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A materialist creed: uniting theist and atheist

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 31 October 2014


My recent article on this subject may have surprised believers and unbelievers alike because it seemed to ignore what we read in Scripture and experience in worship: God as personal agent. Indeed belief in such a being has become the single test of whether one is religious or not. Thus it is thought that people can be divided between atheists and theists and that sums up the situation. This is an unfortunate reduction of what is a much more subtle distinction.

It is significant that in the bible there is very little discussion of theology ie of the being and nature of God. While there are legends, stories, historical accounts and devotional prayers it is assumed that the being of God is a given and need not to be discussed. There are hints as in the "still small voice" of Isaiah and the proclamation out of the burning bush to Moses that the name of God is "I will be whom I will be." There is also the Hebrew name of God (YHWH) that is unpronounceable and thus forbids even mental images of God. It seems that God is defined by what he is not.

If we are to demolish the distinction between atheist and theist, a task that is long overdue, how may we ease the way for modern materialists and self confessed atheists so that their allergic reaction to God talk is no longer a barrier? We must take seriously the aversion to belief in God. I came across this quotation from Virginia Woolf:

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I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with poor dear Tom Elliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was really shocked. A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean, there's something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.

My point in this article is to indicate that this reaction, while understandable as regards fundamentalists, misses the point of critically examined Christian faith. If we take materialism seriously and agree that the supernatural, as commonly understood, does not exist, then Christians must make an account of what they mean when they utter the word "God". Such an account would be unable to account for historical believers who were not under the same pressures of today. Nor would it take into account the majority of believers in our time. But such an account is possible without reducing Christianity to self-help or the seriousness of an encounter with God.

Such an account will not be served by simply changing the language, for example Paul Tillich's suggestion that God be referred to "ultimate concern." The great strength of the bible is that it incorporated contradictory ideas. Thus robust affirmations that God is on the side of the righteous exist alongside despairing expressions of the absence of God. The writers of the bible were aware of a dark side. Indeed the psalms of lament and the cry from the cross resonate with us more than Israel triumphing in its victories. The absence of God, that we know all too well, and which has produced outbursts like Virginia Woolf's, was known to biblical writers and to the early church.

Thus there has always been pressure to look under the triumphalism of Israel and the church. For example, our generation is faced with the question of how we can do theology after the holocaust. So the effort to do theology in the absence of the supernatural is an ongoing project, and not just a last resort carried out in order to cosy up to the modern spirit. It is rather the extension of an already existing debate within biblical literature and in the theology of the church. That this is the case is evident in later New Testament literature where, for example, we hear that "God is love" (1John 4:8 NRSV)

How are we to talk about God in a materialist age that eliminates God as supernatural person? It would be a mistake to eliminate personalist language about God because it would rob us of any language at all. We cannot substitute God for a set of ideas, a moral program or a plan to make the world a better place. God remains a reality before which we must give way, one who confronts us with a reality of truth greater that we can find on our own. He is both "wholly other" and closer to us than breathing.

The problem with the atheist/theist duality is that the God who is at the centre of these positions does not have content, he only has existence - or not. Such a god is a stranger to the bible. The key to being able to talk of God in our time is to understand that the word "God" contains the experience of life, the theological musings, the poetry and legend of over two thousand years of human history. As such it is wholly other to the individual and also the ultimate humanism. This tension must be kept less the content of God be reduced to us talking to ourselves or to some high ideal.

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The ultimate test of theology is its transference to the forms of worship. I have found that traditional liturgies sit well with a more nuanced understanding of the person and being of God whereas the non-liturgical traditions are easily seduced by the spirit of the times and laps into a god-talk that I find simplistic and offensive. Unfortunately the cultured despisers like Virginia Woolf only recognise the latter and are limited in their understanding. One would hope for more from the educated!

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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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