God does not exist . . . but God may happen . . .
With no warning whatsoever I found myself fully immersed in a vitally important, existentially charged conversation that, inevitably, centred for both of us upon what Paul Tillich (1886-1965) called “ultimate concern.” As Tillich writes:
“Man, like every living being, is concerned about many things, above all about those which condition his very existence . . . If [a situation or concern] claims ultimacy it demands the total surrender of him who accepts this claim . . . it demands that all other concerns . . . be sacrificed” (Dynamics of Faith, Harper, New York, 1958, p. 1).
The situation he was in clearly claimed ultimacy. In that moment there was no time for either of us to prepare ourselves, no prayerbooks were available, no stock prayers or helpful readings were to hand, it was just him and me, voice to voice, heart to heart over the telephone wire and face to face with something of ultimate concern.
I am not, of course, going to reveal the private details of our conversation together but, in the hope it may be of help to some of you — especially if you are ministers of religion who, for whatever reason, have let go of, or simply lost, their former, conventional belief in the Christian God — I want to pass on to you something that nearly always powerfully strikes me when I finish such a conversation and I begin to gather my thoughts before continuing with the work of the day.
Many readers of this blog will know that, despite being a practising minister of religion, I am a kind of atheist, a Christian atheist to be exact. Given this, what on earth is someone like me going to be saying or doing in a conversation like the one I have just had?
Well, I was immeasurably helped in maintaining the honesty and integrity of my own religious ministry thanks to the inspiring example of a Dutch atheist pastor who only recently died, Klaas Hendrikse (1947-2018). In a public interview given in 2011 in connection with his book, “Believing in a God that does not exist: the manifesto of an atheist pastor”, 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.”
“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.”