Why, if you claim to be a Christian Atheist, do you keep mentioning God?

Dear Anon,

Thanks for your question which you posted at the end of my last post - one which I'm surprised I don't get asked more often. I found it very helpful, at last, to be asked it so directly. For those who didn't see the question here it is:

Anonymous said . . .
One thing I do not understand: why if you claim to be a Christian atheist, (which immediately sounds somewhat oxymoronic to me) do you keep mentioning God?

So, here's my reply . . .

Your point about Christian Atheism being oxymoronic I explore a little in the post of Sunday, 27 March 2011 entitled 'Come Down Jehovah' but in essence it is an atheism which derives from a particular way of reading the Christian narrative which sees a trajectory developing within the Judaeo-Christian tradition that increasingly points away from a transcendental understanding of God to an increasingly immanent conception and one which has, by now, become wholly naturalised and non-theistic. (Ernst Bloch is a key writer on this subject - here's the Wikipedia entry to him and here's a link to an mp3 of a recent conference on his book Atheism in Christianity) So in this kind of atheism the word God refers now, not to some supernatural entity but instead to a discernible *trajectory* which brings questions of meaning, worth and belonging wholly down to earth (it names not a thing but is a kind of placeholder for a narrative - a story). That's why I found Chris Woods' song 'Come Down Jehovah' so helpful - he couldn't say what he says without being able to reference God/Jehovah.

Anyway the point here is that this is an atheistic narrative whose language is gifted by the Biblical narrative. Clearly today it is a narrative which finds strong connections with other atheistic narratives but its own story is distinctive and, I think, full of insights that are unique to it and, I believe, helpful - especially in this age that needs to find ways to get Atheists, Non-Theists and Theists talking to each other in more creative, collegiate ways.

Connected with this are the possibilities opened up by the work of Lucretius. Lucretius (following Epicurus) offers us, as you know, an avowedly materialist world-view that has no place for a belief in the gods. So why does he invoke Venus - a god of the Pantheon - in his wonderful poem 'De Rerum Natura'?

Well, he is alert to the way nature (the world) presents us with two 'faces' - the 'outward appearance and inner workings of nature' (DRN 1.148) - in Latin: 'naturae species ratioque'. (I explore this more fully here and here.)

By 'ratio' Lucretius meant nature's 'law or inner workings' and we can use this word to refer to how the world shows up to us (shines) when we consistently apply to it active human reasoning (which I have associated with the natural and formal sciences - and which Lucretius ties to Epicurus). By 'species' Lucretius meant the 'face' or 'outward appearance' of nature and we can use this word to refer to how nature can show up for us (or shines) as human-beings who are always-already in the world not only as creatures with a dispassionate and rational faculty *but also* an emotional and poetic creatures (this I have associated with the work of artists and particularly poets - and which Lucretius ties to Venus). Some of this latter, emotional and poetic way of expressing things, has - and still can -  use the imagery of the gods/God. One way to explore this though is through Lucretius' picture of a puddle. Here is his illustration:


"A puddle of water no deeper than a single finger-breadth, which lies between the stones on a paved street, offers us a view beneath the earth to a depth as vast as the high gaping mouth (hiatus) of heaven stretches above the earth, so that you seem to look down on the clouds and the heaven, and you discern bodies hidden in the sky beneath the earth, marvellously (mirande)" (DRN Book 4:414-419).

Note that word "marvellously" (mirande) as we'll come back to that in a moment. But, firstly, the key thing to notice here is that even as you can see infinite depths in the puddle you also instantly *know* (really know) that it is an illusion. You need only bend down and wiggle your finger in the puddle immediately to dispel the image both visually, by the ripples you make, and physically, as your finger touches the hard pavement just a couple of centimetres beneath the surface.

John I. Porter (in Lucretius and the Sublime in The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius, ed. Stuart Gillespie and Philip Hardie, Cambridge University Press 2007) points out that Lucretius offers us this image to remind us that the greatest optical illusion of all is "that presented by the world as it is perceived on a day-to-day basis" and that throughout time we have read off the world's surface all kinds of appearances - not least of all that the gods are involved in our world. One of the major purposes of Lucretius' poem is to show clearly how empirical enquiry and rational thought can correct our view of the world.

Now, this might make you think that Lucretius is trying to devalue all the surface appearances of the world (including the use of god language) and, instead, to privilege only what we can see with the eye of reason. But this is not true at all for as Porter points out a great deal hangs on that word 'marvellously' (mirande) because by using it we see that Lucretius feels the reflection of the sky in the puddle is wonderful as both 'an appearance of nature and as an index to the wondrous truths of physics' (John I. Porter, ibid., p. 173). Lucretius is simply insisting that the appearances of nature (and how, as poets who are emotionally and imaginatively engaged in the world, we can talk about them) can be admired and enjoyed per se so long as they are not used in a way which conflicts with what we know to be true about the world thanks to the natural and formal sciences.

Here is where the language of the gods/God can fit in which can speak to us of all kinds of things all kinds of beautiful helpful, therapeutic ways *AS LONG AS* we continue to make it clear that the very possibility of this kind of appearance (species) being able to occur in the first place is indissolubly tied to the inner laws of nature (ratioque).

What I feel called upon to try and achieve in our own age - because it acknowledges that we are not only rational creatures but also ones who respond poetically to the appearances (species) of nature - is to find ways to show CLEARLY (as the puddle does) that God language has nothing to do with supernaturalism but is, in fact, an 'index to the wondrous truths of physics'. I think we can retain the helpful, artistic, therapeutic aspects of the gods/God and at the same time use it to see, ever more clearly, the 'wondrous truths of physics'.

There is a high chance that this reply is unlikely to satisfy you but, well, it's where I am in my thinking at present. And, as I said at the beginning, I have valued the fact you asked me so straightforwardly the question you did.

Warmest wishes,

Andrew

Comments

Matt said…
Visiting your blog often, I guess I have also felt perplexed at your 'Christian Atheism', Andrew. However, this is perhaps because the atheism most prominent these days is the Dawkins school of atheism.

I think what you describe sounds to me a lot like Pantheism / Pandeism or Panentheism / Panendeism, if I was to put my own inadequate labels on it.

My reading of the Christian tradition, from a Unitarian and more recently Quaker perspective, is that what we call 'God' is a complete mystery except that tiny bit we can see discern in the material world and our own condition. I think the title Emmanuel, said to have been given to Jesus, sums up the Christian tradition perfectly - 'God with us.' Although perhaps that should be 'God with us, somehow.'

For me God is both an immanent reality - observed in the intricate wonders of physics, psychology, poetry etc - yet ultimately transcendent and incomprehensible. I guess to some Christians who defend the supernatural theist take, that would also make me a non-believer or atheist.
Thanks for your comment Matt. I can see why you might think what I'm talking about is a lot like Pantheism etc. - in a way I'm not surprised because a formative figure in my own thinking was Spinoza (my blog's name is, after all, Spinoza's motto). But, because I have become less and less convinced that metaphysics of the kind Spinoza was trying to do is possible I'm minded to resist quite strongly the label pantheist. I like the conjunction of 'Christian' and 'Atheis't because it creates a kind short-circuiting of the whole religious system we have inherited. I paste below a quote for Zizek which speaks to this point:

'A short circuit occurs when there is a faulty connection in the network - faulty, of course, from the standpoint of the networks smooth functioning. Is not the shock of short-circuiting, therefore, one of the best metaphors for a critical reading? Is not one of the most effective critical procedures to cross wires that do not usually touch: to take a major classic (text, author, notion) and read it in a short circuiting way, through the lens of a "minor" author, text or conceptual apparatus ("minor" should be understood here in Deluze's sense: not of "lesser quality", but marginalized, disavowed by the hegemonic ideology, or dealing with a "lower", less dignified topic)? If the "minor" reference is well chosen, such a procedure can lead to insights which completely shatter and undermine our common perceptions. This is what Marx, among others, did with philosophy and religion (short-circuiting philosophical speculation through the lens of political economy, that is to say, economic speculation); this is what Freud and Nietzsche did with morality (short-circuiting the highest ethical notions through the lens of the unconscious libidinal economy). What such a reading achieves in not a "desublimation", a reduction of the higher intellectual content to its lower economic or libidinal cause; the aim of such an approach is, rather, the inherent decentering of the interpreted text, which brings to light its "unthought", disavowed presuppositions and consequences. . . . the reader should not simply have learned something new, the point is, rather, to make him or her aware of another - disturbing - side of something he or she knew all the time' (Slavoj Žižek in The Monstrosity of Christ, Slavoj Žižek and John Millbank, MIT 2009 pp. vii-viii).
Matt said…
I understand and appreciate what you are saying to an extent - however, I'm not a philosopher and my scores for the odd unit I took in philsophy at university is testament to this. So please bare with me...

I think - from an initial glance - that the idea of short-cutting is perhaps dissenting thought at its finest, at its most challenging.

But the growing Quaker voice in me says ultimately Christian faith is not merely about critical reading & abstract reason, it's about something experiential and relational. Something beyond the mind, something simply felt yet something 'more real' than the subconscious. Something also beyond a simple wonderment at nature - something to behold deeply.

I've not really encountered this through the Unitarian tradition but on occasions (though not always) I have walked into a Quaker meeting and have literally been rocked by something beyond words, beyond reason: in short, what I can only term as 'God'.

I also would add that the world of physics has many questions still unanswered - there is still mystery in the mechanics. I would argue that there is still something beyond the mechanics: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cksKWREnDiw
Robin Edgar said…
Andrew,

You might want to give some serious and sober thought to the following segment of an interview of New Atheist poster boy Christopher Hitchens by retired Portland Oregon U*U minister Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell which was published in Portland Monthly magazine a while back -

Sewell: The religion you cite in your book is a generally fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make any distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?

Hitchens: I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.

Sewell: Let me go someplace else. . .

end quote

Gotta love Rev. Sewell's

"Let me go someplace else."

No?

AFAIAC the "infamous atheist" Christopher Hitchens was right on the money in his response to Rev. Sewell's claim to be a "liberal Christian". She really has nowhere else to go.

So allow me to ask you -

Are you *really* in any meaningful sense a Christian?

Might it not be more intellectually honest to say that you are an atheist who values the teachings of of the human being known as Jesus of Nazareth? Would it not be more honest to say that you are perhaps a "Jesusian" but (at least according to Christopher Hitchens) you are not in any meaningful sense a Christian in that you clearly do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ. Doesn't it just further muddy the already rather murky waters of Unitarian*Universalism for you and other U*U atheists to call yourself "Christians"?
SM said…
Andrew, I came to your blog yesterday when your follow-up post was featured on Discover UU. I've never encountered the concept of a Christian Atheist before (that I know of).

I find it intriguing, and I'll have to follow up on your links and references, but at first blush, it makes sense to me. I can the the trajectory you mention, at least in the Bible (where it's an uneven trajectory, I'd say). Robin seems correct that to make it work as a position one has to more-or-less ignore certain elements, at least as they seem to traditionally mean (in the translations, I don't have the language skills to cope with untranslated texts).

But that ignoring hardly makes Christian Atheism unique in the Judeo-Christian tradition. And it hardly makes sense to me to let Christopher Hitchens define what a Christian is. Old Testament understandings of God changed over time from pre-Temple Judaism to Temple judaism to Rabbinic Judaism, and New Testament understandings have been ... fluid... also. The modern Church is hardly what the Apostles were up to. Mainstream Christianity has long been, in part, about excluding those who would claim the mantle of Christianity. Unitarians, for instance.

I'm entirely comfortable, for instance, talking about the Kingdom of God in the form of comforting the afflicted, welcoming the outsider, and giving to the needs of the woeful, all without reference to supernaturalism. So I can see how Christian Atheism, while breath-taking as a term, is fully capable of being a meaningful Christianity.

SM
Thanks for the recent comments. All very helpful.

One point I want particularly to respond to is that made by Robin when he asks "Are you *really* in any meaningful sense a Christian?" and goes on to say:

"Might it not be more intellectually honest to say that you are an atheist who values the teachings of of the human being known as Jesus of Nazareth? Would it not be more honest to say that you are perhaps a "Jesusian" but (at least according to Christopher Hitchens) you are not in any meaningful sense a Christian in that you clearly do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ. Doesn't it just further muddy the already rather murky waters of Unitarian*Universalism for you and other U*U atheists to call yourself "Christians"?"

Let's start by acknowledging that I could describe myself as a "post-metaphysical Christian" - and I think I am probably something like this. However, for me, this softens too much the blow that needs to be struck because I think there is a real need to drive a clear wedge between the idea that so-called Christian belief is a necessary to living an authentic Christian life - and by 'authentic' I mean a life which remains tightly tied to the Christian *narrative* and NOT (necessarily and only) belief. The title "Christian Atheist" has something of the rhetorical power needed to get the job done - at the very least it gets somekind of debate going as your comments and the number of hits this post got suggests.

I'm not against Christian belief being tied to Christian practice - all I'm against is the attempt by metaphysically orientated Christians to steal my story which is indissoluably rooted in the Biblical one and which unfolds through the Renaissance, into the Enlightenment (two periods which saw a particular flourishing of Unitarian thought) and on through the thinking of people like Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Bloch (my own key influences) into a very post-metaphysical way of talking about the world. However, even as it does this (i.e. putting me 'down' in a different 'place' to other Christians) the story still leaves me with a Christian practice that is inextricably part of who I am and how I structure meaning and significance in the world (especially important to me is the communion service). And, you know, damn it, I'm not going to let it go. The Christian narrative has and continues to shape me and it gives me the kind of being-in-the-world I have even as my belief in the reality of a transcendental being is, today, impossible. To drop the description Christian is, for me, impossible and, untrue. My Atheism *is* Christian.
I ought to add - and it is an important addition - that just as my Christianity shouldn't be understood metaphysically neither should my Atheism - both together constitute my being-in-the-world. This is why I cited Bonhoeffer in later post because he seems to have been grasping after an expression of something similar. I reproduce it again here:

"God as a working hypothesis in morals, politics, or science, has been surmounted and abolished, and the same thing has happened in philosophy and religion (Feuerbach!). For the sake of intellectual honesty, that working hypothesis should be dropped, or as far as possible eliminated. . . . Honesty demands that we recognise that we must live in the world as if there were no God. And this is just what we do recognise - before God! God himself drives us to this realisation. - God makes us know that we must live as men who can get along without Him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34)! We stand continually in the presence of God who makes us live in the world without the God-hypothesis" (Letters and Papers from Prison SCM, London 1971, p. 360).
Alas - Google had some problems with their system and two elucidating comments of mine have disappeared into the ether.

I paste them below as one comment:

*****

Thanks for the recent comments. All very helpful.

One point I want particularly to respond to is that made by Robin when he asks "Are you *really* in any meaningful sense a Christian?" and goes on to say:

"Might it not be more intellectually honest to say that you are an atheist who values the teachings of of the human being known as Jesus of Nazareth? Would it not be more honest to say that you are perhaps a "Jesusian" but (at least according to Christopher Hitchens) you are not in any meaningful sense a Christian in that you clearly do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ. Doesn't it just further muddy the already rather murky waters of Unitarian*Universalism for you and other U*U atheists to call yourself "Christians"?"

Let's start by acknowledging that I could describe myself as a "post-metaphysical Christian" - and I think I am probably something like this. However, for me, this softens too much the blow that needs to be struck because I think there is a real need to drive a clear wedge between the idea that so-called Christian belief is a necessary to living an authentic Christian life - and by 'authentic' I mean a life which remains tightly tied to the Christian *narrative* and NOT (necessarily and only) belief. The title "Christian Atheist" has something of the rhetorical power needed to get the job done - at the very least it gets somekind of debate going as your comments and the number of hits this post got suggests.

I'm not against Christian belief being tied to Christian practice - all I'm against is the attempt by metaphysically orientated Christians to steal my story which is indissoluably rooted in the Biblical one and which unfolds through the Renaissance, into the Enlightenment (two periods which saw a particular flourishing of Unitarian thought) and on through the thinking of people like Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Bloch (my own key influences) into a very post-metaphysical way of talking about the world. However, even as it does this (i.e. putting me 'down' in a different 'place' to other Christians) the story still leaves me with a Christian practice that is inextricably part of who I am and how I structure meaning and significance in the world (especially important to me is the communion service). And, you know, damn it, I'm not going to let it go. The Christian narrative has and continues to shape me and it gives me the kind of being-in-the-world I have even as my belief in the reality of a transcendental being is, today, impossible. To drop the description Christian is, for me, impossible and, untrue. My Atheism *is* Christian.

I ought to add - and it is an important addition - that just as my Christianity shouldn't be understood metaphysically neither should my Atheism - both together constitute my being-in-the-world. This is why I cited Bonhoeffer in later post because he seems to have been grasping after an expression of something similar. I reproduce it again here:

"God as a working hypothesis in morals, politics, or science, has been surmounted and abolished, and the same thing has happened in philosophy and religion (Feuerbach!). For the sake of intellectual honesty, that working hypothesis should be dropped, or as far as possible eliminated. . . . Honesty demands that we recognise that we must live in the world as if there were no God. And this is just what we do recognise - before God! God himself drives us to this realisation. - God makes us know that we must live as men who can get along without Him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34)! We stand continually in the presence of God who makes us live in the world without the God-hypothesis" (Letters and Papers from Prison SCM, London 1971, p. 360).