The Thin Line Between Theism and Atheism
Many years ago I had a conversation with a friend who was finishing a doctorate in New Testament studies. We were talking about concepts of God and I recall saying, “Even though I’m attracted to ideas like ‘God as the Ground of Our Being,’ I can’t imagine praying to the Ground of my Being.” To which she immediately replied, without missing a beat, “On the contrary, I can’t imagine praying to anything else.”
Atheism is big news again. It’s easy to understand atheism. It’s quite easy to be an atheist. On one hand God is envisioned as another something out there in the universe, kind of like you, only infinitely bigger. That’s theism. If that’s your beginning point you could just as easily flip over and take the opposite viewpoint; namely, it’s a big Nothing out there. No God, as opposed to Some God. That’s atheism. In both cases, the underlying concept remains the same: God is either a Thing or a no Thing, but God’s Thing-ness, God’s existence, is the presupposition or denial. And the way into either position is through reason.
In her own way, my friend was trying to get around the problem of No God versus Some God. The Bible makes it seem like God is something out There, and that brings us to the problem of theism versus atheism. She was trying to sidestep the problem, as a committed student of the New Testament.
I was working the problem from another angle: I wanted – and still want – to honor the personal relationship with God that is proclaimed all over the Jewish and Christian scriptures. I was trying to preserve that understanding, because it’s at the heart of the faith, but at the same time I didn’t want to slide into a chummy notion of reiationship, as if God were my cosmic buddy and Jesus a kind of smiling older brother with sandals. Headed that way, you forget that God is totally different from us, which we assert by calling God Holy. This way God can become cheap and dispensable. You might say we believe (or not) in things, but we relate to persons.
It is not easy to accept God, and the notion that God is another being out there may not help for the long haul, despite – perhaps because of – the Bible’s insistence on personal relationship.
To people who have given up the chase, this struggle may seem to be – in Shakespeare’s words – “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” But it is surely one struggle that matters, because it is not easy to fall into the hands of the living God and the nature of that living God matters. No answer to the problem solves it forever. Each age has to carve out its own understanding. We may have to agree to an answer that is cobbled together out of bits and pieces of our contemporary understanding and, in the end, admit that God is incomprehensible and ineffable – a confession that Orthodoxy has no problem with, by the way. We cannot “grasp” God like we can grasp a tomato or a cat or even Einstein’s theory of relativity. We cannot “say” God in a way that expresses God’s completeness. Like all persons, God remains elusive even if God is available for relationships.
If you start with the question of God’s Existence, you may run aground, because you cannot prove the Existence of God any more than you can prove the existence of, say, love. Personal relationship has to remain at the center of the enterprise. And the heart of relationships is Love.
published 05 March 10