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Human Definitions of God Need Revision

April 10, 2009

Human Definitions of God Need Revision

I welcome the attention that serious atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are offering the world at this moment through their books. They are bringing what I regard as a deserved criticism and a necessary correction to what Christianity has become in our generation.

I, for one, have no desire to worship a God who is thought to favor the war in the Middle East in order to accomplish some obscure prediction found in the late first century book of Revelation, who suppresses women in the name of ancient patriarchy, or who is so deeply homophobic that oppressing homosexuals becomes the defining issue of church life.

Such an irrational, superstitious deity has no appeal to me and the attack of atheists against this kind of God is welcome. I also do not want to be told that the “true God” can be found either in the inerrancy of the Bible or in the infallibility of a Pope. Both are absurd religious claims designed not to discover truth but to enforce religious authority and conformity.

I believe, therefore, that atheism as a challenge to organized religion has a worthy vocation to fulfill. The real atheists are saying that the God they have encountered inside the life of the church is too small and too compromised to be God for their lives. If the church is dedicated to such an unbelievable, magical and miracle-working deity that it cannot admit to any genuine probing of the divine, then the atheist speaks a powerful truth.

Atheism, technically, does not mean a denial of the existence of God. It means literally a denial of the theistic definition of God. That is to say, theism is not what God is; it is what human beings have decided that God is. Human definitions of God can die without God dying. Theism means that we perceive of God as “a being, supernatural in power, dwelling somewhere external to this world (usually conceived of as above the sky), who periodically invades this world in miraculous ways.”

This is the God who split the Red Sea to rescue the chosen people and who invaded the world in the person of Jesus to rescue the fallen creation. This is also the deity displaced by Galileo, made impotent by Isaac Newton, ridiculed by Freud and relativized by Einstein.

The theological question that needs to be explored in both church and state is this: Can God be understood in some way other than through these infantile and tribal images? Can Jesus be seen in some way other than as the divinely appointed sacrificial victim who paid the price owed to God for our sinfulness? Because I believe that both God and Jesus are so much more than these distorting images suggest, I am confident that a dialogue with those who call themselves “atheists” would not only be good for the church but it would also allow deep and profound truth to emerge.

Among the issues for discussion between atheists and believers would be: What leads human beings to seek to define God in the first place? Is it the human experience of transcendence? Otherness? Divinity? How then do we conceptualize that experience? If the worship of our God leads us to justify our killing religious prejudices that have throughout history created such things as the Inquisition, the Crusades, religious wars and even the current ecclesiastical attack on homosexual persons, can this God really be anything other than a creature of our own making? Will we remain deluded enough to call this creature God? Since that is what the theistic God has so regularly given us, would not the world be better off without such a deity?

The choice between the theism of the church and the atheism of those who reject the God of the church is to me a sterile and lifeless choice. Such a meeting between believers and atheists might lead us to examine what Paul Tillich called “the God beyond the gods of men and women.” If believers cannot have that conversation because it compromises their God definition, then that is a tip-off that the God they serve is in fact an idol and atheism is always a proper response to idolatry.

By John Shelby Spong , Former Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Newark

John Shelby Spong

His best-selling books include “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism,” “A New Christianity for a New World,” “Why Christianity Must Change or Die,” and “Here I Stand.”

nemesis

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