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The atheist convention: a missed opportunity

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 16 April 2012


It is a great pity that the new atheists are so fixated on a futile question: the existence of a God as immaterial supernatural being. It is a pity because by its nature this is a question that resists solution because by positing an entity in the world any discussion must be according to the precepts of scientific reason, i.e. it is evidence based. There can be no evidence for the existence of a nonmaterial being because, by definition, that being cannot act on the material. In this I am on the side of the atheists.

It would be far more productive if the debate about the existence of God were directed towards whether the gospel was true. By “true” I do not mean whether biblical narrative is an exact account of what actually happened. The writers of the bible were not interested in a historiography that was directed towards this kind of accuracy.

Instead, they were directed towards the meaning of the events related and they prosecuted this orientation by the means of drama, irony, song and poetry. It is indeed useless for biblical scholarship to attempt to search for the historical Jesus. It is not what interests us.  

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What I mean when I say that our issue is not the existence of God but whether the gospel is true, is wether the sayings of Jesus and the import of his acts and death are true. “True” in that they are ultimately important for us to see ourselves as we are and as we might be. This is the truth that is lived out in the Christian community.

The question about revelation is not about the existence of the revealer but the quality of the community that arises out of that revelation. “If we live like this, then has revelation occurred?” Arguments about the truth of the gospel refer to lived lives. That is what the veneration of the saints is about. If a Christian community is not a foreshadowing of the peaceable kingdom, then either the gospel is not true and does not create life out of death, or the community has been unfaithful to the gospel.

The evidence that the gospel is true cannot be tested by scientific means, as much as the beauty of a work of art may be tested. This simile is useful because the gospel is more like a work of art than a scientific hypothesis. It is attractive because of its beauty. Coming to faith may be compared to falling in love, we are overcome with beauty and the promise of a transformed future.

Thus the debate about God should not be about the existence of a supernatural being but about the possibility of an encounter with another that will be transformative.  In the gospels this encounter is the encounter with the crucified and risen Christ. This is not about the resuscitation of Jesus and the subsequent physical encounter with believers. That is figurative biblical literature.

The gospel is a dead thing to us if we cannot have such an encounter all these 2000 years later. The death and resurrection of Jesus is about the final inability of human violence and lies to overcome the truth of God. The resurrection points to the vindication of Jesus and his continued presence to two or three that are gathered in his name. If Jesus is vindicated then we are judged. That is why we have to say confession in each service of worship, our problem with lies and violence continues. The continuing presence of Jesus opens the possibility that we will meet him.  It is in that meeting that we are put to death and rise in a resurrection like his i.e. in the truth.

True atheism would abandon the argument about the existence of God that is unsolvable and deny that the gospel is true. For example, it would argue against the following: That our being exists between us and the person next to us. That if we would have our lives we will lose it. That each and every person is created in the image of God. That Christ on the cross absorbed the violence of the world and so placed violence on notice. That death is not the final enemy by unfaithfulness is.

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If atheists denied all of the above and more they would have removed God from our lives and also removed civilization as we know it. What kind of civilization would rise from the ashes is anyone’s guess but we have a vision of it in Hobbs “war of all against all” of pure nature, unpitying and implacable. It is a great pity that the most recent atheist uprising insists on ranting about the same old things without investigating what Christianity actually says. Nietzsche was a serious atheist who understood the importance of the death of God, that it was monumental and changed everything. The most recent crop are disappointing compared to him.

When we dispense with the old argument about the existence of God as supernatural being and begin to understand that God is truth then we can make some progress. God is the truth expressed in the life death and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. As truth, God does not require supernatural being because truth speaks for itself. Once we have seen it there is no way back, we will be “of the faith” until we die.

This is quite different from arguments about the existence of God that rarely, if ever, results in faith. It is quite different from us deciding that God exists on the evidence and then wondering what we should do about it. That leaves us alone with our wonderings. Lip service to the idea of the existence of God leads us nowhere. It is about time that atheists understood that Christian faith has content and if they want to do battle with the church it is that content that must be criticised. It is also time they understood that that content does not rely on the existence of a non-material being.

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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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