Atheism for Theists

There are few places as good as seminary to lose one’s faith, or at the least to have it pushed, twisted and forced past any place you had safely stacked out in advance. I had already considered myself a theologically liberal guy and had chosen my seminary carefully – a school with historically left-leaning theological faculty where I was one of three straight men in my class. Regardless, after several years of postmodern theory, queer and feminist theological methodologies as well as one stress-disorder induced by my MA thesis on theopoetics and liberation theologies I was about done with God.

While a student I used to go into the seminary chapel – where I was hired to set up chairs for the community that met there Sunday mornings – at night and have it out with God. This consisted of some yelling, some questioning and some occasional tears. On the whole I resisted the urge to throw the chairs.

One of the joys – and frustrations – of being at seminary with liberal/progressive theologians is that if one does start drifting towards athesism you find some well educated companions on the route. Between process theology and Dr. Sally McFague’s concept of panentheism I could find no way for a God who was slowly slipping away from me and my own growing partial faith to not, somehow, remain inside the Christian story. I was confronted on every side by a progressive ideology that had too much room for me.

Atheism and theism have often been placed in strict opposition to each other in a way which suggests that only two camps can exist. Agnosticism has at times tried to present itself as a middle position but tends to get neglected and rejected by atheists and theists alike and thus people on either end consider it to be cheating.

John Caputo in On Religion and The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event argues that if we view the term God as not a strong force but an idea or poetry that calls us – an idea of passion that sits in the center of the human condition – then there is no line between theism and atheism. This works if we take seriously Caputo’s notion of God not as a being but as a word we use to describe love. This, Caputo insists, relies on a passionate religious awe of life – or a recognition that awe for life is what makes one religious, not creed, doctrine or theology.

Caputo’s ideas here seem, on first blush, to border on a form of agnosticism – a third position in relationship to theism and atheism. This is not true, for in Caputo’s thought world – inspired by Derrida – God is not a being, but is a poetry we speak. God is something we make real through our actions and that people touched by this passion seek to make the impossible possible.

Though he does not name it as such I wonder if Caputo is much more influenced and inspired by an idea akin to David Eagleman’s possibilianism than anything else. Eagleman, a neuroscientist and author of the book Sum, describes his position as:

“Our ignorance of the cosmos is too vast to commit to atheism, and yet we know too much to commit to a particular religion. A third position, agnosticism, is often an uninteresting stance in which a person simply questions whether his traditional religious story (say, a man with a beard on a cloud) is true or not true. But with Possibilianism I’m hoping to define a new position — one that emphasizes the exploration of new, unconsidered possibilities. Possibilianism is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind; it is not interested in committing to any particular story.”

This possibilianism seems to take seriously the idea that humans live, move, breathe and have their being in an expansive, unfolding universe and conduct their human relationships in the midst of complex relationships and social dynamics. Or – life and the universe are messy, no one position can hold all of life neatly. It also takes seriously that our various stories and narratives of the human condition – science on one hand, religion on the other – are not so much as competing narratives but dancing stories that evolve and respond the questions and contexts of their day.

A possibilian position then seeks less to refute religion and more to enhance it as a dynamic, living possibility of human experience. In deed to be a Christian Possibilian is to hold onto the narrative and insights of my wisdom tradition as vital and gifting to the world – but, also, ultimately updateable through insight of philosophy, science and the human condition.

This would require a person to sometimes hold multiple and conflicting points of view and thus to move away from orthodoxy to paradoxology. Paradoxology would be a religious position that insists that religious communities be what they have always been – despite their protests – sites of cultural engagement and locations of ideas that shift, grow and change in relationship with the ground conditions of their context.

Likewise atheists would have to confess that science cannot and will not answer all of life’s problems. It would mean that scientific discoveries would have to be held as sources of religious awe and wonder at the world. And, of course, science would have to be held accountable and judged for its sins – atomic bombs, technologies of genocide etc.

Today I am a post-seminarian. I have a master’s degree in theological studies and I am ordained in the Progressive Christian Alliance with my first academic book on its way out. Where I used to have a space labeled God in my thinking system I am left with something else – a beautiful, mystical, poetic and religious commitment to not-knowing.

If you were to push me I would have to say, honestly, that I am an Atheist who believes in God and a Theist who does not believe. Simone Weil comes to mind: “Of course I am an Atheist and a Christian, I don’t see the conflict. What we call God cannot exist and yet the object of my devotion is not in vain” (paraphrase mine).

All things are possible until they are proven not, at which point new possibilities open up. Belief, theology, spirituality, theology and God become a play/ground of possibilities, each one which poses a question to us about the human condition and human possibilities. Faith becomes less a position on the eternal soul of humanity and more of a comment and conversation on the eternal possibility of the human condition.

Where doubt once ruled it is now embraced, not as an object or block to be overcome but as a condition of humanity that enriches my experience. If all things are possible then my faith and my doubt are not polarities to be navigated but are essential parts of the human condition to be integrated into my being. This way of faith – God without God, a religious awe of life instead of dogma and doctrine – is the great adventure, and I hope I am not alone on the journey.

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