God does not exist . . . but God may happen
A few weeks ago I received a wholly unexpected telephone call from an elderly man I knew who was in a hospital many miles from Cambridge having just been told 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 with someone about something that, as Paul Tillich (1886-1965) called it, was of “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).
Facing imminent death, this dying man was in a situation that clearly claimed ultimacy. In that moment there was no time for either of us to prepare ourselves, no prayerbooks or philosophical tomes 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.
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 someone who, for whatever reasons, has let go of, or simply lost, their former, belief in the conventional Christian God — I want to pass on to you something that, now, nearly always powerfully strikes me whenever I finish such a conversation and begin to gather myself again before continuing with the less immediately, or obviously ultimate, work of the everyday.
Now, most readers of this blog/listeners to this podcast will know that, despite being a practising minister of religion, I am genuinely a kind of a-theist, 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 had a few weeks ago?
Well, I was immeasurably helped in this matter 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 the publication of his book into French, the English title of which is“Believing in a God that does not exist: the manifesto of an atheist pastor” in French (Dutch edition, French edition, German edition), he began by saying this:
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.”
All I can say is that, in my own ministry, I have found Hendrikse to be right, again and again, and for me as for him, I strongly believe that “God is not a being at all . . . God is not a thing at all . . . it’s a word for experience, or human experience” (BBC interview). This means, wonderful to relate, that I find God happens again and again, and this event is often powerfully made visible in conversations with people facing the end of life. It would, of course, be insanely presumptuous to claim this faith was assuredly shared by the man I was talking with a few weeks ago — and which directly occasioned this, somewhat confessional, piece — but, on this occasion, I have good reasons to think it was so.
In all cases, I find that, although I really do no longer believe God exists, I continue to have faith that God not only may, but does, happen. For this ongoing event, I give thanks.
A sort of sequel to this piece can be found at the following link: