Christianity Minus Theism
|In theism 'God' names the supernatural personal being who created the world and who continues to have oversight (providence) over its affairs. Being personal, he enters into personal relationships with humans who are made in his image. Christian orthodoxy today strongly affirms theism. Evangelical Christians use it as one of the essential tests of orthodoxy. 'Do you believe in a personal God?'|
|In deism 'God' is the name of the creator of the universe. But this God is not involved in the world in any personal way. Deism appealed to thinkers in the time of the rise of modern science. It became quite widespread at the Enlightenment. There was even a deist Archbishop of Canterbury. It is now strongly rejected in theological circles but lingers on quite widely as a vague popular belief. It is the type of God referred to by some modern physicists.|
|Pantheism identifies God with all that there is, regards all finite things as parts, modes, limitations, or appearances of one ultimate Being, which is all that there is. It originated with the Jewish philosopher Spinoza who was roundly condemned by Jew and Christian. Yet it has continued to surface from time to time. Teilhard de Chardin and Paul Tillich were both accused of pantheism.|
|Mysticism has associations with both theism and pantheism. The only reality is one undiversified Being. In mystical thought, and in much of its practice, the multiplicity of things is ultimately repudiated. Mysticism has been dallied with both in mediaeval and in modern times but generally rejected in the circles of Christian orthodoxy, which like to affirm an unbridgeable gap between God and all whom he has created, including ourselves.|
|Though it is primarily the rejection of theism, atheism is often used to deny that the concept of 'God' has any meaningful use.|
For a very long period before this modern examination of the concept of God, the reality of God seemed so self-evident that it went unquestioned. It was nevertheless claimed that it was possible to demonstrate the reality of God on rational grounds. They later became known as the four Proofs of the existence of God. They are the cosmological, teleological, ontological, and moral arguments. They are worth a brief look at, since several of them still carry a certain amount of weight at a popular level.
Let God be the name for the highest reality one can conceive.
God either exists or does not exist.
If he does not exist, it is possible to conceive of one who does.
This is impossible by definition.
Therefore God exists.
It is generally agreed that none of these arguments prove the existence of God in any strict sense. But it is worth noting:
I like the story of the theological student who was so delighted by the lecture on the Holy Trinity he had just heard that he jumped up to thank the lecturer. 'Thank you, sir' he said excitedly, 'you put it so dearly. I have never before been able to understand the doctrine of the Trinity as I do now'. The lecturer sighed, 'If you understand it as clearly as that, I shall have to start and explain it all over again'.
Thus those who think they understood the doctrine of the Holy Trinity have got it wrong. Its a bit like the Tao in the Tao Te Ching:
He who speaks does not know,Let us look at [Trinitarianism in] the 39 Articles [in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer]:
And he who knows does not speak
There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts or passions; of infinite power, wisdom and goodness; the Maker and Preserver of all things visible and invisible.That is theism and is more Greek than Jewish. But it goes on:
And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power and eternity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.Notice the subtle change, from 'God' to 'Godhead'. There is a bit of sleight of hand going on here. What has just been said about God does not fit at all well with what is said about the Godhead. If we ask what is meant by Godhead we have to say it is not a being at all, so much as a qualitythe quality of being divine.
The purpose of this subtle transition from God to Godhead is to enable the theism to become modified into something else. Pure theism is now being transformed into trinitarianism.
The Christian view of God is not belief in one divine creator, full stop. (That would be theism). The Christian view of God is that of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in one Godhead.
When Christians try to defend a pure theism today they unconsciously select out the Father Creator and identify the Father alone with God. For example, it is the Creator/Provider God to which all the so-called proofs are directed.
Of course this is supported by the Lord's prayer, which encourages us to pray to 'Our Father who is in heaven'. This is a theistic prayer because it is a Jewish prayer, formulated before the doctrine of the Holy Trinity was put together.
What people do not seem to realise is that this tendency to select out the Father as the Creator God and identify Him with God was called in the ancient world monarchianism (belief in one divine ruler). It was declared heresy in the early centuries and remains heresy to this day.
But of crucial importance to the Christian view of the Godhead are also the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took Man's nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance; so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man; who truly suffered, was crucified, dead and buried, to reconcile his Father unto us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original sin, but also for all actual sins of men.Theism was radically modified by the incorporation of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation.
It took the church some three centuries or more to carry this through.
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity which it arrived at is no more than a humanly devised formula to safeguard certain very important areas of Christian experience which were thought to be beyond human understanding. Christian experience of the first centuries was very varied, fluid and complex.
Moreover this solution was arrived at only after bitter debate. In the course of their debates many solutions were offered which seemed to make a lot more sense than their final solution. For example, patripassianism held that it was really the Father who suffered on the cross. Arianism held that Christ was less than the Father but more than a human. When the doctrine of the Trinity was finally adopted it was not adopted unanimously and unity was achieved only by casting out of the church those who disagreed. It is not clear just how much sense it made even to those who adopted it. Was it really intended to make sense? Was it not primarily intended to reconcile warring parties in the church by finding some verbal compromise which would be accepted by the majority?
It served for a thousand years. It became the great Christian mantra, recited in creeds and sung about in hymns and amthems. I have become very fond of it myself. As a mantra it was not meant to be understood. During that long period ordinary Christians were not expected to do any thinking of their own, but to leave it to church officials.
But we humans like to make sense of things. So when from the Renaissance onwards, and particularly from the Enlightenment, more and more people gained the freedom to think for themselves, they faced a dilemma. Either they simply repeated the traditional creedsincluding the doctrine of the Trinityand pretended they understood it, or they thought for themselves and fell into one of the ancient heresies. So from the Enlightenment, if not before, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity began to fall apart. That is why a purer form of theism began to reappear at one pole and atheism appeared at the other. In popular Christian thought in the church, on the other hand, all the old heresies have reappeared. They tend to go undetected simply because so little is known about early church history.
Ths brief examination of theism has been the first step in showing that traditional Christianity is not really wedded to theism. Whereas theism affirms a great gulf between God the Creator on the one hand, and the world and humankind on the other, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity conceived the divine in the form of a relationshipFather, Son and Holy Spirita relationship which united God and humanity in one.
Now we take the second step in showing that traditional Christianity is not really wedded to theism by looking at Christianity itself.
Modern historical research has made it very clear, however, that there has never been a time when all who confessed to be Christians (or followers of Jesus) shared exactly all the same beliefs. The New Testament phrase 'the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints' was itself part of the developing Christian myth, that faith consists of embracing a set of beliefs which are permanent and unchangeable. Christian beliefs have changed and diversified through the centuries. Today, more than ever before, Christianity has no definable and eternal essence on which all Christians at all times, or even at any one time, agree. It is misleading, therefore, to use the term Christianity in a way which implies that it names some objective and unchangeable essence or thing, such as the theistic belief in God.
I suggest we think of Christianity as a stream of living culture flowing through the plains of time. Sometimes, like a river, it divides into substreams and sometimes it is joined by other streams. As it flows onward it gathers new material from the banks it passes through. Sometimes the fluid material in it crystalizes into more rigid objects. Sometimes it drops these objects and other forms of sediment it is carrying along. There is a tendency for people to regard the visible objects in this cultural stream, such as the priesthood, episcopal government, creeds and even the Bible, as being of the essence of the stream. In fact they have less permanence that the stream which carries them along.
Through church history people have attempted to reform the church. Their critics have warned that they are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. That is a misleading metaphor. Christianity has no permanent and absolute essence. There is no 'baby'; there is only the bath water, or what is preferably called the on-going cultural stream, broadly known as Judeo-Christian.
Two of the chief doctrines which are often regarded as the sine qua non of Christianity are the Trinity and the Incarnation. I have already sketched how and why the doctrine of the Trinity evolved and how it began to come apart in modern times. The doctrine of the Trinity made a radical transformation of theism by incorporating the new doctrine of the Incarnation.
In the process of raising Jesus to divine status, they almost rejected his humanity altogether and steps had to be taken to affirm his humanity. Even so, through most of Christian history until modern times the humanity of Jesus has been played down if not wholly obliterated. To the extent that the humanity of Jesus was ignored the doctrine of the Incarnation was being restricted to a short period of earthly timea past event. Christ became the glorified Son of God sitting at the right hand of God the Father. The humanity of Jesus had been shed like an empty shell. The Incarnation was now becoming denied. The denial of the Incarnation in turn affected the validity of the doctrine of the Trinity. The Trinity was reverting into theism. This is the reason why orthodox Christianity today believes it is theistic. It has failed to appreciate its own most central doctrnes.
From our vantage point in the modern world we are in a better position to appreciate the fact that these doctrines were constructed by human minds; they were not divinely revealed. Indeed everything which has been claimed to be divinely revealed is in fact of human origin. Several important points follow from this:
The intellectual context is very different from that in which the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation were constructed. The Judeo-Christian cultural stream is now in a very fluid state and complex state. It contains within it many different sub-streams each claiming to be the genuine form of Christianity. They threaten to leave the main stream, now increasingly secular, and go off into a backwater of their own. It is in this context that I now turn ... to fly my second kite:
the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man.
I suggested a moment ago that the final glorification of Christ to heaven had the effect of negating the Incarnation in that Christ was worshipped as God but no longer seen as a man.
Instead of abandoning this idea of joining Godhead and manhood together I now wish to recover it and take it to its logical conclusion. When we do so we find that it takes on an unexpected new relevance in the global, secular world. To restrict the Incarnation to one human person, namely the man Jesus of Nazareth, is to miss its full significance. The idea that God could become enfleshed even in one special person was more than most Jews could accept at the time; all Jews and Muslims since that time have rejected it, insisting on preserving a pure theism.
The idea that God could become enfleshed in humanity as a whole is more than most Christians have been able to accept. Yet the seeds of the beginning of this are even in the New Testament. Jesus was at first not separated from his fellow-humans by a great gulf, in the way that God had been, and in the way that the glorified Christ later became. Rather this Jesus was said to represent or symbolise the whole race. Just as the first Adam (meaning 'mankind') embodied the whole human race, so the Christ figure evolving out of Jesus was said to be the New Adam, (i.e. the embodiment of the new humankind). 'For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive'. That is why Paul spoke of all Christians as being 'in Christ'. They were conceived as participating in the Incarnation. This is why it later became common to speak of the Christian life as one of 'sanctification' and why the Eastern Orthodox spoke of it as the process of 'deification'. Thus, from the begining, and continuing in later hints, there has always been the seed-thought that humans were now to become the enfleshment of the divine. The doctrine of the Incarnation was to be applied to the whole of humankind.
The first theologian to take the doctrine of the Incarnation to its logical conclusion was Ludwig Feuerbach. This he did in his book, The Essence of Christianity. For him, the coming of Jesus, mythically interpreted as the incarnation of God, marked a turning point in history. From then onwards the human race was to manifest the virtues of love, justice and compassion, the very things long regarded as the exclusive attributes of Godthe very attributes, incidentally, which constituted the being of God. (e.g. 'God is love').
The implication of the doctrine of the Incarnation in the context of the global secular world is that the mythical throne of heaven is empty. The God, once conceived by humans as sitting upon that throne, has come down to dwell in human fleshin all human flesh. Not only is the throne empty but heaven itself is empty. As the Pope said last year (1999), heaven is not a place but a state of mind.
The implications of the Incarnation are these:
What the ancient theologians said about the Christ figure can be applied to the human race as a whole. They were anxious to preserve both the unity and the individual identity of the human and divine natures. So they said:
the divine and the human natures are not to he confused with each otherthe distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved.
To put it in more simple terms, it would be a gross example of megalomania for us humans to assert that "We are God". Yet we humans have the potential to display all the divine attributes and to play the divine role. We do so the more we relate to one another in a healthy human society.
If the doctrine of the Incarnation was intended to be applied to the whole of humankind then why has it taken so long for this to manifest itself within the cultural stream?
We may answer this simply, even if somewhat simplistically, by referring to four related steps:
'the secret of the Trinity lies in communal and social life; it is the secret of the necessity of the 'thou' for an 'I'; it is the truth that no beingbe it man, god, mind or egois for itself alone a true, perfect and absolute being'.That led Buber to speak of God in terms of the quality of personal relationships. Wherever there is true community there is the divine presence.
'Where two or three are gathred together in my name, there am I in the midst of them'. (Mat. 18:20).
Thus the doctrines of the Trinity and of the Incarnation take on a new relevance in the global, secular and ecological world. More than any other living species on this planet the human race is being forced increasingly to play the role of God with regard to the sustaining of life on this planet. We have become responsible for the planet's future. It is not too much to say that this self-evolving planet is becoming conscious in us humans with all the responsibility for the future that that entails. As Father, Son and Holy Spirit were conceived as 'three in one' because of the Incarnation, so today we are coming to acknowledge a new but secular form of Trinity or three in one:
These are not independent but one. These three must act in unison to meet the challenges ahead. The more we become an harmonious global society, relating to one another and to the planet, the more we make manifest the lasting aspects of the doctrines of the Incarnation and of Holy Trinity.
I now haul my two kites to the earth. They are no more than one person's constructions. There is nothing final or authoritative about them.
I have tried to show that Christianity, understood as a broad cultural stream, can and will continue without theism. This is because, in the first place Christianity made a radical departure from pure theism in the early centuries and in the second place in modern times it is taking that radical departure to its logical end, which is the abolition of theism.