Ray Billington - a former Priest, now atheist. Was on Channel 4's "The Human Face of God" Sunday 23 March, 5.40pm

Has written a book about his deconversion.

Transcript from Ch4 talk at http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/programmes/lent_talks/scripts/billington.html and reproduced below.


The Human Face of God

Ray Billington

Let me begin with a health warning. I am an official Christian heretic. Thirty years ago, my book 'The Christian Outsider', was declared by the Methodist Church, of which I was then a minister, to be guilty of false doctrine. Nowadays heretics are no longer burned at the stake, (though, judging from the letters I received, some regretted this change) and I was simply expelled.

Maybe they were right. What I had tried to describe was a conversion in the opposite direction from usual: from a belief in a personal God to a rejection of it. I remember the moment well: I was actually and this is ironic - preparing a sermon for the following Sunday, and reading Julian Huxley's 'Essays of a Humanist'. As I read, I came to the realisation that I not only agreed with his ideas, but felt the same drive within me. I walked up and down my study saying over and over again, 'I am an atheist'. It was an experience of great joy which has motivated me ever since, though I now describe myself as a non-theist rather than an atheist. The reason for this I hope will become clear.

I was working in Woolwich at the time, in the ecumenical team led by Nicolas Stacey, and Bishop John Robinson was our local mentor. His controversial book 'Honest to God' was published forty years ago this month, and put religion on the front pages of the national newspapers for weeks. He pointed me in the direction which I followed in my own book, along a path which I have since pursued for thirty years. This path has opened up vistas which I had never experienced during my twenty years within the fold of the Church. I'm inviting you to accompany me a little along the way.

The thread which guides me is the realisation that there is all the difference in the world between thinking about something and thinking. We no doubt often read what others have to say on a particular subject, and reflect on whether their statements make sense. This will usually require some effort on our part but the thinking involved is our response to what someone else has initiated. It is a state of dependence: thinking about. But thinking is on a different level from this, and is much more difficult. When we think, we begin to explore ideas for ourselves. We leave behind the security of other people's ideas and cast ourselves adrift on an uncharted sea. We absorb ourselves in its apparent infinity. We lose awareness of our selves and become pure psyche, or mind, no longer supported by the crutches which are provided by ideas we've taken on board. When we are thinking, time and place cease to exist.

Now, I want to suggest to you that religion is in the same category as thinking, rather than thinking about. Many descriptions of what it is to be religious, even when accompanied by deep sincerity and devotion, fall into the thinking about category: attending a place of worship, accepting the unique authority of the Bible or the Koran, reflecting on the papal view of this, the archbishop's view of that, the Chief Rabbi's view of the other; discussing the meaning of the sacraments, the virgin birth, the resurrection. But none of this is any more about actually being religious than is discussing the latest theory of evolution or the origin of the universe - or even the authorship of Shakespeare's plays.

Now let's take this one stage further. If religion is like thinking, then to be religious is essentially to experience the transcendental: to enter into a dimension which, like the uncharted sea of pure thought, absorbs our conscious selves. Matthew Arnold called it the Sea of Faith, but I prefer to call it the Sea of Enlightenment. It is the experience of what has been called the numinous, (a difficult word, but worth pursuing).It was described by the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, as the Thou of one's life. It is certainly a state beyond the security of creeds and ritual; more surprisingly, perhaps, it is a state beyond the God of theology, dogma, and even the Bible, all of which are at the level of looking at religion rather than experiencing it.

Now, you may well be questioning this approach. You might be telling me that you have moved beyond these outward expressions to the inner reality, and have committed your life to the belief in the existence of a perfect being who created and sustains the world, and whom you call God. I can't argue with that; in fact it would be impertinent of me to do so. But it's worth bearing in mind the cautionary words of the philosopher Boethius: we cannot possibly say what God is: all we can say is what God is not, since the moment we say what he, she or it is we diminish him, reducing him to the level of our inadequate thoughts and even more inadequate language. To realise this is to be in tune with the opening words of the great Chinese classic, the Tao Te Ching: 'The Tao that can be talked about is not the eternal Tao.'

'Tao' (spelt t-a-o) means 'way', the ultimate ground of being. Martin Buber, whom I've just mentioned, said of the thou of one's life: 'When you get to the Thou, God is no more'. Or, as the Tao Te Ching expresses it, 'The Tao is older than God.' Behind the God of the creeds is what the thirteenth-century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart called the mysterious and indescribable godhead who cannot be known directly but only by way of a variety of channels.

The trouble is that this leap into the unknown seems to be asking rather a lot of anyone whose life is safely organised into segments, with ideas carefully pigeon-holed and classified. What's wrong, you may ask, with a wayside shrine, a biblical text, a rosary, a holy person to follow and obey, such as Moses, Jesus, or Mohammed? But these are aids, and need to be recognised as just that: aids along the path, but not the real thing. What we have to guard ourselves against is the error of the zen novice whose master had pointed at the moon and asked him what it was. He replied, 'That's your finger, ' thereby mistaking the pipeline for the source, the aid for the aim. As Bruce Lee said in 'Enter the Dragon': 'Don't concentrate on the finger or you'll miss the heavenly glory'.

My conviction now is that to reach the highest peak of religion we need to embark on our own personal act of exploration into what is often termed 'the fifth dimension'. We may be approaching that dimension via a well-worn path, particularly, if we are Christians (as I was), the way of Jesus. But the ultimate experience of the transcendental cannot be gained by standing on anyone else's shoulders; it is a way which we each of us must find for ourselves. Others, especially spiritual leaders of great insight, may point us in a particular direction which looks promising, and we may follow that path for a while, perhaps for years. But ultimately we must follow our own path, blaze our own trail, if we are to discover what religion really means. Nobody becomes a tennis player by just watching Andre Agassi, and nobody discovers religion by simply reading about Jesus.

And so we reach the crucial part. This path doesn't meander only through those terrains which have traditionally been designated as 'religious'. The transcendental experience has been found by many, for instance, through the imagination and the arts. Haven't you at one time or another been so absorbed in a piece of music, a poem, a painting or a play that you lose all sense of time and place, and of self-awareness? And haven't you found that it is impossible to articulate or communicate these transcendental experiences, because they are literally beyond words? Yet those who have entered that dimension know that it has happened, and that its effect has both enriched them personally and made them better people to live with: those who have entered. I think Wordsworth had entered, judging from his description in these 'Lines Written Over Tintern Abbey':

And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean, and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought

And rolls through all things.

I don't think that any sermon, scriptural passage, or saintly confession has expressed the reality of religion any more truly than this. It is not just looking at nature but seeing it with open eyes, entering a state of enlightenment.

And this is what concerns me with our general interpretation of the word religion. The trouble is that it has been appropriated by the world's monotheistic religions -especially Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - and forced into a kind of spiritual, god-shaped straitjacket. The result is that those who do not or cannot bring themselves to wear this straitjacket are assumed not to be religious, and even describe themselves in this way. So I find this exclusive attitude sad, and it's not just because of the conflicts to which the often opposing claims of these religions seem to lead. More importantly, it causes people who may well be sensitive to the transcendental dimension but follow non-theistic, perhaps openly atheistic, paths, to conclude that religion is not for them. On the contrary: religion cannot be confined and delimited, because religion is for all. The human face of God, in John Robinson's striking phrase, is one which displays itself in the multitude of wonders which the world affords. It is seen in nature as well as in sacred writings, in the creativity of Beethoven and Shakespeare as well as in priestly sacrifices and prophetic messages. Whenever you try to empathise with other people, to feel as they feel and see things as they see them in a world which continually tries to force us into separate compartments, the human face of God emerges. Religion, so understood, is indivisible: it cannot be circumscribed, enclosed, or demarcated. It is not just for a chosen few, because it is a facet of all our human birthrights. There is not just one path towards it, but many - perhaps as many as there are people making the journey. What is needed, then, is not to offer religious proofs to people, but to prove to them that they are religious. This brings me to the most absorbing point of all, and the goal of my journey. You may still wish to settle for the path provided by Jesus, for John Robinson the supreme human face of God, and a composite of those virtues which we have traditionally valued beyond the rest. But I want to go further than this -further than John, as a bishop, was able or willing to go. A central feature of Jesus's message was that all can become as he is, and God, the ground of being, be reflected in our lives. We are close here to the Hindu affirmation, tat tvam asi - 'thou art that', where 'thou' is the individual self and 'that' the ground of being, the way, the otherwise unknowable godhead. But tat tvam asi can also be translated as I am that. 'I am God'? Can we make so bold as to affirm that? If so, then here's a thought into which to be absorbed: that I myself am one with the ground of being, so that all that exists is me interacting with myself and manifesting myself as spirit, mind and matter. That I am the thinker, the thought, the word and the flesh. That in the cosmic dance of the universe I am the dancer, the dancing and the dance. Follow that train of thought and you may come to the conclusion that the only face which you can describe as godly is a human face. A face that you see every time you look in a mirror.