God is nowhere, does not exist—but God may happen

A rainbow over the Memorial (Unitarian) Church, Cambridge
READINGS:

Luke 17:20-21

Jesus said: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

James Martineau cited in J. E. Carpenter’s “James Martineau”
(Philip Green, London 1905, p. 404)

The incarnation of Christ is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there, and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine.

From “A Common Faith” (1934) by John Dewey (2nd ed., Yale University Press, 2013, p. 47)

We are in the presence neither of ideals completely embodied in existence nor yet of ideals that are merely rootless ideals, fantasies or utopias. For there are forces in nature and society that generate and support the ideals. They are further unified by the action that gives them coherence and solidarity. It is this active relation between ideal and actual to which I would give the name ‘God’. I would not insist that the name must be given.

From “A Theology of the Event” by John D. Caputo in “After the Death of God” by John D. Caputo and Gianni Vattimo (Columbia University Press, 2007, pp, 47–49)

One way to put what postmodernism means is to say that it is a philosophy of the event, and one way to put what a radical or postmodem theology means is to say it is a theology of the event. Obviously, then, on such an accounting, everything depends upon what we mean by an event, which, for the sake of simplicity, I describe as follows:

    1. An event is not precisely what happens, which is what the word suggests in English, but something going on in what happens, something that is being expressed or realized or given shape in what happens; it is not something present, but something seeking to make itself felt in what is present.

    2. Accordingly, I would distinguish between a name and the event that is astir or that transpires in a name. The name is a kind of provisional formulation of an event, a relatively stable if evolving structure, while the event is ever restless, on the move, seeking new forms to assume, seeking to get expressed in still unexpressed ways. Names are historical, contingent, provisional expressions in natural languages, while events are what names are trying to form or formulate, nominate or denominate.

    3. An event is not a thing but something astir in a thing. Events get realized in things, take on actuality and presence there, but always in a way that is provisional and revisable, while the restlessness and flux of things is explained by the events they harbour.

    4. What happens, be it a thing or a word, is always deconstructible just in virtue of events which are not deconstructible. That does not mean that events are eternally true like a Platonic eidos; far from being eternally true or present, events are never present, never finished or formed, realized or constructed, whereas only what is constructed is deconstructable. Words and things are deconstructible, but events if there are any such things (s’il y en a), are not deconstructible.

    5. In terms of their temporality, events, never being present, solicit us from afar, draw us on, draw us out into the future, calling us hither. Events are provocations and promises, and they have the structure of what Derrida calls the unforeseeable “to come” (à venir). Or else they call us back, recall us to all that has flowed by into the irremissible past, which is why they form the basis of what Johann Baptist Metz calls “dangerous memories” of the injustice suffered by those long dead, or not so long, a revocation that constitutes another provocation. Events call and recall.

    Events are what Žižek calls the “fragile absolute” — when Žižek leaves off abusing postmodern theories he often serves up excellent postmodern goods — fragile because they are delicate and absolute because they are precious. 

    [. . .]

    On my accounting, things take a theological turn in postmodernism when what we mean by the event shifts to God. Or, altemately, things take a postmodem tum in theology when the meditation upon theos or theios, God or the divine, is shifted to events, when the location of God or what is divine about God is shifted from what happens, from constituted words and things, to the plane of events.

—o0o—

ADDRESS
 God is nowhere, does not exist—but God may happen

As most of you will know, one of the titles Matthew gives to Jesus in his gospel is “Emmanuel” which means “god-with-us” and so, in the religious context, there is no real way properly to honour and celebrate christmas (even the lowercase “c” christmas I’ve been advocating during this advent season) without speaking in some fashion about the “incarnation”, i.e. about the scandalous and, to many of us, the frankly implausible idea that, somehow, God became human.

This task, it has to be said, is a challenge. Still, I’ve never been one to duck a theological challenge and certainly not one which, potentially anyway, may offer at least some of you a powerful, contemporary religious way to travel lovingly and compassionately with friends and family who are seriously ill and, perhaps also dying, including for our own community two beloved members of the congregation, both of whom are in the final weeks and, perhaps, days of their lives.

The most famous and influential late-nineteenth and early twentieth century way the incarnation was talked about in unitarian circles was offered us by one of the great British liberal theologians of the time, James Martineau (1805-1900), who once wrote:

“The incarnation of Christ is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there, and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine” (cited in J. E. Carpenter, James Martineau, Philip Green, London 1905, p. 404).

But Martineau’s use of the word “God” was inevitably still powerfully influenced by traditional theism and his belief in “God” — very much a capital “G” God of course — was really the same as him saying that there existed somewhere some actual, divine being and that it was this being which became incarnate in the world. Now I’m sure I do not need to rehearse with you how and why most of us here today — and, indeed, most secular people in Europe and the USA — are perplexed by such an idea.

However, our understandable perplexity about the traditional, Christian interpretations of the incarnation, does not mean we must at the same time entirely jettison Martineau’s basic insight that “humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine” because we can choose to interpret it in a very different way to the way he understood it — as long, of course, as we consciously acknowledge Martineau almost certainly did not mean what we might mean.

We enter into one possible different way of understanding his basic insight via what is called a “theology of the event” which finds its most influential expression in the work of the contemporary American theologian John D. Caputo and which you heard enumerated in our readings. I realise that his way of putting things there may be obscure so let me try to put his five points into my own words.

Firstly, — if and when I use the word “God” — I no longer understand “God” as something present but something seeking to make itself felt in what is present. So, whilst for me it’s not right to say Jesus is “God” (after all I can only encounter him as having been a human being) what makes him special to me is that he lived in such a way that — following John Dewey’s definition in the readings above — what I am still minded to call “God” still makes itself felt whenever I see, and am in the presence of, people who are living and acting in ways similar to those displayed by the human Jesus. When I see those people expressing in their lives something of that active relationship between the idea and the actual I find myself wanting to say of them, as I still say of Jesus, “Look there! That is what I mean by ‘God’!”

Secondly, it is important for me to distinguish between the name “God” and the event that is astir in this name. So when I use the word “God” here I always try to attached it to events in which we see people called, as Micah summed it up (and as we sung in our second hymn) to do true justice, to love mercy, and to walk with God (and, by implication neighbour). This is why I try to point so regularly to any act of justice, mercy, love in which people are walking in solidarity with one another against the many oppressive political, economic and religious forces that threaten us and say “Look there! That is what I mean by ‘God’!”

Thirdly, I no longer understand “God” as an ultimate thing, a super-being whose existence could be proved (or disproved) by either science, philosophy or theology because “God” is that mysterious, ineffable something which is astir in all things, which is also the very possibility of there being something not nothing. This is why I often point to the interconnectedness of the universe in which, as John Dewey realised, the forces of nature and our ability to work with them are, despite many setbacks, still capable of bringing forth new visions of better ways to be human and in the presence of this that I want to say “Look there! That is what I mean by ‘God’!” 

Fourthly, I have been persuaded that, no matter how beautiful, venerable or persuasive they seem — whether they are Trinitarian or Unitarian, whether they theist or atheist — all theories about “God” can, and must, always be deconstructed. These theories may, and often have had, some temporary ad hoc usefulness, but they must never be thought of as being themselves the event that they harbour. This is why I point with particular approval to any living, always unfinished, unfolding, devolved, horizontal, democratic, non-institutional, non-denominational and non-doctrinal forms of community and say “Look there! That is what I mean by ‘God’!”

Fifthly, I understand “God” as event as something that is always calling me from afar — from something which stands outside me (ek-stasis) — which is always calling and provoking me to live a form of life committed to seeking more justice, more love, more mercy and a continued walking with each other and “God”. Given this it is no wonder that, as far as every earthly, coercive human power that wants to control and dominate others and nature, “God” is indeed a dangerous memory and a radical call to reform. This is why I try to point to any expressions of better, fairer, more just and loving visions of human organization that I come to my notice and say “Look there! That is what I mean by ‘God’!”

I realise that even after walking through Caputo’s five points in my own words some of you may still find what I am talking about to be too ungrounded and, to use what is at the moment a popular word, “nebulous”. So let me begin to draw to a close by grounding Caputo’s words in something currently very, very close to our hearts about which I spoke about at the beginning, namely our need to travel lovingly and compassionately with seriously ill friends and relatives, including two members of the congregation.

Klaas Hendrikse (1947-2018) in NRC Weekend zaterdag 22 & zondag 23 oktober 2011
The contemporary Dutch atheist pastor who died only this year, Klaas Hendrikse (whose example had a huge influence on my ability to continue to exercise some kind of meaningful Christian ministry) was asked in a public interview a few years ago, in the light of the title of his book “Believing in a God that does not exist: the manifesto of an atheist pastor”, what does he mean by “God”? He began by saying that:

If you are sitting down and ask yourself the question, “Where is God?”, [the answer is that] he is nowhere. But if you get up from your chair and go into the world, into life, there God may happen.

Note well that he said “God may happen” and not “God may exist” — Hendrikse, too, is talking about God as an event. Hendrikse then turns his attention to an example of where this happens in his own life.

If I as a priest have to talk to people who are close to leaving this life, close to dying, I go into a room and I don’t know what I will see there. I have nothing with me, just Klaas, that’s all. I can only do that because I trust that something will happen. There is no recipe, there is no answer to questions, there is only trust that something will happen. And it doesn’t happen always, of course. [But when it does] . . . I will never say when I am talking to somebody, “Here, here is God”. No. It is a way to give words to what happened there afterwards — there WAS God.

Like John Dewey before him Hendrikse did not, as I do not, insist that the word God must be used to describe this type of event. But, as someone like Hendrikse, an individual who is also a minister in a church rooted in the Christian tradition I do use the word God to talk about this kind of event because it is an intrinsic element in my personal, and our corporate, native language.

Anyway, in my pastoral rôle, for many years now I have done just as Hendrikse has done and, after talking with many of you, I know that you also do likewise. We don’t take in with us any prepared words of our own, or prayer books, or ready-made liturgies, instead we simply take in ourselves trusting that something will happen. It doesn’t always, of course, but over the course of the days, weeks and months each of us has found that something does, at times, happen.

In those moments we don’t feel the need to say to our dying friends and relatives “Here, here is God”, but afterwards, many many times, I have found myself saying — as perhaps you have found yourself saying — “there WAS God”.

In those precious moments (events) we have all received in one way or another fragments of holiness, glimpses of eternity and brief moments of insight. And, whenever we have been able to gather them up for the precious gifts that they are we have found ourselves renewed by their grace and able to move boldly into the unknown, ineffable mystery that in which we live, move and have our being. And in those moments (events), I would argue, we have found a contemporary way to affirm that the incarnation of Christ is always-already true, not of Christ exclusively, but of humankind universally and God everlastingly. This is because God, when understood as an event that may happen, has always-already been dwelling in the human, and humanity has always-already been the susceptible organ of the divine.


—o0o—

As I noted above Klaas Hendrikse was very important to me because he provided me with a practical, and for me compelling, model of how to be a Christian atheist pastor. The announcement of his death in June of this year was, therefore, a sad moment for me. May he rest in peace.

I first came across him in a BBC piece which can be found at the link below. It includes a short filmed interview with him and a couple of members of his congregation.

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