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,