Monday, April 16, 2007
A/theistic Christianity
In his great little book, How (Not) to Speak of God, Peter Rollins suggests that there is a certain element of "atheism" that is a crucial component of proper Christian belief. He writes:

This recognition of hyper-presence [the idea that God is both so transcendent and yet also so immanent that his presence actually overwhelms our intellects and thus he cannot be easily defined] leads us to reconsider the traditional atheism/theism opposition, for if our beliefs necessarily fall short of that which they attempt to describe, then it would seem that a certain atheistic spirit is actually deeply embedded within Christianity. The term 'atheism' can be understood in a number of ways. For instance, it can refer to the belief that the universe is all there is (existing without source or as its own source), or to the idea that the term 'God' is meaningless, incoherent or irrelevant (although this could more accurately be called 'anti-theism'), or to the disbelief in some particular god or cluster of gods. The latter use of the word has always been acknowledged as part of Christianity; indeed, the early Christians were called atheists because their own affirmation of God involved a rejection of the gods advocated by the Roman Empire. Yet the atheistic spirit within Christianity delves much deeper than this - for we disbelieve not only in other gods but also in the God that we believe in.

As we have seen, we ought to affirm our view of God while at the same time realizing that that view is inadequate. Hence we act both as theist and atheist. This a/theism is not some agnostic middle point hovering hesitantly between theism and atheism but, rather, actively embraces both out of a profound faith. Just as Christianity does not rest between transcendence and immanence but holds both extremes simultaneously, so too it holds atheism and theism together in the cradle of faith.

This a/theistic approach is deeply deconstructive since it always prevents our ideas from scaling the throne of God. Yet it is important to bear in mind that this deconstruction is not destruction, for the questioning it engages in is not designed to undermine God but to affirm God. This method is similar to that practiced by the original cynics who, far from being nihilists and relativists, were deeply moral individuals who questioned the ethical conduct they saw around them precisely because they loved morality so much. This a/theism is thus a deeply religious and faith-filled form of cynical discourse, one which captures how faith operates in an oscillation between understanding and unknowing. This unknowing is to be utterly distinguished from an intellectually lazy ignorance, for it is a type of unknowing which arises not from imprecision but rather from deep reflection and sustained meditation.

The a/theistic language employed by those involved in the emerging conversation is not merely a way of shedding some inaccurate ideas we have picked up about God and faith before we can begin the serious task of construction, and it is certainly not a provisional clearing away that must happen before a new religious structure is built: rather it is a recognition that negation is embedded within, and permeates, all religious affirmation. It is an acknowledgment that a desert of ignorance exists in the midst of every oasis of understanding.

...the a/theistic approach can be seen as a form of disbelieving what one believes, or rather, believing in God while remaining dubious concerning what one believes about God...

This a/theistic approach is not to be mistaken for some type of synthesis of opposites; rather, it is the uncollapsible tension between affirming our religious ideas while also placing them into question. This a/theism is not then some temporary place of uncertainty on the way to spiritual maturity, but rather is something that operates within faith as a type of heat-inducing friction that prevents our liquid images of the divine from cooling and solidifying into idolatrous form...

This site of uncertainty and unknowing is often a frightening place to dwell, but while the comfort provided by religion is placed into a certain distress by the idea of doubt, this distress, too, is not without a certain comfort. For while we do not grasp God, faith is born amidst the feeling that God grasps us.

Reading this the first time just blew me away, and I had to go back and read it again. I'm pretty sure I agree though. It comes back to what Charles Williams said we must say whenever we attempt to point out what God is like: "This also is Thou: neither is this Thou." All of our ideas about God have the potential of becoming conceptual idols. So we are always in that position, as Rollins says, of having to disbelieve what one believes.

Maybe this explains why I enjoy hanging around atheists so much. ;)


posted by Mike Clawson at 4:59 PM | Permalink |


At 4/16/2007 09:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

hey dude.

nice post. i have to read that book sometime.

and thanks for the blog. i like it.