Saturday, January 31, 2009

Can a Christian be an Atheist?

Is it possible to be a Christian and not be a Theist? This is one of the critical questions facing Christianity in the 21st century. Of course it's roots are deep within the last century and trace back to at least the Enlightenment.

Paul Van Buren's 1963 book "The Secular Meaning of the Gospel" is a good example of one of the first forays into this kind of thinking. Probably the best known contemporary proponent would be Don Cupitt, whose books include "Taking Leave of God". New Zealander Lloyd Geering also makes a stand in this vein in "Christianity Without God". At first the idea seems non-sensical, but it arises from some of the best theological minds of recent times including Paul Tillich who described God beyond personal terms as the ground of all being. Bishop John A.T. Robinson popularised some of this thinking and in doing so divided the church of the 1960's.

There are actually 2 distinct streams of thought. The first group find the concept of God now to be irredeemable, though they may retain respect for the teachings of Jesus. Those in this category typically see Christianity on its last legs, perhaps offering some general moral direction to the community but on the whole we are left with a rather pale imitation of religious faith.

The second group affirm a real God experience but are discarding the projection of human attributes onto the character of God (anthropomorphism). In simple terms, God exists but should not be understood as the big, white bearded guy in the sky. This kind of thinking challenges some biblical images, such as the angry or jealous God, which may be welcomed. However, it also calls into question the incarnation of Jesus as the decisive manifestation of God. If we can't project our humanity onto God, can we really project God's divinity onto a human being?

Can we have a personal God without making God into a person? Doesn't this ultimately go against the commandment against making divine images? None of these questions have easy answers but they are worthy of some honest thought, discussion and perhaps even debate.

10 comments:

jack said...

I would see myself pretty much in the first stream of thought that you describe. With regards to the second group, can you give some further detail on what these people may have experienced that for them affirms "a real God experience"? Because I tend to think that what I have in the past felt as being the presence of God was simply an emotional and/or neurological response to various influences. both internal and external.

So if we are left with a bible filled with contradiction and error, stories of a petty and sometimes genocidal God and occasional word of wisdom, how can any sort of faith be based on that? But if the bible is discarded as the true, inspired word of God, if the divinity (and even the historical existence) of Jesus is not considered necessary, then can one really be a Christian? I would think not, but perhaps you can suggest how it could be possible.

JDK said...

Hi Jack, thanks for your comments. I've tried a number of times to articulate what a God experience is for me and invariably fall short. Perhaps it's ultimately a choice (faith?) that determines whether I see these as emotional/neurogical responses to external stimuli or something different. Perhaps there's not much difference - are my neurological responses in some way linked to the source of all creation? If all matter in the universe has a common source, then this may be true even in a scientific sense.

With regard to the Bible, I think I can say a bit more. I see the Bible as essentially a human product, by which I mean that I don't think every word is 'God-dictated'. The Bible is inspired in two ways: firstly because those who wrote it did so in the context of struggling to define a divine/human relationship. They drew upon their cultural and religious traditions in order to capture the meaning of the sacred and enhance the value of human existence. Secondly, I think that inspiration is demonstrated by the meaning attributed to the Scriptures over several millenia now.

I know the Bible well enough to recognise that there are some awful passages, but I also continue to find parts that challenge me to be a better person and to strive to understand the meaning of God and my own life. In the sense that these inspire me, I (subjectively) recognise their inspiration.

Far better writers in what I have termed the 'second group' of non-theists include Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Michael Morwood and John Shelby Spong. Give them a try.

Regards, JDK

Liam said...

Having heard a few Christian 'atheists' speak I am constantly struck with one question. If morality is not defined by a theistic being then how do we find a common morality?
That isn't the best way to state my question, but it will do for the moment.

I find the lack of a theistic understanding of God leads us to focus on our individual meaning and spurns the need for community and a community of understanding. Is this not just another symptom of a hyper-constructivist world view overtaking all else.

I too am keen to avoid creating God in our own image. But if we take seriously the theological understandings of being created in the image of God and the incarnation we are faced with very sticky situations. How much foreknowledge did Jesus have of what was to happen to him, considering he was fully human? Also being fully God he would have had some sense of omniscience. The gospel stories give us a wide range of pictures for his understanding. But what if he didn't know exactly what was going to happen? What if that was precisely an aspect of his Godness?

I have a huge sympathy for process theology, but the questions start to merge with some you have raised here.
How do we know when we are creating God in our image, when we make him more 'human' than 'divine' in the classical sense of those words?
I think they are important questions and very helpful in our understanding of God, if of course God is up there somewhere.

JDK said...

Hi Liam,

Thanks for your comments. I'll just leave a couple of responses for the moment.

The issue of morality is an important one. I think it's time that we started to explore moral issues in ways that don't depend upon particular definitions of deity but are able to draw human beings together regardless of their religous or cultural backgrounds. This is so far from our present reality that I'm sure it seems impossibly idealistic, but we need to start somewhere. I don't think we can rely entirely on the culturally conditioned formulations of the past in any single religion as applying to all people for all time. Anyone who is obeying all 613 laws of the Hebrew Scriptures can feel free to argue with me on this one.

On the issue of Jesus' foreknowledge, my own opinion is that anything beyond normal human capacity compromises his humanity. Even the concept of God's omniscience that you mention owes more to Greek philosophy than it does to the Hebrew mindset. Like those who formulated the creeds before us, we are still struggling to answer the question 'how does God come to be in the person of Jesus of Nazareth?'. Michael Morwood has a good book entitled 'Is Jesus God?' that begins to address this question from a contemporary perspective.

Regards, JDK

Jack said...

On another note, I saw this week's "On Fire" magazine profiled the new cadets who have just entered the training college. Nearly half of them have blogs, and from what I read pretty much all of these bloggers are fundamentalists. I pity those with more moderate/liberal views trying to deal with their leaders and peers over the next two years.

Anonymous said...

Jack, TSA will still be overwhelmingly liberal in this territory. Bring on more fundos for balance I say.

JDK said...

Which territory? You've got to be joking!

Anonymous said...

This territory! It is harm minimization central, Spong is widely read and supported, demonization of fundamentalists is still the online past-time with a polarization of fundamentalists v liberals with the poster children of the fundamentalists being temporary imports from the North Americas. Take the imports out after a three year exchange term and we have an overwhelmingly academic and liberal territory. Certainly not by your standards but certainly from the center.

JDK said...

Dear Anon,

I must say that I'm genuinely surprised that anyone would hold such views, however perhaps some of what you say is a matter of perspective and I really am so far off centre that I can't tell anymore... :-)

I must say though, that harm minimisation is a primarily health services issue, not a theological perspective.

Also, considering that you could count the number of officers with post-graduate degrees on your fingers, it's difficult to sustain your argument that the territory is overly academic.

I'll let the rest go for now, but your input has certainly given me pause for thought.

Regards, JDK

Liam said...

I would love for Anonymous to fill out their comments a bit more.
If you are serious about being 'in the centre' then I find your comments about either 'side' of you as trying to open a third front in the battle, for want of a better way to explain myself.

Having been in a number of Corps, talked to a lot of people and being on the 'liberal-academic side' I can say that I can count on one hand the number of Salvationists I know who have read Spong.

I would love Anon to flesh out what they see as 'the centre' of the Salvation Army theological spectrum. It would be nice to hear a well formulated position from someone who wasn't arguing from the margins.