Thursday, March 18, 2010

Everyone's A Theist

Pretty simple line of thought here:

Everyone is a theist. That doesn't mean everyone places their trust in a divine figure of some kind, but everyone is running with an idea of who or what God would be if God existed, or would have to be if one was to "believe".

The atheist, rejecting God or saying they don't have enough to go on to believe in God, has a certain concept in mind of what God would be. It occurs to me that they are thus always doing some sort of theology.

The agnostic, too, although less decisively, is running with a concept of God and measuring reality against that concept. The honesty about the finitude of our knowing is commendable here, so long as it does not settle into a firm denial of the very possibility of divine self-revelation according to the divine's own terms. At the point of that denial it has done its own theology and become decidedly a(nti)theist.

Then there are the religious. Obviously, the person of religion has a concept of God (or gods, or spirit, or what have you) and is running with that.

Perhaps the closest person to being un-theist, however, is the one who claims to believe in God but is really just placing that name on their own conceptions of reality and their own religio-cultural convictions, principles, and systems. You get this in every religion.

We get this in churches a lot too. We face this tendency in ourselves all the time. Thus, I think we could stand to inherit some of that agnostic hesitancy in face of our self-assuredness and to listen to the atheist objections that might help us see the blind spots in our own ill-formed conceptions.

Of course, there are degrees of zeal and there would be degrees of authenticity about this in each of these groups I've named above, but my basic point is that everyone is a theist of some kind. Again, I'm not saying everyone names a God and puts a faith in a God, but every worldview is coloured in some way by its concept of God. An atheist's worldview can in fact be more influenced by God on a daily basis than a church-goer's, if the former is determinedly defining themselves according to a particular concept of God and the latter is claiming to do so but in reality is not.

What I find so interesting about the theology I've been reading in the last several years is that it insists on putting aside, or at least admitting, its prior concepts of God and then thinking forward from the possibility, or the belief, that whatever anyone might think about God, THERE HE IS IN JERUSALEM IN AD 33. Sure, that can be debated. But good Christian theology, if it is doing Christian theology, doesn't try to win that argument by making Christ jive with every prior notion of God out there. Nor does it assume that this God is un-knowable and settle for mere mystery. If it does that it is just doing the opposite of atheism. It is accepting the un-knowable God idea and deciding to believe it rather than not believe it.

No, Christian theology fears God too much to thrust these concepts carelessly on God, or to set up its idea of God at any one point as an unassailable definition. It understands that this fear of God is not the end of wisdom, but it is necessary to hearing God rather than hearing its preferred humanity in a loud voice (to paraphrase Barth). Believing that Jesus is God, it listens rather than plugging its ears, it thinks, and in faith it seeks understanding.

16 comments:

Adam Nigh said...

Amen. The hardest thing I'm learning as a theologian is that even being conscious of the need to lay aside my preconceptions and pay heed to God as he reveals himself to me, and even as I in prayer determine to do so, I am still not out of danger of idolatry. There truly is no human formula for faithfulness to God in his objectivity. Reaching this wall of myself and finding that Christ has overcome it for me makes me more able to be overwhelmed by his grace than ever before.

Or something like that.

Colin Toffelmire said...

I would agree very much with the concept of the post, though I'd re-phrase it to say that everyone's a theologian. Theist has rather a specific meaning (over-against Deist, for instance). Sorry to be nit-picky.

Actually this is something that most of the atheists I respect actually hold to as well, that they have a theology just like I do, but their's is rather different than mine.

I also very much like your indictment against those who treat God as object. That kind of thinking leads to a very narrow and decidedly anthropocentric orthodoxy.

Tony Tanti said...

I prefer Colin's use of theologian as well. If theist is understood to mean that a person believes in God than I don't follow the logic that an atheist is a theist because they have a belief in what God is not.

Otherwise this is a great post highlighted by this great quote "...we could stand to inherit some of that agnostic hesitancy in face of our self-assuredness and to listen to the atheist objections that might help us see the blind spots in our own ill-formed conceptions."

Jon Coutts said...

Yeah. Both of you.

You're right about that Colin. I wanted to use the most general term I could think of, but you're right that it isn't general enough. (To tell you the truth I was thinking I might end the post with a paradoxical claim that in some way also everyone's atheist, and so I was hoping for a play on words. but I didn't pull it off and left the title anyway). Don't be surprised if I change the title later.

Jon Coutts said...

Near simultaneous posting! Yeah, everyone's a theologian. That's what I mean. (Although I should mention that I wanted to not only say everyone has an opinion about God or what God would be, but also orients their life accordingly, which speaks to a little more than theology. So with that caveat, yes, that's what I meant.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

Jon said,
"The agnostic, too, although less decisively, is running with a concept of God and measuring reality against that concept"

Yes. Certainly true. In a way. Although in my agnostic period I felt more like I was measuring my various ideas of God against my ideas of reality. If you see the difference. It's just a different emphasis. Concept against reality, not reality against concept.

I like your idea that the fear of God allows you to hear God without all your personal biases getting in the way. Though I immediately begin wondering if there is any way of measuring if it's God or if it's just your "preferred humanity" you're hearing. But it is an interesting way out of the dilemna of God looking like you want it to look.

You wrote,
"Every worldview is coloured in some way by its view of God."

But the definition of one person's God and another person's God can be so different that the only thing they have in common is the same name, so they're not really both believing in 'God.' If you see what I mean.

Those are my scattered thoughts.

Interesting post.

Jon Coutts said...

Matthew said: "It's just a different emphasis. Concept against reality, not reality against concept."

Yeah I take your point. I suppose I could have said that the other way around. Although I guess I would say that even then the "concept" is still doing a lot of work, if the idea is that the reality is reliable and is mutually exclusive with a settled concept.

"I immediately begin wondering if there is any way of measuring if it's God or if it's just your "preferred humanity" you're hearing."

Yeah, a person should wonder that. I think my beef with "un-theism" in the church is that it doesn't ask that or answer it carefully enough.

A person could go on at length about this, but I like how you said "way of measuring" rather than "standard of measurement". Seriously. That's really important.

I think that if someone is taking seriously that Jesus is God, thus doing Christian theology, they are going to listen carefully to the eye-witnesses Jesus entrusted, with a full appreciation of the interpreting that enters into things as soon as stories and messages start getting passed on.

Thus one endeavours to listen carefully to the various interpretations, and in all of this it is being read against itself, hopefully, rather than merely reading in. The 20 centuries of time elapsed are not a mere hindrance but a help. That's a lot of interpretations to read against one's own, and back against the commissioned eye-witnesses.

Add to that the conviction that Jesus actually is alive and present by His Spirit and Christian theologians have got a reason to believe that there will be fruitfulness to this endeavour, even if there is no single standard interpretation.

Further, "one person's God and another person's God can be so different that the only thing they have in common is the same name, so they're not really both believing in 'God.'"

Yeah, I should have changed it to Everyone's a Theologian. Only reason I don't now is that these comments would all seem out of place for anyone yet to read these comments. I'm going to try to be okay with publishing an error in this case. For now...

Jon Coutts said...

Hmm, except I still want to say "theist" for some reason, meaning it in its most general sense possible (as including deism and a-theism and anti-theism and everything) in so much as it implies more than having an opinion about God but orienting oneself accordingly. Those who've pushed me on this: Want to allow me that? At least see my point?

Tony Tanti said...

I see your point Jon, everyone orients themselves according to their own beliefs and values and even if that is a value system sans-God then they have taken the time to think about and reject the notion of God.

They're still not a theist though. :)

Jon Coutts said...

yeah, except as a suffix or prefix. i'm looking for a middle term I guess.

Trev said...

Come on now...District 9, "1 out of 10" ....really?

I mean, I understand if someone gives it a low mark, but it seems like giving it a pitifull "1" is a little silly.

What is your system of rating? What does the "1" signify?

Trev said...

...and you rated it LOWER than "The Happening"???? How is that possible?

Jon Coutts said...

Trev: Scroll down a couple posts, I'll comment there.

Jon Coutts said...

Ran across this in my reading today, thought it might be of interest:

"That there is no God may perhaps apply to the deity of philosophy, or to a deity that might be regarded as the common denominator of the gods of the different religions, or to a deity that demonstrates its existence by having a place in a world-view of human construction, or even perhaps to the "God" who is in one way or another poorly proclaimed and understood in some Christian tradition or theology. The atheistic negation applies to a "God" who, if he exists, must do so in the same way as the data of other human experience or the contents of other human reflection exist for people. The true and living God, however, is not a "datum" of ours. He is his own "datum." Only thus, only as he is his own "datum" and reveals himself, is he there" (Karl Barth, The Christian Life posthumous fragments, p 127).

Note that he is not using this to simply exalt Church opinions about God above others, but to expose the fact that, by definition, if God exists and is to be known it is on God's own terms, and thus if God is either accepted or denied, it must be as such, and not as a concept of our own making. Deities or our own making are common enough in the world and in the church, but unless there is a revelation of God, all our talk about them amounts to talk about ourselves and our aspirations or wishes.

Barth goes on to say that theoretical atheism may be the most "profane" of the atheisms, but is at least admitting its stance, and as such is more "innocuous" than religions that claim to know God, and are at the end of the day more often falling back on human self-assertion. Christians can claim no escape from this tendency, and to do Christian theology properly one must admit these limitations and tendencies up front, even while gratefully reflecting on and believing in the grace of an incarnate God who wishes to be known within our limitations...

Trev said...

Oops, my bad! Missed that post! Sorry about that.

Jon Coutts said...

no sorries, no worries. just redirecting appropriately...