The Problem Isn’t God; It’s Certainty

The Problem Isn’t God; It’s Certainty April 6, 2013

Uncertainty about the existence of God is not the same thing as certainty about the non-existence of God.

I’ve enjoyed taking part in the “Subverting the Norm” conference this weekend with many of the forefront thinkers in what has been called “Radical Theology.” Although the word “radical” has sensationalist connotations for lots of people, it really just means a theology that isn’t firmly rooted. I know that in itself sounds scary to some folks, but the radical theology camp might suggest that fear stems from an addiction to certainty.

My biggest concerns about the Radical Theology conversation has been the risk of falling back into the same old modernist traps of trying to intellectualize God or anything metaphysical/supernatural out of the equation, as I wrote about in a recent blog post.  But after spending some time with the originators of much of this thought, I’m beginning to believe the calls for – or sometimes, fears of – an exclusively atheist Christianity is really coming from interpreters of the original work, rather than from the originators themselves.

Interestingly, when asked about whether God exists, folks like Jack Caputo and Peter Rollins tend to respond similarly. Frankly, they shrug, the question doesn’t really interest them. More to the point (and this is me interpreting them, so beware), I think their reluctance to engage the question has to do with the assumption that the unknowable can ever be known. 

And that includes whether that unknown truly exists or not.

What interests them more is why human beings – be they secular atheists or passionate Christians – seem intent on insisting they are certain about much of anything. And as I said in a twitter message yesterday, we can no more draw a line around the non-existence of God than we can draw a line around the existence of God.

I’m not generally a huge fan of St. Augustine, but he strikes a chord with me when he says (and I’m paraphrasing again) any time we endeavor to define God, that which we have defined is not God. Conversely, the same can be said about trying to argue God’s non-existence., and it can be said to both perspectives too about anything metaphysical or supernatural.

So to my dear fellow Christians: you can relax. Peter Rollins isn’t on a crusade to kill God. Now, he may challenge you to set aside false constructs of God or wean yourself from the addiction to your certainty about…well, anything. But there is plenty of room in the postmodern conversation for the possibility of God.

And to my atheist friends (or not!): If the very possibility of God raises the hairs on your neck, I’d encourage you to spend some time reading Rollins too. That addiction to certainty that rankles you so much in Christians might chafe because it’s hitting way too close to home.

"goodness, some pple shld just learn not to speak at all"

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  • Dan Hauge

    I sort of see this, but . . . doesn’t the very ‘shrugging of the shoulders’ when asked about God imply that even if God (or the Unknown) possibly does exist, it is still completely irrelevant to our lives? And isn’t this a kind of certainty in itself? Not so much that “I know that God doesn’t exist”, but still “Even if some kind of god does exist, we know that it would have no real bearing on how we live our lives. We know it is not possible that this god would actually desire to be in relationship with us, or would want us living in a mode of being that could be called ‘faith’. We know there is nothing actually knowable about this god.”

    I suppose that even my talking about god ‘desiring’ or ‘relating’ would already fall under Rollins’ definition of a false construct about god–and he does seem pretty sure of that. Whatever god may be, there still seems to be a lot of certainty that god is not ‘personal’ in any sense (at least how I read Rollins). So while Caputo, Rollins, et al may not be desiring to ‘kill God’, they still seem pretty certain that whatever god is, it is nothing like what most of the Biblical writings describe god to be like.

    Practically speaking, is a god that I’m sure is completely unknowable, that elicits only a shrug of the shoulders, really all that different from no god at all?

    • Dan Hauge

      *I guess you could say that Exodus 3:14 (“I will be what I am becoming”, or whatever the latest translation of that phrase is) could fit nicely with how the radical theologians talk about god. But most of the rest of Scripture, including Jesus, does depict god as personal, or with some form of agency.

      • I would suggest that postmodern thought makes room for a multitude of God images, as well as the absence of an image of God. The problem is not the images we hold of God, but rather when we rest on the certainty that those images we have are, in fact, God. All we have is images, constructs when we “think of God” conceptually. But when we succumb to the certainty that our image is somehow more correct or superior with respect to reflecting the true nature of God, that’s where division, violence, otherization and the like have an opportunity to enter in.

        • Dan Hauge

          I’m down with you on the critique of certainty, and the notion that when we think we have God ‘nailed down’ we both block ourselves off from God surprising us, and end up dividing in all kinds of nasty ways. I still think it is possible to say things about God that we think are more likely than others. (For example, saying that God is more like Jesus than like a tyrant is an image, is it not? And most progressive theologians I know would be fairly ‘certain’ that you can make a claim like that). I think where I most differ from the Rollins/Caputo “shrug” is that I believe that a personal, loving God is a strong possibility, and while I would not call it a ‘certainty’, I think it makes a genuine, important difference whether this possibility is real or not.

        • I think we must struggle for an image of God that liberates the poor and oppressed: who opposes violence and otherization. Yes, I think this is God’s true nature. This is why our prophetic tradition exists: to teach us this about God and neighbor.

          Have you ever read William Cavanaugh’s book, “The Myth of Religious Violence?” Many blame belief in God for violence, but that claim rests on the otherization of “religious” people: an ill-defined and recently-constructed category. Also, such a claim lets the secular state off the hook for its genocides in the name of secular ideas like “democracy.”

          It is trivially true that images of God are not God. But I do believe that as we follow the God who is love, who liberates the captives, we come to know God who is a being separate from us more deeply. Not as a fundamentalist fetish-object, but as a lived experience of presence. At least, that’s been my experience.

          What’s yours?

  • As an atheist, it’s not so much that the possibility of God raises my hackles, or that I’m confident in the non-existence of God — it’s that I can find no valid reason for privileging the hypothesis that any of the particular versions of God the various varieties of theists believe in actually exists, while ignoring all the other members of the infinite set of hypotheses for which we have no actual evidence.

    • I’m not particularly interested in postulating the existence of God in any context either. That’s kind if what I’m opposed to in the first place. 🙂

    • Robin

      I’ve accepted the fact there will never be “evidence” either way.

      What would have to happen for you to have evidence?

      • Well, if I were to witness, in person, miracles of the sort attributed to Jesus in the Bible (e.g. transmuting water into wine, or resurrecting a person who had been dead for four days), under circumstances where it would be extremely difficult for the miracle to be a trick, that would be extremely strong evidence at least for a power capable of violating the laws of thermodynamics. If the person performing the miracle claimed that power came from a particular god, it would not be proof of that god, but it would be the kind of strong Bayesian evidence necessary to legitimately elevate the hypothesis that that god is real out of the background noise of infinitesimally probable hypotheses to the level of serious consideration.

  • Does love exist? Or truth? Even Aristotle acknowledges there are things scientific rigor can’t even reach. And try to be respectful or I’ll have to block you.

    • yeah, you pretty much lost me at “why should I care about Aristotle?”

      • Orclove

        Nope, still here. You are almost as powerless as your god.

  • At the conference I thought a few of the major thinkers skirted around the issue of privilege that allows one to sustain this particular conversation. I think that’s still something important to address. It’s a conversation that can potentially suspend responsibility and keep energy funneled into theoretical exercises. Sometimes, as I’m thinking, the conversation of radical theology may need suspended in order to give attention to the other in our midst. I enjoyed the conference and its conversation, but I think it should name and acknowledge the distraction it could become. At the end of the conference, a few pointed this out. I appreciated that.

    • Actually I told Phil if they do this again it should be framed by Liberation theology. Might address some of that because you’re right. Navel gazing is a habit of the elite most times.

      • Possibly Agnostic

        Yeah…I was just thinking after reading this that if someone’s just lost their child in a gang shooting and is now facing deportation, “Jesus loves you” is gonna go a hell of a lot further that “You know what your problem is? You’re too certain of who God is.”
        This is my main beef against most liberal theologies. I’ve been to a few of the new charismatic churches recently, and what I noticed is that nearly everyone was wounded, sometimes physically, sometimes psychically, but definitely in need of healing. While I was troubled by some of the theology, what I saw was desperate people receiving miraculous solace and healing.
        I’m still trying to figure out what this means for me, and how God wants me to be.

        • William Cheek

          What I’ve learned as a former Evangelical Christian is that “Jesus loves you” is almost necessarily a hedge against real human compassion and giving. You know why those charismatic churches feel refreshing? It’s in spite of any theology: humans are allowed to be broken and receive the affirmation of other humans in an ecstatic welcoming collective space without the subtle but inherent distancing that “Jesus loves you” (vs. “I, the human before you, love you and affirm you in all your brokenness”) implies. I have never been in a church environment – EVER, in 25 years – where that latter sentence ever truly was spoken or thought without some undercurrent of judgment.

  • Robin

    I believe humans have not evolved enough to understand the workings of the universe. For me God is “This couldn’t of all been dumb luck”. Anything beyond that I don’t know.

    I think if we did understand the inner workings of the universe, we would find the whole God debate silly because reality is something else entirely.

  • First, I think certainty is necessary for the prophetic critique of injustice. So that’s why uncertainty as a virtue for is for the privileged. Uncertainty may be the ground zero of a break from a privileged or fundamentalist faith, but after you cast that away and begin to build in solidarity with the oppressed, you realize certain bedrock truths which are worth dying (and living) for, like “torture is wrong.”

    Next, over the course of dialogue with Rollins and a close read of Idolatry of God, I am fairly certain that Rollins seeks to draw Christians away from both idol and icon of God. That project, when persevered, converts Christians to atheism. You can read my post on this:

    I don’t get worked up about atheists. Another annoying fundamentalism, a triumphalist modernism. But I do think it’s pretty funny that Rollins goes to all these churches and tells people that all concepts of God are false and detrimental to a felt experience of meaning in all things and they still categorize him as a/theist rather than atheist.

    As you say above, however,

    “So to my dear fellow Christians: you can relax. Peter Rollins isn’t on a
    crusade to kill God. Now, he may challenge you to set aside false
    constructs of God or wean yourself from the addiction to your certainty
    about…well, anything. But there is plenty of room in the postmodern
    conversation for the possibility of God.”

    As though anyone could kill God. But I find the death of both certainty and God problematic as a liberationist. And sure, in the postmodern conversation there’s plenty of room for almost anything but certainty. And there is my disconnect.