Should a Christian ever Think or Act as If God Does Not Exist?
The “father of modern international law” Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), who happened also to be a Dutch Remonstrant, argued that, for the sake of viable international law, people of faith ought to set aside their religious beliefs and craft such laws “as if God does not exist.” This has become a standard, assumed approach to creating laws for most modern, Western people—especially in societies with some degree of separation of church and state (or synagogue and state or mosque and state).
Grotius’s suggestion and its acceptance by many governments raised and still raise some questions for religiously committed people. Here I will focus especially on Christian qualms and quandaries.
Insofar as a Christian is involved in making or enforcing public policy, doesn’t this “as if God does not exist” principle and approach require stepping off and away from one’s Christian worldview, life and world perspective, in favor of pretending to think and act according to another, competing, possibly idolatrous worldview? Isn’t this a betrayal of God? After all, there is no completely neutral, universally rational worldview. (See among other excellent books explaining this The Myth of Religious Neutrality: An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Beliefs in Theories by Roy A. Clouser [University of Notre Dame Press].)
All laws and public policies, all corporate rules and regulations, all customs and social norms, are based on and justified by moral visions which, in turn, are based on and justified by some metaphysical worldview (implicit if not explicit).
There is no “view from nowhere.” If postmodernity has taught us anything, it has taught us that.
To ask a Christian to set aside her belief in God and commitment to the way of Jesus Christ and think or act as if God does not exist is to create a crisis for her. Of course, many, perhaps most, modern Christians, at least in Western societies (European, North American), have simply gotten used to this. We do it all the time—especially insofar as we participate in the political arena where separation of church (religion) and state is established. So they do not feel the crisis. But my question is: shouldn’t a Christian feel this as a crisis?
Another Dutch theologian (Grotius was also a theologian, not just a jurist) named Abraham Kuyper famously said ““There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” He also said “When principles that run against your deepest convictions begin to win the day, then battle is your calling, and peace has become sin; you must, at the price of dearest peace, lay your convictions bare before friend and enemy, with all the fire of your faith.” Kuyper was a Dutch theologian and politician who became prime minister of the Netherlands. He believed that Christianity, rightly understood, forms the best basis and foundation for tolerance but that secularity leads only to conflict—a battle of rights where there are still religious or quasi-religious agendas that are often hidden.
There can be little doubt, however, that separation of church and state has been a boon to both churches and governments—and to tolerance of people in spite of tremendous differences. But is public governance, the creating and enforcing of laws and public policies, ever really totally religiously neutral? Translate “religious” into “worldviewish” and the question comes more clearly into focus. Believing and acting as if God does not exist implies a certain worldview. As much as separation of church and state greases the wheels of pluralism and tolerance, does it imply that a hidden worldview is really becoming the norm? Is separation of church state, for all the good it has brought, now putting committed Christians and other believers in God in a condition not very much different from Christians in the pre-Constantinian Roman Empire (and possibly also in the Constantinian one)?
In my opinion, the problem is not separation of church and state itself; it is the secularizing and pluralizing of the public square in a way hostile to religious beliefs and commitments. Gradually, over the last century, at least, separation of church and state has come to mean believers in God (or gods) must pretend to not believe in God in much of life. Even churches and other religious organizations are coming under tremendous pressure to act as if God does not exist—at least outside the sanctuary. The question I raise is whether the space being opened up for public discourse is really neutral or if it is hostile to religious beliefs and commitments and itself a quasi-religious space in competition with other religious beliefs.
I also want to ask why more Christians (and other religious people) do not feel what is happening—their being asked to believe and decide and act as if God does not exist—as a crisis. Some sociologists of religion are making the case, convincingly, I believe, that they don’t because they have internalized secularization and pluralism—alongside their religious beliefs and commitments. They can comfortably act as if God does not exist in certain situations because they have created inside themselves a space for that—a space where, for them, God does not exist. The result is that, for them, there is no need to integrate their Christian worldview with all of life; they have become comfortable with inner cognitive and even moral dissonance and don’t feel it as dissonance. It’s called “compartmentalization.” To a very large extent they function quite comfortably as if God does not exist in much of life and dedicated to God in other parts of life. I think even many churches, perhaps most, function this way. They worship God as Lord of all in the sanctuary but act as if God does not exist in church business decision-making.
So I return to the question: Should a Christian ever think or act as if God does not exist? My answer is—no, at least not without feeling it as a crisis.