God does not exist . . . but God may happen . . .

This morning I received a wholly unexpected telephone call from an elderly gentleman in a hospital many miles from Cambridge who had been told, only yesterday, that he had, at most, a week to live. 

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. 

Hendrikse then turned 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.

In my own ministry as a Non-conformist minister, I have found Hendrikse to be right, again and again. For me, as for him, God really is nowhere, God does not exist. But, wonderful to relate, I find that God happens again and again wherever and whenever people really meet one another honestly, in love and compassion and it seemed to me that God happened again in the conversation I had this morning. It would, of course, be insanely presumptuous to claim this feeling was assuredly shared by the lovely gentleman I was talking with, but I have good reasons to think it was so.

In all cases, I find that, in my own ministry, although I really do no longer believe God exists, I continue to trust that God may, and often does, happen.


You can read a BBC report about Hendrikse and watch a short interview with him at the following link:


Talitha Annan said…
I just read this again. It reminds me of Kyle Mitchell, who lived in the commune with me while doing his PhD at Trinity College, on the Wittgenstein scholarship. His thesis was about whether nothing exists, that is, whether it is possible to talk as if there are no objects in existence, since perhaps thinking there are objects, things, is just an assumption made by our language. Objects were out, but verbs were OK. So "It's raining" was a useful statement, but "Here is rain" was not. Likewise, as we sat down in the kitchen to chop vegetables for the communal evening meal, we would often express relief that "It is tabling again here tonight", since the large communal table gave us a good surface on which to chop the vegetablings.

So maybe not only God, but all things, people and objects are expressable, maybe better expressable, as verbs than nouns.

Once the conversation with the man on the telephone is over, and that connection is broken, leaving only a memory of a thread of connection, maybe it is not Andrew and the man who exist as static objects or persons, but more that for a time their thinkings entwined down the wires, and in turn became a swirl of letters on our screens as Andrew passed these moving apprehendings on to us.....
Greetings once again.

Your words remind me of the way I have tried to put the same thing. It was borrowed from Paul Wienpahl and you can read the section of his book from which I borrowed it at the following link:

The Postscript to Paul Wienpahl’s “The Radical Spinoza” (New York University Press, 1979)

I think you'll see the connection with Kyle's way of putting it.

As ever,