REFLECTION BY JOHN WHYTE
Rainer Maria Rilke, I Believe in All That Has Never Yet Been Spoken (1899)
I believe in
all that has never yet been spoken.
If this is
arrogant, God, forgive me,
May what I do
flow from me like a river,
Then in these swelling
and ebbing currents,
REFLECTION ON CHRISTIAN NON-THEISM
Atheists believe that there is no God. Non-theists believe that belief in God’s existence is not compelling, other than as trope or metaphor. More significantly, belief in God is not foundational to religion, or to being a religious person – a person who believes that spirituality is a vibrant and present part of being human. And, Christian non-theists think that Christianity does not necessarily entail belief in God. For them, it is not God that is at the heart of being a religious person, or a Christian, but the embracing of human spirituality.
Spirituality is not easily defined, but it can be hinted at. It is the sense that there is a ground of one’s being, or a guiding star, to which one turns to find an uplifting and selfless spirit, one that helps form a bond – a meaningful common purpose – with others. Spirituality is the sense of deep interpersonal connections. It is the feeling of powerful and immanent feelings – like mercy, like compassion, like sympathy, like a burning passion to have all people and all of creation treated with justice and respect. It is recognition that the way we can best connect to others is through the light of a love that comes without reason or reward, or calculation or exchange. Spirituality is found in the sense of a transcendent awareness of others. Spiritual experience has a numinous character which is the sensing of something not entirely rational and usually deeply moving. It supports our sense that there are values that all can recognize as good and that lead to a kinder and more merciful world – a world of acceptance, respect for everyone’s humanity and generosity in lifting people out of need, despair and loss. While this love is, of course, not always or universally preferred or practised, it is a spirit that is right here, within the recognition of all and the grasp of all.
Where does the ground of spiritual connection come from? It comes, I believe, simply from being human. Humankind, as we all know, is not unique in having deep attributes and capacities that are remarkable and that go beyond our expectation and understanding. Are we not constantly surprised by the depths of adaptation in other species? We are filled with awe as we learn of the secrets of other parts of creation – the secrets of survival, protection, endurance, communication, migration and regeneration. The world is full of life’s phenomena that we cannot understand and that scientists penetrate only slowly and tentatively. Creation is a marvel; its progress is a mystery. Of course, we do constantly know more about life on earth, including more about how humans connect and communicate, but our truest understanding may be the vastness of the mysteries not yet penetrated.
Humans, too, possess these remarkable and surprising qualities, including the quality that we describe as spiritual, or holy, or sacred. And we are right to adopt such words of awe to describe this mysterious part of ourselves. Rightly do we try to organize our thoughts and insights into a religious frame; it is a powerful way to acknowledge our deepest elements – our ability to gain wisdom and find peace, to know good, to act for good, and to love. These are aspects of the mystery of being human. As Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “I want to free what waits within me … streaming through widening channels into the open sea.”
The numinous qualities of spontaneous love and connection for others are what Jesus, over and over again, asked us to see in ourselves and bring into being through the merciful actions of our real lives – the real lives we lead with children, with the bereaved, with the scorned, with the Canaanite woman and, today, with the followers of Islam. This is what I think is at the centre of being a Gospel people, of being followers of Jesus.
Does God have to be removed from this spirituality? Of course not. In truth, there is no sign that God is being expelled from the human stage. As for me, though, it is not the idea of God that lies at the centre of spirituality or that draws me into spiritual engagement. In my view, that sense of an underlying bond with creation, both its mystery and beauty, is neither dependent on belief in God nor God given. The ideas and connections, grace, and spiritual feelings are inevitably experienced through human consciousness. It may be harmless to attribute these experiences to a separate divine agency (although too often it is not harmless) but it is not an essential truth about human spirituality.
I want to offer three perspectives on this choice. The first is this. The world – its physics, science, history, medicine, culture, social organization, geological development and technological advances – are all a challenge to grasp. Yet seeking to understand the world and how it bears on us, and how we bear on it, is what most of us work at a lot of the time, and gaining some part of that understanding is what most of us depend on. “I just want to understand”, we say, whether we are speaking of our iPad or our loved one’s anxiety disorder. In this search to understand we largely follow settled ways of enlightenment – we search out accurate data, plausible analyses and provable causes and effects. This is the process that we hope pharmaceutical companies follow, bridge builders adopt and surgeons steep themselves in. I know that many believe that this route to acquiring knowledge is too restrictive and too often in error. And that has been a fair criticism. But in the great human project of understanding our world and ourselves, I put myself in the schools of science, social research, rational analysis and evolutionary study and not under an anomalous explanation based on God’s active agency in the world. John Shelby Spong is right; the Bible’s account of how things in the world happen cannot survive the second millennium’s re-construction of reality.
My second perspective is this. Our God tradition is built on two distinct God narratives. In the Jewish Bible, God is an agent of direct action. In the New Testament, God is more of a distant metaphysical agent who leaves pursuing godly purposes to human representatives. The first narrative form means that the God story is akin to myth. As you know, myth is a vital instrument for understanding human motivations, needs and relations. Describing the lives of the gods is not the fundamental focus of these narratives. God narratives provide background and create contexts for human relations and human struggles, and the purpose lying behind myths is to enlighten ourselves about ourselves. Our stories and myths, as Joseph Campbell tells us, are first and foremost, attempts to tell truths about the human condition.
Let us look at the stories of Abraham and Isaac. They are ancient stories, recounted for more than a millennium before being written. They reveal deep realities – deep religious realities – about ourselves. Abraham’s story tells us that a good part of humankind’s struggle is the unavoidability of processing the competing presence of good and bad, and of finding a way for living rightly amid such confusion. Good and bad are constant elements of human society and they are a constant challenge to our sense of well-being. They create uncertainty in us that makes us question the value of virtue. We wonder if good can prevail. This story tells us that the bad does not expunge the good, although it can corrupt the good and cause many to perish. However, Abraham’s brave and merciful bargaining on behalf of good tells us that when goodness persists so that there is still the presence of good, and the idea of good is being kept alive and is being defended, we can know that the concept of good will not be vanquished. This story says that good cannot be expunged by evil, that the presence of good is the reason to be good and to stand up for good. This insight keeps us from sinking into despair when evil seems to surround us. The point of this story is not to show Yahweh’s activism, but to teach that the human struggle for good is justified.
As for Jacob, all of us seek to live in a state of blessing. Every obituary carries two fundamental ideas – that the person who has died was blessed in life – by marriage, by children, by a meaningful life and by a capacity for joy – and, second, that every person’s life was a blessing to others. If we do not feel the blessing of life, we are lost. If we cannot see the blessing of others’ lives our spirit is destitute. How is it that we receive that blessing? Well, from struggle of course – from overcoming hardships, exercising courage, meeting challenges and setting aside those past acts that linger in our hearts telling us that we do not really deserve blessing. These struggles are hard and, of course, they can make us lame. Jacob had stolen his initial blessing from Esau, so hurt was certainly his due, but, as it is for every one of us, a blessing was still right there – and still available. What we take from this story is the realization that all of us need to be blessed and that blessing is there when we seek it.
These Bible stories were told, not to create enthrallment to God, but to create wisdom in us.
The third perspective on not putting God at the apex our spirituality is that the gospel message so profoundly brings God out of a distant realm and right down to earth. God is transformed from a distant inexplicable force to a present reality – to our reality – to us. This is the Incarnation, to be sure. And that is the point. That which is God, and that which we have come to know as God’s true nature, are here, with us now, because in truth God’s reality is present in our human reality. The God of the New Testament is our aspiration and the model that matches our best human nature. The Kingdom of God is here. God is here. The Incarnation tells us what it ultimately means to be human and to live the reality that lies within our ideas of God.
In the Gospel of John being the Word, and bringing the Word into being, are what it means to be human. It is the translation of God into human consciousness, human experience and into humanity’s moment. This humanization could be seen as just the creative moments of developing language, but it must also include the great moment of coming to an understanding of our being that allows for spiritual relationship with each other and with creation.
Then there is, from the letter of John, the idea that God is love. Well, yes, that is exactly what God is – God is the one thing we know as, and experience to be, uplifting, humanizing, completing, fulfilling and whole-making – and that is our emotion of love. In this passage God is simply and directly connected to our humanity at its most spiritual part.
And, as for the commandment on which the whole of social life (“The Law and the Prophets”) is based, it starts with ”Love God” and then comes the commandment that is like unto it, and, in these words of Jesus, is explicitly made its equivalent, “Love your neighbour.” There can be no clearer declaration of the commonality between God and persons, there can be no stronger equivalence between the idea of God and the idea expressed in this commandment – to be alive here, now, in this world, with love and mercy. The message of this passage, and of the New Testament generally, is that God has become us.
I am not suggesting that God should be thrown out as an idea that has now served its purpose. Clearly God hasn’t finished serving important spiritual purposes for many, many people. We should not take away ideas and beliefs that lift humanity. But neither is it a heretical breach with our spiritual tradition to locate our spiritual bearings without resort to God.
1. Genesis, chapter 18
Abraham and Sarah were in Canaan, in keeping with the covenant made with Yahweh – the covenant to found, in a new land, a new people who would live under Yahweh’s blessing.
In the story, Yahweh arrived at their tent with two others. In their honour, cakes were made, a calf slaughtered and a meal prepared. Yahweh told Abraham that Sarah would give birth to a son ensuring the continuation of Abraham’s line. But, there was something else on Yahweh’s mind – the sinfulness of the people of Sodom, the city of Abraham’s nephew, Lot. Yahweh had resolved to do something about this sinfulness – something drastic. Abraham went with Yahweh and the two men toward Sodom until they came to a place where they looked down on that city. Here is what happened:
Abraham drew near to the Lord and said, “Would you really destroy good and bad together? Suppose there are fifty good people, would you sweep away everyone and not save the city for the sake of the fifty who are good? Would you make the good suffer the same fate as the bad? Should not the Judge of all the earth do that which is just?” The Lord said, “If I find fifty who are good I will save the city for their sake.” Abraham then said, “Forgive me, Lord, I am mere dust and ashes, but suppose there are just five short of the fifty who are good? Would you destroy the city for want of five good persons?” The Lord said, “If I find there are forty-five who are good, I shall not destroy it.” Abraham said, “Suppose forty who are good can be found.” The Lord said, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” “Suppose there are thirty”, said Abraham, and the Lord said, “If there are thirty there who are good I will not destroy the city.” “Lord,” said Abraham, “May I presume to speak again? Suppose twenty are found.” The Lord said, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy Sodom”. And Abraham said, “Please, Lord, do not be angry, but if ten good people are found …?” “Then I would not destroy the city,” replied the Lord. Abraham and the Lord then parted and Abraham returned home.
2. Genesis, chapter 32
Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, had taken his elder brother Esau’s birthright in an unjust trade and then, by trickery, received from his father, Isaac, the blessing and the inheritance that is due to the elder son. To escape Esau’s wrath Jacob had fled to Haran where he married Leah and then Rachel. After many years, he decided to return to Canaan. When he was almost there, and his entourage had already entered into Canaan, this happened:
Jacob was alone, and a man came and wrestled with him until dawn. When the man saw that he could not overcome Jacob he struck him in his hip so that it was dislocated. Then the man said, “Day has come, let me go.” Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man said, “What is your name?”, and he replied, “Jacob.” The man said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” Jacob said, “Tell me your name.” He replied, “Why do you ask my name?” and he gave him his blessing. Jacob called the place Peniel because, he said, “I have seen God face to face and my life has been spared.”
3. Gospel of John, chapter 1
When all things began the Word then was. The Word dwelt with God, and what God was the Word was. The Word was with God at the beginning, and through Him all things came to be; no thing was created without Him.
4. First Letter of John, chapter 4
God is love; he who dwells in love is dwelling in God and God in him. We love because we were loved first; if a person says “I love God” while hating a brother or sister, that person lies.
5. Gospel of Matthew, chapter 22
The Pharisees seeking to discredit Jesus, said to him, “Which is the greatest commandment of the Law?” He said, “You must love your Lord with all your heart and soul and mind. That is the first commandment; the second is like it. You must love your neighbor as yourself. On these the whole of the Law and the Prophets depends.”