Many people today have deserted the old forms of religion. But does this make them any the less religious? Hugh Rock’s message is that people are inherently religious. The necessary task today is to articulate anew the reality of religion. In a wide-ranging survey, that draws together the past fifty years of liberal theology and sociological discussion about the interface of religion and popular culture, he concludes that it is in our new respect for the autonomous self-fulfilment of the potential of every person’s life that can be found the message transferred out of the New Testament.
REVIEWS & ENDORSEMENTS
The constructive proposals of this book, set out in its second half, can be stated quite succinctly. Hugh Rock is concerned to eliminate the category of ‘secular’: he wishes to see religion regarded in terms of practice rather than belief; and makes a case for God as the autonomous fulfilment by individuals of their own potential, wherever that is found (‘God is Us’, p. 207). He detects support for this in the attitudes of contemporary, particularly young, people (chapter 9).
There are some difficulties with these suggestions. The ideal of ‘self-chosen self-fulfilment’ (p. 295) can sound rather self-centred; the matter of metaphysics, that is to say, whether or not there is more to ‘God’ than purely human fulfilment, may not be so inconsequential as Rock’s indifference to it implies (p. 217); and Rock’s location of the opposite of the religious in the political rather than the secular, will raise eyebrows in at least the discipline of political theology, and renders his sphere for Christian ethics (‘our friendship groups, our families, our work relations and … our churches’, p. 395) somewhat parochial. In addition, the chapter on the history of anarchism feels out-of-place; there is no index; there are difficulties with style (Rock has a penchant for creating new words); and there are some typos (for example, a missing footnote on p. 455, so that footnotes 4–10 in the text correspond to 3–9 in the notes).
More significantly, however, for readers of this journal, Rock devotes the first part of the book to a grand typological history of theology – from which, on Rock’s reading, God needs ‘salvation’ – with liberal theology, particularly of recent years, subject to excoriating critique.
Rock represents the doctrine of God as twin foci, relating to classical theism and panentheism, within an ellipse. I share Rock’s interests in the doctrine of God and in the history of twentieth-century liberal theology, and have myself modelled the doctrine of God in terms of a spectrum, with classical theism at one end, and pantheism at the other, and a series of gradations, through ‘basic’ and ‘advanced’ panentheism, in the middle, the gradations largely derived from reading the corpora of twentieth-century theologians.
I am not sure whether it is a difference in research style – between broad-brush assessment and minute analysis – or in writing style (Rock being given to a rhetorical approach), but Rock’s typology is so sweeping as to undermine its accuracy.
The biblical, ‘community’ God, for example, is described as personal/volitional; whereas the liberal, idealist, Platonic, ‘nature’ God is characterised as impersonal. But there are plenty of liberal theologians who attribute personality to God: personality/impersonality is not a polarity that can be overlaid identically on the polarity between classical theism and panentheism. Similarly, divine mystery is made a feature of the liberal God, where arguably it is equally if not more at home with the distance of the traditional one. Or religious experience is aligned with the liberal God, as though religious experience has nothing to do with the God of the Bible. Or again, the two Gods are associated with different resolutions of the problem of evil, but approaches to the problem of evil are far too nuanced to match easily the duality that is offered. There are distinctions between classical theism and panentheism, to be sure; but they are not the great swathes of generalisation that are given here. I am left with the impression that the classifications are pre-determined categories into which all evidence has been made to fit.
Consequently, Rock is led to some strange places. With a slightly bizarre heroic complex (‘I am prepared to stand up as the one person ready to accept the apocalyptic basis of Christianity’, p. 46), he provides his own definition of ‘Apocalypse’ as ‘the eventual revelation of God’s justice’ (p. 54 – which is unfortunate, because he does not keep to this definition, that is in any case entirely compatible with liberalism).
He regards the biblical God as apocalyptic, and the liberal God as resistant to apocalyptic, without realising that his apocalyptic champion R. H. Charles was very much a modernist/liberal theologian, and that his preferred resolution to the apocalyptic question, an ‘inaugurated eschatology’ (oddly forgotten about by the time of chapter 12), was actually coined by none other than the liberal John Robinson. Rock admits that there are some theologies which seem to incorporate aspects of both polarities (pp. 139–42), but has to regard them as inconsistent rather than as evidence that his typology might be flawed.
He is embarrassed, for instance, that Daphne Hampson, on whom he draws for his ‘social theology’, is indebted to the liberal Schleiermacher (p. 267). Indeed, given that Rock’s own ‘social theology’ is grounded in personal experience, seeks universal appeal, and is inspired by a range of twentieth-century personalist theologians who have been described (along with Daphne Hampson) as panentheist, Rock, far from being the ‘new type of religious thinker’ claimed by the back cover, typologically fits perfectly into the liberal school that he so rejects. I am not sure that it is God who ‘needs salvation’ here.
~ Michael Brierley, Modern Believing
In this book the author embarks on an ambitious project : a reformulation of how we should interpret God. He feels that the 'traditional' idea of God does not resonate well in the twenty-first century.
'Rock' takes as a starting point the idea that an academic, philosophical idea of 'God' has 'won out' over and against a more personal God, it seems he is teetering on accusing the academy of being pretentious and hijacking the idea of God, taking it away from the everyperson's 'God-for-me.
One point to mention, on which I strongly agree with the author, is his suggestion that society has not undergone as fundamental a shift towards the secular as is often maintained. ~ The Furrow, Gary Keogh
The idea of God has been an evolving human construct since the dawn of history. Sometimes forces conspire to freeze that evolutionary process in a moment of history but the process cannot be stopped. Hugh Rock seeks to move that process along past the theisms of yesterday as he seeks to find a God that can live in the 21st Century. It is a noble task. One hopes it will be successful.
~ John Shelby Spong, author The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic
Hugh Rock brings great breadth of reading in arguing his case for a 'Community God. He works in the tradition of Martin Buber's 'I and Thou and John MacMurray's Gifford Lectures 'Persons in Relation'.
~ Brian Mountford, Vicar of the University Church Oxford, Fellow of St Hilda's College, author of Christian Atheist: Belonging without Believing
No matter what your Christian shade may be, fundamentalists through to progressives alike will be angered as Hugh Rock demolishes so many precious shibboleths. However, his arguments are coherent and it pays to read to the end. Unlike many books that simply knock down what has gone before, this book builds upon the past and makes a real contribution to what a God fit for purpose in the 21st century might look like. Every body who is concerned for the future of the God of the Church in our times needs to read this book! ~ Rev John Churcher, Progressive Christianity Network Britain