"The best of all is God is with us"? — etsi deus non daretur—truly living in the world as if there were no God

Reading: From the Gospel of Mark’s account of the crucifixion of Jesus (Mark 15:33-37, Scholars Version):

And when noon came, darkness blanketed the whole land until mid-afternoon. And at three o'clock in the afternoon Jesus shouted at the top of his voice, Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani (which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”).

And when some of those standing nearby heard, they were saying, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah!” And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, stuck it on a stick, and offered him a drink saying, “Let’s see if Elijah comes to rescue him!”

But Jesus let out a great shout and breathed his last.



On the occasion of the centenary of their church building in 2013 our good neighbours, the congregation of Wesley Methodist Church, carved into the wall of their building, “The best of all is God is with us”, words uttered by the founding figure of Methodism John Wesley (1703-1791) as he lay dying amongst friends in 1791.

Words carved on the wall of Wesley Methodist Church, Cambridge
I confess to being very impressed that our brothers and sisters down the road were able to summon both the energy and the faith to do this, not least of all because for someone like me it is impossible to say, and really believe — in any simple fashion anyway — that “The best of all is God is with us?” When it comes to God the matter is, for me, far more complex and conflicted. I know of no better summation of my general feeling about this than in these words by James W. Woelfel:

I hasten to add that I am not so naïve as to think that the demise of the transcendent God within my own interpreted experience entails the universalized conclusion that he does not exist. I have become increasingly impressed by the inescapably contextual character of all our ‘ultimate concerns.’ I can appreciate the fact that all sorts of people deal with existence in terms of faith in the sovereign God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. On questions of ultimate meaning, none of us knows for sure who is closer to the mark. But in my own ongoing struggle to make sense of the Christian context of life- and world-interpretation, I find basic elements of that context which I simply cannot render coherent any longer, and I earnestly wonder how other persons manage to (The Death of God: A Belated Personal Postscript).

And there you have it, every time I pass Wesley Church I earnestly wonder how our neighbours managed still to believe Wesley’s words, or at least I wonder how they can still believe them in any straightforward way (if indeed they do). But, despite my earnest wonder, Wesley's words continue to goad to me to keep turning over the question of God in my heart and mind.

A key influence upon my thinking, as it was upon many people of my generation, were the prison letters of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), the German Lutheran pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident who was executed in Flossenbürg concentration camp during April 1945 for his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler.

All the things he saw during that dark, dark period of human history caused him to write on 30th April 1944 to his friend Eberhard Bethge (1909-2000) some words that, when they were published in English translation in 1953, triggered all kinds of radical theological searching: 

You would be surprised, and perhaps even worried, by my theological thoughts and the conclusions that they lead to . . . What keeps bothering [or gnawing at] me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who is Christ really, for us today? The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and of conscience — and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now  simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious’ (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Letters and Papers from Prison”, SCM, London 1971, p. 279).

Given this, Bonhoeffer went on to ask if there could be such a thing as “religionless Christianity” and whether Christ could be something, someone, important for the religionless? Questions that still press powerfully up me and which help inform everything I try to do as your minister living and working in what remains, at least in this country and much of Europe, a religionless time.

And then, in a letter dated July 16, 1944, there come the words that have had the most profound influence upon me personally. I still feel a powerful tingle in my spine when I recall first reading them whilst on a walking holiday in the Lake District in my twentieth summer.

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. . . . And we cannot be honest unless we recognise that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur [as if there were no God]. And this is just what we do recognise — before God! God himself compels us to recognise it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without Him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matthew 8:17 [He took our infirmities and bore our diseases] makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Letters and Papers from Prison”, SCM, London 1971, p. 360-361): 

The combination of Bonhoeffer’s words and the act of daily walking through such a beautiful and awe-inspiring landscape was a truly life-changing experience. Following that summer there was for me no way I could ever return to any kind of conventional Christian belief.

Shortly after reading Bonhoeffer I began avidly to read the work of the theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) who, in his highly influential book, “Theology of Culture” wrote some words that significantly helped me on with my theological reflections. He said:

God is no object for us as subjects. He is always that which precedes this [subject-object] division. But, on the other hand, we speak about him and we act upon him, and we cannot avoid it, because everything which becomes real to us enters the subject-object correlation. Out of this paradoxical situation the half-blasphemous and mythological concept of the ‘existence of God’ has arisen. And so have the abortive attempts to prove the existence of this ‘object.’ To such a concept and to such attempts atheism is the right religious and theological reply. This was well known to the most intensive piety of all times. The atheistic terminology of mysticism is striking. It leads beyond God to the Unconditioned, transcending any fixation of the divine of the divine as an object. But we have the same feeling of inadequacy of all limiting names of God in non-mystical religion. Genuine religion without an element of atheism cannot be imagined. It is not by chance that not only Socrates, but also the Jews and the early Christians were persecuted as atheists. For those who adhered to the powers, they were atheists (Paul Tillich, “Theology of Culture”, OUP, 1959, p. 25).

Tillich and Bonhoeffer together persuaded me that I had no choice but to reject “the half-blasphemous and mythological concept” of an existent, strong, supreme, transcendent all-present, all-powerful, all-knowing being and that the only kind of God I could ever have any faith in would be one who compels us truly “to live in the world etsi deus non daretur [as if there were no God]” — the kind of God that would have us know that we must always and forever live as people who manage our lives without God and therefore, odd though it may seem, as a special kind of a-theist.

Today, I find I can only have faith in the kind of God who, as Bonhoeffer movingly puts it, is utterly “weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.” As a skeptic with a naturally religious mind and as a kind of open-minded, reverent humanist or, perhaps better, as a kind of ultra-liberal Christian heretic (to borrow some self-descriptions from James W. Woelfel), the paradigm case that helps me to see this profound and wonderful weakness at work again and again is, of course Jesus, that extraordinary human being “who helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.”

This, almost paradoxical, seeming God is the only kind of God I could ever have faith in, a God who could empty themselves out into the world to be seen only and for ever more in the radical human call to show love and justice to our neighbours and enemies and also, of course, to be open to its return. It is important to see that this emptying out of God is, to my mind, total, to the point of completely forsaking or abandoning us as God and, therefore, as does every good and wise parent, giving us genuine freedom to come of age.

There are, of course, no guarantees we will succeed in coming of age well but a precondition of this possibility is the genuine freedom always to try. (At best it's going to be a process somewhat like that described by Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) said in "Worstward Ho" (1983): "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.")

(In passing, but importantly, in this regard I almost certainly go further than would have Bonhoeffer and Tillich themselves. To see the full implications of this going further I highly recommend readers to seek out John D. Caputo's recent “The Folly of God”, Westar Institute, 2015.)

In short, for me, the God who is with us is the God who completely forsakes us and, as harsh and difficult as it may sound to some ears, I need to proclaim as gently but yet loudly as I can:

“The best of all is that God is not with us.”

Having said this only now can I conclude by saying that it is only about this God-who-is-not-with-us that, along with our friends at Wesley Church, I can say, and mean (although I add the qualification in square brackets for “clarity” and honesty's sake): 

“The best of all is God [-who-is-not-with-us] is with us.”

It seems to me that this God-who-is-not-with-us is with us in every tiny act of human love and justice and whether they are done by atheists or theists, Muslims, Jews, Christians or Buddhists. It is in these countless, this-worldly acts, that I find something akin to Bonhoeffer's “religionless Christianity” alive in the world and in them I also find answered daily his question “who is Christ for us today?”

I have no doubt that to many of my Methodist friends and neighbours, and perhaps to many of you too, this simply sounds like atheism by another, perhaps painfully convoluted route. About that, I cannot help because, for good or ill, it is my own mature, considered expression of faith. But what I can help you to do is to ask yourself, every time you pass by Wesley Methodist Church and see Wesley's words, how might you be able to say, and honestly mean, “The best of all is God is with us”?

It may well turn out to be one of the hardest, but also one of the most provocatively rewarding theological questions you'll ever ask yourself.


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