OMG! I’m an Atheist Who Follows Christ.

The above line is not me talking. It could have been, but I decided to not become an atheist. No, it sounds more like one of my colleagues and future theological collaborators. Except my colleague/friend has no need for an “OMG” for having strong atheist tendencies. He loves it! Yes, he’s an atheist and, yes, he’s written a dissertation on Bultmann (you know, the liberal German theologian every conservative in the 60s and 70s loved to hate) arguing that Bultmann did not go quite far enough with his demythologization of the Gospel.

Yet—and here’s the interesting bit—my friend insists on the reality of revelation. My friend emphatically insists that the Black Lives Matter movement is divine revelation and the same can be said for the liberation struggles of blacks, economically oppressed, and the LGBT movement. It is precisely there, in the struggle for freedom, that the revelation of Jesus Christ manifests itself in all its utter concreteness.

To Be Or Not To Be, That is Hardly the Question

But he’s an atheist. I could modify that statement a bit, perhaps, because we’ve been talking and I argued that the very arguments used in favor of the nonexistence of God can easily be used against atheism. In philosophy, this saying too much is called onto-theology. It basically means you’re saying something about the being of God that you are not warranted to claim. For instance, claims that God is omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, self-sufficient, etc. are all predicated on a large dose of fantasy… and philosophical thinking.

It took only 2300 years, from Plato to today, to realize that all such claims about God, even when they appear in the Bible, but especially where they do not, are simply people trying to extrapolate (deduce) from basic axioms certain ideas about what God is like. Those things are then enshrined and become sacred. People forget that these things began as mere imaginary ideas and now we’re stuck with them as concrete roadblocks we can’t get past. But people have started to question such an approach with the result that a lot of people attach no value to such ideas about God and consequently the existence of God.

The interesting thing is that you can apply the same line of questioning to the non-existent God of atheism. After all, if you claim too much about the being of God by saying God is omnipresent you definitely claim too much by denying God God’s own being. So my friend got that and grudgingly admitted that perhaps his atheism was a bit too strongly worded. But interestingly, he still doesn’t care too much about this whole existence question. In fact, as far as he is concerned, God still has a huge problem existing because of all the suffering in the world. I’ll get to that in a bit.

For a lot of people, my friend’s position raises questions because how can you insist on divine revelation and at the same time be a kind of noncommittal atheist? It doesn’t add up. Don’t you need a God for revelation to be, well, revelation? Well, yes and no. And this is where my own story kicks in.

The Apologetic Fundamentalist

I come from a super conservative background. We were outright fundamentalists back home. At one point I decided to become a Christian apologist and since you do that kind of thing in America I applied and got accepted at an evangelical institution in the USA. Big deal for a Dutchman esp. since I was already in my 40s at the time. My new career in apologetic took a weird turn though and I ended up doing my Ph.D. at a mainstream Lutheran seminary where I studied Bonhoeffer, Luther, a bunch of liberal theologians as well as Continental philosophers.

In this new theology at Luther Seminary–new for me, that is–this whole does-God-exist question is almost moot. This is because liberal theologians basically agree that that question is not very fruitful. You can’t prove God because God is not an entity in the world. You can’t prove God because what you prove is always a construction of your mind which can per definition not be God. You can’t prove God because that is tantamount to mastering God with logic. You can’t prove God because God is a person (if we may believe Jesus on this point) and you can only have a relationship with a person. The moment you prove the existence of a person you treat that person as a thing, an object, and by a basic intuition of what God is like it seems that such an objectification of God is not possible or, worse, very wrong.

Pretty sophisticated stuff, actually. There’s more, however.

The in-between Space

As it is, I’ve been warming up a bit to atheist discourse myself for exactly four reasons:

  1. There’s too much evil in the world. While as an apologist I used to have all kinds of arguments as to why God and evil in the world can exist together, I’ve become less than impressed over the years with such arguments. It feels as if those proposing such arguments haven’t really let this world’s evil hit them smack in the face.
  2. My own life has been pretty rough and so I concluded that whatever God I was going to be believing in had to be substantially different from the one from my evangelical background who can be rather aloof from the world at times in that pernicious perfection of divine sovereignty of his (yes, his).
  3. Then there was Dutch theologian, Taede Smedes, who has written a wonderful introductory book on a new academic discussion called post-secularism. In this discussion atheists and believers in God are discovering a sort of in-between space between theism and atheism where believers are starting to sound a bit like unbelievers and vice versa. Smedes does a stellar job describing the thought of different participants in this ongoing dialogue of new spirituality.
  4. My colleague/friend started pushing back at me with my notions of God. Stuff like: You are not serious in believing there’s a real metaphysical, like, god out there. Going back and forth we slowly moved to each other. I think. You’d have to ask him.
  5. The fifth thing that started me thinking was actually Luther’s theology of the cross. That last point needs elaboration as it brings a lot of things together.

Back to the 16th Century

It is rather odd that thinking about Luther’s theology helps me think through atheism and even causes me to develop a significant amount of sympathy for it. Luther, after all, is the great church reformer who insisted on justification by faith and that sort of stuff. Here’s the thing though. You need to understand Luther’s theological framework for that famous justification by faith to get a glimpse of the modern discussion that is going on between some atheists and believers.

That framework Luther used is called the theology of the cross. Where I normally would not easily be inclined to be open to the post-secular dialogue, the theology of the cross helped me to get there and basically come up with a way of doing this in a way that is entirely new, exciting, innovative, and—if you don’t mind me saying—important for the future of theology, Christianity, and religion in the secular world. As I discovered this new way of thinking and crossed the barrier to the in-between space, I found my colleague/friend there who was doing more or less the same thing, taking a step in my direction. Indeed, the post-secular dialogue was happening between use as well, except that ours is based on the theology of the cross.

So, let me explain a bit of how this works. Theologically speaking, that is.

Dirty Diapers

In order to make his discovery of justification by faith stick, Luther had an insurmountable task: to bring down the entire Roman Catholic edifice of medieval scholastic theology. Insurmountable, because the scholastic theologians had woven together the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle with Christian theology and you couldn’t keep them apart any longer. They were really, really good at what they did. I’ll give them that. Luther, however, managed to separate them anyway, which makes him an amazing philosopher next to a revolutionary theologian.

For his assault against scholastic theology, he pointed back at St. Paul who insisted that the cross of Christ was foolishness to the Greeks and an abomination to the Jews. Indeed, God’s revelation in Jesus Christ (especially with respect to the cross) was contrary to humanity’s expectations. No wisdom or religious beauty in the cross, but the horrors of suffering. And that, Luther said, is God. God reveals contrary to what you’d expect of a god (as if “god” is a species of beings in the universe).

Revelation is unlike anything you’d expect. God is not a powerful, superhuman mega-being who shatters the superlatives of being; God is, it turns out, a little powerless baby in a manger with dirty diapers. And it’s not just Jesus whose reality is counterintuitive. The way of salvation is similarly counterintuitive: it is not by doing your human best that you will earn God’s favors but by admitting that you are in need of divine help. No, not even that, God’s grace is simply an unmerited gift that is given even before we ask (because how would we know what to ask for?).

A Hell Called Earth

Fast forward to today. We have different questions today. We’re less concerned with receiving eternal life as we find it hard to imagine what this is like and whether it is even desirable to live “forever.” Geez! God forbid! (I sometimes do think that.) Today we are concerned with how things are going on earth. There is more violence than ever of any imaginable kind and an ecological apocalypse entirely our own making is looming in the not too distant future. Our primary need is how to live together without harming one another and the planet.

And we have other questions as well concerning suffering and the disappearance of God from our collective imagination. There is so much suffering in the world that goes on unabated that for many it’s simply unfeasible to believe in the existence of a being entitled “God.” I for sure wouldn’t want to be God and have to answer for being the creator of this hell called earth in the 21st century. And yet, for many others, it seems hard to completely jettison the idea of God, for various reasons. We don’t want to be cosmic orphans. Or more importantly, there is this intuition that we are more than merely algorithms interacting with complex molecules. Yet, the old religion doesn’t work anymore. Whither God? we might ask.

But here is where Luther’s contrary revelation comes in handy. Very handy, in fact. The same Christianity that insists that Jesus Christ is God’s self-revelation has at the same time done everything possible to encapsulate this Jesus in doctrinal terminology, thereby elevating him to a place where he is no longer a threat to human self-sufficiency. Next, Jesus was paraded as the highest lord in a complex system that fused religion and political power. In this way, Jesus became the very symbol of the power of the state and unavoidably also of stale, hypocritical religion. And so, we in the West got rid of this Jesus, that symbol of the collusion of politics and religion. And rightly so. And with it went the idea of Jesus as an actual person in a literal skyward heaven with literal angels and a literal heavenly Father, etc. The church in its quest for worldly power was, in the end, its own undoing.

God Au Contraire

But what if the teachings of Jesus are still relevant? What if God is still real? Perhaps not in a three-tiered universe of heaven, earth, hell but in a way that we can’t understand or intuit. What if spirit still drives and enlivens the matter of the universe? What if Jesus truly expressed what that was all about? And what if God, whatever God is, is still concerned about justice and love and goodness and honesty and humility and…

So a new idea springs up that this god-thing is not about the existence of God but about the justice and love that flows from the source of whatever that is. Wouldn’t it make sense that if God were to address us today it would have to be in a radically different way; very different from what happened in the days of Jesus? What if the contrary nature of divine self-revelation adapts to the situation on the ground so to speak. Perhaps in Luther’s time, the contrariness of revelation was in the discovery that God reveals in the form of weakness and that grace, though not cheap, is for free. Today, the situation is so different that God can only reach us (or that we can imagine God only) in the experience of the absence of God. Could it be, so I ask, that the negation of God in atheism is the very location of divine revelation? The absentee God speaketh through absence!

Of course, these questions lead to more questions. It’s all super intriguing. Because all of a sudden atheism is not the enemy of Christianity but a critical dialogue partner. Even though most atheist would scoff at the idea of being Christianity’s dialogue partner, some are open to conversation.

In any case, my friend and I are theologians of the cross, that is, we sort of stand in the line of the thought of Luther, of course, developed, changed, and modernized over the centuries, but still rather close to Luther. Consequently, we approach the whole atheism question from that particular vantage point. The existence-of-God question is completely irrelevant. The existence of God cannot be proven because the very whatever-the-whatever that God is cannot be conceptualized, intuited, or formulated. We can only start with what is given. For us in the Christian tradition that givenness is Jesus Christ on the cross (which of course includes his life as well but it is pretty clear that Jesus’s humiliation reached its apex on the cross).

Gathering the Pieces

It’s time to bring the different piece of this article together. After all, this is just a blog. The real work of elaborating these salivating points will have to happen in books that will eventually get into the hands of people in search of god after God, meaning after nihilism, justice after law…. something like that, anyway. So I gather the following:

  1. The theology of the cross with its antithetical (contrary) idea of revelation in order to thwart our expectations and self-sufficiency. There are ways to bring this in conversation with atheism. Of course, in a way that would change atheism, but that’s okay. There is a lot of power in the idea that since divine revelation is antithetical to human expectations at any given point in time, revelation now happens in the naming of the experience of divine absence and the complete destruction of the religious paradigm in the West. Atheists may well be the courageous voices who have the guts to utter the prophetic message Christianity dares not speak of.
  2. The insight that the question of God’s existence is mute since we can only intuit and never prove the God who cannot be an entity within the world. Here, too, the theology of the cross plays an important role. Wasn’t it Luther who insisted that the only God we should look at was the God manifested in the human body of the man Jesus who was crucified on a cross? Speculation makes you drift away from the world into the realm of philosophical metaphysical dreams that are mere figments of our imagination. But divine revelation in Christ’s body keeps us firmly planted in earthly soil.
  3. The question of suffering in the world, the so-called theodicy. We either rebelliously reject God out of sheer indignation over the massive and immense sufferings in the world or we see ourselves forced to consider God otherwise. Again, the theology of the cross comes to our aid. It forces us to consider the location of God’s self-revelation which is not in the philosophical musings of the intelligentsia nor in the words of a book sacralized and enshrined in a golden case on display for those who are in power. No, not at all! We find God in the gutter of humanity, humiliated, enslaved, scorned, trampled, and crucified. This is the secret about God that even Christians usually hate. God is personally implicated in the suffering of the world and is forced to drink the cup of suffering till the last drop. This is basically all we know about God as Christians. And as God is identified with the world’s suffering we may well state that God has a preferential option for those who are poor, oppressed, enslaved, and rejected. As my friend said, revelation is manifest in the Black Lives Movement movement, among the economically oppressed, among those scorned and rejected because of their sexuality.

Truth As Ethics

See, this is how my atheist colleague/theologian/friend and I move beyond the question of the truth of God’s existence. Whatever that truth is, it is not available to us anyways. However, something else about God is available and that something else is God revealed in the gutter and on the cross. The truth about God is an ethical truth. It is this both in the theodicy question (the rebellious No against God because of all the suffering on earth) and in the realization that God is revealed among those who suffer.

Truth and ethics cannot be separated from each other. And that is precisely what people are doing when they try to either prove or disprove the existence of God. It is not a neutral question. The truth about God is not one of God’s existence but of answering the call that issues from God’s place among the suffering in the world. Christ doesn’t demand acknowledgment of God’s existence but invites us to follow him.

Perhaps my atheist Jesus-following friend cannot be called a Christian since being a Christian implies standing in the Christian tradition that recites and affirms the creeds. But my point is this. I’m not saying the two cannot go together (although they do more often than we’d like) but if you were to be forced to choose between being a Christian who recites the creeds and cognitively affirms the existence of God or being an atheist who traces Christ’s steps into the gutter of humanity, what would your choice be?

I would say: OMG! Let me be that atheist who follows Christ!

Josh de Keijzer, Ph.D. Systematic Theology, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, USA. Bonhoeffer scholar. Currently living in the Netherlands.

2 Responses

  1. Intriguing. This liminal space where atheism and belief coalesce. “God is personally implicated in the suffering of the world and is forced to drink the cup of suffering till the last drop”. This is the only “God” worth (his) salt; there’s something obscene in the posturing of an omnipotent deity who does precisely nothing in a suffering world. The evangelical retort that Jesus came to earth from heaven (way up there) and suffered is an inadequate theodicy; how does his admittedly horrendous suffering on the cross help a tortured ape, its brain exposed in a vivisectionist’s lab? Or children dying in wars and famines? But: if God godself suffers in that cage, in that war, through that hunger – this does change the picture. Yet – and here my evangelical phantom limb begins to twitch – is this enough? Is God off the hook? If as N. Berdyaev wrote, God is not in power and might but love and mercy and forgiveness and creativeness and wherever living creatures suffer – God in effect “has less power than a policeman” – “He” still leaves me with a deep disquiet. Are omniscience and omnipotence still divine attributes? Is prayer of any use in moving God to act (evangelical magic as it were)? Is God still not guilty of complicity in the catastrophe of suffering even in his weakness? Perhaps more so? If God is Life, or created life, then God allowed the circumstances in which dinosaurs ripped each other apart for millions of years, in which semi-sentient creatures were eviscerated or died in agony from volcanic eruptions. So I keep coming back to this bungling, capricious Yaldabaoth of the Evangelical and can’t get rid of him. And I fear (yes, fear) that he will not take my misotheistic rants lightly. Somone told me that it is possible to live with and in the paradox, riddles unsolved etc. Trying to think these things through may be part of the problem: if I go up the road and be of some use to a homeless man this may allow a little more light into the dark world. The act may itself be an answer of sorts. Musings inspired by your blog…

    1. Well, these are inspiring words, Scott! Do you remember how in my previous response I pointed out how Calvinistic Protestantism is often focused on the epistemological question. That drive translates in the attempt to find answers to the theodicy question. But there are none. Suffering is a dark mystery. Imagining God as essentially part of the suffering experience does justice, I believe, to the biblical witness to the Christ-event and helps to move the question away from the epistemological.

      In the tradition of the theology crucis we find that God reveals Godself contrary to human expectation, sub contrario. This is why in the biblical text we move from the imagination of an omnipotent deity to the actuality of the suffering Christ on the cross.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Top
%d bloggers like this: