No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
“In short, with this ‘Father, why hast though forsaken me?’, it is God-the-Father who, in effect, dies, revealing His utter impotence, and thereupon rises from the dead in the guise of the Holy Spirit.” Slavoj Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf
The term “Christian Atheism” can seem paradoxical and self-contradictory, but atheistic readings of Christianity have proved surprisingly persistent down the years. The medieval mystic Meister Eckhart famously prayed to God to rid him of God, another Christian mystic William Blake envisaged the death of God in his epic poetry (an idea retold by his modern disciple, Philip Pullman), the pastor’s son Friedrich Nietzsche told the story of the madman proclaiming that we had killed God and in the 1960s Thomas Altizer gained worldwide attention with his systematic theology of the death of God. In modern times, the most high-profile exponent of Christian Atheism is the Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek. But how is such a reading possible? In this post, I will try to set out a narrative of how I think Christian Atheism makes sense, tracing the idea through the Bible in a highly summarised form.
It is fairly clear that the original faith of the Biblical writers was henotheistic – believing in multiple gods, but that Israel should worship only one of them. The first of the ten commandments, that Israel shall have no other gods before Yahweh, implies the existence of other gods, otherwise it is meaningless. This idea may have persisted all the way down to the New Testament – Margaret Barker in particular has argued convincingly that the earliest understanding of Jesus was drawn from the relationship between Israel’s god Yahweh and the high god El.
However, there is a competing (almost certainly later) view which is thoroughly monotheistic. Second Isaiah writes:
“I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no other….
I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.” (Isaiah 45, 5 & 7)
Not much room for doubt here, but in this very text we have the problem of theodicy created by monotheism and debated extensively over the centuries. If there is one God who makes weal and creates woe, how do we reconcile that with the idea that God is good? This is one of the central problems of the Hebrew Bible – most scholars see the current books from Deuteronomy through to 2 Kings as various stories formed into one continuous narrative (the Deuteronomistic history or “DH”) which is primarily concerned with answering one question – why did Yahweh permit the Babylonians to conquer Judea and take its leaders into exile? The answer given is that it was because of the persistent rebellion of God’s people – beginning with their failure to fully exterminate the Canaanites when they conquered Israel, then followed up by their embrace of ‘foreign’ gods and practices.
As a theodicy, it is not overly convincing, not just because punishment for failing to commit genocide is morally repugnant or the whole idea being based on ugly xenophobic. The hero of the DH is King Josiah, who is credited with extensive reforms and reinstating the true worship of Yahweh, after he discovered a book of Moses during repairs of the temple. And yet, a mere twenty years after his death, Jerusalem was conquered and destroyed. An unbiased observer could be forgiven for thinking that old Canaanite gods were taking their revenge. The narrative (2 Kings 22) acknowledges this awkwardness, suggesting that Yahweh delayed the disaster until after Josiah’s death – a mercy clearly not extended to others. More profoundly, the idea that bad things happen as a punishment from God is unsustainable for anyone with a conscience and much experience of the world.
There are loud protests against this worldview within the Hebrew Bible itself. The author of Ruth pointed out that King David’s great-grandmother was a foreigner – one of the hated Moabites. The author of Jonah mocked those who believed that God’s love did not extend to the foreigners at Nineveh. The author of Ecclesiastes, observing the emptiness and injustice of life, decided the best approach was just to enjoy it as best you could.
But the most dramatic protest came from the author of Job, who took a fairly simple fairy-tale about loyalty to Yahweh being rewarded and inserted a poem protesting against Yahweh’s injustice, and the way he inflicts suffering on the innocent. Job’s friends tell him he must have done something wrong but Job rejects this – he knows he is innocent and does not see why he is being punished. Eventually, Yahweh himself makes an appearance, and does not endorse the views of Job’s friends, “for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (42, 7) Instead, he boasts of his great power and strength, trying to awe Job into admitting that he simply does not understand the mysteries of the heavens and therefore cannot criticise the injustice of Yahweh. It works and Job admits that he has “uttered what I did not understand…” (Job 42,3). But, as Zizek in particular has pointed out, there is something unconvincing about the bluster and the submission, something reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz – “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”
If the point of this is that if we cannot expect God to behave in a way that we humans would consider good (for example, he lets people suffer even though they have done nothing wrong), then there is some logic to that position, but it also means that statements like “God is good” lose all meaning. The author of Job seems to be well aware of this, and be slyly pointing it out. Zizek’s reading of Job is that it exposes the little secret at the heart of Judaism – they worship a god who is impotent, who cannot or will not protect his followers from suffering. It is a fair point, and goes some way to explain why so many Jews are in fact atheists, which does not really pose too many problems socially or theologically. An impotent god is, for all practical purposes, the same as no god.
But it is in the New Testament that we see the logic taken a step further. Jesus sees for himself that God is not able to save him, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15, 34). That Jesus himself felt desolation and despair was shocking to some – the gospel of John by contrast portrays Jesus calmly and deliberately “laying down” his life and “taking it up again” (10, 18) and this is the approach the mainstream church has taken ever since. Jesus came down to earth, his death was an unfortunate interruption but he soon came back to life, went up to heaven and normal service was resumed. But this is not the view of the earlier gospel writers nor of Paul, for whom the death and resurrection of Jesus were apocalyptic events, bringing about a new heaven and a new earth. The resurrected Jesus is not not simply resuming normal service, but is now to be found in the community that takes his teachings seriously. It is now their responsibility to continue his work as best they can and however they see fit. As Thomas Altizer put it:
“…no longer is the realm of God heavenly and transcendent, as it is a dawning ‘here’ and ‘now’, a dawning only possible as a consequence of the negation of a transcendent beyond, a negation which is a self-negation and consequently a self-negation of Godhead itself.” (The Call to Radical Theology)
Or, as Jesus himself is quoted as saying in Luke’s gospel:
“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (17, 21)
The kingdom of God is among us, and the ultimate reality is here and now. The transcendent God, the Big Other, has exposed himself as impotent and then as dead. We cannot look to him to solve our problems for us and absolve responsibility. It is up to us, and to us alone, to build the kingdom, or the republic if you prefer, however we can, starting wherever we are and with those we interact with most. That is the Christian Atheism I believe in.
“The Christ that Adolf Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.” George Tyrell, Christianity at the Crossroads
When I was an undergraduate reading various reconstructions of the historical Jesus, I could not help noticing a pattern. All of them start with some sort of declaration that they are going to approach the topic as disinterested historians, setting aside considerations of faith, ethics or beliefs of the Church. But, by the end, very few could resist some kind of assessment of the implications of this historical Jesus, and overwhelmingly they approved of what they had found there. So we have the “Spirit Man” of Marcus Borg, the Cynic sage of John Dominic Crossan, the Jewish miracle-worker and teacher of Geza Vermes, the zealot of SGF Brandon and more recently Reza Aslan, and many others. There are of course a few striking exceptions, such as Hector Avalos, whose book The Bad Jesus gives a hint at his thesis.
This is not a new observation, as the quote above, from a book published in 1909, illustrates, and the metaphor of the well is widely quoted. This does not stop it being true. I thought of this issue recently when attending a course run by Dr Robin Meyers, pastor and self-described “Christian Atheist” who advocates following Jesus rather than worshipping Christ. The Jesus he commits to following is, it turns out, the one largely discovered by scholars like Crossan and other members of the Jesus Seminar. It is a Jesus who is a philosopher and teacher, with a radical system of ethics, concern for social justice and definitely not considered in any way divine.
I have very few disagreements with the ethical implications Dr Meyers draws from this view of Jesus, but his approach raised two questions which I think are a challenge to any project of this type. Firstly, if you are committing yourself to following a particular historical reconstruction of Jesus, then you are something of a hostage to fortune if and when scholarly views about the historical Jesus change. Given that competent scholars have come up with a variety of reconstructions, it is also not entirely obvious why this reconstruction should be treated as authoritative and final. If we are going to follow Jesus, can we know for sure he wasn’t the revolutionary zealot? And what if some new evidence turned up which changed our views completely about the historical Jesus? Does that mean revising all our ideas about faith and discipleship?
The second problem I find genuinely baffling. Unless you are a believer in the infallibility of the Bible, which Dr Meyers certainly is not and neither are the vast majority of scholars, it is not clear to me why the historical Jesus, even if we could find him, should be treated as an authoritative teacher in all respects. By all means we can take inspiration from him, use whatever of his teachings we find useful or relevant. But we do not have to assume he was right about anything, let alone everything. And, as the variety of reconstructions makes clear, we are a long way from knowing anything much about the historical Jesus with great confidence, and most likely never will, so even knowing what the teachings were is problematic.
Just to put my own cards on the table, briefly, my personal view is that there was no historical Jesus at all – he was a heavenly figure later written into history, with teachings from various sources attaching to him. The Jesus of the gospels is a composite figure, which is why so many reconstructions are possible. I will not defend this view here – I have touched on it elsewhere and anyone who wants to know why I think this should read Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus, which to my mind sets out this case in a way that has not been answered. But, as anyone who has read my other blog posts will know, I take great inspiration from certain teachings in the gospels, particularly the parables of the kingdom and the emphasis on the interdependence we all have. I do not know who originated these teachings, and it does not much matter to me. They have come down to us in the tradition and I will take from them what I find inspiring. This approach means we can divorce the intellectually interesting historical question of whether there was a historical Jesus and what he said from the more urgent present-day question of how we are to treat each other and live together on this planet. Muddling them together does not do justice to either question.
— Jamie Bartlett (@JamieJBartlett) May 25, 2017
“Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers.” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
“True, every man today who is open to experience knows that God is absent, but only the Christian knows that God is dead, that the death of God is a final and irrevocable event, and that God’s death has actualized in our history a new and liberated humanity.” Thomas J.J Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism
The theologian and philosopher Peter Rollins is currently running a series of online seminars which I highly recommend, explaining his project of pyrotheology, taking questions, and following up with an online discussion group. Listening to the second seminar, I could feel a couple of things falling into place for me, which I will share in case they do for you too.
Rollins opened the seminar with Nietzsche’s famous parable of the madman, one of the key foundation texts of the radical theology movement. There is an important detail in the opening, quoted above. The people the madman addresses are not the devout ones, who we would expect to be deeply shocked by his views. Rather, most of the audience do not believe in God, they are the urban sophisticates, the Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens of their day. We can hear their rather embarrassed laughter at this fool banging on about a God who has surely for all practical purposes been left behind. The madman, and Nietzsche, are not addressing themselves to believers but to unbelievers.
Why is this? Why does this proclamation of the Death of God matter to a world in which, as Nietzsche so clearly foresaw, God is becoming less and less relevant? This made more sense to me in the light of a distinction Rollins makes – the madman has experienced a loss of connection with meaning and knows how painful this, whereas his critics, even though they disavow belief in God, still cling on to an assumption that there is a cosmic order of some sort. Their God has simply changed name, whereas the madman’s God is dead. Put another way the death of God is not an intellectual experience but an existential one.
What does this mean? It means that belief in a supernatural Deity is intellectually untenable for many, perhaps most, modern Westerners. But often, the Deity is replaced by some other way of thinking about cosmic order. I have previously commented on the number of people who seem to think that “Things happen for a reason”. Others might think of human reason, or the scientific principle, or the progress of civilization, making money, or even having fun as giving order and meaning to life. What has happened in this situation is that one Deity has been swapped for another – possibly for a less harmful Deity, but another Deity nonetheless. In Keep The Aspidistra Flying, written in 1936, George Orwell satirised the “money-god” almost universally worshipped in his society. It is hard to argue too much in that respect has changed since.
So this is where Christianity has something to say to us. At the very centre of the Christian religion we have a person, who in some way is himself God, hanging on a cross being tortured and crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15, 34 & Matthew 27, 46). The essence of Christianity is separation from God, and from all source of meaning. And this is not just something we can accept as a proposition. It is something we experience, maybe when we go through painful loss or bereavement, disability, redundancy, or something we have worked hard for being destroyed or taken away. As we rage, we can know that God, and any idea of transcendent meaning, is truly dead.
At such times it is tempting to rationalise these things, to think that we are being made a better person or being tested by them. Such explanations are occasionally examined in the Bible but are ultimately rejected. Accept there is no meaning, no transcendence and no guarantees, grieve for them however you must. But the story doesn’t quite end there. The resurrection accounts are confused but, after the death of God, it is very clear what represents him in the world – “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4, 7-8) or, as Kahlil Gibran put it more poetically,
“And if you would know God, be not therefore a solver of riddles.
Rather look about you and you shall see Him playing with your children.”
God is dead and we only have each other now to depend on. If we experience the death of God, of transcendent meaning, then we can understand that all we have left is to love each other as best we can. And that, my friends, is the good news.