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Christianity for Atheists

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 28 July 2011


Watching the spiritual special on Q&A on July 18 I was reminded how damaging ordinary or garden variety belief in God is a barrier to faith. I was also reminded how easy it is for a scientist from Oxford or Cambridge to be given air time in Australia for their religious views. I am sure this an example of our cultural cringe. John Lennox, a mathematician from Oxford was the major feature of the panel and, in what is now a cliché, went on about evidence for the existence of God from the order in creation and how belief in that order allowed the rise of natural science and all the technologies that we now enjoy.

It is common for those who are trained in science and who take on theological opinions to find the foundation of their belief in creation and rely on evidence for the existence of a divine creator in that creation. When you think about it, this is expected. These people are applying their scientific training to theology. They begin with what they see all around them and then look for evidence of a divine being as the origin of it all. Most scientists do not do this, they look at the things around them and come to the conclusion that the universe evolved without any help.

The problem is that evidence for the existence of God have nothing at all to do with faith. As St Paul rightly observes; "But we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience." (Rom. 8:25) As soon as you talk about evidence you are not talking about faith. You may be talking about religion but that is not the same as faith. What you are doing is setting up a metaphysical idol that shuts the door to the God that Christians worship.

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This brings me to the title of the article. The great barrier to faith in our time is the idea of the existence of God. Thinkers of the European Enlightenment have discredited this construction. The admirable Eva Cox is a product of this thought and made more sense that the Christians on the panel. However, far from being the end of Christianity such scepticism has cleared the field for a more truthful examination of the tradition.

Christians should proudly proclaim their atheism. That is, they should proudly tell how they do not believe in the God promoted by thinkers such as Lennox and even more, distance themselves from the flaccid talk of Jacqueline Grey, labelled as a biblical scholar, but showing all the colours of biblical fundamentalism. We should proclaim to the world that our God is not a divine being "out there" nor the mind behind the creation, nor the providential ruler of the universe. These are all, to some extend, recent accretions to the Christian tradition. To understand Christianity one must become, in the terms presented in the Q&A program, an atheist. Only when that has happened can we hear the story of the passion of Jesus, the real sign of the presence of God in the world.

As long as we think that the argument about the existence of God is important we will not come to the theological sophistication necessary to come to adult faith. It is only when we give up on creation as the ground of faith, that is so easily confused with nature, and place the cross of Christ at the centre, that we will come to realise that before this One we must give way. We must realise that God is personal but is not a person, that we are not saved by belief in an idol of our own construction

This is not an easy path because one must constantly translate religious language. For example, the centre of faith is that God raised Jesus from the dead. If this statement is taken as evidence that God performed a nature miracle then we find ourselves back in the old debates about God that have been a barrier to faith for millions. But how else do we understand it if "God" is the subject, "raised" is the verb and "Jesus from the dead" the object of the verb?

In the Old Testament one of the names of God (YHWH) was unpronounceable. To have an image of God, even a mental image, was forbidden. This is how the identity of God was protected from human projection. God was often presented as a divine person but in a way that enabled the narrative rather than as proof of the existence of a divine power. Indeed, many of the stories are playful, the book of Jonah especially. This gives us an insight into how we could interpret a sentence like "God raised Jesus from the dead." It is not meant literally, it is figurative but points to a real event. It includes but is not emptied by the subjectivity of the first believers. It is unexpected and is not the work of men. But its proclamation opens the door to faith and freedom. The one we killed has been vindicated. Our evil actions have been subverted to the good. Our lies have produced a truth that illuminates the whole world.

The resurrection signifies the overturning of the powers of the world that keep us in bondage, the defeat of death as having the last word, a sign of the fulfilment of history to come. All these things and more rely on us dethroning the God that we have made in our own image and being open to the events in history that bring about a new creation. This is the real meaning of creation, it has nothing to do with cosmology or the big bang but the creation of a new people, the sons and daughters of God.

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It is true that language is limited by its grammar. Art is essential to make it say more; that is what poetry and literature about. They require imagination. The biblical writers were supreme artists, they know how to escape the bounds of grammar to indicate the transcendent. That is why, when we are sitting in church we need to translate in order to come to the richness of the gospel. We do not take faith language at face value, we are always seeing below the surface.

But alas, in Q&A the other night we were left well and truly on the surface and believers all of the country must have cringed. Our national broadcaster is in a sorry state when it trots out the same old formulas. We have plenty of real theologians who could have been on the panel, why not ask them?

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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