Must a Christian Believe in God? Is there a “Godless Christianity?”
Over the years I’ve had many encounters with people claiming to be Christians who also say they either do not believe in God or are not sure whether they believe in God. And I’ve read several theologians who claim to be Christian who deny the existence/reality of God (that is, they deny “theistic realism”).
Must a person believe in God to be Christian?
Well, first, we have to parse the question and terms carefully. What do people like this mean by “God?” What do they mean by “believe in?” What do they mean by “existence” when applied to God?
Theologian Paul Tillich famously denied the existence of God. But so did Søren Kierkegaard. So have many existentialist theologians and theologians inclined toward negative theology. But what did they mean?
Tillich made much of the brokenness of finite existence; for him “existence” is cut off from “essence.” God transcends the divide between essence and existence. Also, to “exist” is to be an object; God transcends object-ness. God is not an object, a thing.
So some philosophers and theologians who deny God’s existence believe in God’s reality; they believe in God.
I wrote my entire doctoral dissertation (Rice University, 1984) on Pannenberg’s phrase “God does not yet exist.” One thing is clear; Pannenberg believes in God. (Read my chapters on Moltmann and Pannenberg in my forthcoming book The Journey of Modern Theology to find out what “God does not yet exist” meant in “eschatological theology” and why Moltmann, who clearly believes in God, once declared that “only a Christian can be a good atheist.”)
So we can’t take “God does not exist” at face value; we have to ask people who say that what they mean.
However, beginning at least in the 1960s, some self-identified Christian theologians began to talk about “Christian atheism” and claimed that they were Christians without believing in God’s reality. That is, they denied theistic realism—any reality of God except as a cipher for some dimension of nature or human spirituality. Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton were the most famous examples. Later Don Cupitt joined them in his own way, putting his own spin on “taking leave of God for God’s sake.” For him, as for many modern and postmodern self-identified Christians, “God” is simply a cipher for “the call forward,” spirituality, self-transcendence.
So why did these people, the radical theologians, consider themselves Christians? As William Hamilton insisted, they are Christians because they “stand with Jesus” in the world. That is, their posture toward the world is one inspired by Jesus.
More recently one reads self-identified Christian thinkers like John Caputo and his popularizer Peter Rollins (not to say Rollins doesn’t have his own ideas or isn’t inspired by other thinkers than Caputo) and wonders whether they believe in God. I think they are being purposefully ambiguous about it in order to provoke thought about assumptions about “God.” They are bothered (to say the least) by what they consider distortions of God in folk religion and some scholarly religion as well. For them, it is a sin to objectify God. So most talk about God is demeaning to God. But that leaves us with little ability to talk about God. Of course, the mystics such as Meister Eckhart were saying much the same centuries ago. And Kierkegaard wrestled with this in his context of easy-believism in which “God” was often just a cipher for respectable Danish culture.
I worry, though, that these ideas are filtering down to non-theologically trained self-identified Christians in confused ways. I am hearing more and more about and from self-identified Christians who go to church, consider themselves Jesus-loving persons, engage in spiritual exercises, and yet say they do not believe in God or are not sure they believe in God. In fact, I would say this is an issue churches and church leaders must face.
A few years ago Reformed theologian Michael Horton wrote a book entitled Christless Christianity. I found myself in agreement with much of it. However, perhaps it’s time someone wrote a book entitled Godless Christianity—not to condemn genuinely concerned or confused self-identified Christians who are not sure they believe in God but to explore why some self-identified Christians do not believe in God or are not if they believe in God and then to explain why belief in God, faith in God (not proof of God) is necessary to authentic Christianity.
So why do many thoughtful, reflective, even “spiritual,” Jesus-loving people who consider themselves Christians either deny God or struggle with belief in God?
I’m sure there are many reasons, but here I’ll touch on a few.
First, I suspect many of them grew up thinking of God as a “God of the gaps” and finding out the gaps in knowledge they thought God was necessary to fill can be closed otherwise—for example by science. Second, I suspect many of them grew up thinking of God as a cruel judge and even author of evil and innocent suffering and came to think that this all-determining, judgmental God was not worth believing in. Third, I suspect many of them grew up thinking of God as the only source for moral living, that only believers in God could or would live “good lives,” and then found out agnostics and atheists can also live good, moral lives (often better than many people who believe in God!). Fourth, I suspect many of them grew up thinking their parents were “God-like” and then, under disillusionment about their parents (or pastors), discarded belief in God (the inevitable results of what Feuerbach and Freud called “projection”). Fifth, I suspect many of them found themselves unable to resist temptations, fell into sinful lifestyles, and simply decided believing in God was too much trouble for their consciences. Then they found intellectual arguments in the writings of atheists to support their preference not to believe in God (because believing in God would make them feel constantly guilty as they continued “living in sin”).
However, there’s a sixth reason—one more difficult to challenge than the first five. Many young self-identified Christians have simply come to identify “God” with the trivialized deity of much American Christianity who is little more than a cosmic prop for American values. They realize that what one author called “Good old plastic Jesus” is a farce and they want to hold on to Jesus as he really was and is, but they can dispense with God because he has been hopelessly trivialized by popular Christianity in numerous ways. In other words, for them, there simply remains no way to think or speak about God without including, implicitly if not explicitly, all those popular images.
I sympathize with these people. But I do not think it is necessary to give up on God just because it seems almost impossible to “rescue” God from cultural theisms. Our task as Christians ought to be to hold on to God (who is, of course, really holding on to us!) and rescue his reputation from the numerous ways in which he is demeaned, used, by “good Christian folks” and their leaders (politicians, television evangelists, popular apologetics writers, movie-makers, many pastors, etc.).
So, the proposed book Godless Christianity would have to deal with two issues—why belief in the real God, the God of Jesus Christ, is necessary for authentic Christianity and why much of what passes as belief in God in America (I won’t speak of other countries but I’m sure America is not unique in this regard) is the cause of thoughtful, reflective, even spiritual people giving up on God.
Finally, then, why do I think belief in God (as distinct from proof of God) is a necessary, indispensable part of authentic Christianity? That it is may seem obvious to most people, but my whole point in this post is that they ought to rethink that as many young people today do not see it as obvious. I don’t think it’s really possible to believe in Jesus in any robust sense and dispense with Jesus’s God. God was part and parcel of Jesus’s message. But, of course, we have to learn from him, not from culture, who God is. And, if Jesus was not God, then we have no real reason to consider him unsurpassable. Why hold to him if there could be others, even living today, who are what he was (without God)—just a human prophet and example?