In Search of God:
Is Atheism the Only Alternative to Theism?
by Bishop John Shelby Spong
from his 1998 book Why Christianity Must Change or Die
Some people whom I respect have decided that the Lord's Song can no longer be sung in this world with integrity. Among this number is a man I mentioned in the preface as one of my great mentors. He is an English scholar named Michael Donald Goulder, the author of some of the most provocative books on the Gospels that I have ever read. Michael has now retired from his post as professor of biblical studies at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.
As a young man, Michael was ordained to the priesthood of the Anglican Church. Because of his superior intellect and gentle spirit, his career developed rapidly. On one occasion he was even seriously considered for the position of Anglican bishop of Hong Kong.
His life, however, increasingly turned away from the institutional aspects of religion and toward an academic career, where his brilliance brought his ideas to an ever-widening audience at home and, through an increasing number of invitations to fill endowed lectureships, to a significant audience abroad. He had become one of the shapers of the Christian message for the future.
In 1981, however, Goulder startled his church associates and his reading public by resigning from both the priesthood and the Christian Church. Today he refers to himself as "a nonaggressive atheist."
Shortly after this resignation, Goulder defended his newly minted atheist position in a public dialogue with another English theologian named John Hick. The dialogue was published under the title Why Believe in God? Goulder rested his case for atheism primarily on the argument that the God of the past "no longer had any real work to do." The tasks assigned to this God by traditional wisdom, he suggested, have been slowly but surely stripped from the divine side. This God no longer fights wars and defeats enemies. This God no longer chooses a special people and works through them. This God no longer sends the storms, heals the sick, spares the dying, or even judges the sinner. This God no longer rewards goodness and punishes evil. Yet this virtually unemployed deity is still the primary object and substance of the Christian Church's faith. Goulder felt he no longer could or wanted to be identified with that understanding. In his penetrating analysis of what has happened to the concept of God, Goulder forced a new awareness into theological thinking. Unknowingly, he was calling the church to recognize that it had entered an exile. He concluded that as far as he could see the God of the past had died. He could envision no other alternative. Goulder made a powerful case and issued a mighty challenge. Institutionally, the church did not know quite how to respond. It was clearly not ready to give up its doctrine of God, and so, after seeking to caricature Goulder's ideas, it went about its business as usual, took up its position behind a veritable Maginot Line of theological defense, and hoped the challenge would simply go away.
However, Goulder had touched a nerve in many of us. Deep in the conscious minds of countless believers is the knowledge that most of the traditional God images have lost both their meaning and their power. Many who still claim to be believers know in the depths of their being that they, too, have rejected these images. The narratives in the Bible, which undergird the superstructure of doctrine and dogma, have had their literal power cut to the bone by the advent of critical scholarship. The hymns and prayers of the church use images and make assumptions that most of us can no longer make. There is an increasing sense even among believers that the word God now rings with a hollow emptiness. Clergy in the exercise of their pastoral duties discover that the pious phrases they have dispensed so frequently are increasingly empty. They are received by the people without either enthusiasm or comment, as meaningless clichés. With every passing day, the ties that once bound traditional believers so tightly to these supernatural, supreme-being concepts of God are becoming dramatically loosened. "You will be in my thoughts" or maybe "in my prayers," people say, without really expecting either to do anything or that what they do will have any effect whatsoever. Since such words and phrases once brought comfort, it is assumed, perhaps that they still can, even if we no longer know quite what they mean.
But these clichés are simply regarded as the final weak defenses against an overwhelming sense of the loss of God. The conclusion is more assumed than spoken in our society. Michael Goulder, once a priest, and still a biblical scholar of world rank, spoke that private assumption in a very public way. He was convinced that the God he once had worshiped was real no more, and he wanted his life to match that conviction with both honesty and integrity.
But the question for us must be, who or what is the God that Goulder has rejected? The answer seems overwhelmingly obvious. He has rejected the idea of God defined as a supernatural person who invades life periodically to accomplish the divine will. This deity is an intensely human figure who does grandiose and expanded, but nonetheless, human things. This is a God clearly defined in what we might call the language of theism. The shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines theism as "belief in one God as creator and supreme ruler of the universe." The Encyclopedia Britannica goes a bit further to describe theism as "the view that all limited or finite things are dependent in some way on one supreme or ultimate reality which one may also speak of in personal terms." It goes on to say that the theist "considers the world quite distinct from the author or creator." Richard Swinburne, an English theologian, defines theism as a view of God that is "something like a person without a body, who is eternal, free, able to do anything, knows everything, is perfectly good, is the proper object of human worship and obedience, the creator and sustainer of the universe." Assuming these uses of the word, for the purposes of this book I will define theism as belief in an external, personal, supernatural, and potentially invasive Being. That is the definition of God literally present in the Hebrew scripture. That is, indeed, the definition that has so captured the popular concept of God that no possibility for God seems to exist beyond the scope of theism. Even our language draws that conclusion. For if a person is not a theist, acknowledging the existence of a being called God, then our language suggests that the only alternative is to be an a-theist. Goulder accepted that logical conclusion, and he had the courage to act upon it.
But theism and God are not the same. Theism is but one human definition of God. Can any human definition ever exhaust the meaning of God? Are we not aware of that ancient bit of folk wisdom suggesting that "if horses had gods they would look like horses"? No creature can finally conceptualize beyond its own limits or its own being. A horse cannot think or imagine beyond the experience of a horse. Despite our human pretensions, that is also true of human beings. If human beings have gods, they will look and act remarkably like human beings. None of us can ever get beyond that. If we are going to speak of God at all, we must begin by acknowledging that limitation. Even if we admit revelation as a source of knowledge, that revelation will be received and understood within the limits of the human experience.
Indeed, a closer look at these gods we human beings have worshiped historically will reveal that they were recorded as having acted not just humanly, but sometimes in the very worst manner of human behavior. The Jewish God in the Hebrew scriptures was assumed to hate anyone that the nation of Israel hated. The gods of the Olympus, served by both Greek and Roman civilizations, were portrayed in a wide variety of what we today would call "compromised" sexual activities. Such a picture of the predilections of the gods makes it easy to understand just why these gods died.
The familiar Christian God acknowledged by almost all of our European ancestors not only blessed the imperialistic and colonial expansion of those nations in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries but also declared that this colonialist domination of the underdeveloped peoples of the world was the very will of the Christian deity. So under the banner of Christ, native populations in what we today call the third world were subjugated and converted, while the resources of those conquered nations were being extracted from their soil to bring wealth to the Europeans. That old lament of those we now call Native Americans that "when the Europeans came, we had the land and they had the Bible, but now we have the Bible and they have the land," rings with sardonic but real truth.
It becomes so clear that the God most of us have worshiped during human history has looked and acted in a very human manner. In view of this fact, my first discovery in the exile is that I can no longer approach this subject by asking, "Who is God?" Nor can I be limited to personal images for God. The "who" question and the personal images of God slide quickly together, and theology becomes an exercise not unlike staring into a mirror. The fact is that the God of Thomas Aquinas looked and acted very much like Thomas Aquinas. So, too, did the God of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Thomas Cranmer look and act like each of these theologians. Definitions of God that are personal or that come as responses to the question "who?" are therefore quite dangerous. Some would say they are also increasingly quite inadequate. Hence, in my search for a new way to speak about God in the exile, I have come to see that I must abandon both personal images and "who?" questions and seek a different starting place.
But to reach this conclusion means that I must be prepared to dismiss most of the God content of the ages. That is what Michael Goulder did. If there is no other way to speak of God, then his path might have to become the path for all of us. For that reason, the enormity of that dismissal becomes a step not taken lightly. It is in recognizing exile, however, that we see the traditional pathway to God to be no longer open to us. Exile people know that there can be no return to the past, so they must be prepared either to give up or to look in some other direction. If exile from all religious systems is not our final destination, then only one alternative is open to us, and that is to go forward into we know not what. That is where the talk of God must now be located. The future may contain no answer either, but we do not know that yet. We do know, however, that the answer surely is not contained in the theistic God concept of yesterday. The believer in exile bets his or her faith on the possibility of a new insight emerging out of a new direction.
As theism begins to crack and die, we can see ever more clearly the process of "God creation" that we human beings have always pursued. The attributes we have claimed for God are nothing but human qualities expanded beyond human limits. Human life is mortal. God, we said, was not mortal. Stating it positively, we claimed God was immortal. Human life is finite. God, we said, is not finite. When we stated it positively, God became infinite. Human life is limited in power. God is not limited. Omnipotent then became our positive word. Human life does not know all things. God is not bound by that limitation. Omniscient then became our positive word. Human life is bound to a particular space or by immutable natural laws. God is conceived of as being not so bound. Omnipresent and supernatural then became our God words.
When we unravel the theological tomes of the ages, the makeup of God becomes quite clear. God is a human being without human limitations who is read into the heavens. We disguised this process by suggesting that the reason God was so much like a human being was that the human beings were in fact created in God's image. However, we now recognize that it was the other way around. The God of theism came into being as a human creation. As such, this God, too, was mortal and is now dying.
Once we have moved beyond our rhetoric and know what it is that we are seeing, then the fingerprints, revealing theism's human creation, become almost amusingly obvious. An illustration of this is in the Noah story in Genesis (9:8-17). God was a great warrior, it was said, and occasionally the wrath of this warrior deity turned against human life. The great flood was interpreted as one such incidence of God's warfare against the sinful creation. When the rains ceased and the floodwaters began to recede, the scriptures suggested that what had actually occurred was that God had laid aside his weapon of war. In that era where the bow, together with its projectiles called arrows, was the primary weapon with which to attack an enemy at some distance, God, the distant heavenly warrior, was said to have laid the divine bow aside. Since God was conceived of as a Being of enormous size, this divine bow had to be large enough to cover the heavens. Since God was magnificent in splendor beyond human imagining, this bow had to include all of the brilliant colors of the spectrum. So when God laid down the divine weapon and ended the warfare designed to punish the sinfulness of humankind, the sign was the divine bow, called the rainbow, that covered the sky. It was an ingenious interpretation, and it lasted until scientists figured out how rain reflects and refracts the rays of the sun into the colors present in a beam of light.
Pressing this inquiry into the sources of theism further, we now need to ask, "What was the human need that caused us to create God in our own image in the first place?" When and why did theism actually emerge? Our deepening probe suggests that theistic religion was born at the exact moment when human self-consciousness first emerged out of the evolutionary process. Indeed, I would suggest that what we might call human history has never existed without both self-consciousness and theistic religion. I would go further and say that it was the emergence of self-consciousness that demanded the creation of theistic religion. Since religion was conceived in theistic terms at the very moment of the rise of self-consciousness, at the dawn of human history, theism was able to develop its powerful and exclusive lock on the definition of God. That is why the death of theism feels like the death of God. The two have never been separated before. So looking still for clues to help us into some new approach to the divine, we seek to understand what happened at the dawn of human life to make this combination so intense.
We are helped in this pursuit of insight by the great father of the psychoanalytic discipline, Sigmund Freud. In 1927 he sketched out his thoughts on this subject in a book entitled The Future of an Illusion. Here Freud probed the origins of human life and the various human creations that enabled human beings to cope with their existence. Religion was, he argued, a major one of those human creations.
The birth of theistic religion, Freud argued, grew out of the trauma of self-consciousness. For billions of years, Freud observed, the creatures who inhabited this earth did not have a sufficient intellectual capacity to raise questions about the meaning of their lives or indeed to ask whether life possessed any ultimate meaning. They simply lived and died in an endless pattern without knowing that this was either their reality or their destiny.
Finally, however, a creature evolved with a brain sufficient to be self-aware, self-conscious, and to have the capacity for self-transcendence. The shock of mortality and meaninglessness entered history at that moment, Freud contended. Now the world possessed a creature who could anticipate dying, who could understand disaster, and who could view its destiny to be nothing more than decay. This was a traumatic realization, and with that realization, definable human existence was born.
If trauma is sufficiently intense, and if it cannot be dealt with adequately in any other way, then the inevitable human response is hysteria. Religion, Freud contended, was the coping mechanism, the human response to the trauma of self-consciousness, and it was designed above all else to keep hysteria under control and to manage for these self-conscious creatures the shock of existence.
The first tenet in all human religion, he observed, was that the powers that threatened human beings were assumed to be personal. This meant that the sun, the heat, the cold, the wind, the water, and the storm were defined as the manifestations of supernatural beings or a supernatural being. If this were so, then human beings were not victims of a blind impersonal force unresponsive to their needs. As manifestations of the personal deity, these powers could be related to and controlled in the same way that human beings had always been able to deal with those who possessed authority. These powerful divine figures could also be placated, bargained with, flattered, or appeased. Frail and frightened human beings thus could ingratiate themselves with these external personal powers so that instead of being victimized by them, they could move the deity to protect or spare them instead. So it was that natural disasters were routinely interpreted to be the angry expressions of the supernatural beings or being who lived beyond this world. Those natural forces all emerged from the sky, where God was presumed to live. Therefore, they must have been designed by this deity to reward, punish, or warn according to what humans deserved. Keeping the laws of God, which were understood not as the creation of society but as the revealed will of the deity, then became of paramount importance. It was the way to keep the deity satisfied. Worshiping properly and faithfully also became the first line of defense against possible human disaster. It was a powerful system, against which few people chose to rebel. The one who had broken the rule, therefore, had to be quick to confess it, to promise amends, and even to offer sacrifices if necessary to make up for the offense. If he or she did not, the whole people might perish.
The member of the tribe who was called the shaman, the medicine man or woman, or the high priest claimed the right to speak for this God, to reveal God's rules and to be able to carry out God's plan for proper worship. When this holy figure was also believed to be able to turn away the wrath of a storm or the fury of sickness by prayers, incantations, or sacrifices or to be able to interpret the meaning of that storm or that sickness in a convincing way, then the power of the priesthood was established and the authority of such religious figures was secure.
Freud found in all of these theistic manifestations the suppressed hysteria of a newly self-conscious creature. Defense against hysteria requires that nothing occur that would destabilize the system, for only thus can the angst of self-consciousness be kept in check. The presence of that defense system in human religion was for Freud the sure sign that he had discovered in religion not the manifestation of truth but the manifestation of trauma. Religious truth was said to have been revealed by God and thus its content was not subject to debate. The community authorized to receive this revelation was said to have understood it perfectly and to be able to define it infallibly. Therefore, no one was allowed to debate their interpretations. Religious truth was thus protected by a double immunity.
Real truth, Freud suggested, does not need to be surrounded by such impenetrable barriers. Truth in its objective form can compete and win in debate in the public arena. Religious truth and theistic understandings were shielded from that debate. Religion itself was not an activity in pursuit of truth; it was rather born to be a significant part of the security system of human life.
Only when we recognize this defense mechanism in religion can we grasp the meaning of the constant presence in primitive religion, and certainly still present in Western religion, of an intense, even a killing, anger. Irrational hostility is a symptom of hysteria. Anger has always marked the religious establishment. This is why so many Christian leaders historically have justified such things as the stifling of debate with ex cathedra pronouncements, the persecution of dissenters, the excommunication of nonconformists, the execution of heretics, and the engagement in religious wars. This is also why anger is always just beneath the surface of organized religion in almost every one of its Western manifestations. The preaching of evangelists is marked by finger pointing and face-contorting expressions of hostility while they talk about the wrath of God. Anger lies underneath the glee expressed by the preachers of Christian history when they assign unbelievers to hell. Anger is the reason why many religious people act as if they will not enjoy the bliss of heaven if they are not simultaneously allowed to view those not so fortunate writhing before their eyes in the fires of hell. Anger is the reason why the Church throughout its history kept writing creed after creed to clarify just who is in and who is out of this religious enterprise so that religious people would know who their enemies were and could act appropriately against them.
It was Freud's contention that theistic religion was born as the means of dealing with the trauma of self-conscious existence. It was born as a tool designed to keep our hysteria in check. The theistic definition of God as a personal being with expanded supernatural, human, and parental qualities, which has shaped every religious idea of the Western world, came into existence not through divine revelation, Freud argued, but out of human need. Today this theism is collapsing. The theistic God has no work to do. The power once assigned to this God is now explained in countless other ways. The theistic God is all but unemployed. I am convinced that this powerful and provocative Freudian analysis is correct. That is one reason why human life in the theistic world has arrived in an exile. Human beings have evolved to the place where the theistic God concept can be and must be cast aside. It has become an inoperative premise. If there is no other possible understanding of God, then surely God has died.
It was when I reached this conclusion but still could not dismiss what seemed to me to be an experience of something other, transcendent, and beyond all of my limits that I knew I had to find another God language. Theism was no more.