A particularly useful book crossed my desk recently: Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists, and Agnostics (Living Arts Publications, 2011) by Roger Schriner, a retired Unitarian minister and psychotherapist from Northern California. In it, he describes the wide continuum of nuanced positions between “theism” and “atheism”, blurring the meaning of both terms. “The difference between belief and disbelief is often merely wordplay, a matter of semantics rather than substance.” (p 80)
There are many ways that God is understood in the Bible, that book so strongly associated with traditional theism. Just which theism is displayed in which book, much less which chapter of which book, in the Bible? There’s the ineffable, mystical, unnameable I AM THAT I AM in the burning bush that confronted Moses in Genesis. But also in Genesis are the three men who showed up for dinner at the tent of Sarah and Abraham. The story indicates that these earthy, humanoid beings collectively were God. In the second book of Kings, in the story of Naaman, God is described “henotheistically”. God was the god only of the land of Israel. So Naaman, after being divinely healed in Israel, brought with him a cartload of dirt from Israel when he returned to his native Syria. The God of Israel only had power over what happened on top of Israeli dirt, and he wanted to continue to have access to that power when he went home. In the New Testament, in the book of Acts, Paul went to the Areopagus in Athens where stood statues of the Greek gods. One empty spot was dedicated to “The Unknown God”, which Paul said was the real God. If the real God was unknown, did that make Paul an agnostic? Early Christians were considered atheists because they did not worship the gods of Rome. Such lack of reverence was as unthinkable for Romans as it would be for Americans to vote for an atheist candidate for president today!
And on that subject, the current political contest leads a lot of Americans to puzzle if Mormons believe in God. The Latter Day Saints church teaches that God began as a man who went through a process of spiritual improvement until he became divine, and that humans are intended to do the same. It’s a view that’s foreign to a lot of Christians. But there are many differing concepts of God among Christians, much as their pastors and priests might want to deny that this is so. Those views reflect the variety of understandings that appear in the Bible and outside of it as well. The God of the Mormons is just one of many that exist side by side, named by the same generic word. And we can be sure that different Mormons have different understandings of God. The realm of Christian theism has no clear boundary.
I think that many atheists are really awetheists. They are people who experience the same kind of reverential wonder and respect for life and the highest human values that we associate with religion at its best. Awe is their God, though they don’t use that terminology. I use Christian language to describe the deep humility I feel when I mindfully encounter the miraculous natural world around and within me. For me, God isn’t supernatural; God is the essential creative nature of the universe. Some Christians say that this makes me an atheist. Some atheists get upset when I tell them what I mean by the word God, and they say that I’m not a Christian! They don’t want to be associated with the supernatural God they associate with Christianity, and don’t want to be confused by the possibility that non-supernatural theists like myself can be Christian. Such conversations lead me to wonder if I am an agnatheist: someone who is agnostic about whether or not there is really such a thing as an atheist.
Bridging the God Gap offers a breathtaking array of places to stay, or at least visit, along the road between theism and atheism. But Schriner’s breakdown of the choices is hardly exhaustive. The human experience of God, or the Ultimate Reality Formerly Known As God (URFKAG), defies definition by its very nature. Pondering that is enough to make an awetheist out of me!
(An understanding of God which I’ve found to be helpful is elucidated in process theology, a school of thought founded by the mathematician and philosopher of the early 20th century, Alfred North Whitehead. For a brief introduction to it, check out this interview with Phil Clayton, process theologian at Claremont School of Theology.)