Praying On Our Knees: On Being a Christian Atheist

Praying On Our Knees: Reflections on God after God.

John Caputo in his ‘On Religion’ challenges the notion that there is in fact a line between atheism and theism, and in one fell swoop he knocks the New Atheists for a loop as well as religious fundamentalists. Caputo points beyond institutional religions and towards the experience they try to institutionalize – the religious awe of life. Echoing St. Augustine he asks ‘what do I love when I love my Lord’?

In other words the religious Awe of Life that is at the heart of religious experience is actually an orientation towards love, and the term ‘God’ is something we say about Love. Lest we start thinking in terms of Big God – an idea that would negate our erasing the line between Theism and Atheism – we are not talking about God as Love but God as a name for love.

I believe it was Simon Weil who said that she was both a ‘Christian and an atheist’ and that she did not see the contradiction as she affirmed that ‘that which we named as God could not exist’, yet she knew ‘her faith was not in vain’.  Weil and Caputo are not alone in this sort of faithful atheism; it has roots and spider webs in the Death of God movement and Sea of Faith movement.

One could say that these movements are less about atheism and more about a move away from theism. In this way theism is identified as a model of an all-powerful and all-knowing God outside of the world that somehow exerts control through miracles, violation of physics and free will.

I find such a position – the Big God position – hard to swallow in a world after 9/11 and on the brink of ecological disaster. It is hard to believe in an all-powerful God in a world after 9/11 and the holocaust. But I cannot honestly turn my back on God – it was faith in God in Christ that, as a troubled teenager, gave me a new direction, sense of worth and a community of love. Neither can I go the pure atheist route and say that I reject God and accept the teaching of Jesus as moral guide as it was the lived jewishness of Jesus in his context and the resulting sense of connection with God that informed his mission.

So I return to Caputo and Weil – God cannot exist! But yet I know my faith is not in vain. I cannot escape the religious awe of life that I continue to encounter in the world, one that draws me to praise and pray on my knees. God is a word we put on love, as are the words of Justice, Mercy, Goodness and Joy.


If God is a word we put on love, and so are Justice, Mercy, Joy and Goodness then we can see what Caputo means when he seeks to remove the line between theist and atheist. Religious people are people who love and they love goodness, mercy and justice. These things do not belong to traditionally religious people alone, but to all of humanity.

In this way the work of justice and mercy become religious work and are actions that result from the religious awe of life. In fact these become the ultimate forms of worship and devotion. In this way – the way in which God is not good but God is a word for Goodness, in the way in which God is not Love but God is a word to describe the work of Love – we must pray on our knees.

Praying on your knees is not about praying or about knees. It is about posture. It is about orientation. It is about getting down to the ground – down to the goodness of creation in which we move and breath and have our being – and having what the Buddhists call Mindfulness and the Christians call Gratefulness towards the work of Love. The work of love is worship, prayer is about orientation, about being grateful for what we have and what we are and what we are called to do.

To many Christians treat prayer as a cosmic vending machine. I much prefer what I heard from my Muslim friend in regards to prayer: it does not get us ‘things’ but is an obligation to God. It is something we do in response to Love and to the work of Love. It is about being grateful and thankful and at times about yelling and pushing back against the tragic in life.

People who speak the name of Love in actions are people who worship – and it matters not if you call that Love God or Jesus or Humanitarian or Step ___ of 12. Praying on our knees is about getting close – to listening and being listened to. If you ask me I will tell you I am an atheist, I am a Christian and I am a person who loves prayer.

About Jason Derr