DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


search engine by freefind

hit counter
 
Christianity Minus Theism
Lloyd Geering (October 2000)

Is Christianity dependent on theism?
To most people, both in and out of the Church, it seems self-evident that Christianity stands or falls with belief in God. Belief in God can mean a wide variety of things. I am going to refer to that form of belief in God known as theism.

Can there be a Christianity without theism and if so what is it like?

Although this is a very serious question I am going to discuss it, at times, in a more light-hearted way. This is to try to demonstrate that we should not take theology too seriously. The reason is that all theology is a human construction. If we take our constructions or mental creations too seriously we become idolaters. It is often forgotten that the most heinous sin in the eyes of the Bible writers was not atheism but idolatry.

So it is a very healthy practice, from time to time, to laugh at our religious creations. That is exactly what some of the ancient Israelite prophets did. One of them poked fun at the religious sacrifices which Israelites were taking so seriously. Another, during the Exile, poked fun at the religious images humans created (read Isaiah 44). 

So, while what I say does have a very important and serious intention, it will be mingled with a bit of tongue-in-cheek comment.

A graven image should never itself be worshipped but recognized for what it is - a man-made object, a symbol. In the same way mental images, theological concepts and doctrines, should never be regarded as the ultimate truth. They are human attempts to say something of ultimate importance. But they never wholly manage it. 

Theology is highly symbolic. It is more like poetry than descriptive statements. There is good poetry and bad poetry. Similarly, there is good theology and bad theology. What may be regarded as good theology in one age may seem very bad theology in another.

Moreover theology can be highly deceptive. It can give the appearance of being very profound, even deceiving the theologian himself. Yet it can be gobbledygook saying nothing at all. 

It is wise to take some theology with a grain of salt. When we find that the Emperor has no clothes on we should say so.

Sometimes we need to laugh at our own theological statements. So do not take anything I say too seriously but decide for yourselves if you find in it that which speaks to you.

I am going to fly two kites. They are both on the same string. I am going to contend

  • that traditional Christianity, when examined, is not really theistic anyway; and

  • that Christianity should be seen, not only as humanistic but also as the rejection of theism

To do this, I shall first look at theism and then at Christianity.

What is theism?
This term, strangely, did not come into use until the 17th century. That was the time when the concept of God was beginning to undergo modern critical examination. The first modern atheists declared themselves in the 18th century. That tells us something. Prior to that the notion of God seemed to be so self-evident that only a fool would reject it.

Theism is primarily a philosophical term. It can be contrasted with alternatives such deism, pantheism, and mysticism, along with atheism - its polar opposite.

Theism

In theism, the word "God" names the supernatural personal being who created the world and who continues to have oversight (providence) over its affairs. Being personal, he enters into personal relationships with humans who are made in his image. Christian orthodoxy today strongly affirms theism. Evangelical Christians use it as one of the essential tests of orthodoxy. "Do you believe in a personal God?"

Deism

In deism "God" is the name of the creator of the universe. But this God is not involved in the world in any personal way. Deism appealed to thinkers in the time of the rise of modern science. It became quite widespread at the Enlightenment. There was even a deist Archbishop of Canterbury. It is now strongly rejected in theological circles but lingers on quite widely as a vague popular belief. It is the type of God referred to by some modern physicists.

Pantheism

Pantheism identifies God with all that there is, regards all finite things as parts, modes, limitations, or appearances of one ultimate Being, which is all that there is. It originated with the Jewish philosopher Spinoza who was roundly condemned by Jew and Christian. Yet it has continued to surface from time to time. Teilhard de Chardin and Paul Tillich were both accused of pantheism.

Mysticism

Mysticism has associations with both theism and pantheism. The only reality is one un-diversified Being. In mystical thought, and in much of its practice, the multiplicity of things is ultimately repudiated. Mysticism has been dallied with both in medieval and modern times. But it has generally rejected in the circles of Christian orthodoxy, which likes to affirm an unbridgeable gap between God and all whom he has created, including ourselves.

Atheism

Though it is primarily the rejection of theism, atheism is often used to deny that the concept of "God" has any meaningful use.

For a very long period before this modern examination of the concept of God, the reality of God seemed so self-evident that it went unquestioned. It was nevertheless claimed that it was possible to demonstrate the reality of God on rational grounds. They later became known as the Four Proofs of the Existence of God. They are the cosmological, teleological, ontological, and moral arguments. They are worth a brief look at, since several of them still carry a certain amount of weight at a popular level.

Proofs of existence of God
The Cosmological Argument
The world is seen as dependent upon some being beyond it for its intelligibility and existence. From the existence of the world, the reality of God is inferred as the ultimate cause.

The Teleological Argument
This proceeds from the observation of order and design in the universe. Things in the world seem to function as if designed for a purpose. This points to a designer.

The Moral Argument
It rests upon the experience of obligation or moral duty. Immanuel Kant argued that a God must be postulated as the being who rewards worthiness and enables moral life to be rationally understood.

The Ontological Argument
It tries to show that the very concept of God implies the necessity of God's existence. St Anselm defined God as "that than which nothing greater can be conceived". Since God must embrace all perfections, God must exist. 

The following is a simple reductio ad absurdam proof:

- Let God be the name for the highest reality one can conceive.
- God either exists or does not exist.
- If he does not exist, it is possible to conceive of one who does.
- This is impossible by definition.
- Therefore God exists.

It is generally agreed that none of these arguments proves the existence of God in any strict sense.

But it is worth noting:

  1. Though invalid as a proof, the initial premise of the Ontological argument is very close to the non-realist use of the term "God" often found in the contemporary theology [1].
  2. Even if the four classical proofs of the existence of God had more validity than they do, the most they would ever support would be deism and not theism.
  3. From at least Aquinas onwards, theologians have all argued that, however much we may arrive by reason at deism or theism, we cannot reason our way to the Christian God. We would not know the Christian God if he had not revealed himself to us and this God has done so in Jesus Christ. 

    Thus, in order to be able to speak about God, we are dependent on God's revelation of himself to us. What that revelation is we shall question later.
Trinitarianism
It is often said that theism is common to Jew, Christian and Muslim. Yet the Christian God and Allah are very different. Jews and Muslims may well be theists, but Christians abandoned pure theism in the early centuries. If the classical Christian teaching in the creeds is said to be theism then it is theism in a radically modified form. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not theism.

Those Christians who defend theism today do not appear to understand the implications of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. I carefully used the word "implications". I doubt if anyone has ever understood the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

I like the story of the theological student who was so delighted by the lecture on the Holy Trinity he had just heard that he jumped up to thank the lecturer. "Thank you, sir" he said excitedly, "you put it so clearly. I have never before been able to understand the doctrine of the Trinity as I do now". The lecturer sighed, "If you understand it as clearly as that, I shall have to start and explain it all over again".

Thus those who think they understood the doctrine of the Holy Trinity have got it wrong. Its a bit like the Tao in the Tao Te Ching:

He who speaks does not know,
And he who knows does not speak

Let us look at the 39 Articles [of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer]:

There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts or passions; of infinite power, wisdom and goodness; the Maker and Preserver of all things visible and invisible.

That is theism and is more Greek than Jewish. But it goes on:

And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power and eternity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

Notice the subtle change, from "God" to "Godhead". There is a bit of sleight of hand going on here.

What has just been said about God does not fit at all well with what is said about the Godhead. If we ask what is meant by Godhead we have to say it is not a being at all, so much as a quality - the quality of being divine.

The purpose of this subtle transition from God to Godhead is to enable the theism to become modified into something else. Pure theism is now being transformed into Trinitarianism.

The Christian view of God is not belief in one divine creator, full stop (that would be theism). The Christian view of God is that of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in one Godhead.

So when Christians try to defend a pure theism today, they unconsciously select out the Father Creator and identify the Father alone with God. For example, it is the Creator/Provider God to which all the above so-called proofs are directed.

Of course this is supported by the Lord's Prayer, which encourages us to pray to "Our Father who is in heaven". This is a theistic prayer because it is a Jewish prayer, formulated before the doctrine of the Holy Trinity was put together.

What people do not seem to realise is that this tendency to select out the Father as the Creator God and identify that with God was called in the ancient world "monarchianism" (belief in one divine ruler). It was declared heresy in the early centuries and remains heresy to this day.

But of crucial importance to the Christian view of the Godhead are also the Son and the Holy Spirit.

The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took Man's nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance; so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man; who truly suffered, was crucified, dead and buried, to reconcile his Father unto us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original sin, but also for all actual sins of men.

Theism was radically modified by the incorporation of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. It took the church some three centuries or more to carry this through.

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity which it arrived at is no more than a humanly devised formula to safeguard certain very important areas of Christian experience which were thought to be beyond human understanding. Christian experience of the first centuries was very varied, fluid and complex.

  1. Christianity had inherited from the Jews the iconoclastic rejection of the many gods as supreme beings. The one God they worshipped was related to the world and to human history.

  2. They had inherited from the apostles the influence of the man Jesus of Nazareth.

  3. They experienced within the fellowship of the church a new vitality which they called the Holy Spirit.

The Trinity was a humanly devised formula which seemed to safeguard all three and affirm the underlying unity of all three. But it was no longer pure theism.

Moreover this solution was arrived at only after bitter debate. In the course of the debates many solutions were offered which seemed to make a lot more sense than their final solution. For example, patripassianism held that it was really the Father who suffered on the cross. Arianism held that Christ was less than the Father but more than a human. 

When the doctrine of the Trinity was finally adopted it was not adopted unanimously and unity was achieved only by casting out of the Church those who disagreed. It is not clear just how much sense it made even to those who adopted it. Was it really intended to make sense? Was it not primarily intended to reconcile warring parties in the Church by finding some verbal compromise which would be accepted by the majority?

It served for a thousand years. It became the great Christian mantra, recited in creeds and sung about in hymns and anthems. I have become very fond of it myself. As a mantra it was not meant to be understood. During that long period ordinary Christians were not expected to do any thinking of their own, but to leave it to Church officials.

But we humans like to make sense of things. So when from the Renaissance onwards, and particularly from the Enlightenment, more and more people gained the freedom to think for themselves, they faced a dilemma. Either they simply repeated the traditional creeds - including the doctrine of the Trinity - and pretended they understood it, or they thought for themselves and fell into one of the ancient heresies. 

So from the Enlightenment, if not before, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity began to fall apart. That is why a purer form of theism began to reappear at one pole and atheism at the other. In popular Christian thought in the Church, on the other hand, all the old heresies have reappeared. They tend to go undetected simply because so little is generally known about early church history.

This brief examination of theism has been the first step in showing that traditional Christianity is not really wedded to theism. Whereas theism affirms a great gulf between God the Creator on the one hand, and the world and humankind on the other, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity conceived the divine in the form of a relationship - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - a relationship which united God and humanity in one.

Now we take the second step in showing that traditional Christianity is not really wedded to theism by looking at Christianity itself.
____________
[1] See Realism

[Home] [Back]