An atheist blogger asks a simple question “what difference does God make?”. The answer hinges on what you mean by God. If God is the name we give to what makes for life, for individuality, for growth, for love and our connection to one another, then God makes all the difference in the world. But I think the blogger is asking a different question. What differences does belief in God make in a person’s life? In what’s a part two to my last essay on God, I’ll offer a progressive Christian take on the question.
It’s clear that the author on the one hand believes that nothing changes. And there is a point worth considering here. Atheists and theists have to relate to the same issues of life, whether raising children, going to work, relating to friends, planning for the future, doing chores. Simply observing a day in the life of an atheist or a theist will not likely yield any discernible difference, unless their day involves a religious ritual.
On the other hand, there are toxic religious ideas, ones that can do great harm to gay and lesbians, to women, to children, to religious minorities and escaping the religion has meant a genuine increase in their quality of life. But there are LGBT and feminist supporting progressive religious communities, so this experience does not hinge on whether one is a a theist or not. We’ve seen atheist communities that are not friendly to women after all. But for those who have experienced a bettering of their life wherever they find themselves, that is something worth supporting.
A liberal theist like myself may point to community as a net plus for theism, but then again Bill Maher considers it a negative. In any case, there are humanist communities, older groups like Unitarian Universalists and Ethical Culture and newer Sunday assemblies which are forming across the English speaking world. And we have a term for theists who don’t belong to a community, the infamous “spiritual but not religious”. So theism or atheism is not necessary for there to be a place in a progressive community of support, ritual, and advocacy.
So what does the belief in God, do for someone? Belief in God opens me up to the resources of theistic religious traditions, Christianity in my case. Those resources certainly include actions like communion and baptism, the songs, the prayers, and the holidays. I do think it matters if one celebrates communion over a generic meal, Easter over a generic spring festival, etc. I could say the same for Hanukkah, for Ramadan and the like. Specific traditions that have a history disclose things that rituals invented without a referent may not. And those are bound with specific communities.
This is why I get nervous about Christians doing Seders. I love the attempt at interfaith understanding but without a rabbi involved, it seems more like appropriation. And divorced from the community from which it arose, something of the full meaning that can be had is lost. In that, digging deep within one’s own tradition, its practices, and the reasons behind them can open us up more to the resources involved than appropriating bits and pieces of cultural practices from a range of traditions. Now I believe humanism is a tradition in itself, so this advice is not for theists only.
But I wouldn’t want to portray resources simply in terms of ritual and tradition. There is also an intellectual tradition, concepts, worked over centuries, sometimes millennia. The Trinity and the fuel that has given from the likes of Hegel and Pierce, original sin from Augustine to Reinhold Niebuhr to process theologian Marjorie Suchocki, the creator/creature division which lends itself to the freedom and determinism and theodicy discussions. Salvation especially as feminist and liberation theologians have done it have furthered creative discussions that envision a world that we are no longer able to talk about or have a vocabulary for in our secular politics.
With the collapse of communism, we are left with what Francis Fukayama calls the “end of history”. We are left with no more broader struggles, no debates about the fundamental shape of our society, no big questions to be raised anymore. Capitalism is the only game in town and it is within those parameters we are left to operate in. The rise of fascism in Europe and the religious right’s potency in the US suggests otherwise. Folks will go for a narrative versus no narrative. I think progressive Christians need God because we need a story about the world as it should be.
The theologian Lloyd Geering argues that the original basis of the supernatural was to envision a world that was not, an ideal, a heaven, something otherworldly by which to critique our present arrangements. Whether it was philosophy for the Greeks, the prophetic tradition in Judaism, the reform movements in Asian religions, they all took the ideal to lay judgement against how things are. Communism’s vision of the classless society performed that function in a secular world but with it’s collapse, we have a hard time reaching for the language of the ideal.
I think the task for theology is to be found there, both as a form of critique against anything that dehumanizes us and as a means to envision a new world. To do so encourages us to ask bigger questions about life, meaning and value than we normally are confronted with. I was intrigued by Phil Zuckerman’s book where he interviewed Scandinavians about religion as he asked them questions about meaning and purpose but they did not have the vocabulary or the inclination to relate to them. What does it mean to lose that language? Can theism recover it for humanistic ends?
God for me, is a way to talk about the whole of life. And that led me to philosophy. If God is the grounding of value, relation, salvation, then such broad categories means getting some hold on that. Not that God is the answer, God is the invitation to inquiry. Not that atheists don’t engage in the same inquiry. As has been noted,the academic field of philosophy is dominated by non theists. It’s that I personally would not have entered the field of philosophy or considered it without the God question and all that entails bugging me with the kind of questions that philosophy ends up relating to.
Especially as a liberal theist, to identify God with saving realities in this world means to talk about the structure of reality and the possibilities embedded in this. To talk about God than is not to be stuck on proof text wars of the Bible, nor is it to rest content on church statements made of old, it is to take the resources of the tradition to engage the fullness of life, engaging a range of disciplines so that we can have life abundant. That is what God does for me.
Does one need to believe in God to do this? No, not at all. Plenty of atheist writers do this, plenty of theists do not. But I write this to suggest that belief in God is not an appendage, something extra tacked on. It becomes the word I use to relate to a tradition for the purpose of transformation. It becomes a word that identifies a calling as such. It has formed the basis of my journey in its concepts and practices.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma