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


  1. I read a quote from his Wikipedia page which said the following: "Without dependency on a cosmic savior who is coming to rescue us, we are free to recognize that we are the ones we're waiting for. If we don't make the world a fair and habitable place, no one else is going to do it for us." Despite his many years of ministry and studying the Bible, he seems to be, sadly, attacking a straw man. Christians have always believed that we are the hands and feet of Christ in this world, and that this gives us the responsibility to act in His behalf to relieve the suffering around us. He seems to conflate traditional religious belief with a slothful attitude vis a vis all of the suffering in the world: "If God's gonna fix everything in the end, anyway, then it's not a big deal if I don't do anything."

    As I'm sure your aware, Seventh-Day Adventist theology only goes back to the mid-1800s and thus does not draw from a rich ancient tradition. This could be part of the problem. He also seems to be on the same liberalizing trajectory that many contemporary Christians of note have followed...after being confronted with good people who butt heads with the Church on matters of sexuality or scriptural interpretation, the more liberal view is adopted, and then more liberal views are adopted on other doctrines, until Biblical authority itself is undermined. This drift is understandable from a Protestant paradigm; if you don't have a magisterium to interpret the Bible or a deep theological tradition to help you understand it, it's easy to think that something "new" is happening in the world today, something that has finally undermined Christian belief. And since the Bible is (reportedly) the only deposit of faith we have, then one will begin to interpret it according to one's newly-acquired progressive beliefs. But it is always progressive ideology that leads--Christian doctrine follows. If one's devotion to Christ is not driving the change, then it's understandable that one will begin to question that devotion to Christ. Is it even necessary to follow Christ in order to live a good life or to discover moral truth? And then they give Him up.

    My own experience has been the opposite. As I have grown closer to God in my faith, my moral life has deepened--especially as I understand that the moral life is not about furthering my own interests. During times when I had wandered from God, I was still doing good things, but even doing good things wasn't enough. And I always knew that human beings were valuable and worthy of help because they were created in the image of God...the faith that I had (even if it was just a sliver of faith) pulled the wagon of my good works, and not the other was around. I'm very glad that many atheists in our county are inspired to do good in the world, but this is not necessarily the one, default position of atheism. I wonder how much that Western atheists benefit from riding on the coattails of a Judeo-Christian ethical system. There are other ethical systems developed by atheists and agnostics in other parts of the world which have wreaked havoc, both in this century and the last, and the body counts have been high.

    1. Jack, I think your description of how folks come to a politicized liberal or progressive Christianity and subsequently abandon Christianity is very well done. I was wanting to find a good way to express it for this post, but I couldn't, so I just left it out entirely. I'm glad you were able to be strong in an area where I was definitely weak.

    2. Glad you found my comments helpful, Sam. I made my original post before listening to this piece, but I decided to listen to the whole of it while I was cleaning my house the past hour or two. It struck me how relevant my original comments were to Mr. Bell's lecture and the subsequent Q & A. When they brought up the question about whether or not Islam was violent or whether certain practices or teachings were inherent to Christianity, I found myself wanting to ask them whether or not the genocides and persecutions committed under Stalin or Kim Jong-Il/Kim Jong-In were/are logical outworkings of their atheistic positions. Especially the very last question, which was whether or not someone can be a Christian atheist, was very telling. We all tend to resort to "No True Scotsman" whenever someone of our own ideological leanings engages in practices or promulgates teachings we find unpalatable, and I wonder if these atheists would do the same if confronted by the atrocities committed by atheists. There is no guarantee that atheism qua atheism will lead the whole world to complete enlightenment and truth in all arenas...just look at the communist regimes I mentioned earlier. They were atheistic, and yet their people were (and are) imprisoned within a propaganda system that feeds them only lies. There is no one single atheistic value system, and I think that's a problem that atheists really need to wrestle with...whether it's from traditions of their own societies, from the musings of philosophers, or as vestiges of some religion, they always inherit their values from somewhere.

    3. The question of what exactly the nature of the relationship is between metaphysical beliefs and moral decisions is a really interesting one. The kind of comfortable atheism that's so common in Europe today isn't causing genocides and revolutions, but the atheistic ideologies that sprung up from Communism certainly have caused such terrible things, even if they were only one factor in a multivariate causal analysis. We see the same thing with theistic worldviews, that they sometimes function to support mass killing and at other times function to spread justice and peace. There seems to be a connection between metaphysical beliefs and mass killings, but it doesn't appear to be a straight and smooth line from either atheism or theism. Which makes me suspect that there's a confounding variable at play.

    4. I agree with your analysis. I also agree with Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, that much of the stuff of our lives pretty much boils down to one word: Tradition. Most people tend to accept, fairly uncritically, the ideas that are passed down to them. This includes the moral ideas. And so most Catholics during the Middle Ages probably thought the inquisition was a good thing, because it was combatting heresy--to even question the Inquisition would have sounded ridiculous. Similarly, the silencing of religious institutions and ideas that happened in the USSR under communism probably seemed like a good idea to the people who were brought up under it. Similarly, it seems ridiculous to us today in 21st century America to use violence to promote a religious system or to suppress rival religious systems, because the idea of freedom of religion is written into our Constitution and is basically a given that is accepted by atheists, agnostics, and religious people in our country. I don't mean to say that, because we mostly accept the values and assumptions that are handed down to us, therefore those values and assumptions are invalid (that would be the genetic fallacy). I do mean to say, though, that questioning basic values and assumptions is a very necessary practice for anyone who wants to discover the truth.

    5. Indeed, Jack. :-) I think it might be worth your time to study the Inquisition in more depth. You might find that more people objected to it than you might think, and that the arguments for it are better than you might think too. I tend to think the Inquisitions were a bad idea, but there are some surprisingly good arguments that they were on balance a good thing.