Learning to Live Without God (John Gunson)

  (02 October 08)

John Gunson, at one time an ordained minister in the Congregational Churches of Australia, argues that Christians should take Dietrich Bonhoeffer's challenge seriously: to live, and understand their faith, as secular people. This involves, in Gunson's view, leaving both God and religion behind.

Full text (pdf, 913kb): Learning to Live Without God

Abbreviated version (pdf, 346kb): Re-Inventing God


I was thrilled to meet John Gunson in person at the Sea of Faith Conference in September, 2008, and "bought" both these books from him, since I had been impressed by his humanity – and his candid and uncomplicated way of speaking, which seemed entirely comprehensible to me.

I have long been a collector of simple quotes which any old fool - and even I - can understand, without having to strain my brain. Collectively, such quotes from all, by all, and for all, are a rich common-sense repository, and I was not disappointed with the content of these books....

In fact, I was so delighted and thrilled to find so many gems (which represent John's life-work), so thickly clustered, I was moved to telephone John at his home, to speak again to the man himself.

True to his vision, he generously gave me of his time, and also (on the topic of my using some of his quotes, already marked/selected by me) suggested that I might extract same more easily from the Sea of Faith's Website, when the books were posted, to save my time.

I will add these generally single line, simple, common-sense quotes to my other two collections, both numbering 5555, and called "Manna" and "Nectar" from "Heaven". The first of these is already freely available as part of my "wound-wisdom.tk" website. I hope to add "Nectar" and "Spirit" to the site in due course.

This should more fully detail "The Intricate Weaving of Something Beautiful: wound-wisdom.tk website", which had its genesis in my desire to create an artwork wishing my friend's adopted son "all the best", as he stepped out into life as a (hopefully) mature and generous, mixed-race adult.

Having completed the gift, I named the work "Peace and Harmony" because, on deep reflection, I realized that it contained most, if not all of the ingredients required to attain such a happy state. Which was lucky, for my friend and his son were not speaking to each other at the time....

So, my thanks are due to John Gunson himself, and to the vision of Sea of Faith in Australia in placing John’s life-work into our hands, for what I am confident will be a very smooth digestion for most.

Here’s hoping that John and Shirley’s common-sense and ethical approach to life, which recognizes that “To love our neighbour as ourselves” IS to “Love God with all of our heart, with all our mind, and with all our strength”, will put everything for us, into true perspective, whether we believe in the God-concept of Loving, or not.

Posted by Donald Chalmers

David Miller comments, 1st January 2009:

I find myself in sympathy with many of John Gunson’s viewpoints. But not all of them. I do have some quibbles. Here is one:-

John is claiming that we are secular people rather than religious people. It seems to me that John is conflating ‘religion’ and the ‘supernatural’. In this he is in good company. Such confusion is normal within our everyday language. The two words have almost become synonymous. I suggest that we begin the attempt to be more precise. Even if our attempts lead us in different directions, it will at least be illuminating.

To start with, I wish to assert that religion is not necessarily supernatural. That supernaturalism is not the basis of religion. Let me start by asserting that we do not worship a religion. We worship the gods. Via religions we worship the gods. Religion is our means of worshipping our gods. Via the means of religion we worship our gods. Religion is our tool, our method of worship.

Admittedly, historically, the gods have usually been portrayed as possessing supernatural powers. Yet God and the gods are merely symbols for our ‘greatest principles’. These symbols are usually metaphorical personifications with supernatural powers added on. Religions have been contaminated by this association with the supernatural for tens of thousands of years. Hence the ‘common usage’ we usually find in our dictionaries. That is, unless you find one, like the Macquarie, that includes within its list of definitions – “the quest for the values of the ideal life”.

I wish to claim that religion is, at base, the worship of our greatest principles. In an attempt to remove the supernaturalist baggage we could, instead, say that religion is the ‘revering’ of our greatest principles. Or better still – Religion is the means we utilize to ‘venerate’ our greatest principles. Put the other way round – If we wish to venerate our greatest principles, we find an appropriate religion with which to do so.

What constitutes a religion? Let us begin to look at some of the requirements :-
Firstly, as already mentioned, the reverence and veneration of our greatest principles.
Secondly, the apprehension and realization of our greatest principles. In simpler words, getting to know and understand them.
Thirdly, the manifestation and actualization of our greatest principles. In simpler words, bringing them into being in our world, both in ourselves as well as in others.

So, if our greatest principles involve no supernatural elements, then our means of venerating them, our religions, need no supernatural methods either. “Okay so far, but what are these greatest principles?” I hear you asking. Let us try to answer this question.

(As yet I have managed to tease out four categories of ‘greatest principles’. But aspects of them often overlap and sometimes conflict).
1. Our highest values - e.g. Goodness, truth, beauty.
2. Our loftiest ideals – e.g. Love, compassion, mercy, justice, freedom, creativity, etc.
3. Our peak experiences – e.g. Wonder, awe, mystery, oneness, uniqueness, interconnectedness, etc.
4. Our areas of ultimate concern – e.g. Self, family, community, nation, humanity, nature, planet, universe, etc.
As you can see, all completely natural. Nothing supernatural about any of them.

So, in conclusion, I hope that I have shown that there is a sense in which I can refute John Gunson’s claim that we are secular people and not religious people. In my terms, we are both secular and religious. Nevertheless, I agree with him that, in my words, some of us have managed to drop our supernaturalist baggage.

Posted by David Miller

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