He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Slow Death of God

I recently enjoyed this video from the Atheists United channel on YouTube.  They have many useful videos, and I encourage all who are interested in atheism to subscribe to it.

Ryan Bell, formerly a pastor in the Seventh Day Adventist denomination, became quite the famous Internet sensation when he chose to live for a year as an atheist to see what it would be like.  In this video, he explains why he was fired from his position as pastor, and how it impacted his family.

But, more interesting to me, he explains some of the nagging questions he had faced during his journey to try to find the truth.  One was particularly interesting to me as a philosopher.  He asks, quite understandably, why anyone would worship the God that could be rationally argued for in a church every Sunday.

After all, the God that can be argued for in purely rational terms is quite abstract, quite mysterious, even incomprehensible.  This sort of divine principle, a sort of creative and yet impersonal ground of existence, the first cause, isn't the sort of God one can cultivate a relationship with, is it?

How or why would we bother to relate to such a being?  How would we bridge what seems like an immense chasm between us and such a God?  I'll happily admit that we can't bridge the gap ourselves.  Only God could do so.  Hence the Incarnation.

And hence the Crucifixion, the crux of the Incarnation.  The Holy Cross of Christ is the bridge that allows us to cross the chasm between our humanity and the divinity of God.  Christianity has the answer to Bell's very good question.  To be fair, Hinduism does have an answer as well, via the avatars of Vishnu.

Or Judaism via the Ark of the Covenant and their liberation from Egypt.  Regardless, there is an answer to Bell's question here.  It's not as if there was no answer to his question.  He just didn't think it was an adequate one.  Fair enough.  We all get to decide whether or not we accept certain kinds of philosophical claims.  C'est la vie.

What I found wearying about Bell's story was not that he became an atheist, but rather that he did such a poor job of exploring Christian theology before he did so.  The slow death of God in his intellectual life wasn't a matter of rejecting traditional Christian theology.  It was a matter of rejecting, quite understandably, the bad theological work done by those who had, like him, rejected traditional Christian theology without understanding it.

This certainly doesn't make him stupid.  He seems quite intelligent and conscientious on the whole.  But it does suggest that a sound understanding of Christian theology developed in the last few hundred years is inadequate to helping people of an intellectual bent retain their Christian spiritual life.

Sound ancient Christian theology isn't just an optional luxury for a few academics that has no practical benefit for the average person.  The benefit is clear: it's one of the few things that can provide a bulwark against (at least in the minds of modern thinkers) the slow death of God.

Related: The Death of "Death of God" Theology

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