Theism, Non-Theism, Atheism?

Below are opening remarks I made at Mill Woods United Church on October 28, 2019 at an evening of sharing on the theme “What is God?”

Why is there debate over the question “What is God?” Doesn’t the Bible, or the Church, or the minister have the answer? Isn’t the answer clear?

To help us prepare for our conversations, I start with some personal background. My late father was a United Church of Canada minister, so I was raised in the church. But like my siblings and most of my friends, I drifted away from church as a teenager, and didn’t pay it much attention for almost 30 years. Like many people of my generation, I decided that God, and Jesus, and church had become irrelevant; that there were better places to understand the world; better places to find hope and purpose; and better ways to figure out how to live in into love, beauty, and truth.

When I stumbled back into my local United Church in east Toronto in 2001, I was surprised that I was moved by the Spirit that was alive in that community. I joined the choir and became active in the church, but I felt a bit foolish doing so. Hadn’t I decided that God was a fiction so many years before?

Then in 2002, I wandered into a bookstore close to where I worked in downtown Toronto, and started looking through the religion section. These two titles captured my attention – “Why Christianity Must Change or Die” and “A New Christianity for a New World” by Anglican bishop John Shelby Spong.

I was intrigued, so I bought and read them. I was delighted to learn from Spong that there was a whole current in the church that had moved beyond the images and conceptions of God, Jesus, and the Spirit that I had encountered in Sunday School. This is a current that uses the word God not to refer to a superhuman being among all the other beings in the universe. Instead, it uses God to refer to the very Ground of Being, or the Ground of Love. It affirms that there is a Higher Power, but it doesn’t imagine that this Higher Power is a person-like supernatural being. Instead, it imagines God as the essence of existence, or of life, or of love.

These ideas excited me. For others, they are not compelling, which is OK by me. And in the years since, I have often confronted the tension between theism – or the idea of a supreme, supernatural being – and non-theism. And here is where I have landed.

I don’t find the question “do you believe in God” useful. Instead, I perceive that everyone engages in worship, even if when we don’t call it worship. That is, everybody assigns ultimate worth to someone or something. Children worship their parents. Then they are disillusioned. So, they may start worshipping their peer group or a pop star. Then they become disillusioned. So, they may start worshipping their nation. And if they are lucky, they become disillusioned yet again, and stumble around for other objects of worship.

Some people worship a tribal god, or one god among many. Perhaps they worship a god like the one in the Hebrew Bible. Jehovah or YHWH is often not portrayed in those books as a Supreme Being or the as the Creator of the Universe. Instead, he is often portrayed as just the tribal god of the Hebrew people. Jehovah helps the Hebrew people in their wars with rival tribes and their gods, and he punishes them when they violate some of his rules, like marrying outside of the tribe.

But in today’s globalized world, and in a world dominated by science and the social production of knowledge, tribal gods no longer work as well. So, instead of a tribal god, I try to worship something more worthy of ultimate concern – a God who is Love, or a God who is Spirit, or a God that transcends all tribes, all nations, and the concerns of all of our egos.

But what about Jesus, you may ask? There a thousand reasons to love Jesus and the stories about him in the Bible. But isn’t Jesus a being — a divine one, yes — but a being among all the world’s other beings? Doesn’t loving Jesus, then, make one into a theist?

This is so for many people, and I am OK with that. But it is not how I see Jesus. I am particularly grasped by an awareness that in the stories of the death of Jesus, we have been given a symbol of the death of our illusions in tribal kings like David, or tribal gods like Jehovah. Just as it was for Paul, death and resurrection are less physical or historical events, and more metaphors for spiritual growth (Paul writes: “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is not longer I who lives, but Christ that lives in me.” Galatians 2:19).

For me, the death of Jesus can symbolize the death of any god who is too small to be truly worthy of worship. Some of the other small gods that “die with Jesus on the cross” could include alcoholism, or worship of money and power, or a million other ways that individuals and communities can be selfish or egotistical.

Because this is the way that I see Jesus, I also see non-theism, or post-theism, or even atheism as consistent with the Gospels. Most pointedly, I believe that the stories of the death and resurrection of Jesus point in this direction. Many people see something else, and in congregation like ours there will be a lot of perspectives, which I value and applaud. I just want to be clear on my perspective.

I am also sure that none of us ever get it perfect. All of us are constantly stumbling into new illusions and finding in the hard knocks of life that we have become disillusioned yet again. With grace, we rise from these hard knocks possessing values and an ethical path that bring us closer to our neighbours and closer to a God that is truly worthy of ultimate concern. With Grace, these cycles of illusion and disillusion bring us closer to Love.

So, these are some of the reasons why I appreciate Bishop John Spong, leaders like Rev. Paul Tillich who came before him, and leaders like Rev. Gretta Vosper who have come after him. It also describes the path I try to walk personally and the vision I try to preach on Sunday mornings.

So, with that said, I hope this has been helpful as we move into small group sharing . . .

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