Two weeks ago, at the beginning of this journey, I asked the question, “What difference does God make?” This is a question for theists. For those who say that God makes all the difference, or a significant difference, what is that difference? I have found, in the past, as I have attempted to answer that question, atheists and some agnostics have answered that they experience the things I attribute to God without needing a god.
The answer I have most often given, which I discussed with a friend just this evening, is hope. One of the most significant theological concepts for me, as a progressive Christian, was the notion of hope, especially as articulated by one of my favorite theological, Jürgen Moltmann. Put simply, God is the horizon of history and the driving force moving history toward its fulfillment. Many atheists I’ve spoken to also express a deep sense of hope, but instead find the source of their hope in people and the power of people to create the future they desire, without a need for God.
The question, what difference does God make? is designed to press theists to explore in a deeper way the actual meaning God makes in their lives and in the life of the world. Unsatisfied with a “god of the gaps,” I have sought to understand God as the ultimate source of meaning and the telos of human history. God has been my hope. This past year, however, I experienced some things that revealed the holes in my theology of hope, which I will share in future posts. So now what difference does God make?
Another way to express this question is captured by many readers who have asked me how my life is different having lived two weeks as an atheist. Here is my embarrassing confession: it hasn’t been very different at all.
I was never a world-class pray-er. I was never successful at having an hour long “quiet time” as I was taught to do. I did read my Bible and pray, sporadically, but I was never a consistent pray-er. For years I have struggled to understand the purpose of prayer. I am not ignorant of the various explanations of prayer’s purpose. It’s just that none of them ever made much sense to me.
As a pastor I read and studied my Bible as a professional commitment, to prepare sermons and Bible studies, but I rarely read the Bible devotionally and for my own inspiration, in part because so much of it isn’t inspiring at all. I haven’t attended a church consistently since March so not much changed in that department in the past month either. In short, my life has more or less continued as it has in the recent past. This is revealing for a couple of reasons.
First, it demonstrates something that I have suspected about myself and other Christians I know—many of us have for a long time been functional atheists. We may confess an intellectual assent to belief in a divine being and have a well thought out theology but very few of us live as though this God exists and is an active agent in the world.
Secondly, it demonstrates, at least to me, that the difference God makes is to a great degree, a kind of life insurance policy…a modern day form of Pascal’s wager in which believers hedge their bets against the possibility that there is a God who may send them to hell if they don’t believe.
There are other reasons for a belief in God which we can explore in the future, but at this moment I am not experiencing any major practical changes in my life as a result of leaving God behind. At an emotional level there are some consequences—a sense of loss and aloneness that are not entirely new to me. Also a sense of freedom which I did not exactly anticipate. I will write more about these experiences in the coming days. For now I suspect that these feelings are mostly a consequence of the loss that comes from imagining that God, who was the ground of my being and the horizon of my hope, is perhaps just a projection of our human desires and hopes and not an actual being at all.