Jeremy Neill’s God is the deus ex machina

Jeremy Neill’s God is the deus ex machina March 14, 2015

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 am 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.


This conversation has been challenging because neither Jeremy Neill nor I wish to defend “ultimism.” We have agreed on that by now. But this is where the agreement ends. For Neill, “ultimism” doesn’t go nearly far enough. For me it is simply unnecessarily holding on to a vestige of something that once served humanity and made sense of our world.

In his response to my essay, Ultimism as Functional Atheism, he writes,

While God undoubtedly does sometimes do some seriously out-of-the-ordinary things in our lives, most of the time His preferred way of ministering to us seems to be through everyday events – He provides us with income by giving us the strength to work hard at our jobs, He heals our bodies through the hands of surgeons, He employs the laws to teach us to cooperate with our neighbors.

Leaving aside for the moment what he knows about “seriously out-of-the-ordinary things” God does in our lives, Neill agrees that there are many (but not nearly so many as I say) Christians who live “as if” there is no God, but most Christians, he says, live with God in their lives, they just understand that God is doing things through the ordinary means. I have heard this sort of thing before. I’ve even said things like this before. It is what a Christian must say if they believe that God is active in the world. There is no other evidence. What I don’t understand is how this is not essentially ultimism in at least one regard. On this view, God is sustaining the ordinary structures of our known world. God is behind the scenes make the world as it is so that on the surface it appears that we are living our lives by our own strength, but really, God is doing it all. How, then, is this a personal God? I suppose it is because we feel God in our hearts.

Neill argues at the conclusion of is response that Tillichian ultimism is “arrogant and self-absorbed because it is based on the idea that the fundamental thing in the universe is a projection of us.” This is a egregious misrepresentation of what Tillich was saying. In fact, Tillich’s view that God is the ground of being, and Neill’s view that God is just off stage making everything happen just as it appears to happen by our own agency—what Bonhoeffer called the deus ex machina—is not that different. The benefit to Tillich’s view over Neill’s is that Tillich’s God is at least not on the hook for every horrible and atrocious thing that happens in the world.

Finally, I cannot comprehend why it would take faith in any amount to believe that the concept of God is a projection of human ego and desire. It is precisely the opposite of faith that leads us to this conclusion. If Neill were an anthropologist studying the religion of another group of people different from his own he would readily come to this conclusion. Why is it is different for Christianity?

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