When you want to connect more deeply with God, when you want to learn more about God, where do you go? Most of us go to trusted and well-known spiritual teachers. We seek out those who fit into our own spiritual framework and with whom we share a similar set of beliefs. We look for those who will affirm our faith and lead us into a deeper confidence in what we already believe.
But what if being too focussed on those who think like us can lead to spiritual stagnation? What if exploring ideas that are radically different from our own can ignite new insights, growth, and more vibrant spirituality? What if we can learn a lot about sacred living from those we may think are anything but sacred?
I have found that those who reject faith—those we would label atheists—can teach us a lot about belief. It can be enlightening to explore the God that an atheist doesn’t believe in and then explore what they do believe in. And we may find that we have much more in common than we might expect.
That’s why this episode of the EvoFaith Podcast is all about what atheists can teach us about God and what it might mean to add what Peter Rollins calls ‘a/theism’ to our faith.
When it comes to learning about God, atheists are usually the last people most Christians will turn to. But I believe that’s a mistake. A few years ago I got into a really stimulating discussion on my blog with the friend of a friend who denied God’s existence completely. I was so grateful for his willingness to stay in the conversation and to give me a window into his thinking. I also appreciated the respectful way that he engaged with my position. After a few days of commenting and replying, my partner in this interaction brought our discussion to a close with this post: “I feel like you and I are actually pretty close to each other in what we believe” he said. I was so moved by his humility and by what felt to me like an affirmation.
Over the years I have learned so much from those who reject the idea that there is a God in our universe. I have been forced to examine my faith much more deeply, to reject religious ideas that are simply unsustainable in the light of what we know of our cosmos, and to embrace ideas that may seem contradictory to faith but that actually enrich and enhance it.
But I’ve also found it helpful to ask any atheists I meet what God they don’t believe in. And usually, I find that I don’t believe in that God either. And then, when I ask them what they do believe in, I often find that, while they won’t call it ‘God’, they do believe in some kind of transcendence, some kind of ‘More’. And often it isn’t all that far from what I might refer to as God.
Many atheists are more thoughtful about their disbelief in God than many believers are about their faith. The atheists I know have wrestled with faith deeply before they turn away from it. And I have found that I learn a lot about God from both what atheists don’t believe in and what they do—from what they have rejected and what they have replaced that with.
I was challenged years ago by Peter Rollins’ book How (Not) To Speak Of God where he speaks of the Christian path as one of a/theism. Let me share some thoughts from his book:
Not only is Christianity atheistic insomuch as it rejects ideas of God which stand opposed to those found in its own tradition (the early Christians were called atheists because of their rejection of those deities worshipped by the Romans), but also there is a sense in which Christianity is atheistic because it rejects its own understanding of God. For a Christian who does not simultaneously reject the idea of God that he or she affirms implicitly claims that the one he or she worships can be held within his or her systems of belief.
This does not mean that Christianity teaches us to reject our religious beliefs but rather reminds us that we must engage in a process of ‘de-naming’ God every time we name God, acknowledging that God’s name is above every name that we could ever ascribe. One of our prime teachers in this method is Jesus himself. As we noted in part one, the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer begin, ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name’. Here God is named as ‘Father’, yet immediately the prayer acknowledges that this name is ‘hallowed’. We are thus informed that the name is holy and set apart, thus operating in a way that is other than our culturally conditioned ideas of fatherhood. This process reminds us that God transcends all earthly names and, as such, escaped our attempts at absolute understanding. God is nominated and then de-nominated, reminding us that our understanding of the term father is profoundly affected by our background.
In opposition to the fundamentalist, who can be defined as one who believes what they believe, the Christian can be said to operate with an a/theistic discourse, which makes claims about God while simultaneously acknowledging that these claims are provisional, uncertain and insufficient. This a/theistic approach is one that understands how our questioning of God is never really a questioning of God but only a means of questioning our understanding of God.
(How (Not) To Speak Of God, p. 103-4)
Rollins illustrates the importance of this a/theistic approach in a story that he used in a service in his Ikon community, it’s adapted from Anthony DeMello’s book ‘The Song of the Bird’. This is the story, I think it’s wonderful:
It is said that the devil used to walk late at night through different parts of the world with his friends. Once, during one of these midnight strolls, a demon who was walking with him happened to see a young woman speaking with Jesus. The demon shifted uneasily, expecting Lucifer to fly into a terrific rage, but instead he seemed unperturbed. Later the demon plucked up some courage and ask the devil why he was so unconcerned by the woman’s encounter with Christ. ‘Why should I care,’ replied the devil, ‘for in just a little while I shall make a theology of it.’
Our theologies, our doctrines, our beliefs, and our ideas about God can all become the devil’s work when they become rigid, certain, and unquestioned, and when we believe they contain a full definition of God. The only way to keep this devil at bay is—like the atheist—to refuse to define God or to limit God to beliefs to what we can grasp and describe and understand.
All of this would seem to be saying that we don’t actually learn anything about God from atheists, but rather we learn more of what God is not. That may be true—and there is value in that alone. But there is also a very important thing that we do learn from those who have rejected belief, and that we must keep in mind if our faith is to be authentic and life-giving. And it’s this: God is indefinable.
Our ideas of God are always simplistic, flawed, and like seeing “through a glass darkly”. Our ideas of God are not God. They are just signposts that hopefully point us to God. Our language is always limited and insufficient to the task of speaking clearly about God. Our words about God are also not God, but merely symbols that hopefully point to God.
The moment we think our ideas and words about God are complete divine truth, the moment we think we can define God, the moment we boil God down to our faith, we have lost God altogether. It is only in learning to live in the mystery, to play with the glimpses, and rest in the unknowing as much as in the limited knowing, that we finally begin to actually encounter God and dive into a meaningful relationship with God—that is more than just our ideas about God.
And so, as Rollins says, as soon as we name God we need to de-name God. As soon as we catch a glimpse of God we need to remember the cloud of darkness that obscures much more than what we have seen. As soon as we make a claim about God or about what we believe we need to let it go and question it.
Many of us come to faith seeking certainty and knowledge. We want answers and guidance and conviction. We want to know that we know that we know. But certainty is the death of faith. Knowledge robs us of the God who is beyond our capacity to know and understand.
And so I am grateful for those who have the honesty to face their questions and release the pressure to believe, and who refuse to limit God to their own understanding. I am grateful for those with the courage to admit that God is beyond what our limited thoughts and minds can contain. And I give thanks for those who refuse to accept a watered-down, anaemic version of God just to feel safer and more comfortable in this complex world.
I have learned so much from atheists. So much that I consider myself—in Peter Rollins’ sense—an atheist who follows Christ—an a/theist who follows Christ. Perhaps you’d like to join me?
Next time we’re going to talk about what we can learn about God—and how to connect with and love God more intentionally—from mystics. I really believe that we all have something of the mystic within us if we’ll just let it out. And I also believe that embracing a mystical relationship with God can lead us into a deeper and richer experience of Spirit and life. So, I’m really looking forward to sharing that with you!
Thank you for your time and attention. Stay connected to the sacred. And I’ll catch you next time.
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