Who made God? My appearance on Vincent Browne’s Challenging God on TV3

by Michael Nugent on August 7, 2013

I was a guest on last Sunday’s first episode of Vincent Browne’s new series ‘Challenging God’ on TV3, along with fellow guests theologian and author James Mackey, and lecturer at the Mater Dei Institute Fainche Ryan.

This episode discussed: ‘Did God make humans or did humans make God’? I will analyse what we discussed in a later post, but I want to first of all publish here a summary of what was discussed.

  • I’ve highlighted my contributions in red text.
  • You can watch the show for a while on the TV3 website.

Vincent Browne started the show by telling the story from the Bible of Jacob wrestling with either God or an angel. He said that, while he himself does not believe in God, he finds the idea of wrestling with God to be intriguing, as it seems to suggest wrestling with meaning. He said that this was the purpose of this series. He said that this first show was about who made God, how the idea of God came about, why humans felt the need for a God or lots of gods, and how the idea came about that there is one God who is all holy, all powerful and all merciful. He said that he believes that it is not that God made humans, but that humans made God, probably for a multiplicity of reasons such as to give meaning to their own lives and to help them understand themselves and their world.

Creating gods in our likeness

Vincent Browne asked James Mackey who made God. James Mackey said that, if you look back through the history of organised religions, you would conclude that gods were created or made by the people in these religions, in their own image and likeness, and for their own self interest, if they put the following words on the lips of their God: ‘you will be my people, and I will be your God’. Or ‘outside of this religion, faith or church, there is no salvation’. He said that it is not only religions that do this, that as many atheists as religious people also create gods also in their own image and likeness, and the classic example of that is the god mammon or money. Vincent Browne said that was a ridiculous claim. He said there are loads of people who believe in the market and making loads of money, but they don’t believe that project is divine. James Mackey said that mammon controls peoples lives, and Vincent Browne said that alcohol and gambling and drug addiction also control peoples lives.

Vincent Browne asked Fainche Ryan if she believes that, over the millennia, people created gods in their own likenesses in order to aggregate power to themselves. Fainche Ryan said that there is some truth in that, but from her perspective she would reverse the statement, because it is God who created all that is, and by asking who created God we are making God into a thing that is of this world. Vincent Browne said that the idea that it is God who created all that is must have come from humans, and Fainche Ryan said that God has revealed himself to humans through stories such as in the Bible. Vincent Browne said that the old Testament reveals that people believe in lots of gods, and Fainche Ryan said that the name God is not a proper name but it has lots of different meanings attached to it and it refers to something that most people throughout the world believe that is transcendent, which is to say that it is not like you or me or a tree, but it is something totally other from us.

Vincent Browne asked how do we know that something totally other from us exists, and Fainche Ryan said that we know this from faith. She said you can reason by logic to a certain distance, for example Thomas Aquinas says you can look at the world and ask why is there something rather than nothing, and that leads us to believe that there is something other than us, and we call that thing God. Vincent Browne asked Fainche Ryan why we cannot just say that there is no reason, and that things just happen. Fainche Ryan said that when she worked in China, with people who had grown up only with communism and believed in Mao, she was stunned that they were asking her what she believed in, because there is something within the human spirit that is searching for a meaning in life. Vincent Browne said that is probably a conceit, and she disagreed. She said it can develop into a conceit because we develop gods in our likeness, but the God that we discover in all of the major religions is continually trying to fracture that understanding of God so that we can learn to give a proper name to God and so that we can enter in to a relationship with God.

The multiplicity of gods

Vincent Browne then asked how is that for a long time people believed in something transcendent, but it came to be that there were loads of gods, and they worshipped stone images and the sun and the moon for tens of thousands of years, and was only relatively recently, five to six thousand years ago, that humans came to believe that there was only one God. James Mackey said that Vincent Browne was talking rubbish and nonsense, and that people did not worship stones or worship the sun. He said that stupid anthropologists put that interpretation of the thing, and that the sun was to them a symbol of something. Vincent Browne asked James Mackey how did he know this, and James Mackey said that that was how they used it.

Vincent Browne again asked James Mackey how did he know this, and James Mackey said by reading their literature. Vincent Browne asked did he not think that anthropologist would know more than he did, and that because it didn’t fit his belief he said that anthropologist was stupid. James Mackey said that it was the other way around, because Vincent Browne was taking the anthropologist belief and using that as a measure to judge his belief. He said that the point is that you know from their literature that that is what they did, from their symbol systems, that these were images of something that can be imagined, and presented in mythic form. Vincent Browne again asked him how did he know, and he said that he reads the remaining literature from these people. Vincent Browne said that the literature did not date back that far, and James Mackey said that it certainly dates back to when the sun was an image, and that this coincides with the origins of Christianity, and that it precedes Christianity, and that Constantine was a sun worshipper, but he was not a sun worshipper in that sense.

Vincent Browne said that he wanted to get back to his main point, which is that people believed in a multiplicity of gods, and that he assumed that James Mackey and Fainche Ryan believe in only one God. Fainche Ryan agreed that in the Sacred Scriptures of the Bible, in the Old and New Testament, there was a belief in lots of gods, with a small ‘g’, but she said that reminds us of the fact that people believe in something other than themselves, and the story of the Holy Scripture is the story of people slowly coming to believe that there is only one God, we get that with the Jewish people, and the story of Exodus where you have Moses and the burning bush is one of the most profound stories there is, because you get introduced to this God, and this God introduces himself, or we would say reveals himself to Moses, but it reveals God’s self in such a way that God reveals God’s self as mystery. Vincent Browne said that if you believe that stuff about the God of Exodus, you must be discomfited by the type of God that is portrayed there, who is very vicious and cruel. Fainche Ryan said that she was more discomfited by people’s portrayal of this God, because it is about a journey, and you cannot just take one section, you have to take the whole story.

How do you believe in God?

Vincent Browne said that she was basing her belief in part on what was said on the book of Exodus, and the book of Exodus and later books also tell of this God telling the Israelites that when they get into Israel they were to kill everyone including men women and children, and that he was a genocidal god. Fainche Ryan said that that brings us back to Vincent Browne’s point about us creating God in our image. She said that we begin in Genesis with God creating us after God’s image and likeness, and since then we try to create God after our image and likeness, but God keeps coming back. Vincent Browne said that she was being selective, that she believes some bits of the Bible but not other bits of the Bible. Fainche Ryan said no, it depends on what you understand by believe, she was saying that what is in the Bible is the story of people coming to understand God, and that that story is ongoing, the people as they came to understand God were creating God in their own image and likeness at times, but the story keeps coming back that God remains faithful to them, and keeps inviting them back to a greater understanding of God.

Vincent Browne said that this was a horrific God, who was faithful to a particular group of people, and that the story of the Passover, which is celebrated in a lot of cultures, is a horrific story. James Mackey said that this is exactly the point that he was making, that that religion at that stage had made a God in the image of man, instead of recognising man in the image of God, and he said that the same thing happened in Christianity. Vincent Browne said, so you can’t believe the Bible about God, And James Mackey said that the Bible is telling the story of a religion, you believe it as the history of a religion, it is not a textbook of religion or theology, it is the history of a religion.

Vincent Browne said people say they believe in God because of the Bible, and then they say that you can’t believe the Bible. Fainche Ryan said that you don’t take a fundamentalist reading of the Bible, you read the Bible as a whole story. She said that we believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God but that we don’t believe that each individual word in the Bible is inspired. Vincent Browne said, how about chapters of the Bible, and she said you take it as an entity, as a whole, and the whole thing is bringing you on a journey, it’s a process of coming to know the God who is a revealing God as we would say.

How the idea of gods evolved

Vincent Browne then asked me what do I think of all that, and as I started to reply, James Mackey began a private conversation with Fainche Ryan, which Vincent Browne asked him to stop. I said that I think that where gods came from, in evolutionary terms, is that it was useful for people to identify patterns in the environment around them, as it would save them from being eaten by a wild beast. I said that people who were able to recognise more patterns rather than less patterns were more likely to survive, and as a side-effect of our ability to recognise patterns, we noticed patterns that didn’t exist, and we misidentified patterns, and we thought that if we do this, the gods are angry, and if we do this, the gods are pleased. And then some people added in the notion that if you do what I tell you, then the gods will be pleased, and that is how things went from purely just believing in gods, to religions, which are effectively social control.

Vincent Browne asked James Mackey what he had to say to that. James Mackey said that it doesn’t even begin to measure up to the reasons that they actually give you for believing in God, and that it was artificial. Vincent Browne asked James Mackey are all theologians so condescending, and do you have to be a condescending twit to be a theologian. James Mackey said that he was not being condescending, he was saying that what I said did not come close to something that he was pointing us towards but we would not look at, that is, to the reasons that the religions themselves give for believing in God. He said that was imposition of a view upon these people. Fainche Ryan said that there also a problem of confusing religions with God, because God is that which religions are trying to bring people towards, and that we often fall short, but that doesn’t mean that God falls short.

I said that Fainche Ryan was assuming that God exists in that sentence. I said that, broadly speaking, every generation, we understand more about how the universe operates, and every generation, we move more and more explanations from the ‘it must have been a god’ category, to the ‘we now understand how it happens naturally’ category. And in every generation, religious people call the bits that we don’t yet understand things that are caused by gods. I said that there is a relentless flow of what were previously religious explanations for natural phenomena being replaced by natural explanations, and there is nothing going in the opposite direction. There are no phenomena where we once thought that science gave us the best answer, and that now we realise that it was a god that did it.

Can science explain the beginning?

Fainche Ryan asked me can science explain the beginning. I said no, but neither can religion. I said that what science can do is that it can take us currently back as far as the Big Bang, and we can say that we don’t yet know what happened before that, but that we can be reasonably confident, based on the relentless flow of scientific explanations overtaking religious explanations, that when we do find out, the answer will be a natural one, and the field in which we are most likely to discover it is the field of quantum mechanics. I said that the current work, in particular by Steven Hawking, which is explaining how our universe, not the universe, can have come about without needing to invent a god to explain it.

James Mackey said may I say to you, without being in the least condescending much less insulting, that what is happening with quantum physics in particular is going in the opposite direction. He said he would give me one simple example, which was when you watch a quantum physicist trying to make his way back to the Big Bang (Vincent Browne interjected to say, ‘his’ way, and James Mackey said ‘her’) she will now find, this is how they express the thing, that they come to what they call point zero, and what they find there is that time and space disappears, that there is something there from which it emerges.

James Mackey said that the Big Bang is now, in the most advanced quantum physics, demoted, completely demoted, and they are not going to pick up the clue which is staring them in the face there, that this entity, which is not characterised by time or space, in other words is eternal and spiritual… (Vincent Browne said eternal and spiritual – because there are questions about the origin of all of this, you call it eternal and spiritual?) James Mackey said a current physicist, Bohm, has identified this thing, and he thinks that the best candidate for this is consciousness, a vast limitless sea of consciousness.

I said that what they are actually finding is that time and space are essentially dimensions of our universe, and that before time and space, in fact before is probably the wrong word because you can’t go before time, but beyond time or whatever phrase you want to use, that what appears to be nothing, even in terms of vacuums, contains energy fluctuations from which particles can and do come into and go out of existence with no apparent reason, and that the latest speculation from quantum physicists is that, from that, one can conceive – consistent with the evidence, rather than just making something up – one can conceive a universe coming into existence.

I asked James Mackey what did he believe consciousness to be, and I added that consciousness is a property of our brains, and that it is not an independently existing entity. I said that when our brains cease to function, our consciousness ceases to function. I said that he was purely speculating that the idea of consciousness is not only existing independently of human brains, or indeed the brains of other sentient beings, but that it was there at the beginning and that it caused matter to come about.

James Mackey said that you can say the same thing about energy, that energy is not a thing in itself, that it is a mathematical measurement. I agreed, and said that it is a measurement of the potential of something to do work. James Mackey said that it has to be the potential of something, and I said exactly. James Mackey then said that of which it is the potential is consciousness, the energy of consciousness, and there is a vast sea of limitless consciousness. I said but you are just making that up. James Mackey said, oh for heaven’s sake, do you want me to give you a list of texts. I said yes, can you do that, and James Mackey said I certainly can do that, but not now. He then said that I had better read these before I go on about the stuff I am going on about, and Vincent Browne remarked that James Mackey had said that he did not think he was condescending.

The search for truth and meaning

James Mackey then said to me that, secondly, I had assumed that science had proven or somehow discovered that consciousness is an emergence from our brain. I said that science does not prove anything. I said that science, unlike religion, knows that we can never know the truth. What science says is that we can gradually approach the truth by removing ideas that are shown to be not consistent with the evidence.

Fainche Ryan asked what religions say they know the truth, and said that most religions would see themselves as being on a journey to the truth with a capital T, and they don’t actually know the truth per se. She said that there are two different languages in a sense, but they are not opposed to each other, and that the scientific language fits in very well with belief in a God. I said that I am quite happy with a religion that says that it is seeking the truth, but I am not happy with a religion that says we have found the truth, and nor would I be happy with a science that says we have found the truth.

Fainche Ryan said that the religion she belongs to does not say that it has found the truth, but that it is on a journey towards the truth, that we do believe there is a truth, and we believe that this truth has to do with this thing which goes by a name which we call God. Vincent Browne asked the truth about what, and she said the truth about existence, the truth about all that is, the truth about reality, the truth of why there is something rather than nothing. Vincent Browne asked Fainche Ryan what did that mean, and she said the truth about why are we here at all, is there a reason for our existence, there has to be.

Vincent Browne said but maybe those questions don’t mean anything. She said it is strange that have come up so many times all over the world, and Vincent Browne said yes, but maybe they don’t mean anything, maybe there is no meaning to life, maybe there is no purpose. Fainche Ryan said that is where belief in a God will say there is a purpose, that there is a meaning in life, and Vincent Browne that is why he was saying the idea of a god began to emerge, because people couldn’t believe there was no meaning to life, and no meaning to their existence, that they were just there, and they had to invent transcendence to give value and substance to their lives in their minds.

Fainche Ryan said that she would go with Vincent Browne part of the way, in that people are seeking, but that there is an answer there which is giving us the answer back, which is that there is an ever present God with us, seeking to reveal God’s self, to explain to us that there is a meaning. She said that the most important thing for faith is that this meaning is not just a meaning for this life, but goes on beyond this life.

Why does believing in God matter?

Vincent Browne asked, supposing that there is a God, what does it matter whether we believe in God or not. Fainche Ryan said that she supposed that belief in God does not make any difference, but it makes all the difference, because it determines how one looks on the world and how one sees things. Vincent Browne asked how, and Fainche Ryan said that one begins to see the world as giftedness, grace, which is all faith language, but one has to use faith language when discussing this.

Vincent Browne said that he did not know what this means. Fainche Ryan said that grace means that all is gift, and it lets one see that one has been created out of love. She said that giftedness means that you give thanks to God, and it calls you into worship, it calls you into prayer, that is where religion emerged. Vincent Browne asked what is the need for worship. Conscious said it is to give thanks for the fact that we exist. Vincent Browne asked why does the God that she believes in, he she or it, require thanks. Fainche Ryan replied that the God she believes in is not a he she or it, and it is not a who, the God she believes in is far beyond any words that she can articulate. She said that Thomas Aquinas asked the question not who is God, because we often get caught with that question, and we have created that question who is God and the idea of a white man sitting in a cloud with a long beard.

She said that she remembers once being with a group of young children and asking them who was God. They answered her that it was a man with a beard, and she said no God is not a man, and one of them said is God a woman, and she said no, and they said what is God if God is not a man or a woman. She said that, luckily for her, one of the children looked upward wide-open eyes and said that God is wow, and she said that that is what God is, God is wonder and awe.

Vincent Browne asked is this God a being that intervenes in our life, that one can have communication with? Fainche Ryan said that there is a difference between saying is God a being that intervenes directly in our lives, and is God a being that we can have communication with. She said that this God is a being in that it is existence, and this God is present with us, it is not a being that as some people think created us and then disappeared, a remote God out there, this God is eminently present with us and, yes, we can communicate with it.

Is spiritual discussion gobbledygook?

Vincent Browne said that he finds that when you get talking to people about religion and spirituality, that you veer outside normal language, and you veer outside normal understanding, and becomes to some extent, in the eyes of those who do not share those belief and perspectives, to be gobbledygook.

Fainche Ryan said that she understands that we are moving into another realm of thinking, which takes us beyond the normal world in which we think, but she said that she thinks it is rather natural to most of us, and it is very natural to us when we are young, but sometimes it can disappear from us when we go on. She said the children can easily wonder, and regard the world with awe, and are open to mystery. She said that mystery is that which is best described as God, that we can never get to the bottom of who God is. She said that the great mystics in all periods have written about this God, who is greater than any words can describe, God who is beyond our language and yes this God who we must use language to describe because we sit in a relationship.

Vincent Browne asked what does she mean by a God who is greater than any words can describe. He asked why is God great? Fainche Ryan replied that God is something other than another human being. She said that some people believe that God is a great all-powerful human being whose power goes way beyond that of other human beings, but to speak of God in that way is mistaken because God is a total other kind of being.

How science and religion approach truth

I said that the difficulty with this is that, if you allow yourself to stray beyond applying reason to the apparent evidence of our senses, and if you allow yourself go into that area not just in imagination, but in terms of asserting that you are representing reality, then you are allowing yourself to make up anything. I said that to be honest, I find at times that discussing theology is almost like discussing the rules of quiditch with people who believe that Harry Potter is a documentary. I said that there are things that are real, and that there are things that we make up, and that making things up as stories is fine in terms of passing on morals and so on, but when one allows oneself to assert that these imagined explanations are actually real, then you can come up with anything.

Fainche Ryan said that a prime way or a central way to God is actually through the senses, and that the Greek philosophers would have come to God in that way. She said that it is a God who is not a proper name, a God who is a noun, describing that which we cannot explain, but that is is primarily through our senses and through our reason, because a central Christian tenet would be that it is in our reason that we most image God.

I said that science is quite comfortable with the idea that there are things that we do not understand, and that there are things that we do not yet know, but that the difference between science and religion is the way that we approach trying to understand it. I said that in science, you try to prove your theory is wrong, while in religion you recite things to try to reinforce the beliefs that you already have.

James Mackey said that simply historically speaking it is not the case that science approaches reality, and discovers things about reality that turn out to be true, but that religion does not do that, it makes up things as it goes along as it were. He said that simply isn’t true. I said that it is. I said that he understands how the scientific method operates, and that he understands how making things up operates, and that there is a distinction between the two. James Mackey said that there is, but what is not true is that it is science that discovers reality and that religion is what makes things up, and that this is the whole thing about the relationship between science and religion.

James Mackey said that from the beginning, there was what was called physics and metaphysics, and they were one thing. He said that the physics described the physical world and what it is made up of and how it operates, and how you understand birth and death and all of the things that you want to understand. He said that the metaphysics is a kind of total description, and it might be fairly primitive, of that, and ended there are certain implications of what the whole is like, including where it originated, and how it is designed and directed to its own goal.

James Mackey said that that is where the religion thing comes in, and that that is where you discover, as they are beginning to discover again, that when you put the whole thing together, either in the relatively primitive way…. (Vincent Browne asked, put the whole what together) … when you put the whole account of reality together, when you put the whole thing together, when you put the whole of reality together … (Vincent Browne asked the whole of reality, or the whole account of reality) … the account of the whole of reality, yeah, then the whole of the physical world, then you come up on certain implications as to what its origin might be, and so on and so forth.

Is the universe designed?

Vincent Browne asked why James Mackey came up with all that palaver to get to that point. James Mackey said that that is one of the implications, for instance you discover that the thing is designed, this doesn’t work haphazardly, it is run by laws.

I said that the scale of the universe is that there are over 100 billion galaxies, each of which has over 100 billion stars like our sun, and the idea that a God, that might have created something of that scale, would have a concern for beings of one species on one planet revolving around one of those suns. James Mackey said that he wasn’t addressing that point. I said that he was addressing the whole of reality, and that if he was addressing the whole of reality, then in that context the idea that anything that might have been responsible for that would have any concern about what human beings on the planet Earth are doing is preposterous.

James Mackey said that he was not addressing that issue, he was addressing the issue of when you know as best you can what is involved in the whole think adhering together and developing together, and you notice, just to take one example, the element of design, the thing is designed.

I said, ‘apparent design’. James Mackey laughed and sarcastically repeated, ‘apparent design’. He said it is designed, and he told me that I know that it is designed. I said that I didn’t know that. He said that I was now being just as dogmatic. I said I was not being dogmatic. I said that, on the best available evidence, it is not designed. Vincent Browne said that James Mackey said that he knows it is designed, but that he, Vincent Browne does not know that is designed. James Mackey said, of course you do. He said that the laws of physics are the description of how it is designed. Vincent Browne repeated that he does not know that it is designed.

James Mackey said let me add one point to that, about the Greeks and metaphysics, the leading scientists in the quantum business at the moment, Schrodinger and Heisenberg and these people, are going back to the Aristotelian account, the Aristotelian and Platonic account, as the one that best fits a contemporary hugely more sophisticated account of how the universe works, and is designed. Now that you cannot deny, unless you insist on doing it, and then ask me to send you the books, and I will do it.

Apparent design and evolution

Fainche Ryan said that the more study that is being done, among scientists, and she said that her primary study was in science, and that science can bring a lot of people deeper into faith which is quite remarkable, that a lot of scientists when they discover order, and they grow in, she said she had to use the word wonder again, because they are just amazed at how intricately things are designed, the further you go into the atom, the more you break it down, the more you see that there is an order in it. Vincent Browne said, is that not the point of evolution.

I said that what it comes back to, which was the first thing that I said on the show, is the propensity of human beings to misidentify patterns that aren’t there. I said that there are things in nature that can create the illusion of design, but that does not mean that there is a conscious design or a conscious designer there. I said that if James Mackey wants to throw book titles around, if he reads the Blind watchmaker by Richard Dawkins he would understand how the illusion of design comes about.

Fainche Ryan said that we are not talking about God as a conscious designer. She said that essentially we are gone back to evolution, which fits in perfectly with the Christian story. I said that it does not. I said that the Christian story depends on there being an Adam and Eve who had original sin, whether you read metaphorically or literally. I said that if you bring in evolution, you take out Adam and Eve, you take out original sin, you therefore take out the reason for Jesus being crucified, and the whole thing collapses.

Fainche Ryan said that the story of Adam and Eve is a story to try to explain the beginning, that we have still failed to explain thousands of years later, but that there was a beginning is the key thing. She said that we as Christians say that the beginning was with God, whether that beginning was the creation of energy, the creation of atoms, or whatever, but evolution fits in with that there was a God that created, and from there we have secondary causes, that God has gifted us to have causality within ourselves, within our atoms and or genes and the genetic composition of things.

She said that that all points to, not that God is there designing things, it’s not that God is a clockmaker, which is like a teaching that was around in the 1800s and 1900s, that God wound up clock and let the world go off, that’s not the best Christian understanding of the world. She said that there have many understandings put forward over the years that have had and lost followings, because we are journeying towards discovering more clearly put this God is.

Personal relationship with God

Vincent Browne asked Fainche Ryan what does she understand by God, and does she think that we can have a personal relationship with God. Fainche Ryan said yes, we can have a personal relationship with God, and that is the centrality of why religions develop, and why people develop into this grouping of faith traditions, and to develop a relationship with God they come together to give worship to this God, to thank this God, to ask this God for things.

Vincent Browne asked Fainche Ryan how do you develop a personal relationship with God, and how do you know whether you’re not hallucinating. Fainche Ryan agreed that there are stories of people hallucinating, but said that she thinks that the fact of people being in a community, a community or faith tradition, helps one to bounce one’s experiences, one’s truths, one’s interpretations of Scripture, and that you cannot just take up the Bible.

Vincent Browne asked about other truths and Fainche Ryan said that, for example, in her tradition, people used to think that we should have slaves, and slowly over time we began to say that this cannot be in line with our understanding of a God who created every single human being after their image and likeness, so therefore we have to revisit how we might regard other people, that we cannot have slavery.

God and slavery

Vincent Browne said isn’t that a good example, because we came over time from millennia and people believed that slavery was a creation of God, and indeed ordained by God. Fainche Ryan said she wouldn’t say a creation of God, but that God wasn’t against it, and that language is important. I suggested ‘endorsed by God’. Vincent Browne said, and then we came to believe that slavery was iniquitous, and then we thought, well if slavery is iniquitous, God can’t have ordained this or permitted it and so therefore we have to amend our idea of God. He said that this makes a nonsense of the idea of God.

Fainche Ryan said it might make a nonsense of Vincent Browne’s notion of God, but to her it puts more respect on us, because God created humankind to grow into a relationship with God, God did not create robots to love God and give thanks to God, God created humans so that they might move forward.

James Mackey said that he would take Vincent Browne’s side on this one, for the simple reason that as he set out to say in the first place, religions have made God in their own image, and to that extent they endorse these things, and so there is no simple relationship between having an organised religion and having the truth about God. He said that his own religion, and the doctrine of original sin, is a perfect example of that, and that they distort the revelation that is there.

God and the Holocaust

Vincent Browne asked, if God can intervene in our lives, how did the Holocaust happen, and if God cannot intervene in our lives, then what is God doing.

Fainche Ryan said that she thinks we have to be careful when were talking about the actual presence of God among us, with us all the time, and this notion of an intervening, or an interfering God. She said that the intervening or interfering God is a particular notion of humanity, and possibly a better understanding is of a God that created humankind, and is with humankind, but because humankind is created by a God who we deem to be good, we say that all that was created as good, and humankind is good, but for some reason, which we have called “original sin” and sin, humans do dreadful things like the Holocaust.

Vincent Browne asked why didn’t God design us right, and make sure that we didn’t do things like the Holocaust. Fainche Ryan said it is because of this thing called freedom, or freedom to choose, God didn’t create robots. Vincent Browne said well why not take away the gene that causes the Holocaust. Fainche Ryan said she doesn’t think there is a gene that causes the Holocaust, but that there is what we call the mystery of evil, that we cannot explain evil.

She said that the best thing that we can do, as a Christian looking at the Holocaust, is to go back to Elie Wiesel’s book ‘Night’ where she describes think it is three bodies hanging there, one of them of a young man, a young boy actually, and spent hours dying. There will be hung because others had tried to escape. And the question asked by the Jews who were forced to watch was, where is God now, and the answer they got was, there is God, hanging with that boy.

She said that that is what we understand by the presence, and that it brings you into the realm of faith. she said that if you think of the faith that she is speaking from, the central part of that story is the belief that God became human and walked amongst us, that this God became crucified and died on a cross, and this is a very deep truth of Christianity which tries to bring this a bit further.

Vincent Browne said that that means he intervened very much in our lives. Fainche Ryan asked Vincent Browne how did he understand intervention. Vincent Browne said that if Jesus was God, and he came on earth to change things in some way, that is intervening in our lives. Fainche Ryan said that he came on earth to give us a message that we might change things, but that we might refuse to listen to Jesus, but she said that normally the notion of an interventionist God is that he would come in and make us do this, or make us do that.

Vincent Browne asked me what do I make of this. I said that Vincent Browne had made a very important point with regard to the Holocaust, because it takes us beyond just theological speculation and takes us into the area of real suffering and real people being killed.

I said that the Holocaust came about for two reasons: because of the dogma of Nazism and the dogma of Christianity. I said that both of those combined enabled Hitler, who believed and who wrote that he was doing the work of the Lord in extermination of the Jews, to allow a country of otherwise good people, but who had been brought up to believe that the Jews had killed their Saviour, to justify to themselves things that, in the absence of religion and fascism, they would have intuitively known were wrong.

Fainche Ryan said that just because the followers of this God does evil things, does that make this card to be unbelievable, to be non-existent, because the followers will always do things, and she asked me what do I mean by the dogma of Christianity. She said that Christians may have said that Jesus Christ was crucified, but Christianity says very clearly that Jesus Christ was a Jew, lived a Jew and died a Jew.

I was about to answer that question when we ran out of time and the show concluded.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Paula Bradley August 7, 2013 at 9:47 am

Michael, I found this program frustrating. Firstly Vincent’s longwinded introduction almost made me change channel. Your summation above is a fair one. On balance Fainche came across as a sincere (albeit deluded) guest. James was not the right person for this show; too defensive and touchy. Your contribution was excellent, as usual. I don’t know how you stay so calm.

2 Cian August 7, 2013 at 2:50 pm

Thanks for your participation in the show Michael. I found the show itself at times entertaining, funny, ramshackle but generally great to see such questions being asked on Irish TV … has there ever been a show on Irish TV before where the existence and goodness of god has not just been presumed? We really are moving into the mid 20th century :)

I thought you were used too little and he took far too long to get to you ( but maybe that was because the theologians were so long winded … Vincent Browne hilariously called Mr Mackey on this ).

Fainche Ryan seemed respectful of you and Vincent Browne, but Mackey spoke to both of you as intellectual inferiors ( his private conversation while you were talking cracked me up – rarely do you see such blatant arrogance. I’m sure it was annoying for you, but in some ways it was a joy to behold :)).

I liked your points on evolution/original sin and your attempt to ground suffering/gods intervention in the real world, as the other two spoke mainly in euphemistic.

Looking forward to see how the show will develop.

3 John Moriarty August 8, 2013 at 4:38 pm

My impression was of a no-common-ground scrabble fest of mutually exclusive competing worldviews; a bad debate of the typical non listening variety: punch, counter punch and crosstalk.

On the minus side the lack of drama made it a turn-off. It was way too short for a wide ranging topic. Maybe each partisan group could feel happy to walk off the pitch, their own side undefeated.

Michael you point re patternicity was the best one, but never got asserted nor discussed sufficiently.

Unfortunately I’ve been there myself. One wonders whether the uncommitted get anything from these exchanges; some do I suppose, more get further confirmation of the uselessness of debate.

What might work better, in the sense of being thought-provoking to the greatest number of the audience? VB would need to be even more of a sergeant major to drill discipline into his guests.

4 dave Kiernan August 19, 2013 at 7:40 pm

Michael,

was in Wales for 2 weeks, but looked at this VB debate last night.
Actually, excellent bit of TV, you handled yourself very well as usual and disagree with above comments from John, short and sharp was just right and VB handled that waffler in the correct manner. Fainche, was nice, respectful and deluded. You must remember, Mackey is used to speaking to audiences who probably think the sun shines out of his arse.

5 leo September 17, 2013 at 11:42 pm

I thought that this was a good discussion to have;I disagree that Fainche Ryan was or is deluded.She makes a good point about communism and God.I read a book on Stalin’s gulags called “The Forsaken” and some of the prisoners asked the same question.Also I do not believe that Hitler carried out his atrocities against the Jewish people because of any theologic revenge for the killing of Christ.That is in line with those who described the war in Northern Ireland as a “religious war”.There was no theological argument(except maybe in the loyalist camp).It was a war over money,jobs,housing and control of the police ie government.
If anything;religion gives many people a reason to get up in the morning and punch above their weight for the betterment of their children.

6 John February 15, 2014 at 3:54 am

First of all the Bible tells us that God is a spirit (John 4:24). From the beginning to the end he Word of God also speaks about the Spirit of God. We don’t really know what exactly the spiritual mater is. The experience throughout the human history shows that spirits can go through material objects and can be in human bodies.
The very first name used in the Bible is Elohim. This is a plural form of El which means strong, mighty. This the word used to differentiate God from humans. The word Elohim is used almost exclusively for God with a one exception where it is used for angels. This type of usage shows that it is assigned to give distinction between humans and spirits. The Word of God shows that there are two groups of spiritual beings – the eternal and the created spirits.
Most of the time in the Old Testament the word translated for God is Elohim. There are some places where the word El or Eloah is used. If you check the original Hebrew words and the meaning in the Strongs dictionary you will find that almost everywhere it is Elohim – the mighty ones. The reason to translate it as singular is the Hebrew tradition which says that the plural form is only to show respect to the majestic Creator. Even with that we can find in Genesis 1:26 And Elohim (the Mighty Ones) said, let us make man in our image… This type of use is actually throughout the Old Testament but the evident original meaning has been translated literally only a few times. Many people think of the word “God“ as of a personal name. The fact is that when you read the Bible you can find many different Names of God. All of them signify different sides of the personality of the Creator and are not just tags. By using the word Elohim the Bible shows the nature of the beings behind it. They are the mighty ones. The spiritual beings have capabilities beyond ours. That is why in the Bible they are called the Mighty Ones – Elohim.
The name Jehovah splits the group of the spiritual beings in two. It means “I am who I am”, signifying the eternal nature of our Creator. It shows that the group of Elohim has eternal spirits and created spirits. Even from Genesis we know that there is the Father, the Son and the Spirit of God. These three are the Jehovah Elohim – the Eternal Mighty Ones, the Creators of our world and the humanity. These names – the Father, the Son and the Spirit are also with special meaning. It is for our benefit that they use these names so we can have the analogy and clear understanding of their nature and attitude towards us. It is written that Jesus (Yehoshua in the original text), the Savior, the Word of God will have a new name in the new Kingdom of God (Rev 3:12 Him that overcomes will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name.). God uses the names in His Word to show the nature of persons, the change in their lives and His plan. Abram was named Abraham, Sarai – Sarah, Jacob – Israel. You also will have a new name in the Kingdom (Rev 2:17 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says unto the churches; To him that overcomes will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knows saving he that receives it.). In the Old Testament all names of people and places have meaning that show signs for us.
Let’s summarize all that was explained before. Jehovah is not a personal name but signifies the true nature of the Most High spiritual beings. Elohim which is the most common word behind “God” means the mighty ones. It is used most of the times for our Creators but in general shows the group of the spiritual beings. Here is a visual representation:
1. Elohim (the mighty ones):
– Jehovah (the Eternal Ones)

– Angels (created spirits)

2. Man (has a spirit but also a physical body):
– Men
– Women

3. Animals (have spirits but also physical bodies)
– Many kinds

4. Plants
– Many kinds

5. Non-living matter

In many cultures angels are called gods with names that express the nature of Elohim. The Semitic nations use El. In north European cultures they are called elves (or elf for singular).
The names of God give us understanding for the nature of the beings that created our world. The names in the Bible show also the different types and categories of beings which we encounter. Elohim and Jehovah show the type of the beings.

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