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Book Review

James M. Byrne
God - Thoughts in an Age of Uncertainty
ISBN 0-8264-5169-1
Continuum, London, 2001, £16.99

(price at publication of review)

Reviewed January 2003; © Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 2002

What a daunting prospect - to review 'God'! As the author confesses, 'A book on God can only be a failed raid on the intangible and unattainable.... we can never know for certain if there is a God'. James Byrne claims to 'have been long dissatisfied by both traditional theism and modern atheism' - and intriguing opener. He contends that 'the idea of a God who is like us but much more powerful is no longer credible, and that we best understand God when we remain silent'. to believe in God 'as classically conceived by the Jewish and Christian religions to be (almost) impossible' because of the inherent mix of qualities involved, e.g. 'The maker of each of us in the divine image and likeness, yet also passionately partisan in love and war, all-loving yet permitting a world of evil, pain and suffering'. the author explores the range of images of God portrayed in the Bible, highlighting the confusion involved and the striking psychological and cultural difficulties that have arisen from the perception of God as 'a capricious despot, a domineering father, or a benign but seldom seen uncle'. The fact that God is nearly always seen as 'male' has set in train centuries of patriarchy which the Church has been loath to modify. Byrne confesses 'one continues to be surprised by the often puerile and simplistic ideas of God which even otherwise well-educated people have'.

The author questions the validity of the traditional concept of 'a God who exists outside the world and acts on it as a person acts in and on the natural world'. he concludes that in some mysterious way ' there is an encounter of the self with its own depths and its own possibility' which in effect links our everyday life with the divine. Some fascinating insights are put forward in relation to a multi-faith view of 'God and the self', e.g. 'experiences in thousands of different human cultures are no less real than an experience founded on an encounter with the God of Judaism, Islam or Christianity.' he even goes as far as to suggest  that 'the encounter with God may be used to legitimise our current wishes, desires and self-identity... perhaps we reach our own certainties first and then use God to legitimise them?' He highlights the potential dangers of this concept; one has only to consider the current terrorist Islamic ideology to see where this might lead. Byrne claims that 'our religious experience then becomes a relation not to some other Being but to the depths of our own being', emphasising our dependence in living in relation to other human beings.

Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God in the nineteenth century, which Byrne examines carefully and highlights the dual outcomes - a sense of liberation and a sense of dislocation - which he regards a highly significant. he believes we have not yet come to terms with this aspect in our post-modern age. Kierkegaard equated this modern condition with bewilderment and despair, to which he sees a religious response as being the only answer. Byrne also examines the field of negative theology - the via negativa - which claims that 'God us unknown and unknowable, infinitely beyond both being and non-being and, in our contemporary expression, beyond both theism and atheism'. It is highly relevant to our modern world that no concept can realistically encompass the fullness of God; we cannot, in the end, grasp the ultimate in a thought or a word. So this is a challenging and valuable book for thoughtful Christians who wish to review their perceptions of God, and I suggest it should be essential reading for current students of theology.

John Fox TSSF

 

 

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