Leaving God Behind

I was going to call this blog entry “Taking Leave Of God”, but since I’ve actually never read Don Cupitt’s book by that title, I decided not to allude to it. The inspiration for this entry in fact comes from some verses in Exodus 33 – a story tucked away between the better-known stories of the golden calf and of the theophany in which Moses gets to see God’s “rear end” (and then provides new tablets with the “ten commandments” which don’t match those originally given in Exodus 20).

There are three possibilities with respect to the interpretation of the story in Exodus 33:1-3. One is that it was written with no intention that it be taken literally. A second is that God said things in this story that accomodated the Israelites’ understanding. Finally, one can suggest that it was indeed meant literally as written, but we cannot accept its literal meaning today. The second option seems to be merely an attempt to ‘have our cake and eat it too’, to recognize the humanness of the passage but assert its divine origin nonetheless. Of the three, the latter option seems the best fit to me.

In the story, the God who dwells on Sinai offers to send an angel to accompany the people. But Yahweh himself will not accompany them, since he’d probably just get fed up and destroy them on the way. Not only is God anthropomorphized in the story. God is localized in a manner typical of the time. God dwells on Sinai, and in order to dwell in the tabernacle and accompany the people, he would have to depart his historic dwelling place on the mountain, presumably. When things need to be done in his absence, he empowers a person and gives their staff powerful “magical” abilities.

In an ongoing discussion on another blog, I’ve been told once again that there are really only two options: theism (= belief in localized, anthropomorphized, supernatural deities, as expressed in the Exodus story) and atheism (= the denial of the existence of such beings). If this were correct, presumably that would make me and many others “Christian atheists”. But unless one wants to narrow the definition of atheism to “the denial of theism“, then I absolutely reject this dichotomy. Christian theology of the past hundred years or so has focused on thinking of God as greater than the image in this Exodus story, not less. The alternative for those who find religious language still a key part in doing justice to the wider and deeper world that science has made known to us do not simply cast aside all notions of God, but rethink the meaning of such language in light of our increased knowledge and our new perspective.

Exodus offers a God that can be left behind. Atheism recommends doing just that. Progressive Christianity, Liberal Christianity, and many other forms of sophisticated theology recommend leaving behind the image of a God that can be left behind, and adopting instead the language of God as all-encompassing transcendence. This is not “shifting the goal post” or being slippery. It is about redefining our concepts and reformulating our metaphors for the ultimate as our knowledge about the non-ultimate expands and grows. This process will only seem inappropriate to those who share the fundamentalist notion of theology as offering timeless truths and certainties untainted by culture or human limitations. To those who have studied enough theology and/or enough of the Bible and/or enough other subjects will realize that this is a natural process that occurs in all human endeavors. Music must become more daring and dissonant as familiar harmonies become boring. Language must be pushed to its limits as metaphors die. Concepts of God must be rethought and revisioned as symbols that once pointed beyond what we know now compete with science and other domains of knowledge, and lose.

Science tells us things that we can feel confident we “know” with as much certainty as is possible, using carefully defined tools and methods appropriate to its investigation and analysis. Religion (as I perceive and practice it) is more of a poetic, artistic work of the imagination, attempting to integrate as many aspects of our experience as possible in a way that allows us to think about the unthinkable and relate to the unknowables, in a way that allows us to perceive the world not merely reductionistically but in ways that take transcendence and meaning seriously.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08014885672703727636 Ken Brown

    It seems to me that the point is not that God is localized (though I can’t rule out that this is in the background), but that God is free, to grant his presence or withhold it, to go with us, or to let us go our own way. This may be overly anthropomorphized in Exod. 33:1-3, but it is an important theme throughout scripture. I don’t think we can give it up, even if we might be more careful in how we express it: God is not merely a pervasive force that we can tap into at will, but a personality with whom we may interact, but can never control.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I do think that the story can be understood as emphasizing God’s freedom, and there are lots of wonderful things one could say about the story along those lines. But there seems to also be the assumption that it is possible for God to not be with the Israelites – not simply not be blessing them or not be experienced by them, but actually not be present, while I suspect most theists today would assert God’s omnipresence.Perhaps I am reading too much into the story. Or perhaps I am noticing things that were always there but I never noticed because my assumptions and those of the author of the story are so different…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08014885672703727636 Ken Brown

    It’s a tough issue, for sure. The concept of sacred space is pretty central to the ANE worldview, but seems rather difficult to reconcile with omnipresence as traditionally understood.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    Your analogy with dissonant music may be instructive. It seems every time music pushes out of it’s envelop, it is eventually dragged back in. The mid-20th century experiment with atonality failed – it never really caught on. Pure spoken-word Rap got mixed with R&B; melody and went mainstream. We can blame commercialism for Country’s loss of it’s distinctive sound but I think there is a human resistance to extremes. Fundies will never rule the world and notional Christians will never go all the way and accept the full blown mystical Christianity of Meaning.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15978997781556741350 Mike L.

    I think what some people hear you suggesting is moving to a mushy nothingness that doesn’t have any particular manifestation of the transcendent through images, symbols, music, etc. (I know you don’t mean that).I wonder if there is a third way. What if we accept a postmodern faith that allows everyone to cherish their own unique cultural expression of the “all-encompassing transcendence”, but we all act like responsible adults and realize our particular images are merely symbolic representations of the transcendent? I don’t think we need to ask people to stop using their individual language or symbols for God, we should just ask them to stop imagining they are the only way to do it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05756598746605455848 Larry Moran

    James F. McGrath says,In an ongoing discussion on another blog, I’ve been told once again that there are really only two options: theism (= belief in localized, anthropomorphized, supernatural deities, as expressed in the Exodus story) and atheism (= the denial of the existence of such beings).Actually, you been told other things as well.Many of us, including Richard Dawkins, completely reject the false dichotomy that you’ve set up.Atheists do not accept that supernatural beings exist. Non-atheists do. Among the non-atheists are true theists and deists and perhaps many others.So, do you, or do you not, believe in the existence of supernatural beings (persons, entities)?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07225890125470949454 Bad

    “But unless one wants to narrow the definition of atheism to “the denial of theism”, then I absolutely reject this dichotomy.”The debate over the best definition of atheism is probably a for another time, but wouldn’t this entail a broadening of the definition, not a narrowing? After all, the position that there is no god is a pretty narrow one (and actually less common than thought amongst self-described atheists: I don’t claim it, for instance), while the lack of belief in god is a far broader category, comprehensively capturing all non-theists.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14247799389009268470 James Pate

    I remember Tim Keller pointing out something interesting about the story. He said God was offering Israelites the sort of thing many of us would like: God blessing us (since he sent the angel to take them into the Promised Land) but not interfering personally into our lives. A lot of people would like God’s blessings without God himself. I’m not sure how accurate an interpretation of the story that is, since the angel could have still punished the Israelites for sinning. But it was an interesting way to look at it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks, Mike L. That’s a great way of putting it!Larry, I was fairly clear that I do not accept the dichotomy you keep setting up (but say you don’t and then accuse me of). Hans Kueng’s way of referring to God as “more than personal” and “at least personal” is helpful. My concept of God is as transcendent, as greater than we are, and so to simply say “impersonal” runs counter to that.The analogy I’ve used before is of two cells in a human body trying to imagine what that greater whole of which they are a part is like. The best they might come up with is “a big cell”, but that wouldn’t be an adequate depiction of what a human being is like.I do not believe in “supernatural persons”, by which you presumably intend to denote angels and the way God is commonly depicted in Greek myths and in the Bible. Many ancient philosophers found the Greek myths and the language of God meaningful even when they did not accept the literal truthfulness of the myths any longer. If you’re ever interested in talking about the wide range of views that educated theologians and philosophers have been talking about since antiquity, rather than the anthropomorphic views of God from popular mythology, let me know. Or you can just keep saying “Plato was an atheist, Buddha was an atheist…” If you say it in Latin or Sanskrit it will make a wonderful mantra.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08144417439505262113 Elliot

    Hi James,Good post. My own thinking has been following some similar paths over the past few years. Though I haven’t been thinking as directly in theological terms – I’ve been drawing on literature & works of art, the social gospel, and Quaker practices. It’s good to get a somewhat complementary perspective.


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