Recently Newsweek conducted a poll and found that 91 percent of Americans believe in God. A more nuanced Financial Times/Harris poll of Europeans and Americans found that 73 percent of those polled believe in God as a “supreme being.” A Baylor Religion Survey of more than 1700 people found that 73 percent believe in God as a “higher power.” Such polls are of little value because there is no common understanding of what the word God means. But it is probably fair to say that a high percentage of the people polled believe in God as a supreme being or a higher being whatever else they believe about God.
I think it is helpful for Christians that five books by atheists have recently been published and appeared on the best seller list the past two years – Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and Letter To A Christian Nation, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking The Spell, Richard Dawkin’s The God Illusion, and Christopher Hitchen’s God is Not Great. Another book, God at 2000, edited by Marcus Borg and Ross Mackenzie, published in 2000, is a collection of essays by seven well – known scholars from a variety of faith perspectives, who seek to describe the “changing ways we think about God at the beginning of the 21st century.” These books might encourage Christians to give thought to what they mean when they say they believe in God.
The common belief in God is usually called theism or more precisely supernatural theism. It is the concept that God is a Being in heaven who created the world and from time to time intervenes in the world to assert his will. In her book The History of God, Karen Armstrong states that this concept of God is evident in the history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is this concept of God which the atheist authors of the five books deny. It is my contention that Christians should also be atheists about such a concept of God. If I were asked by a pollster if I believed in God I would, as an ordained clergyman, say No!
Karen Armstrong also maintains that there is another concept of God which “runs side by side with theism throughout the history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.” It is called panentheism which posits God as “the encompassing spirit” in whom everything “lives and moves and has its being.” The Greek roots of the word are ‘pan’, which means ‘everything,’ ‘en’ which means ‘in’ and ‘theism’ which derivative of the ‘theo,’ which means god. In 1963, the book Honest to God was published, written by John A. T. Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich, England. He wrote his book to confront the end of theism and to explore the meaning of panentheism. The book, which was very controversial, was translated into many languages and sold millions of copies.
I have found the writings Paul Tillich most helpful in exploring the meaning and scope of panentheism, especially his books The Shaking of The Foundation and The New Being. He has stated that in contrast to theism which understands God as a Being, panentheism understands God as Being Itself or “the Ground of Being.” He stressed that we are so accustomed to think of God as a Being out there or up there that “we must forget everything traditional you have learned about God, perhaps even the word itself.” If we use the word God we must think of God as “the infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being, of our ultimate concern, of what we take seriously without reservations.”
In illuminating the concept of panentheism, Tilllich said that every human being confronts two kinds of concerns. We are concerned about many things, our self, our family, our jobs, our income, our country etc. He called these concerns “finite, preliminary, transitory.” But he emphasized that when we are concerned about something “we are involved in it, that a part of ourselves is in it, that we participate with our hearts.” He also stressed that “we maintain our preliminary concerns as if they were ultimate. And they keep us in their grasp if we try to free ourselves from them.”
Everyone has another concern which he calls an “ultimate concern.” An ultimate concern is characterized by “infinite attention, unconditional devotion, ultimate passion.” He states that whoever or whatever is our ultimate concern is our God. And since everyone has an ultimate concern, everyone has a God. He points out that every “finite, preliminary, transitory” concern such as self, family, job, income, country etc., can become our ultimate concern, our God. Political, economic, social, cultural and religious systems can become our ultimate concern, our God. But if we do not allow any “finite, preliminary, transitory” concern to become our ultimate concern and live life “with infinite attention, unconditional devotion, ultimate passion” we will know the Ground of Being. We will experience “the feeling of the inexhaustible mystery of life, the grip of an ultimate meaning of existence, and the invincible power of an unconditional devotion.” .
The foundation of the Jewish-Christian tradition is that God is justice and compassion. The ultimate concern and passion of Jesus was for the Kingdom of God, God’s “domination free order” of justice and compassion. To follow Jesus is to make justice and compassion your ultimate concern, your God. This means that all of our “finite, preliminary, transitory” concerns are judged and guided by seeking justice and offering compassion with “infinite attention, unconditional devotion, and ultimate passion.”
I hope many will hear a call for Christian atheism. I am convinced that they will be in the vanguard of the refocusing of the Christian faith from ‘up there’ and ‘out there’ to ‘down here’ and ‘in here.’