Christianity Minus Theism

Lloyd Geering
Presented at the Sea of Faith (NZ) Conference, 7 October 2000

1. Is Christianity dependent on theism?

To most people, both in the church and out of it, it seems self-evident that Christianity stands or falls with the belief in God. Belief in God can mean a wide variety of things. I am going to refer to that form of belief in God known as theism. Can there be a Christianity without theism and if so what is it like?

Although this is a very serious question I am going to discuss it, at times, in a more light-hearted way. This is to try to demonstrate that we should not take theology too seriously. The reason is that all theology is a human construction. If we take our constructions or mental creations too seriously we become idolaters. It is often forgotten that the most heinous sin in the eyes of the Bible writers was not atheism but idolatry.

So it is a very healthy practice, from time to time, to laugh at our religious creations. That is exactly what some of the ancient Israelite prophets did. One of them poked fun at the religious sacrifices which Israelites were taking so seriously. Another, during the Exile, poked fun at the religious images humans created. (Read Isaiah 44). So, while what I say does have a very important and serious intention, it will be mingled with a bit of tongue-in-cheek comment.

A graven image should never itself be worshipped but recognized for what it is: a manmade object—a symbol. In the same way mental images, theological concepts and doctrines, should never be regarded as the ultimate truth. They are human attempts to say something of ultimate importance but they never wholly manage it. Theology is highly symbolic. It is more like poetry than descriptive statements. There is good poetry and bad poetry. So there is good theology and bad theology. What may be regarded as good theology in one age may seem very bad theology in another. Moreover theology can be highly deceptive. It can give the appearance of being very profound, even deceiving the theologian himself; yet it can be gobble-de-gook saying nothing at all. It is wise to take some theology with a grain of salt. When we find that the Emperor has no clothes we should say so.

Sometimes we need to laugh at our own theological statements. So do not take anything I say too seriously but decide for yourselves if you find in it that speaks to you.

I am going to fly two kites. They are both on the same string. I am going to contend:

  1. That traditional Christianity, when examined, is not really theistic anyway.
  2. That Christianity should be seen, not only as humanistic but also as the rejection of theism.
To do this, I shall first look at theism and then at Christianity.

2. What is theism?

This term, strangely, did not come into use until the 17th century. That was the time when the concept of God was beginning to undergo modern critical examination. The first modern atheists declared themselves in the 18th century. That tells us something. Prior to that the notion of God seemed to be so self-evident that only a fool would reject it.

Theism is primarily a philosophical term. It can be contrasted with alternatives such deism, pantheism, and mysticism, along with atheism—its polar opposite.

Theism

In theism 'God' names the supernatural personal being who created the world and who continues to have oversight (providence) over its affairs. Being personal, he enters into personal relationships with humans who are made in his image. Christian orthodoxy today strongly affirms theism. Evangelical Christians use it as one of the essential tests of orthodoxy. 'Do you believe in a personal God?'

Deism

In deism 'God' is the name of the creator of the universe. But this God is not involved in the world in any personal way. Deism appealed to thinkers in the time of the rise of modern science. It became quite widespread at the Enlightenment. There was even a deist Archbishop of Canterbury. It is now strongly rejected in theological circles but lingers on quite widely as a vague popular belief. It is the type of God referred to by some modern physicists.

Pantheism

Pantheism identifies God with all that there is, regards all finite things as parts, modes, limitations, or appearances of one ultimate Being, which is all that there is. It originated with the Jewish philosopher Spinoza who was roundly condemned by Jew and Christian. Yet it has continued to surface from time to time. Teilhard de Chardin and Paul Tillich were both accused of pantheism.

Mysticism

Mysticism has associations with both theism and pantheism. The only reality is one undiversified Being. In mystical thought, and in much of its practice, the multiplicity of things is ultimately repudiated. Mysticism has been dallied with both in mediaeval and in modern times but generally rejected in the circles of Christian orthodoxy, which like to affirm an unbridgeable gap between God and all whom he has created, including ourselves.

Atheism

Though it is primarily the rejection of theism, atheism is often used to deny that the concept of 'God' has any meaningful use.

For a very long period before this modern examination of the concept of God, the reality of God seemed so self-evident that it went unquestioned. It was nevertheless claimed that it was possible to demonstrate the reality of God on rational grounds. They later became known as the four Proofs of the existence of God. They are the cosmological, teleological, ontological, and moral arguments. They are worth a brief look at, since several of them still carry a certain amount of weight at a popular level.

3. Proofs of existence of God

The Cosmological Argument

The world is seen as dependent upon some being beyond it for its intelligibility and existence. From the existence of the world, the reality of God is inferred as the ultimate cause.

The Teleological Argument

This proceeds from the observation of order and design in the universe. Things in the world seem to functions as if designed for a purpose. This points to a Designer.

The Moral Argument

It rests upon the experience of obligation or moral duty. Immanuel Kant argued that a God must be postulated as the being who rewards worthiness and enables moral life to be rationally understood.

The Ontological Argument

It tries to show that the very concept of God implies the necessity of God's existence. St. Anslem defined God as 'that than which nothing greater can be conceived.' Since God must embrace all perfections, God must exist. This is a simple reduction ad absurdum proof:.
Let God be the name for the highest reality one can conceive.
God either exists or does not exist.
If he does not exist, it is possible to conceive of one who does.
This is impossible by definition.
Therefore God exists.

It is generally agreed that none of these arguments prove the existence of God in any strict sense. But it is worth noting:

  1. Though invalid as a proof, the initial premise of the Ontological argument is very close to the non-realist use of the term 'God' often found in the SoF.
  2. Even if the four classical proofs of the existence of God had more validity than they do, the most they would ever support would be deism and not theism.
  3. From at least Aquinas onwards, theologians have all argued that, however much we may arrive by reason at deism or theism, we cannot reason our way to the Christian God. We would not know the Christian God if he had not revealed himself to us and this God has done so in Jesus Christ. Thus, in order to be able to speak about God, we are dependent on God's revelation of himself to us. What that revelation is we shall question later.

4. Trinitarianism.

It is often said that theism is common to Jew, Christian and Muslim. Yet the Christian God and Allah are very different. Jews and Muslims may well be theists, but Christians abandoned pure theism in the early centuries. If the classical Christian teaching in the creeds is said to be theism then it is theism in a radically modified form. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not theism. Those Christians who defend theism today do not appear to understand the implications of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. I carefully used the word 'implications'. I doubt if anyone has ever understood the docrine of the Holy Trinity.

I like the story of the theological student who was so delighted by the lecture on the Holy Trinity he had just heard that he jumped up to thank the lecturer. 'Thank you, sir' he said excitedly, 'you put it so dearly. I have never before been able to understand the doctrine of the Trinity as I do now'. The lecturer sighed, 'If you understand it as clearly as that, I shall have to start and explain it all over again'.

Thus those who think they understood the doctrine of the Holy Trinity have got it wrong. Its a bit like the Tao in the Tao Te Ching:

He who speaks does not know,
And he who knows does not speak
Let us look at [Trinitarianism in] the 39 Articles [in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer]:
There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts or passions; of infinite power, wisdom and goodness; the Maker and Preserver of all things visible and invisible.
That is theism and is more Greek than Jewish. But it goes on:
And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power and eternity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
Notice the subtle change, from 'God' to 'Godhead'. There is a bit of sleight of hand going on here. What has just been said about God does not fit at all well with what is said about the Godhead. If we ask what is meant by Godhead we have to say it is not a being at all, so much as a quality—the quality of being divine.

The purpose of this subtle transition from God to Godhead is to enable the theism to become modified into something else. Pure theism is now being transformed into trinitarianism.

The Christian view of God is not belief in one divine creator, full stop. (That would be theism). The Christian view of God is that of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in one Godhead.

When Christians try to defend a pure theism today they unconsciously select out the Father Creator and identify the Father alone with God. For example, it is the Creator/Provider God to which all the so-called proofs are directed.

Of course this is supported by the Lord's prayer, which encourages us to pray to 'Our Father who is in heaven'. This is a theistic prayer because it is a Jewish prayer, formulated before the doctrine of the Holy Trinity was put together.

What people do not seem to realise is that this tendency to select out the Father as the Creator God and identify Him with God was called in the ancient world monarchianism (belief in one divine ruler). It was declared heresy in the early centuries and remains heresy to this day.

But of crucial importance to the Christian view of the Godhead are also the Son and the Holy Spirit.

The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took Man's nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance; so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man; who truly suffered, was crucified, dead and buried, to reconcile his Father unto us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original sin, but also for all actual sins of men.
Theism was radically modified by the incorporation of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation.

It took the church some three centuries or more to carry this through.

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity which it arrived at is no more than a humanly devised formula to safeguard certain very important areas of Christian experience which were thought to be beyond human understanding. Christian experience of the first centuries was very varied, fluid and complex.

  1. Christianity had inherited from the Jews the iconoclastic rejection of the gods as supreme beings. The one God they worshipped was related to the world and to human history.
  2. They had inherited from the apostles the influence of the man Jesus of Nazareth.
  3. They experienced within the fellowship of the church a new vitality which they called the Holy Spirit.
The Trinity was a humanly devised formula which seemed to safeguard all three and affirm the underlying unity of all three. But it was no longer a pure theism.

Moreover this solution was arrived at only after bitter debate. In the course of their debates many solutions were offered which seemed to make a lot more sense than their final solution. For example, patripassianism held that it was really the Father who suffered on the cross. Arianism held that Christ was less than the Father but more than a human. When the doctrine of the Trinity was finally adopted it was not adopted unanimously and unity was achieved only by casting out of the church those who disagreed. It is not clear just how much sense it made even to those who adopted it. Was it really intended to make sense? Was it not primarily intended to reconcile warring parties in the church by finding some verbal compromise which would be accepted by the majority?

It served for a thousand years. It became the great Christian mantra, recited in creeds and sung about in hymns and amthems. I have become very fond of it myself. As a mantra it was not meant to be understood. During that long period ordinary Christians were not expected to do any thinking of their own, but to leave it to church officials.

But we humans like to make sense of things. So when from the Renaissance onwards, and particularly from the Enlightenment, more and more people gained the freedom to think for themselves, they faced a dilemma. Either they simply repeated the traditional creeds—including the doctrine of the Trinity—and pretended they understood it, or they thought for themselves and fell into one of the ancient heresies. So from the Enlightenment, if not before, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity began to fall apart. That is why a purer form of theism began to reappear at one pole and atheism appeared at the other. In popular Christian thought in the church, on the other hand, all the old heresies have reappeared. They tend to go undetected simply because so little is known about early church history.

Ths brief examination of theism has been the first step in showing that traditional Christianity is not really wedded to theism. Whereas theism affirms a great gulf between God the Creator on the one hand, and the world and humankind on the other, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity conceived the divine in the form of a relationship—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—a relationship which united God and humanity in one.

Now we take the second step in showing that traditional Christianity is not really wedded to theism by looking at Christianity itself.

5. What is Christianity?

  • Does [the term 'Christianity] refer to 'the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints'? (Jude 3)
  • Do we mean, for example, the belief system expressed in the creeds and confessions of the church? (including the doctrine of the Trinity?)
  • Does Christianity consist of living a sacramental life within the authoritative institutional structure called Mother Church?
  • Is the essence of Christianity to be found in accepting Jesus Christ as ones' personal Lord and Saviour?
  • Does Christianity mean accepting uncritically a set of ancient scriptures as the written record of what is ultimately true?
  • Or does Christianity consist simply of a set of moral values by which to live?
Various groups at one time or another have promoted one or more of these definitions, as the essence or sine qua non of Christianity.

Modern historical research has made it very clear, however, that there has never been a time when all who confessed to be Christians (or followers of Jesus) shared exactly all the same beliefs. The New Testament phrase 'the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints' was itself part of the developing Christian myth, that faith consists of embracing a set of beliefs which are permanent and unchangeable. Christian beliefs have changed and diversified through the centuries. Today, more than ever before, Christianity has no definable and eternal essence on which all Christians at all times, or even at any one time, agree. It is misleading, therefore, to use the term Christianity in a way which implies that it names some objective and unchangeable essence or thing, such as the theistic belief in God.

I suggest we think of Christianity as a stream of living culture flowing through the plains of time. Sometimes, like a river, it divides into substreams and sometimes it is joined by other streams. As it flows onward it gathers new material from the banks it passes through. Sometimes the fluid material in it crystalizes into more rigid objects. Sometimes it drops these objects and other forms of sediment it is carrying along. There is a tendency for people to regard the visible objects in this cultural stream, such as the priesthood, episcopal government, creeds and even the Bible, as being of the essence of the stream. In fact they have less permanence that the stream which carries them along.

Through church history people have attempted to reform the church. Their critics have warned that they are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. That is a misleading metaphor. Christianity has no permanent and absolute essence. There is no 'baby'; there is only the bath water, or what is preferably called the on-going cultural stream, broadly known as Judeo-Christian.

Two of the chief doctrines which are often regarded as the sine qua non of Christianity are the Trinity and the Incarnation. I have already sketched how and why the doctrine of the Trinity evolved and how it began to come apart in modern times. The doctrine of the Trinity made a radical transformation of theism by incorporating the new doctrine of the Incarnation.

6. What is the doctrine of the Incarnation and how did it arise?

This is the brief answer. The doctrine of the Incarnation evolved by a series of steps which developed so that the process can even be documented within the New Testament.

Evolution of the Doctrine of the Incarnation

  • Jesus was claimed to be the Messiah (Christ) awaited by the Jews.
  • Jesus was claimed to be a Son of God (all anointed kings were sons of God).
  • Jesus was claimed to be the Lord (also a euphemistic title for God)
  • Jesus was claimed to be the Saviour (a play upon the name Jesus=Joshua).
  • Jesus was claimed to be the only Son of God.
  • Jesus was claimed to be the Logos or Word of God.
  • Jesus was God and creator of the world.
  • Jesus was the incarnation of God (human enfleshment of God).
Where was this process of raising Jesus to divine status taking place? It was not a cosmic event. It was taking place in the minds of Christians. In this process Jesus was coming to be valued more and more highly in Christian devotion. Like the doctrine of the Trinity to which it later contributed, the doctrine of the Incarnation was a human construction.

In the process of raising Jesus to divine status, they almost rejected his humanity altogether and steps had to be taken to affirm his humanity. Even so, through most of Christian history until modern times the humanity of Jesus has been played down if not wholly obliterated. To the extent that the humanity of Jesus was ignored the doctrine of the Incarnation was being restricted to a short period of earthly time—a past event. Christ became the glorified Son of God sitting at the right hand of God the Father. The humanity of Jesus had been shed like an empty shell. The Incarnation was now becoming denied. The denial of the Incarnation in turn affected the validity of the doctrine of the Trinity. The Trinity was reverting into theism. This is the reason why orthodox Christianity today believes it is theistic. It has failed to appreciate its own most central doctrnes.

From our vantage point in the modern world we are in a better position to appreciate the fact that these doctrines were constructed by human minds; they were not divinely revealed. Indeed everything which has been claimed to be divinely revealed is in fact of human origin. Several important points follow from this:

  1. The doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are not set in concrete. We need not be unduly concerned that these mental constructions of the ancient church are now falling apart.
  2. They are not the only forms in which useful doctrines could have been constructed from the fluid material available at the time of Christian origins.
  3. We are now recovering some of the early material, including the footprints and voiceprints of the historical Jesus. These show that he was truly human in every way, even to being a man of his own times.
  4. But the Judeo-Christian cultural stream still carries on. It has given rise to the modern global, secular world. This is the current form of the same cultural stream.

The intellectual context is very different from that in which the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation were constructed. The Judeo-Christian cultural stream is now in a very fluid state and complex state. It contains within it many different sub-streams each claiming to be the genuine form of Christianity. They threaten to leave the main stream, now increasingly secular, and go off into a backwater of their own. It is in this context that I now turn ... to fly my second kite:

7. Christianity is to be seen, not only as humanistic but also as the rejection of theism.

The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation states that
the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man.

I suggested a moment ago that the final glorification of Christ to heaven had the effect of negating the Incarnation in that Christ was worshipped as God but no longer seen as a man.

Instead of abandoning this idea of joining Godhead and manhood together I now wish to recover it and take it to its logical conclusion. When we do so we find that it takes on an unexpected new relevance in the global, secular world. To restrict the Incarnation to one human person, namely the man Jesus of Nazareth, is to miss its full significance. The idea that God could become enfleshed even in one special person was more than most Jews could accept at the time; all Jews and Muslims since that time have rejected it, insisting on preserving a pure theism.

The idea that God could become enfleshed in humanity as a whole is more than most Christians have been able to accept. Yet the seeds of the beginning of this are even in the New Testament. Jesus was at first not separated from his fellow-humans by a great gulf, in the way that God had been, and in the way that the glorified Christ later became. Rather this Jesus was said to represent or symbolise the whole race. Just as the first Adam (meaning 'mankind') embodied the whole human race, so the Christ figure evolving out of Jesus was said to be the New Adam, (i.e. the embodiment of the new humankind). 'For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive'. That is why Paul spoke of all Christians as being 'in Christ'. They were conceived as participating in the Incarnation. This is why it later became common to speak of the Christian life as one of 'sanctification' and why the Eastern Orthodox spoke of it as the process of 'deification'. Thus, from the begining, and continuing in later hints, there has always been the seed-thought that humans were now to become the enfleshment of the divine. The doctrine of the Incarnation was to be applied to the whole of humankind.

The first theologian to take the doctrine of the Incarnation to its logical conclusion was Ludwig Feuerbach. This he did in his book, The Essence of Christianity. For him, the coming of Jesus, mythically interpreted as the incarnation of God, marked a turning point in history. From then onwards the human race was to manifest the virtues of love, justice and compassion, the very things long regarded as the exclusive attributes of God—the very attributes, incidentally, which constituted the being of God. (e.g. 'God is love').

The implication of the doctrine of the Incarnation in the context of the global secular world is that the mythical throne of heaven is empty. The God, once conceived by humans as sitting upon that throne, has come down to dwell in human flesh—in all human flesh. Not only is the throne empty but heaven itself is empty. As the Pope said last year (1999), heaven is not a place but a state of mind.

The implications of the Incarnation are these:

  • The doctrine of the Incarnation and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity both affirm that the human and the divine are becoming united.
  • We must learn to live without the divine heavenly props thought to exist in the past.
  • We must be perfect as God is perfect. (Mat. 5:48)
  • We now have to play the role traditionally attributed to God ...

8. Chalcedonian Formula.

... yet not in such a way as to lose the distinctions between the divine and the human. Even the strange words of Chalcedonian formula take on a new relevance. They tried to describe how the divine and human natures were to be related in the idea of the Incarnation, as applied to the one person Jesus Christ. When we extend the Incarnation from one person to humanity as a whole, they are still relevant, perhaps even more relevant.

What the ancient theologians said about the Christ figure can be applied to the human race as a whole. They were anxious to preserve both the unity and the individual identity of the human and divine natures. So they said:

the divine and the human natures are not to he confused with each other—the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved.

To put it in more simple terms, it would be a gross example of megalomania for us humans to assert that "We are God". Yet we humans have the potential to display all the divine attributes and to play the divine role. We do so the more we relate to one another in a healthy human society.

If the doctrine of the Incarnation was intended to be applied to the whole of humankind then why has it taken so long for this to manifest itself within the cultural stream?

We may answer this simply, even if somewhat simplistically, by referring to four related steps:

  1. It was the apparent failure of Jesus to return and usher in the expected new world that led Christians of the second and third centuries to engage in the mental construction of a superatural world to take its place. (This process somewhat parallels Aaron's fashioning of the golden calf, when Moses delayed his return from the mountaintop).
  2. The elevation of Jesus to a supernatural throne in the heavens had the effect of virtually cancelling out the Incarnation.
  3. Not until the mentally constructed supernatural world began to dissolve into unreality (as it has been doing over the last four hundred years) could the ultimate significance of the Incarnation come to be realised.
  4. The restriction of the Incarnation to one human person is to miss its full significance.
Curiously enough it needed a modern Jewish thinker to bring out the abiding significance of the doctrine of the Trinity. It was Martin Buber in his great spiritual classic I and Thou. The divine is a presence and it is found in relationship. He took up the idea from Feuerbach. Father, Son and Holy Spirit form a relationship. Feuerbach said
'the secret of the Trinity lies in communal and social life; it is the secret of the necessity of the 'thou' for an 'I'; it is the truth that no being—be it man, god, mind or ego—is for itself alone a true, perfect and absolute being'.
That led Buber to speak of God in terms of the quality of personal relationships. Wherever there is true community there is the divine presence.
'Where two or three are gathred together in my name, there am I in the midst of them'. (Mat. 18:20).

Thus the doctrines of the Trinity and of the Incarnation take on a new relevance in the global, secular and ecological world. More than any other living species on this planet the human race is being forced increasingly to play the role of God with regard to the sustaining of life on this planet. We have become responsible for the planet's future. It is not too much to say that this self-evolving planet is becoming conscious in us humans with all the responsibility for the future that that entails. As Father, Son and Holy Spirit were conceived as 'three in one' because of the Incarnation, so today we are coming to acknowledge a new but secular form of Trinity or three in one:

  • the creativity in the cosmos itself,
  • the human species that cosmic creativity has brought forth,
  • our collective consciousness and the knowledge it has brought forth.

These are not independent but one. These three must act in unison to meet the challenges ahead. The more we become an harmonious global society, relating to one another and to the planet, the more we make manifest the lasting aspects of the doctrines of the Incarnation and of Holy Trinity.

I now haul my two kites to the earth. They are no more than one person's constructions. There is nothing final or authoritative about them.

I have tried to show that Christianity, understood as a broad cultural stream, can and will continue without theism. This is because, in the first place Christianity made a radical departure from pure theism in the early centuries and in the second place in modern times it is taking that radical departure to its logical end, which is the abolition of theism.