Ultimism as Functional Atheism: I go Head to Head with Evangelical Jeremy Neill

Ultimism as Functional Atheism: I go Head to Head with Evangelical Jeremy Neill March 9, 2015
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This post is part of a new feature from Patheos called Head to Head where our best minds debate the big questions of the day.
This week, I will be debating the Evangelical Channel’s Jeremy Neill of “Everyday Ethics”. The question: does emphasizing the incomprehensible nature of god become an expression of atheism? Or put simply does religious faith require a personal God?
This topic was brought to us by James F. McGrath. You can see James’ thoughts at his blog, Exploring our Matrix.


With respect to mainstream Protestant and Catholic Christianity, ultimism is an expression of what I would call “functional atheism.” In the end it doesn’t matter if there is a God or not. We are left to get on with our lives.

I remember telling my congregation on several occasions that many Christians are “functional atheists.” Even I was a functional atheist long before I acknowledged that I was, in fact, an atheist. What I mean by “functional atheist” is a person who lives their life, for all practical purposes, as if God does not exist. They rarely pray (suspecting that it won’t do any good), they take care of their needs rather than depending on God to take care of them. If they get sick they may pray but they definitely go to the doctor. If they’re short of cash, they might pray, but they’ll look for a second job. They are more faithful to late-modern capitalism than anything Jesus said about money. And in the case of American Christians, their allegiance to the United States of America trumps their loyalty to Christ.

It is a common practice among Christians, when they cannot fit the notion of a personal God who acts in the world into the reality that they experience day by day, to locate God beyond the reach of our five senses, beyond the realm of time and space, beyond being. Paul Tillich famously said,

“God does not exist.  He is being-itself beyond essence and existence.  Therefore, to argue that God exists is to deny him.” (Paul Tillich,  Systematic Theology.  Vol. 1.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1951: 205). And, “It is as atheistic to affirm the existence of God as it is to deny it.  God is being-itself, not a being.” (ibid, 237). 

But this is not the classical Christian understanding of God, though elements of it go back to ancient theologians like Origen and the 15th and 16th century Christian mystics.

God-beyond-being—or ultimism, as some are calling it—is an expression of God receding into the horizon of modern life. God is a relic. The word “God” refers to the ultimate but it does so in a way that demonstrates that God is obsolete. But because we cannot quite let go of the idea that there is something beyond the natural world, outside the realm of being, that holds this all together, the word and the idea endures.

In the final analysis, this sort of claim cannot be falsified. Ultimism places God beyond the scope of analysis. After all, how are finite beings who live in bodies and experience the world through our five senses, going to analyze, or even think about, God?

I do not think that all religious faith requires a personal God. After all, there are many religions who speak in some sense of faith, without a personal God. Buddhism comes to mind, as does Hinduism, Jainism, and some aspects of Reform Judaism. Within Christianity some are becoming more comfortable with pantheism and panentheism, but historically these theologies were considered Christian heresies. Theology’s main task is to continue carving out space for God in an increasingly secular world that has less and less need for God.

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