Gunson, John - Learning to Live Without God

  (02 October 08)

Giving Up God



Greg Spearritt reviews John Gunson’s Learning to Live Without God.


(Reviewed October 2008)



I’d like to think of myself as ‘progressive’. ‘Christian’, I am not. Nor am I any species of theist, even of the highly diluted ‘God-in-here’ variety.  And talk of ‘church’ these days brings me out in a rash.


For these reasons I was reluctant to take on the task of reading and reviewing John Gunson’s unpublished manuscript Learning to Live Without God. What is there to learn, after all? However, I have to report that I found the book much more to my taste – and more inspiring – than I would have thought possible.


John Gunson (who I had the pleasure of meeting at the recent Melbourne SoFiA Conference) was once an ordained minister in the Congregational Churches of Australia. He took a year’s ‘secular sabbatical’ and stayed in secular employment, never to return to the priesthood. He is well read in liberal and radical theology and appears to know an indecent amount about everything from the early church to the Death of God movement, process thought and the musings of the Jesus Seminar.


Gunson’s book, which he has also produced in an abridged form under the title Re-Inventing God, argues that it is finally time to get serious about being secular. God, religion, church: all strain credibility in today’s secular world.


One approach to resolving this problem – the approach of (among others) Tillich, Process theologian John B. Cobb Jr and Spong – has been to seek to redefine God in contemporary (and hopefully relevant) terms. Another – exemplified in Funk, Geering and Holloway – is to step beyond the word ‘God’ altogether.


Gunson argues for the latter and wants to take it even further. Not only is the God concept an irrelevant and debased relic of authoritarian religion which now compromises ethical action in the world: religion itself must go.


Now, a part of me wants to argue, with Don Cupitt, that religion can mean something more than, or other than, our relationship to unseen powers. I have long suspected, however, that ‘religion’ will simply not bear the meaning I would like to give it. Gunson notes that the Macquarie Dictionary does allow “the quest for the values of the ideal life” as one definition, but I’m inclined to think he’s right: that’s not the meaning in common use and never has been. Perhaps we do have to take leave of religion completely. It’s why I’m so fond of the word ‘meaning’ in the sofia network’s aim of “promoting the open exploration of religion, faith and meaning”. (I’m still prepared to argue the case for ‘faith’, though that’s a debate for another time.)


Learning to Live Without God is really in three parts, the third of which is made up of appendices for the reader who wants more detail or background on topics that are important to, but are not fully explained in, the main text: contemporary Jesus study, the thinking of John Dominic Crossan, the Process view of God and more.


The first part constitutes the bulk of the book: the justification for leaving God, church and religion behind. There’s some good material there, though the book as a whole will benefit from a fair bit of trimming in the editing process if it is ever taken up by a publisher (and it ought to be). As one inclined to a materialist view of life, I especially resonate with Gunson’s assertion that


The evidence is increasingly supportive of the view that the ‘I’ of our existence is a function of our central processor, and that with the damage or death of that organ, we become ‘someone else’, and in the end cease to exist. (23)


But that does not mean we materialists live a joyless existence! There are spiritual realities, and they are human values and feelings. Whether it’s psychological, aesthetic, emotional, relational or whatever, spiritual experience is indeed “essential to a full and meaningful life” (23).  


The fundamental thing, in Gunson’s view, is not what we should believe, or who we should obey, but how we should live. The book’s second part, or conclusion, outlines Gunson’s solution to how we should live – without God. He calls for an ‘ethical ecology’, “a basis for constructive living that is not derived from, or dependent upon, a religious foundation” (78).


Rationally knowing our world and ourselves can lead us to see that interdependence is key: “the good of each depends on the good of all” (80), and that includes all aspects of life, not just the human world. Selfishly seeking our own happiness and well-being turns out to be counter-productive (as Hugh Mackay notes, cited p.81). Ultimately, Gunson is arguing for something similar to Clive Hamilton in The Freedom Paradox. We need no external authority: our interconnectedness is enough. That is the only form of ‘beyondness’ we have now, and it is more than enough. In the end, we can just decide for goodness, truth and love.


It’s not possible to do justice to Gunson’s ‘ethical ecology’ here. Suffice it to say that it has inspired me to think and – who knows? – possibly even to act. He fleshes out his idea of an “ethical ecological community” by offering some practical steps modelled on the early church: study/discussion and action, community/fellowship, sharing meals and more.


I’ll have to think hard about whether I could contemplate doing ‘church’ again, even in this stripped-down, secular form. And I’m not sure I have Gunson’s enthusiasm for the earthly Jesus of the Jesus Seminar which drives much of his thinking about the values he would like to see expressed in ‘ethical ecology’. 


But I am persuaded that Gunson is onto something. Losing God and religion does not have to spell the end of ethics, or of community, anymore than it tolls the death knell for joy in life.


Though John Gunson has so far been unable to find a publisher, the good news is that his book (together with its abbreviated version) is accessible on this website.





I don't want to 'do church' again either Greg, but I think there many of us miss the communal aspects of church and the focus on matters outside ourselves.

This is a topic that the Chermside group is picking up: how to replace church with a secular activity thatseeks to bring out the best in us, help us not to take mthe great things of life for granted and to recommit ourselves to living sustainably and with compassion for our fellow human beings.

I haven't read more than a few pages of John Gunson's book but think that's what he is on about.

Posted by Scott McKenzie

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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