Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The God of Atheists and Theists

The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach knew Christianity quite intimately, and famously asked the question which sent many people reeling: If God is (so conveniently) for us, how do we know we haven't simply ascribed to God our greatest desires? Leaving aside the fact that Feuerbach overly caricaturized Luther's view of God's promeity ("for-us-ness"), we do have a good question here -- especially if our view of God fits the caricature.

This is the sort of question which begets apologetics; which causes Christians to hit the books and airwaves to solve or satisfy. I have always had a heart for apologetics, and still do, since I believe that if there is a true good God then reason and faith will not in the end be exclusive terms. However, I was quite taken aback this past fall when I first read Karl Barth's response to Feuerbach's question, which was to say that to attempt to solve the question would be simply to affirm it. For what measures would we use to show God unascribed? If a humanly conceived god is not God, how is a humanly proven god God?

This question has bite not only for the overly-confident apologete, but also the overly-confident atheist. When I read this the first time, I scrawled the following in the margin of page 82 of my copy of Church Dogmatics IV/3.1:
To prove God is simply to disprove the thus-proved God.
To disprove God is merely to disprove one's notion of God.
In other words: If God were provable (empirically, emotionally, or otherwise), addressing Him as God would be utterly meaningless. But this seems to be the only God that atheists (and agnostics) would be willing to "believe" in. Thus, the notion of God has been rejected as a result of presupposition, not proof.

Frankly, however, this also seems to be the only God that many theists want to believe in. The one who stands at the end of human progression or who is reachable through human thought or feeling or faith decision or moral action.

If the "God"of such atheists and theists existed, there would be no qualitative difference between human and divine---the usefulness of the label would be null. "God", as such, would be simply our name for the furthest reach of humanity.

If there is God, this God must be self-revealing; and this self-revelation must be able to reach into humanity without losing divinity. And, as Barth concludes, this God would be the one asking the questions, not us. Were divine self-revelation to meet us, it would ask us in faith to know God on God's terms. This might sound like an open door to the most ethereal of religions, but not so. It is the denial of religion in both its atheist and theist forms.

Where does this leave atheism and agnosticism? With little to say about God, and better off admitting to a constructive humanism, in my opinion. What to believe about humanity is another question (and a highly debatable one at that).

Where does this leave Christianity? Well, it is a faith. But, since we believe God true and good and loving according to Jesus Christ as God's self-revelation to (and of!) humanity, it is a call to a certain faith -- a faith seeking understanding, seeking the good of humanity, and seeking reconciliation in the world. The constructable gods of atheists and theists can only bow if God takes on flesh.


Colin Toffelmire said...

As Victor Preller once wrote, "In this life, 'God' remains a word in *another* language." (Divine Science, 156).

Dale said...

"Jesus Christ as God's self-revelation to (and of!) humanity"

I like that.

Eric said...

Wow, well done.

And it seems to me that we don't "want" God as much as we think we do; are desires about God being for us are mixed, and we're not even clear about what "for us" would mean - left to ourselves.

stewart said...

"this God would be the one asking the questions, not us"...that is the essence of this excellent piece. I think i'm getting a feel for why you like Barth so much. In our search for the divine we reduce him to less than He is...sin has corrupted our thought processes.

Tony Tanti said...

wow Jon, you're taking your thought and writing to a whole nother level I think, this is a great piece.

I have a hard time with the grey area between accepting God despite not always understanding and wanting to explain (justify, reason) God according to my ideas of what a good God should look like.

Trev said...


How has god revealed himself to you and how are you sure it's him?

The reason I ask this is because my "presupposition" of a "god" would be something/someone that could reveal themself/itself to me in a manner that goes beyond the five senses. In other words, something that I can't presuppose! (if that makes any sense).

But I am yet to have an experience/encounter in my life that can't be explained empirically. So when is God gonna come along and reveal himself to me?

Another question for you Jon, If Christianity didn't exist, do you think you would become one?

Jon Coutts said...


You asked three questions there. Thanks.

1) I believe God has revealed Godself in the man Jesus Christ, at a specific place and time in history, and, so then, God is revealed to me (as everyone) primarily through the Bible handed on by the church in the world. I believe Jesus is alive and His Spirit is present in the world outside the church and the Bible, but I take it that He is present in His freedom, and not some way that I can point to or pin down for you or myself.

Lest perhaps it seems I'm evading the more pointed question: I'm not sure I've ever had an unmediated kind of direct encounter with God myself, if that's what you are looking for. I have had lots of experiences where I thought that I was hearing God through the above things, and/or where I felt pretty intimately aware of the presence of God in the world, but I would have no way of being sure that I was absolutely right about any one of those moments being what I thought they were. I tend to be thankful for them and throw them in the lot with all the more important things that I think Jesus Christ is on about in this world.

I understand what you are saying. I have resonated with your questions at times in my life quite deeply, and I imagine I will again. So, I don't want to sound flippant, but let me ask a question: Why not a god who can just self-reveal to our five senses? I don't know what you mean by "goes beyond" your five senses: Like, some kind of private ethereal feeling or awareness or something?

2) As for "when?": Not to be a smart-alec or anything, but 2000 years ago? You said you are "yet to have an experience/encounter in my life that can't be explained empirically": Can the resurrection of Jesus be explained empirically? Or does it have to be something private (the key words being "in my life"), for just you? If you mean privately or in an unmediated personal way, then I don't know. God could. It happens, I suppose. But, if Jesus is God, I don't think it would ever happen without some eventual or immediate or past connection to God's primarily intended self-revelation to the whole of humankind.

3) How could I become a Christian if Christianity didn't exist? I couldn't.

I'll try to answer what it seems like you might be driving at, though. You tell me if I'm off base (on this or any of the above):

It is quite a hypothetical, to imagine what I'd do if there were no Christianity. Perhaps the better way to imagine it is if I was born into a Buddhist family or Hindu family or atheist family or something. The only way I can answer is according to my personality, and I can tell you based on my reaction to the Christian faith that I've been brought up in that I imagine I'd be so suspicious of all my supposed encounters with the divine (or whatever) that I'd have lost faith by now.

Or, to take another tack, I wonder if maybe you are referring to the "must" in the third-to-last paragraph of my original post? [If so, great question!] I don't think I could put that "must" in there without hearing about the God that has been presented by Jesus.

I do think that I'd be suspicious of the religious and irreligious notions of god, in the same way that this post is, but without Christianity I'd have nothing I could do with that suspicion, and mabye wouldn't have had it in the first place. My guess is I'd be an atheist. To be brutally honest, brutally honest, I doubt I'd be alive today.

That's my guess, anyway. And those are my honest attempts . . . Am I hearing your questions right?

Jon Coutts said...

tony tanti: me too. I have found it liberating to trust God to be good and true -- and rather than take that to mean I DON'T try to reconcile my mind with that, I DO, but with a bit less anxiety perhaps. Then again, I get really anxious when portraits of the Christian God are put forward that don't sound good to me. That's hard, and it is worth putting that to Scripture again, for sure.

Trev said...

Hi Jon,

Thanks for your answers.

You asked:

"Why not a god who can just self-reveal to our five senses? I don't know what you mean by "goes beyond" your five senses: Like, some kind of private ethereal feeling or awareness or something?"

No, such a thing would still fall within one of the five senses.

This is my point, I don't know what "beyond the five senses" would look like! Nobody does (to the best of my knowledge). Therefore everything is operating in a very tangible, empirical, physical world - the demigod Jesus included.

Jesus was a man, encountered by other men and everything he said/did could've been empirically demonstrated/replicated. So who is (and why are they) calling him god?

Wouldn't pointing to a physical, tangible human being and calling him god prove that he ISN'T god?? Isn't that what Barth is saying?

Maybe I'm totally missing it. I don't know.

I guess it all just seems so ambiguous to me. As if there's just no way for a human being to reach their own supposed "father" (which seems like a one-sided relationship) except for a lucky few who were on this earth in the right place at the right time 2000 years ago. And my only shot at knowing if god is communicating with me is by not really knowing, because knowing means proving, and proving means it's not god :(

Jon. I'm so confused. But I really do want to understand.

You said: "Can the resurrection of Jesus be explained empirically? Or does it have to be something private (the key words being "in my life"), for just you?"

Yeah, I meant just me. The resurrection didn't happen in my lifetime. In fact, I doubt the ressurection happened at all (occam's razor). But if it DID happen, then no, it certainly could not be explained empirically.

You said: "But, if Jesus is God, I don't think it would ever happen without some eventual or immediate or past connection to God's primarily intended self-revelation to the whole of humankind."

How did he reveal himself to the whole of mankind? Did he visit every continent and every person in 33 years? According to N.T. Wright (The church and the victory of Christ), his ministry was very localized and jewish-centric. There are no recordings of such a messaiah from any other culture that would serve as a Jesus-equivilent, correct?

This is part of why I'm assuming God must have an alternate, personal-revelation plan for those that won't hear about him through the christian pipeline.