What God is and isn't

<strong>Theology for Pilgrims</strong>

Nicholas Lash

<em>Darton, Longman & Todd, 224pp, £14.95</

Pipemania is a computer game where you have to make an unbroken pipeline across a board using hideously ill-assorted fragments of pipe to join a start with an end point before the oil starts gushing from the start. If it spills out before reaching the end, you have lost. It would be an easy task with the right sections of pipe, but the game deals out only the wrong ones: a malevolent selection of curves and junctions that makes it almost certain that any long straight section is heading off the edge of the board, and any successful pipeline will become a fantastic network that bends, divides and loops its way across the board. Theological argument reminds me of this game. The extraordinary thing is not that the meaning so often spills into nothing, but that sometimes it is carried from one end of an essay to the other.

Nicholas Lash is a theologian whose pipework is unusually straightforward. It may not be clear what he wants to say about God, but it is obvious that what he thinks must be unsayable. His polemical speciality is to denounce as mistaken, and possibly sinful, almost everything that theologians are popularly supposed to believe. In particular, he thinks it is a great mistake to think that God exists, at least in the same sense that anything else does.

If God is neither a fact in the world nor an opinion, but something more like the fact of the world, two consequences follow. The first is that we need to understand that when people talk about God they are talking not primarily about what exists, but about what they should value; that we should value nothing is almost impossible. Given that God, in His terms, is not a name for anything, but a term for what we have our hearts set on, and worship, it follows that atheism is not so much wrong as impossible.

Of course, there are a great many readers of the New Statesman who would say that they find atheism entirely possible. Against them, Lash just says their belief is "intellectually uninteresting" because they "take for granted that 'belief in God' is a matter of supposing there to be, over and above the familiar world we know, one more large and powerful fact or thing, for the existence of which there is no evidence whatsoever". He knows perfectly well that this will seem absurd to many people today, as most of those who call themselves atheists never bother to enquire what and how believers actually believe. But his position is entirely orthodox. He quotes the revered Jesuit Karl Rahner as saying that "both atheist and a more naive form of theism labour under the same false notion of God, only the former denies it while the latter believes it can make sense of it".

Lash is an old man now; he was briefly a Roman Catholic priest, before leaving to marry and pursue a distinguished career as an academic theologian. Almost all the brightest priests of his generation left to marry in the aftermath of the reforming Second Vatican Council; that Lash did so with official blessing makes him one of the few unscathed survivors of the Catholic Church's long civil wars about sexuality. He is certainly one of those English Catholic intellectuals who have very little time for the pretensions of the papacy: in some moods he reminds me of Herbert McCabe, the left-wing Dominican and friend of Terry Eagleton's who taught Aquinas to Alasdair MacIntyre at Oxford, and who once nearly got me thrown out of a Polish restaurant by offering, in a very loud voice, for the good of the Church, to go to Rome and shoot Pope John Paul II.

Still, this is what will happen when you take western civilisation seriously, as something more than a slogan and a rallying cry: you end up with people who have actually thought themselves inside the civilisation that built the cathedrals. Of course their arguments seem, from a modern perspective, to consist largely of curlicues and deviations, but their force is undeniable.

Perhaps this strangeness is inevitable. If God, as Lash says over and over, can only be apprehended through what worshippers do, and if theology is the study of those apprehensions, then attempting to follow the paths of theological argument without doing anything must necessarily be a bewildering exercise. "Popularisation is easy," he says at one point; "you just leave out the interesting bits." He gives good squelch: the American conservative Michael Novak's assessment of Vatican II is brusquely trampled: "even from an American, this diatribe borders on fantasy". On the other hand he gives reasons, too, for such dismissals; and anyone wanting to know how a Christian intellectual reasons could do a lot worse than to start with this book, which opens with an essay almost anyone can enjoy, on the manifold shallow sillinesses of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion.

Andrew Brown's "Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future that Disappeared" will be published next month by Granta Books

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Truly, madly, politically