(I've been writing short reflection papers for a seminary course at Emmanuel College that is required for me as a new UCC pastor. This week's paper was on how we speak about God in the UCC.)
When I was a child, I knew that heaven was up there, and that that other, unspeakable place, was down there. So I suppose that it was only natural that when I came to church, I expected that if God was anywhere in the building, he must be up there somewhere, in the rafters. I always wished, as a kid, that I could have a ladder to check it out once, to have a look.
So, years later, I dragged a very tall ladder into church, climbed to the top, and announced to my congregation that in spite of my childish hopes, I could not find God up there. The illustration was a bit dramatic, but it did serve as a good introduction to the theme of the sermon, taken from Isaiah 45:15, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself.” By way of this text, and others like it, I preached a sermon on the inscrutability of God.
Except, ironically, looking back on that sermon now, I realize that I went on to list quite a few things that I thought I did know about God. By the time I was done preaching, he was not only mysterious, but a saviour for human kind, a God who listened to our prayers and answered them, a God who was merciful, and so on. For the most part, I treated the hiddenness of God as a consequence of our sinfulness, and went on to confidently list a set of standard divine attributes.
A few years later I was called to pastor a church that, if anything, was used to hearing the exact opposite from its previous pastor. He styled himself and his approach “post-theism.” The etymology of that phrase suggests it might mean something like “after God.” After listening to many people in my congregation try to describe to me what was practically meant by that phrase, I distinguished three primary definitions for post-theism, not mutually exclusive.
For some people, “post-theism,” is a kind of strong agnosticism, almost atheism, about God. And in fact many things do argue against God’s existence. The universe seems to be explainable by the laws of science. On average, Christians who pray don’t seem to live longer than people who don’t pray. Evil still runs riot everywhere. In spite of scriptural assurances, it doesn’t seem like many prayers are answered. My wife and I, for example, have been praying for peace in the Middle East for over thirty years to no avail. And we are not alone!
Even Bible writers are frustrated by God’s absence. In Psalm 42, the Psalmist writes: "When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, 'Where is your God?'" Or, "Your way is through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen" (Psalm 77). Isaiah writes, at one point, "Truly, you are a God who has been hiding himself, the God and Saviour of Israel" (Is 45:15).
So I have sympathy for people who identify post-theism with strong agnosticism or even atheism. This is, in its own way, a Biblical sentiment. Important questions for such people include these: “Why do you still come to church? Why do you sing the hymns? Why, in fact, bother with God at all?” Or is it just that ritual and old hymns are comforting? Perhaps, in the absence of God, we still go to church for community or discussion times and just put up with the liturgy?
A second definition of post-theism that I’ve heard in my new congregation suggests that the term refers to society’s disappearing belief in God. For these people, post-theism means that whoever or wherever God is, he or she obviously isn’t very important to most people in our secular society. God is, in fact, largely irrelevant and that is what we have to come to grips with in church.
I also resonate with this answer. Not only nonbelievers but also people who say they believe in God don’t go to church anymore. Prayer has long been eliminated from our schools and workplaces. The old religious rules we used to go by—you can’t have sex before marriage, you can’t drink, you can’t preach if you’re a woman—these old rules that used to be synonymous with the faith of our fathers just seem stupid to most people, and proof that Christianity will be forever irrelevant. Pope Francis’ hesitant nods in the direction of birth control and gays underline just how hopelessly irrelevant, in fact.
On the other hand, even if the religious right isn’t now (and probably never was) a moral majority, it remains a powerful force in American politics. And the violent conflict between the fundamentalist kinds of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism suggests that theism is still a very powerful force in our world. It is just not our kinder and gentler theism—not the “luv” theism that Douglas John Hall describes somewhere. But the bottom line here is that only segments of society and only the rare world culture is truly post-theist. In most places round the world, God matters very much—even if the sort of God that seems to matter isn’t one that we like very much. Perhaps the most important question for people who see post-theism as a secular, mostly Western, development is, “well, what about everybody else? How are you going to respectfully, and thoughtfully, address their theisms?”
A third kind of answer I get to the question of “what is post-theism?” is not atheistic, it is not about where our society is at, but it speaks to our old-fashioned ideas about who God is. We may believe in some kind of God, but we don’t believe in God as a great big guy in the sky, anymore—the guy of this viral poem that someone once sent me in an email:
It's a good thing God above,
Has never gone on strike
Because He wasn't treated fair,
For things He didn't like.
If He ever once sat down,
And said, "That's it -- I'm through!
I've had enough of those on earth,
So this is what I'll do.
I'll give my orders to the Sun:
Cut off your heat supply.
Turn off the oxygen and air,
'Til every breath is gone."
You know that He'd be justified
If fairness was the game
And yet He carries on and on,
with all the favors of His Grace.
A large group of Evangelical, and perhaps Catholic, perhaps even Mainline Christians still think of God this way. I used to think of God in this way. But many of us have changed our mind, and now speak of the mystery of God or the kenotic God or a suffering God. I resonate most with this definition of post-theism.
But for me, the contemporary approach to the question of who God is and what God does that is most interesting is Richard Kearney’s, as described in his book, Anatheism: Returning to God after God. Kearney describes God using the metaphor of stranger.
God is a stranger. God is so, in part, because the portrait of God that emerges in scripture is deeply coloured by a billowing sea of unknowing that the authors of scripture swim in. Scripture emphasizes certain themes about God that we are comfortable with—God’s faithfulness, God’s justice, and God’s mercy, for example. But these themes are mixed with others—God’s vindictiveness and violence, God’s jealousy, and God’s hiddenness come to mind. So, while scripture is very suggestive, it is incomplete and contradictory.
Philosophy, other world religions, and even those who deny God’s existence help fill out this confused picture. But these approaches, in the end, do not add up to much more on the certainty scale, or even on the trust scale. I am wracked by doubt. Kearney’s helpful rejoinder is, “Without the abandonment of accredited certainties we remain inattentive to the advent of the strange; we ignore those moments of sacred enfleshment when the future erupts through the continuum of time” (7). He argues, in a section where he quotes Derrida, that “Unless we let go of God as property and possession, we cannot encounter the Other as radical stranger. . . . The felt absence of the old God (the God of death) ushers in a sense of emptiness that may provoke a new desire, a seasoned desire for the return of the Other God—the divine guest who brings life” (63).
So God is a stranger. And this, for me, is what post-theism is all about—finding a way to accommodate not the tried and untrue God of the status-quo, but to find the stranger, who may even give life.
This stranger has, in the course of human history and in spite of our self-serving orthodoxies, mysteriously tugged at human psyches again and again. Perhaps that is why most of us, through time, have a sense that God cannot be far away, perhaps just around the next corner. But we wonder if upon turning the corner and running into him, or her, we will recognize God. And I pray that just as Peter had a moment of divine terror when he realized who the stranger on the beach was, so that Jesus had to say, “do not be afraid,”—I pray that one day, when I encounter the divine stranger, I can have such a moment of divine terror too.