Expanding the Bankruptcy of Theism – Think Differently part IV by John Spong

“Think Different – Accept Uncertainty” Part IV: Expanding the Bankruptcy of Theism

Before proceeding with this series, I want to return to my theme of last week and examine the concept of theism more closely.  In so doing, I run the risk of repetition, but so crucial is this idea in the development of this series that I am willing to do that in order to make sure that the ground has been laid for a deeper and more significant examination of why the predominant theistic definition of God is mortally wounded and how we must find a way to transcend its limits, while holding open the possibility that the God beyond theism can still be perceived as real.

It was a German theologian named Paul Tillich who first opened for me the possibility that God was not a being, supernatural in power, dwelling somewhere beyond the sky and ready to come to us with intervening miraculous power.  To say it differently, Tillich was the thinker who first made me realize that “theism” was no longer a definition of God with which I could live.  That insight was expanded by reading a book entitled Night, by Elie Wiesel.  Wiesel, a teenage Jewish boy, sent by the Nazi regime to the death camps of Adolf Hitler, was parted from his mother at the prison entrance, when Elie and his father were sent in one direction, while his mother and all other women were sent in another.  He would never see her again.  Somehow Wiesel was destined to survive that horror.  Shortly before that war’s conclusion, he watched his father die. Even the presence of the light at the end of the tunnel was not enough to overcome what his father’s body had suffered.  Elie Wiesel was thus the sole survivor in his family, but that survival left him a changed man.  For Wiesel hope had died, faith in God had died and meaning was in tatters.  In the sacred scriptures of his people he had read the story of Moses and the Exodus.  His Bible asserted that in the past God had come to the aid of God’s people.  God had pounded the Egyptians with multiple plagues until they agreed to set the Jewish people free from their bondage.  God had aided their escape, these scriptures proclaimed, by splitting the waters of the Red Sea, so that the Jews could pass through on dry land while the Egyptians all drowned.  In the wilderness God had fed these people with bread from heaven, and had brought water for them out of the rock at Meribah.  This was a God who saw, who intervened with supernatural power, a God who cared.  That was, however, not the Holocaust experience so Wiesel asked: “Where was this God now? Had God abandoned God’s people?  Was it possible that God had died?  Was his God nothing but a figment of his imagination?”  His spiritual crisis was real.

In Wiesel’s mind the equation was simple.  If God was real and had the power to intervene to stop the Holocaust, but had declined to do so, then God was both responsible and morally culpable. Such a God would be a malevolent demon, not an object of worship.  If God did not have the power to intervene then God must be impotent.  Having a malevolent God or an impotent God is worse than having no God at all.  That was the dilemma that the concept of a theistic deity raised for Wiesel and indeed for everyone else.  That is why the human mind has over the centuries felt compelled to justify the ways of God to human minds.  The traditional idea of an intervening God equipped with supernatural power collided head on with the idea of God’s goodness.  You could not have both.  The claims we made for God paled before the enormity of the evil inflicted on the Jews by the Nazis.  The inevitable conclusions were clear.  Either there was no God or the definition we had of God was woefully inadequate.  Wiesel was plunged into the dark night of the soul, and so were many citizens of the Western World.

The theistic understanding of God had been badly weakened earlier by the expansion of human knowledge.  By the time of the Nazi horror in the first half of the twentieth century, we were well past the writings of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, 16th and 17th century figures, who had in effect rendered homeless the theistic God.  The idea that the skies were empty and the universe was infinite was the conclusion toward which these early astronomers were headed.  The suggestion that there was an all-seeing deity who kept us as the apple of the divine eye or a deity who numbered the hairs of our heads, or even a God “unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid” became quite problematic. The Christian Church tried to fight back against this heavenly emptiness by putting Galileo on trial and convicting him of heresy.  Because of his age and infirmity, however and perhaps also aided by the fact that he had a daughter who was a nun, he was not burned at the stake.  Instead he agreed to recant publicly and never again to publish any thoughts contrary to the church’s faith.  He was sentenced to live under house arrest for the balance of his days.  The church in that era, so drunk with its own power, believed that if someone disagreed with the church’s version of the truth they had to be wrong.  That had been the working principle behind the Inquisition. New ideas, they had to learn, cannot be repressed simply because they are inconvenient to established truth.  In 1991 the Vatican officially announced that they now believed that Galileo was correct.  This was decades past the beginning of space travel.  Galileo was right indeed and the theistic understanding of God that Galileo challenged began its slow but inevitable decline.

It did not get better for the theistic deity with the work of Isaac Newton in the latter half of the 17thy century.  It appeared to Newton and his followers that the universe operated with immutable, natural laws.  A capricious deity could not set these laws aside to answer prayers, to send rain, to turn the direction of a hurricane, to stop an earthquake, to cure a sickness, to end a war, or even to counter human atrocities. The religious voices, fettered to a theistic past, found their explanations sounding more like comic relief than serious conviction.  All of the things we once assumed to be the actions of the theistic deity were now explained without appeal to that deity at all.  Increasingly the world had no need for the theistic God hypothesis.  The theistic God had thus become virtually unemployed.  The theistic deity was given a pink slip and retired.

Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed this God to be dead as long ago as the 19th century.  In the1960’s the “God is Dead” theologians, a group of leading Christian academics, added their voices to the despairing state of theological understanding. We are today increasingly living in a post-Christian world and more and more people become convinced almost daily that they can no longer sing the theistic God’s song in the 21st century that all of us now inhabit.  If people can not accept this exploding knowledge that has served to call all theistic presuppositions into question, they become defensive and hide behind the irrational and easily dismissed authority claims like being the possessors of either an infallible Pope or an inerrant Bible.  If people do embrace the world of new knowledge, they find no room in their lives for the theistic God ideas of the past. They are today leaving the unthinking religious institutions in droves, abandoning the faith of their fathers and mothers to the dustbins of history.

It was into that world that Paul Tillich began to seek a new definition of God.  Perhaps God is not a being.  Perhaps we have created the theistic God in our image, not the other way around.  Perhaps we can discover a transcendent dimension in life by looking at being itself.  Perhaps it is life that is holy, flowing as it does through every living creature, as it has journeyed from single cells, which first defined life about 3.8 billion years ago, to the self-conscious complexity that human beings now illustrate.  Among these self-conscious ones there has always been a yearning to transcend all limits, to engage the meaning of life, to probe the potential of love and to seek oneness with something that is beyond our grasp.  Is this ‘God’ not still present hiding behind the theistic categories that are now dying? Can we not let theism die without destroying the human yearning for the divine?  It is only the death of theism not the death of God that fuels our current religious despair.  Suppose, however, that we look again and see that there is something beyond our separateness that calls us into oneness, that there is something beyond our self-consciousness that invites us into a universal consciousness, and that there is something beyond our limits that encourages us to step beyond all human limitations. Can we not then begin to define this God non-theistically?  Instead of searching for God as a being who dwells beyond the sky, Tillich suggested that we turn inward and search for the God who is the Ground of being, the Source of life and the Source of love.  Is my life then part of the life that is God?  Is my love a manifestation of a love that emanates from God?  Is my being related to and grounded in the being of God? Is our mystical yearning a delusion or a pointer toward a new reality?

A new door is surely opening for our exploration.  We tremble at the door.  If we dare to walk through it, we must leave behind almost all of the religious symbols by which we have been nurtured in the past.  We will, we fear, become “secular humanists.”  If on the other hand, we refuse to walk through that door, we must spend our time defending our dying religious past with increasing hysteria.  We become fundamentalists, traditionalists or pre-Vatican II Catholics.

If the only alternative to theism is atheism, that will be the result.  I propose something quite different.  My expectations are that we will find a new understanding of what it means to be human and in that process discover a mystical oneness that can and will relate us to that which is eternal.  It is that goal which beckons me to begin this journey that will inevitably take us out of the immaturity of our religious past and into the wonder of our religious future.

In that journey inevitably creeds will change, old institutional forms will die and new ones will be born, and all present liturgies will be transformed, but the eternal search for God will go on.  That is the challenge facing Christianity today.  I am willing to begin the journey now.  I hope I am not alone.

~John Shelby Spong


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