God after atheism – what the word ‘God’ fails to mean

‘The word “God” does not function as a philosophical concept….
Even if one is tempted to say…that “God” is the religious name for being, still the word “God” says more: it presupposes the total context constituted by the whole space of gravitation of stories, prophecies, laws, hymns, and so forth.
To understand the word “God” is to follow the direction of the meaning of the word. By the direction of the meaning I mean its double power to gather all the significations that issue from the partial discourses and to open up a horizon that escapes from the closure of discourse….
The God-referent is at once the coordinator of these various discourses and the index of their incompleteness, the point at which something escapes them.’
Paul Ricoeur, 1995:45-6.

I’d be interested to know what people reading this think it means. It’s a quotation from French philosopher Paul Ricoeur. Leave a comment below. Thanks!

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Post-Secular Artist? Nine Reflections on the Art of Patrick Heron

The last few years have seen a deep questioning of the central tenets of the theory of secularisation. Far from growing less religious, as the prophets of the post-war period supposed to be our destiny, the world has become more infused with religious attitudes than ever. It is now intellectually respectable, if not yet fully intelligible,  to talk and write about a ‘post-secular’ age. At the same time it is possible to re-examine the high points of the supposedly nonreligious era we have now passed beyond, and see it anew as the site and source of an intense and distinctive spirituality.  It is strange for an art collection like the Methodist Church’s Collection of Modern Christian Art to have almost no abstract works in the collection, as though properly religious art could only ever be representational. Yet until recently abstract art was regarded by many religious people as at the vanguard of a world without form, without meaning, and  – ultimately – without God. If non-representational art was somehow non-traditional then it was also, so it was feared, non-religious. It is possible now, however to reappraise this view.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s Patrick Heron produced a large number of canvases and silkscreen prints on paper, based on bright, interlocking abstract shapes. As though to forestall the possibility of overlooking the artist’s obsession with colour, they had titles such as ‘Blue and deep violet with orange brown and green’.
The following reflections were inspired by a screenprint of Patrick Heron’s at the Tate, which is typical of his work at that time. Perhaps to emphasise its abstract qualities it is titled January 1973:14.

Patrick Heron, ‘January 1973: 14’ 1973

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What have you ever learned by heart and was it worth it?

I came across a recent blog post lamenting the loss of rote learning of the Catechism in the Episcopalian Church. It seemed a fairly nostalgic piece but It got me thinking: how good was rote learning? What was the point? And so I made a quick mental list of the things I can remember remembering by heart.

  • Book 4 of Xenophon’s Anabasis in Greek
  • Mark’s Gospel in Greek
  • Aristophanes’ The Frogs
  • Various Shakespeare speeches
  • Keats’ Ode to Autumn
  • The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner (highlights)
  • Sketches by Monty Python (by mistake)
  • the lyrics of scores of pop songs, but never the second verse
  • various orders of worship, Christian and Buddhist
  • some Psalms

Was it worth it? I’m not sure. Most of these I’ve forgotten (The Frogs, for instance). Some I can’t forget (Python is a kind of brain curse). I won a prize for Keats and passed a Greek exam wih Xenophon. Some I learnt deliberately, others I just memorised without noticing – like plays I performed in , Richard II, Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance and so on.

These days kids learn things by heart because they want to. Last week I asked my daughter’s friends if they could say how many chapters there are in all seven volumes of Harry Potter. I thought that would stump them. Instead they worked it out, then recited the chapter names. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, the first sentence of each chapter. You could tell they were winging it a bit, but on the whole it was pretty impressive.

The last chapter of Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 has haunted me since I read it. The hero, Montag, whose job has been to burn books, is on the run when he comes across a small group of outlaws who are preserving the culture through this new Dark Age. How do they do it? They have memorised small chunks of literature. Montag is told there are many such people and when they get together a whole book will coalesce in the retelling.

Me, I feel this underestimates the value of a purely oral culture, at the same time as praising a partially oral culture. But all the same, it’s a poignant scene.

So here’s my question:

what have you learnt by heart, and do you feel it has been ‘worthwhile’ (as defined by you)?

Would we be better off without religion?

I’m planning to attend a public debate on religion, organised by Intelligence Squared. The motion is ‘We’d be better off without religion’, and the speakers include Victor Stenger, who wrote God, the Failed Hypothesis – How Science Shows that God does not Exist. I checked this out recently.

The blurb about Professor Stenger says:

Stenger maintains that plausible natural explanations exist for for all observable phenomena and there is strong scientific evidence against anything mystical or supernatural in the universe.

The book claims:

Not only does the universe show no evidence for God, it looks exactly as it would be expected to look if there is no God.

I would frame this slightly differently and suggest that the evidence in favour of the existence of God is exactly the same as the evidence against the existence of God. It may seem like a small difference but I think it’s important. Here’s why. Continue reading

Can atheism make a new type of religion possible?

The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur wrote:

Paul Ricoeur [US Library of Congress]

‘Atheism is not limited in meaning to the mere negation and destruction of religion, but …rather, it opens up the horizon for something else, for a type of faith that might be called …a postreligious faith or a faith for a postreligious age. …it looks back toward what it denies and forward toward what it makes possible.’ (Ricoeur, P. 1974 The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 440).

It is interesting to see what kind of opening up the populist atheism of writers such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins is leading to.