Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Your Non-God is Too Small

What is an atheist? My general rule is that if you want to know how folks define themselves you ought to ask them. When that happens you find that things are generally not so simple. People define themselves for different reasons and mean many different things. At times our self-definition changes depending upon how the categories are defined.

I agree with many atheists in that I don't believe in the god they don't believe in either. But that doesn't mean much. If a person makes a straw man of my belief, I likely won't accept his or her definition. Often the terms are defined too narrowly (by both Christians and atheists). Robert Jensen points this out in his latest book (due in June 2009):

My basic beliefs about the concept of God haven't changed much since I joined St. Andrew's, though I no longer use the term "atheist" or "agnostic" to describe myself. That's in part because since this phase of my life began there has been a renewed public discussion about atheism, sparked in large part by the publication of several books, all of which leave me unsatisfied [in a footnote he lists titles by Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens]. These authors, routinely referred to as the "new atheists" in media reports, offer much useful critical analysis of the supernatural claims of religion and the often destructive effects of religion, but they strike me--in their public comments as well as in their writing--as smug and self-satisfied....p. 39
He quotes Daniel Dennett's definition of religion:
" systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought..." and the core phenomenon of religion as an invocation of "gods who are effective agents in real time, and who play a central role in the way the participants think about what they ought to do." p. 26-27
If that is religion, I don't belong either. As Jensen puts it wryly:
It appears that the orthodox folks from the presbytery and the new atheists might agree on, if nothing else, how to define religion--narrowly. p. 26
Exactly. It is too simplistic and polarizing. Many progressive Christians reject these narrow definitions of religion. Robert Jensen describes his journey at St. Andrew's:
But more important than my dissatisfaction with the new atheists is my positive experience at St. Andrew's. I continue to read, think, and discuss these issues with my pastor, fellow church members, and a wider public. I have had engaging discussions with a number of progressive thinkers from other faiths that have deepened my identification as a member of a Christian church. In short, my core beliefs haven't changed much, but I don't feel like an atheist or agnostic. p. 26
Religious practice is a great deal more complex and nuanced than how it is defined by both its proponents and opponents. Robert Jensen's saga at St. Andrew's and his new book that recounts this journey is one that will resonate with many.

To both sides we say, your god and your non-god is too small.


  1. It always struck me that the discussion of whether God exists asks the wrong question. I'm more apt to think that the question is not whether there is an additional object in the world (God) or not but rather if there is anything in this world of ours that is worthy of love, of reverence, of a religious response. The latter has far more significance and could actually call forth faith (not belief in propositions but trust and commitment)

  2. I am delighted to see your posts about this book, and to (hopefully) see discussion about the narrowness of definitions on all sides.

    It's been difficult to put my thoughts about it into words that don't butt up against someone else's narrow definition of what God is.

    The best I can do is to suggest that showing reverence to God by doing something to make the world - however narrowly or broadly you define that - a little better is what God is. The more people working collectively toward that goal, the greater the power of God.

    That's all very circular, I know, but it's the best this heathen can do. It's also very comforting to feel that, heathen though I may be, I am still a part of the great mystery.

  3. (I started this comment on your first post, so forgive me if I pull things from both of them...)

    I'm all for allowing people to define who they are--and for welcoming anyone who wants to be a part of my faith community without any kind of Belief Check.

    But.... (you knew there would be one, didn't you?)

    I do question why Dr. Jensen wants to call himself a Christian when the only way he can do so is to redefine the word in a way it has NEVER been understood--even by radical progressives like me.

    The fact is that Christianity is not just "an invitation to explore questions that help people transcend boundaries." Christianity makes a truth claim--that God exists, loves us, and lived among us in the flesh. I am really perplexed about why anyone would want to sign on to being a Christian when they knew from the start that they could not affirm these basic tenets?

    Jensen's admission that he joined the church for purely political purposes may be the answer--but that bothers me too. Reading his essay on Alternet made me feel as if he were using the people at St. Andrew's for his own personal political crusade. I wouldn't like feeling as if I was a tool in someone else's campaign to eliminate religion from the world--even if I agree that much of what passes for religion is an affront to God and basic human decency.

    I am surprised by the amount of emotion this stirred in me, John--and grateful to you for posting it. I don't want to define people out of "The Club"--and, yet, to me, being a Christian means more than just trying to be a good person and working for justice. I do plenty of that with secular organizations--when I go to church, I go for different reasons entirely.

    I'm not saying that anyone else's reasons have to mirror mine--but I am very uncomfortable when someone starts talking about how Christians have some sort of duty to make our faith irrelevant. From my perspective, even when we reach the point that "all people have exactly the same value," there will still be a place for faith. My faith is what has taught me that every human being has dignity and worth--without that faith, I can see that all people could have the same value--and it could just as easily be "worthless" as "priceless."

    I think I'll read the book just to see if I can get more insights that will help me understand. I have no interest in barring the church doors to Dr. Jensen or anyone else--at the same time, I believe that being a Christian is more than just doing good deeds and I don't believe that the distinctly Christian message of God's goodness and love for us will ever be irrelevant.


  4. Very good, Dwight. Jensen puts it this way: "What is the animating spirit of Christianity?"

    Snad: we like circular heathens.

    Doxy: I appreciate your thoughts. What didn't come across in my review that does come across in the book is his personal story on a deeply emotional level. He attended St. Andrew's for some time and knew about the church long before. It was only after he had attended for some time, and had preached, and had led the congregation in the Lord's Prayer (a touching account) that he asked to be a member.

    You sense in reading his story a bit of transformation as well. You don't know a person from an article on the internet (or from writing a blog).

    Obviously, the community he joined didn't feel he was manipulating them or whatever. They embraced him since they knew him.

    As far as definitions of Christians go, well, I am not sure that it has never been defined in the way he defines it. Acts defines the folks as "the way."

    Not so sure that 'we've never defined it that way' is enough of an argument either. It is the same that is used against me when I affirm gay and lesbian people in the church (I am bringing my political agenda into the church that has never accepted homosexuality).

    Again, I appreciate your views and your feelings on this. This is important discussion.

  5. Thanks for the additional info, John. It certainly makes a difference to me that Dr. Jensen was transparent with people. I don't mean to say that people should have to have their beliefs voted on by the church--I doubt I would pass a vote like that! But your explanation cleared up something that was bothering me. I look forward to reading the book.

    I guess my real question is this: Just what does Christianity offer, once you (generic "you") have stripped it of all its claims to Truth? (Note the capital...)

    Does Dr. Jensen (or do you) see that Christianity offers something that secular humanism does not? Or, in other words, why not sleep in on Sunday, after you've been working hard all week to make the world a better place? (And I am NOT being snarky about that, I promise!)

    I do not believe one needs religion of any sort to be a good person. I know many atheists and agnostics who are wonderful, moral people. Many of those folks have devoted their lives to peace and justice issues.

    I am also a universalist. So I don't believe God is going to damn anyone to hell for their beliefs or lack thereof. In fact, I don't even know if there *is* an afterlife--but it doesn't matter to me one way or another. I would be a Christian even if I knew that my time here on earth is all I'll ever get.

    Because Christianity offers me something--and that is the certainty that I matter in the big scheme of things. That my life has ultimate meaning. I get that from the doctrine of the Incarnation--which is the whole ball of wax for me. I know my beliefs are not rational--but I also know there are many things in this life that we cannot explain, so I can live with the seeming contradictions of being a trained social scientist in a post-modern culture and being a Christian who can cite the Nicene Creed without crossing my fingers.

    As always, thanks for the dialogue. I love reading your blog because you challenge me a lot more than the fundies do. ;-)


  6. Hey Doxy,

    "Just what does Christianity offer, once you (generic "you") have stripped it of all its claims to Truth? (Note the capital...)"

    I speak only for myself. I think Christianity has a lot to say about Truth. Most importantly, it is about seeking and speaking Truth in all aspects of life. To follow Jesus is to follow the way of Truth.

    This includes but is not limited to, Truth of the good life vs. a life based on goods.

    Truth of injustice and justice.

    Truth about power and abuse of power.

    Truth about non-violence as opposed to violence.

    And so forth...

    Jesus, executed by Empire, and Risen (however we might understand that) is powerful Truth about what it means to live in this world.

    Why am I a Christian? It's complex. I love singing hymns from a book. I love the smell of the place. I love the language, the liturgy, the passing of the peace. I love the lofty language. I love people seeking a way to live, a way to suffer, a way to express and experience joy. I don't have a "reason" it is a matter of being. I came back to church because my lovely told me what the preacher said in church one day when I was sleeping in or doing whatever else. She said, he said, "There comes a time to stop living for yourself and start living for God."

    So I signed up.

  7. Is this (Robert Jensen) really the posing of an ATHEIST or a well-crafted treatise by a gifted Agnostic?

    George Regas, the former pastor at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, once carefully explained to his congregation one Sunday morning, that an Agnostic position was more authentic because he was willing to take the path of uncertainty and doubt.

    Personally, I have concluded that I can be both Agnostic and Christian - with sprinkles of many other spiritual and philosophical aspects.

    The problem with Atheists is their certainty, which is the problem with Fundamentalism. Their political extremism has been no less profound, and can be witnessed in the form of Mao and Stalin. Certainty of this kind leaves no room for doubt and exacts its punishments.

    As long as religion takes an interfaith path to inclusiveness, it reduces its ancient tendency to justify & participate in wars & bigotries - while giving broader witness to its stated concern & responsibility, the human soul (wholeness, well being).

    Vibrant healthy communities depend on alleviating the marginalization, estrangement and alienation of individuals. Perhaps it becomes more like groups therapy at this threshold - but fulfills its humanitarian and spiritual mission nonetheless.

    Jesus' teachings & example present a prophetic prototype for dialog, participation & actualization which could collectively lead us to more meaningful, productive, abundant lives. So does Buddha and many other similar prophetic voices which beckon us to magnify our humanity.

    Praise be to the infinite potential of an ever-increasing goodness - mercy, justice, forgiveness, transcendence, inclusiveness - capable universally of expressing the full measure of human worth & heart's desire in love, reciprocity & nurturing. A humility or gratitude so committed might preserve, protect & promote Heaven on Earth, rather than Hell.

    If the most GOD be is my power to positively impact the lives of future generations, sobeit. I humbly accept that possibility.

  8. Very nice comment. I can't speak for Robert Jensen to any more degree of clarity than the texts I cited in this post.

    In regards to my friends who self-identify as atheist, I have no beef with them. I can make no claim as to what that self-definition means to them.

    What for me is interesting is how we might understand what it means to be Christian today, including what we mean when we use the word "God."

    I am not particularly persuaded when someone defines my philosophy/faith/belief or whatever in a narrow way and then says s/he doesn't believe it. Great. I don't either.

    On the other hand, when a Christian narrowly defines what a Christian is supposed to be I tend to yawn.

    Point being we ought to talk about what we really are saying (or trying to say). Terms are only helpful when we have an agreed upon definition.

    In many ways I am an atheist. If a theist believes that Thor is a real, supernatural being, I am an atheist. I am really not agnostic about that. I am an aThorist. How bizarre to identify all the gods of literature and say I don't believe in them one by one. The same, frankly, is true for the Christian God when understood as a supernatural being.

    I suppose that atheism can be likened to naturalism whether pragmatic or absolute. A person could be a Christian naturalist.

    An interesting question is what does "God" mean to me? Then the discussion gets interesting and perhaps fruitful, like the eloquent comment you just made with which I heartily affirm.

  9. The strict definition of Atheist is absolute and certain. My last sentence on my last post could be Atheist, except it reduces God to the concepts of the Seventh Generation - plus I express uncertainty.

    Atheists also tend to believe only religions are responsible for wars and all the crimes on the planet, so in the act of discarding God, they are no longer part of the crowd which creates wars and inequity. This simply is not true.

    They will often tell you how a Christian thinks, and have reduced God to a straw man. At times, it is like the child who learned that Santa Claus no longer exists so he is mad and going to have a prolonged tantrum.

    Some Agnostics wrongly identify themselves as Atheists.

    Thor came at a time when everyone wanted to be Gods, and some even claimed to have the children of Gods. These multitude of Gods provided a theatrical firmament humans could act out their own psychodramas and narcissistic delusions.

    Thor does exist on some level. But when we created Yahweh, now much did we change? Humans did superimpose many earlier pagan mythology onto Jesus, in order to appeal to these ancient imaginations and inclinations - a desire for magic and supernatural power. It helps us escape our mundane and short lives.

    Not too long ago I ran across the SCIENTIFIC PANTHEISTS, and resonated with them. I also liked the Quakers Friends with Nature faction. Before that, I was totally taken with an 80s book called RE ENCHANTMENT OF THE WORLD, though it has some weak spots, like only Western culture is the culprit or capable of dualistic thinking.

  10. That looks like an intriguing book.

    It's always frustrating when others assume all atheists are the same/believe the same thing. We don't believe in gods, but otherwise we're as unique as anybody else. Daniel Dennet, Sam Harris and other prominent atheists may seem like they speak for all of us but it's wrong to assume that we agree with everything (or even anything in particular) they say.

    As was stated, if you want to know what someone thinks or believes, ask them.