Tikkun Magazine, May/June 2008
God Without God
by Michael Hampson
In his new book God Without God, Michael Hampson reconciles theism and atheism.
THE ATHEISTS HAVE ALL THE BEST ARGUMENTS. THEY FIND THE RELIGIOUS world utterly indefensible, both morally and intellectually. A wave of coherent, well-argued atheism has swept the popular culture of the English-speaking world over recent years, drawing young and old into the denunciation of religion and all its works. Thankfully the God the atheist denies is not the God that people of true faith affirm.
The Case Against God
A SIMPLISTIC THEISM TENDS TO MAINTAIN NOT ONLY THAT GOD EXISTS, BUT THAT GOD intervenes regularly in world affairs, from the global to the trivial, and has the right to demand obedience on threat of punishment. The greater presumption ahead of this detail is that there is only one such being, and that it has recognizable human attributes such as personhood and will. The whole package might be called not just theism but presumptive monotheism.
It is against this presumptive monotheism that the atheist case is made. The atheist argues that there is nothing in the observable universe that requires, or even suggests, the existence of such a God. Everything has been or will be explained by the sciences of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology and anthropology. The universe is a self-perpetuating, self-organizing system: it needs no God to guide the planets in their courses, turn the acorn into an oak tree, open flowers in the meadow, or plan each human birth and death. It needs no God to make a parent love a child: that bond is a perfect example of the selfish gene looking after its own. Even altruism can evolve, as a population containing altruists is better equipped for survival than a population without. It was fashionable for a while to look for gaps in scientific explanations and place God there, but the gaps will diminish to nothing in time: a God in the gaps has no future. And there is a more emotive and assertive side to atheism: it refuses, as a matter of principle, to acknowledge a God who is all-powerful, yet allows unjust suffering, or who presumes to demand obedience on threat of punishment. Even if such a God does exist, it has no right to our pathetic acquiescence.
The potential theist must come to terms with the truth of the atheist analysis. The wonders of the universe have all been explained, dependent on nothing but the big bang and a few simple constants; and there is no omnipotent God intervening to prevent human suffering or avenge every human injustice, at least not on the terms that we demand. Stripped of its mythology and metaphor, reduced to the bare historic facts of the case, the death by crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth can serve as an icon for the absence of any interventionist God of justice. As we stand in the shadow of the cross, with the blood of the Nazarene dripping on the ground, God has forsaken the Christ, and forsaken us all.
The atheist case is sound, but is not the last word. The case is made against a very particular image of God, the God of presumptive monotheism, a God promoted by European kings and emperors in their own over-glorified self-image: autonomous, all-powerful, autocratic, wrathful, vengeful and demanding, with moments of random benevolence supposedly justifying the rest. For most of its history the papacy has been a secular power with all the same motivations for promoting the same false image of God, but theologians well away from the medieval Vatican, and all who live by faith, have a different understanding and experience of God, outside and beyond those images the atheist rightly rejects. Religion may have been used to justify wars, manipulate individuals, and crush the human spirit, but there remains a profound unity embracing the whole of humankind when the individual stands with open honesty before the mysteries of life and eternity.
Existence or Being
THE CHURCH STILL CLAIMS TWO PROOFS FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD, AND THEY ARE entirely compatible with the atheist case against the God of presumptive monotheism. The first is the argument from creation: not that anything in the universe needs God in order to operate, but that anything exists at all, that there is even the space and the potential for anything to exist at all. It points to a mystery beyond the apes, the amoeba, the primeval soup, the complex carbons and the first expansion of the universe, to the ultimate source of all that exists and the essence of existence itself.
The second begins with the experience of being self-consciously alive: the sense of being a conscious observer of, and decision-making participant in, the one particular life that we call our own. It points beyond measurable behavior patterns, observable responses, and evolutionary logic to the entirely personal experience of being self-consciously alive. As fragile and insignificant as it may seem against the vastness of the universe, the mystery of self-consciousness is the most significant experience in each of our lives, indeed the carrier of all our experience and the very essence of life. It points once again towards the mystery of existence itself.
It is to this ultimate mystery that the church assigns first the name Existence or Being, and then the name God. For now the word means only the ultimate mystery of existence itself: the two proofs tell us nothing of the nature of God, but they establish a concept to which we can assign the name, and in doing so, give us a place to begin. The argument has moved on from the existence or non-existence of God to the nature of the ultimate mystery of existence itself.
The value of allowing rather than prohibiting the G-word, as a label for this ultimate mystery, is that it opens dialogue with the faith communities. To reject the G-word outright—'there is no God'—is to close down that dialogue too soon. To ask instead 'what do we mean by the word,' or 'what is the nature of this mystery,' is to open up that dialogue; and the faith communities are already there, acknowledging the mystery, and exploring its nature. The word must be used with caution, even avoided so far as possible, to avoid all manner of presumption, always pausing to consider exactly what it might mean, whenever it is spoken or heard, but the acknowledgement of the mystery is as ancient as the word itself. At the heart of true faith, and in the hearts of those who live by faith, the mystery is fully acknowledged. Daring to use the word makes dialogue and a meeting of human hearts possible, and connects with some of the richest communities and resources of humankind.
THE HEBREW BIBLE CONTAINS GREAT wisdom around the mystery of God. It uses two names for God: Elohim/Eloah, and Yahweh. Elohim has the form of a masculine plural, Eloah has the form of a feminine singular. Both are translated into English as God. Elohim and Eloah emerge from a great melting pot of cultures and civilizations stretching from India to Ethiopia (Esther 1:1-2), where many gods are honored, both male and female. 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord' is not a pointless tautology, but the radical proclamation that all the gods are one. The continued use of Elohim/Eloah throughout the Hebrew Bible acknowledges a reality that is complex and mysterious, unconstrained by gender, often appropriately plural, containing and embracing all goodness, all divinity, and ultimately all existence.
The one God who is Elohim/Eloah is given a more specific name, revealed to Moses at the burning bush. It is derived from the verb to be, and is often rendered in translation as I Am. It could equally be 'the existing one,' or the very concept of existence and reality itself, 'the ground of all being.' The name is regarded as too holy to be spoken. It is represented in the Hebrew text by four letters—the tetragrammaton—which would be passed over during recitation, or replaced with the Hebrew word Adonai, meaning Lord. This style is deliberately reproduced in the classic English translations, where the word is rendered in four capitals as LORD. We speak the word today as Jehovah or Yahweh.
These are ideal names for the mystery that lies at the heart of our existence: Elohim/Eloah, the sum of all divinity, with its structures both male and female, both singular and plural; and Yahweh, the ground of all being, to be used with such caution that it is barely to be spoken at all. The two names are used together—Yahweh Elohim—as naturally as Jesus and Christ. Together they encompass all that we hold sacred, and the fundamental concept of existence itself.
This dual name is carried forward into the original Greek of the Christian New Testament. Elohim/Eloah becomes Theos, translated as God: the context once again is a plurality of gods. For Yahweh/Adonai, the New Testament uses Kurios, translated as Lord. In general use, kurios can mean anything from the politeness of 'sir' to the absolute of 'master.' In the New Testament, and in the life of the early church, it resonates with meanings ranging from polite deference to the unspeakable majesty of the ground of all being. There is an almost playful ambiguity in its routine use: 'The Lord be with you.'
In acknowledging God who is the ground of all being, we find ourselves in profound communion with the whole human race, for there is only one humankind, only one creation, and only one ground of all being. The Hindu faith recognizes Brahman, the limitless one, ultimate being, beyond all the icons and incarnations. The Buddhist kneels in silence seeking to disconnect from the pain of this world and to connect instead with an essence or non-essence far more profound that lies beyond. The Sikh reaches out for the one God of all humankind, known in all authentic faiths, in meditation, worship and selfless service. The Buddhist seeks Buddha nature within each human soul, the Hindu faith speaks of atman, the presence of God in each individual, and the Hebrew Bible sees the image of God as the very essence of humankind (Genesis 1:26-27). All who seek to understand what it means to be human in the world, and who seek the potential for good in every human being, are reaching out for the same mystery. This includes those who assume the titles atheist or secular humanist to indicate their entirely proper rejection of many arbitrary and ultimately trivial images of God.
The Light and the Silence
THERE IS A GROUP EXERCISE, USED ON parish days away, where each person chooses a candle to represent him- or herself from a randomly mixed collection. Each explains his or her choice, and they begin to interact. They move around in a field of play representing the church or the world. God is sometimes added to the game as a wider and taller candle than all the rest combined—a typical image of God—but this candle gets in the way: nobody can relate to it, and it disrupts all the other interactions. If we remove that false image of God from the scene, a better image remains. God is not the biggest candle: God is the flame and the oxygen, the energy in the wax, the laws of physics making the whole thing possible, the potential in each one of us, the flame passed from one to the other, and the gentle breeze; the essence of existence itself, and the ultimate origin of everything; not the largest or the finest or the best, but literally beyond compare.
There was much intellectual sparring between atheist and Christian in the high school years. Eventually one longtime atheist found himself lying awake staring out of the window at the stars, half demanding and half pleading that God would send some tangible sign. He waited, and there was nothing: only the vast emptiness of space, and the silence. And he recognized God in the waiting, and in the emptiness, and in the silence.
We reject the God of presumptive monotheism—the wrathful, autocratic, vengeful and demanding king—and acknowledge and seek the God who is Yahweh Elohim, the ground of all being, and the essence of all that is good.
GOD WITHOUT GOD GOES ON TO EXPLORE what happens to classic Catholic-spirited Christianity when the God of presumptive monotheism is removed. Far from being destroyed or diminished, the tradition flourishes in its liberation. With care taken to avoid all presumptions and hypocrisies, the tradition emerges as an egalitarian, humanistic spirituality that challenges and defies all earthly powers in its celebration of the realm of the spirit, the realm of the divine. Even the Trinity becomes a life-affirming choice instead of a topic of dogma and dispute. To choose the Trinity is to choose to name love as our God, to choose to name Jesus of Nazareth as our leading inspiration, our icon and our guide, and to choose to believe that there is a spark of divinity—of holy spirit—in everyone and everything. Nobody can take these choices away on moral or intellectual grounds—and they lead to such richness of life. None of this is for the sake of any notional life beyond death: it is for the sake of the best possible life for today. There is no pressing need for the supernatural: the natural world is wonder and beauty enough.
The full book follows the outline of the mass and addresses each of the seven sacraments in turn—those points where the divine is made tangible. The major sections are God, Ethics, Bible, Creed, Prayer, the Sacrament of Community, and 'Home life, Sex and Gender.' God is the ground of all being and the sum of all divinity, the ultimate reality and mystery at the heart of our existence. The ethical system is the call to full humanity: integrity and compassion in place of disintegration. The bible and the creed come alive with new insights once the false god defined and rejected by atheism is removed from the frame of reference. And the final section on home life, sex, and gender leads the reader further into, not out of, the tradition, to discover a love that embraces all that it is to be human, and holds a special place, 'higher than that of sons and daughters,' for our LGBTI brothers and sisters, with the transgendered and the intersex represented directly in scripture calling all the rest—and all of us—to our liberation. The whole tradition emerges with a timeless and profound integrity for body, mind, and spirit.
Extracted, with original introduction and conclusion, from God Without God: Western Spirituality Without the Wrathful King, O Books, June 2008 (www.godwithoutgod.com).
Michael Hampson has degrees in Philosophy, Psychology and Theology, and worked as a Church of England priest for thirteen years. He now works full time as a writer and retreat leader, and lives in Lancashire, UK.Source Citation
Hampson, Michael. 2008. God without God. Tikkun 23(3):16-17,90-91.