never bothered with the attempt; they instinctively knew it was a blind alley. "But the Western world went off at a tangent from the other traditions, developing rationalistic notions and emphasising dogma and doctrine rather than practice and spirituality."

No wonder then, that the Western notion of God has had a few knocks this century, along with the rest of the rationalist package and its myth of progress. The fallibility of science has been exposed; it creates as many moral and environmental dilemmas as it solves. The idea that education would bring an end to superstition and cruelty has proved false. This was the century of the Holocaust in which a cultivated nation, with the aid of new technologies - such as the railway and the factory chimney - created horror on a scale previously unknown to human history.

"The idea of the omnipotent, benevolent God, the God of history, died for ever in Auschwitz," said Karen Armstrong. "And yet Auschwitz was the place where the Jews - having put God in the dock and found him guilty - ended the trial with a prayer."

She picked up her fork. "It's like this fork," she said. "It is a great implement - but it is useless for eating soup. So science and rationalism and philosophy have proved as useless for helping us relate to God who is not apart from us, but within. We've got into the habit of endlessly trying to define God. But God is an experience like music or art: something which lifts us momentarily beyond ourselves; which fills us with both confidence and a sense of the mysterious."

This urge to access the deeper levels of reality has not disappeared in modern women and men. It is there in psychotherapy which she describes as "like a religion in its descent into yourself with a guru". It is there in the thirst for things New Age, which she defends from the accusation of pick'n'mix spirituality. "What's wrong with that? Judaism borrowed from Zoroastrianism, Buddhism from Hinduism, Christianity from Judaism, and Islam from both."

The craving for purity in theology is a modern compulsion. "The Western view of the divine is going to have to change. We have to learn from the Buddhist reticence about the unknown, from the Jews who won't utter the name of God, and from Muslims who refuse to depict God in art. It's blasphemous to think that God reveals itself in only one tradition."

Even atheism has a lot to teach Western Christians. "Atheism is not a blanket denial of the sacred, but of a particular conception of the sacred," she said, reaching after another culinary comparison. "It's like a sorbet," she said. "Atheism is the sorbet people need to cleanse their minds of the bad theology which surrounds the Big Bloke God. Historically, atheism is a phenomenon of transition: Judaism, Christianity and Islam were all desc- ribed as atheistic by their contemporaries in their infancy."

Above all, what we must be rid of is relying on words. All talk of God must create paradox and must lead to silence, she said. "Prayer has become talking to yourself and hoping, incidentally, that God is listening." But instead of asking God the Holy Bloke to change the world to suit us, prayer should be about trying to attune ourselves to the reality of the It which is God. "We have to wait and listen, instead of which we shun silence. We should act like those Bedouin who believe that you learn an attitude of prayer through the position of your body. The practice comes before the dogma."

But where does that leave the divine morality of God the Lawgiver? "If only we could stop worrying whether there's a God and just practice compassion," she sighed. "Compassion is what displaces you from the centre of the universe and yields up a sense of the divine. The sense of me, me, me - and `am I having a religious experience?' is what is wrong with much contemporary spirituality. It doesn't matter what I'm feeling. What matters is that it must issue in compassion."

Rabbi Hillel, an older contemporary of Jesus, was once asked if he could give all the teachings of Judaism while standing on one leg. He replied: "Don't do to others what you do not want done to you. That is the whole of the Talmud. Now go and learn it." All true religions boil down to that. It is, of course, easier said than done.

Muslims call it coping with that "jihad", which means "constant struggle". God does have a future, insists Karen Armstrong, but no one said it was going to be an easy one.