Mystics and/or Atheists

Mystics and/or Atheists November 18, 2013

Dale Tuggy has been interacting with a recent post of mine here on my blog, and now in a post over on the blog Trinities.

He considers the viewpoint of Paul Tillich, that God is Being itself and not one being among others, to be a form of atheism rather than of Christian theism.

He rightly notes that it is not a new alternative to anthropomorphic theism. In Hume’s Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, atheism is used and rejected as an insulting characterization of the skeptical theism which emphasizes the incomprehensibility of God. And the ancient Gnostics often contrasted the Creator of the Jewish Scriptures with the one original and ineffable God who is supreme and above all. Others sought to identify the two – for instance, Philo of Alexandria, who sought to find ways to harmonize Jewish Scripture with philosophical-mystical monotheism.

Let me be clear in saying that the roots of ancient Israel’s concept of God are most certainly in a being who is a part of the universe, and not Being itself. As far back as anyone could trace, “in the beginning,” there was not only God but chaos. Who or what else was around – such as a female counterpart to the male deity – changed over time as well.

And that is in fact a crucial point for those like me who think of God not as “a being” but as “Being.” Our concepts of God change. They have changed and continue to change. What modern theists believe is not what the ancient Israelites prior to the exile believed.

And so the question when it comes to Christian identity is not whether our beliefs match theirs, but whether the overriding trajectory is being followed.

People once thought that gods were behind the forces of nature. Monotheism marked a shift towards thinking that one God was behind all of them. Now we tend to think of nature as standing over against God and most of us don’t blame natural phenomena on one God or many. This move takes things in one of two directions. One option is to veer towards Deism (even if it is Deism with interventions), as the unexplained becomes a smaller and smaller region. The other alternative is to see God as the Universe, or to embrace panentheism, and see God as a Reality that includes but transcends the universe. The former option, pantheism, is illustrated in the image at the end of this post. Panentheism typically involves not saying that God is an “it” which would then be less than we are, but that God is a reality whose nature we cannot hope to fathom, but as the ground, source, and encompasser of our existence, is not less than we are.

By definition, that isn’t atheism, since it is belief in God. Despite the appeal to The Princess Bride, the word God is not limited to one particular anthropomorphic theistic definition. And so that word “God” may not mean to some what I think it means. But it means it to me, and has a long history of meaning that to people, while a few thousand years ago it didn’t have any of the meanings that today’s disagreeing parties ascribe to it.

The implication is that the question cannot be settled in that simple manner, as a matter of terminology. The question is which way of thinking about God, if any, does best justice not only to a select number of ancient texts but an overall trajectory of which those texts are a part. That question is one that each Christian, and each Christian community, will have to answer for themselves.


"This is genuinely fascinating, but as an inveterate nerd, I must ask -- where's the ..."

Guest Lecture and Academic Minute on ..."
"Yes, I agree. Technical arguments which supposedly prove (or disprove) the Resurrection are a waste ..."

Copycat Anti-Religion
"I think healthy skepticism is warranted in the case of Calvin and Colombetti's argument. We ..."

Copycat Anti-Religion
"And happy April Fools! I hope you're getting your prank on!"

Barton Breen Quote About Inerrancy

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Jerome

    It all depends on what one actually means with the word or concept ‘God’. It’s quite vague, or broadly, defined so it can mean whatever you want. So that people use the same word but not in the same way!

    Spinoza’s ‘God’ surely isn’t the same as the ‘God’ described the Bible, for example.

  • The word ‘God’ can be used to refer to so many things, that it is accurate to say that we are all theists and all atheists in relation to some god or another (with the possible exception of polytheists who accept every god presented to them). The most hardened skeptic usually believes in the universe or the laws of nature, so if one of those is your conception of God, then you’d define very few people as atheists.

    • arcseconds

      scepticism isn’t what it used to be.

      back when sceptics were real sceptics, no faith would be put in laws of nature or the existence of the universe, either!

      • If you mean ancient skepticism (no knowledge is possible), I have to agree. That’s a pretty tough degree of skepticism to maintain.

  • Jack Collins

    What bemuses me, as a congenital atheist for whom the term “god” offers no real attachment, is why one would call the universe, or causality, or being, etc., a “god.” Yes, conceptions of gods have changed over history, which is exactly why invoking a term, which has been used historically for everything from venerated ancestors to volcanoes to randy anthropomorphic superhumans, is supposed to be meaningful or useful when referring to things without intentionality or consciousness or identity.

    What does, say, Whitehead’s God (which, as near as I’ve ever been able to figure out, is little more than the capacity for things to be as they are rather than some other way) have in common with Yahweh or Wotan or even Nirguna Brahman that the same word can be productively used for all? If the notion of “God” as something powerful and transcendent to be venerated didn’t exist in our culture, why would someone associate such notions with the entire universe?

    I’m not making an argument here, so much as asking for clarification, because it confounds me. It seems like the only reason to retain the category of “god” while applying it to things like “the universe” is a sentimental attachment to the word, or to the institutions surrounding it. Does calling reality, “God,” make reality more understandable, or does it further obfuscate the matter by invoking archaic associations?

    • James,

      Jack questions the notion of assigning the term “God” to something “without intentionality or consciousness or identity,” which is the way most atheists would view the universe. But would Tillich’s conception of God be something absent of these qualities?

      If not, would that be the primary difference between the way an atheist and a liberal Christian sees the universe?

      • There are a lot of similarities between the two, and this is not surprising, since both typically embrace the conclusions of science. A key distinction is the making of room for the mystical and the embracing of symbolic language to speak of such aspects of experience. Although not all atheists reject that.

    • Herro

      Yes. Why use such a loaded term?

      It would be fun to hear what James thinks he’s saying when he says “God is Being”. Whatever “Being” is supposed to mean, is he just calling “Being” “God” or is he saying something more about “Being” by saying that it’s “God”?

      • We found that even with a singer, substituting squiggles just leads us to refer to “the artist formerly known as…” We work with the terminology we have available and have inherited. This isn’t unique to the terminology of “God” – and that particular term’s current baggage is not precisely the baggage it has always had down the ages.

        Saying that God is Being is saying that God is the Reality which encompasses all reality. We and all we can see is part of that, but we cannot see its full extent.

        • Herro

          When you say that “God is the Reality which encompasses all reality” are you just defining what you mean by “God” or are you also saying anything about “the Reality which encompasses all reality” by calling it “God”?

          • Primarily the former, but I am sure that the latter is also the case, since otherwise the terminology would be irrelevant.

    • Ian

      But folks like James, progressive Christians, want not just continuity with the term God, but with Christian myth, Christian theology, and Christian communities. So doesn’t it make sense — since you are identifying with the continuity of people who use the word — to try and find some way to use it expressively?

      I suspect James doesn’t really use God because God is the best word to describe the ground of all being. Quite the opposite given the number of times he has to explain it on this blog! But the ground of all being is a good referent for the word God, which he wants to use because the notion and centrality of something called God is important to him and his community.

    • Marissa Hursh

      Maybe more things have consciousness than we believe.

      • Susan Burns

        That must be true. Our ability to study the ancient past shows the process of consciousness evolution. Are we so self-centered to think this natural law is only at work on us?

    • If the term “God” did not already exist as a way of talking about what is considered ultimate, then we might never coin it. But the term exists and has that connotation, and simply ditching the term and using something completely different simply substitutes one set of problems for a different set.

      • Jack Collins

        Yes, but they might be a more productive set of problems. Sure, if you ignore history and start making up your own terminology, you start sounding like Heidegger and nobody knows what you are talking about. On the other hand, if you re-purpose existing terminology in modes contrary to the general understanding, you start sounding like Spinoza and nobody knows what you’re talking about. 😉

        My point is, if you say to the average English speaker “God is the grounding of all being,” they are probably going to assume you are saying the grounding of all being is something with consciousness and intention that should be worshipped and obeyed. They will assume you are adding the traditional attributes of God to the grounding of being, rather than limiting God to something lacking (or not defined by) these attributes.

        • Well, we have to pick one of the two and then be as clear as possible so that we are not misunderstood as badly as is likely!

        • arcseconds

          the general problem is, though, that you don’t have much of a choice if you think current ways of conceptualizing and naming things are inadequate.

          • arcseconds

            what I mean is, if you’re requiring people to engage in a wholesale rethinking of their conceptual schema, you’re not going to be easily understood, no matter what your strategy.

            (another strategy besides the two you mentioned are ‘indirect’ methods, such as telling a story)

    • Rullbert Boll

      Nope, “pan-en-theism” doesn’t mean “calling reality, ‘God'” — thats about like “pan-theism”. “Pan-en-theism” says that besides reality, there’s something behind the visible that could be called “Being” (as per the article), or “a being”, or (as I prefer) both. As a former atheist, I prefer to connect this “being behind” to a “mathematical” (platonic) reality that both constitutes the mental constructs when we think math, and the “sociobiological laws” that minimizes the energy investment in human populations, which approximately counterparts the ten commandments of the bible. For example the sociobiological bourgeoisi principle ( counterparts “you shall not steal”.

      • Jack Collins

        I look forward to the studies showing how Rhesus monkeys gain an evolutionary advantage from avoiding graven images.

  • DonRappe

    I think the question revolves around the meaning of the term atheist. If atheist means denying the existence of God using the common meaning of exist, then Tillich and I are atheists. If atheist means being “without God”, then we are not atheists. While I find much to disagree with in the fourth catholic creed, I wholeheartedly agree with its description of God as “Uncreate”.

    • The most common way to define atheism is “disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods”.

      I know of few (if any) atheists who would argue that one could “prove” the nonexistence of God, any more than you could “prove” the nonexistence of fairies. They simply find the notion of God to be extremely unlikely.

      Victor Stenger argues in his books that God can be disproved, but only if one defines God traditionally as a divine being who created the universe, answers prayers, and works miracles.

      Many liberal Christians will say that atheists don’t really address the particular God that they believe in, when atheists argue the lack of evidence for God. However, it seems to me that atheism was around long before Paul Tillich; if a definition has been changed, it is not the definition of atheism, but the definition of God.

      • Well, the term “atheist” was applied by Romans to Christians, since they refused to worship the gods. And so I don’t think any of the relevant terminology has been immune to historical change.

        • I love it! Richard Dawkins is right – Christians are atheists!

  • jedbeetle

    What silliness. And Maybe “God” is actually a being with thoughts and intentions and the universe is just its body! But who knows? Keep experimenting, inside and out, and give no definite answers until reasonable conclusions can truly be drawn.

  • Peter Hardy

    Classical theistic thinkers like Aquinas had views similar to Tillich’s on how abstract and impersonal God was. Tillich was only really the originator of that tradition within Protestantism.

    • Do you think Aquinas saw God as something similar to Tillich’s “ground of being”?

      • Christopher R Weiss

        Nope… You should read his repeated 5 proofs for the existence of god.

        • What is the difference between saying that God is the uncreated source of all being and that God is the uncreated ground of all being?

          It’s been many years since I last read Tillich, but I don’t remember him as advocating an impersonal God. Am I wrong?

  • Tedw

    we are the universe

  • Bradley Robert Compton

    So JL Schellenberg uses a concept he calls Ultimism which is an expansion of the idea of God beyond that which is implied by theism. In that sense, one can be an a-theist (rejecting the theistic conception of God), while still maintaining a belief in an ultimate ground of reality.

    • So would Ultimism include believing in a Theory of Everything?

  • Dale

    A perhaps too-wide-ranging response: