The other day after a sermon, I was asked, "Do you believe in God?" I set up a coffee with the questioner to talk about that and other things. I am always game for that kind of discussion. I think we are in a period of time in which questions like that need to be asked and answered honestly and forthrightly. I think we need to take the time to define the terms and I think we need to examine the "back story" and ask ourselves what is at stake.
What does that question mean? What really is being asked? It seems to me if we want to ask someone if they believe in God, we ought to be able to be clear about what we mean by God. We should provide a definition of God. Only then does it make sense to talk about belief or unbelief. We should also define what we mean by "believe" as well.
When someone asks whether or not I believe in God (or makes statements about their perceptions of my belief), the question and statement are meaningless without definition. These questions and statements are little more than vehicles for smear, to exercise power, or to manipulate. When we are speaking about clergy who are supposed to, if anything, "believe in God", even though there is no consensus as to what that means, one can create many scandals without adding anything of value to the discussion. I think the discussion regarding God is important and worthwhile. It has to be deeper than either s/he "believes in God or doesn't."
What is at stake regarding "belief in God?" We can talk about the problem of God from an intellectual or rational point of view. What really drives us, I think, is the emotional and intuitive affect that belief in God has on us. Those who believe in God may experience presence with their deceased loved ones, courage, hope for the future, reduced anxiety about their own deaths, a sense of not being alone, peace, a focal point for prayer, belonging, a sense of duty, and so on and so forth. If belief in God gives you that and more why would you want to think critically about God? Why sow seeds of doubt? As they say on the farm: "Why look a gift horse in the mouth?"
Clergy who bring critical thinking regarding these matters into the pulpit are not received well. At least for the most part. Clergy learn this early. No clergy person wants to be perceived as mean or cruel. It is like the boy who lives next door who who tells your boy that there is no Santa Claus. Your boy comes crying to you. As a parent you get your dander up. The neighbor kid is cruel, you think. Or is he? Eventually, your kid is going to learn that Santa Claus is a hoax. Someone has to be the "bad guy" who tells the truth. You have just passed on the dirty work of truth telling to the kid next door. He's not to blame. He is the messenger. Clergy do not want to be the messenger regarding critical thinking about God. They are paid to reinforce belief.
Here is the problem. It is getting harder and harder to keep this belief going. God critically examined logically leads to atheism. Religious creeds about God are incredible. David Galston in his recently released book, Embracing The Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity, writes in a footnote:
"I think we live in an era of post-atheism. We have to accept the conclusions of atheism and move forward with new forms of human spirituality that are not inconsistent with our best knowledge about the origins of life and the nature of the universe." p. 216, n. 1.
David is my guest on an upcoming Religion For Life. He has started a community based on humanistic principles. It is in a sense, Christianity without God, which is the title of a marvelous book by Presbyterian clergy person and scholar, Lloyd Geering.
In the interview David elaborates on the phrase, "post-atheist." Post-atheism accepts the conclusions of atheism, but then takes the next step and imagines and enacts religious practice without recourse to supernatural intervention. If God is a human construct and religion a natural phenomenon, what might a practicing faith look like? I think that is an exciting challenge. David Galston offers some interesting possibilities from his own community, The Quest Learning Centre for Religious Literacy, in Hamilton, Ontario.
We have begun to imagine a Christianity without God, a Christian atheism, or a Christian post-atheism. This would be a functioning, practicing community birthed by Christianity that carries within it the "DNA" of Christianity, including for many the use of Jesus as a wisdom teacher. Of course, many Unitarian Universalist congregations have taken a similar path. Now more and more historically Christian congregations are likely to explore this path as well. Many of these call themselves, "progressive."
What about the emotional pull of "belief in God?" What about all the good stuff belief in God gives you? Is that all lost? Perhaps not all. If one cannot intellectually believe in a supernatural being who answers prayer, connects us with our deceased loved ones, intervenes to meddle with natural processes, and provides a vehicle for our consciousness to survive death, then it would seem to be a challenge to sustain "belief in God" on the emotional level anyway.
I am not making an argument in this post for atheism. I don't need to do that. That conclusion has been available for a long time. The church has lived in denial of it, but it is the intellectual reality of our time. I am arguing for the church to embrace rather than hide from what we know intellectually. I am also making the case for a post-atheism that draws from science, art, and the humanities, as well as our religious traditions.
What if we made the choice to internalize, both within ourselves and within our communities, the values and the feelings we previously projected onto God? In other words, what if we brought God home? If God is a product of our storytelling, then the qualities that we have given to God may be available to us. After all, we made them. "Believing in God" would mean the following: Make hope happen. Make courage and compassion happen. Make love happen. Make peace happen. Enact prayer.
When our children are thrust with tears and dashed hopes into the reality of "a-Santa Clausism," the cure and the care for them is "post-Santa Clausism." That is we encourage them to become Santa. Thus they learn to grow up. Santa becomes a symbol for generosity and joy. Developing generosity and joy within is a pretty good trade off for belief in a supernatural being who is supposed to do all that for us. That is what it means to "believe in Santa."
Perhaps something similar might be at work with "belief in God?"
It is food for thought. Don't execute the messenger!