John Bennison Words and Ways | 2013 | September

“Christian” A-theism, Part II: What Language Shall I Borrow?

[A pdf version to print and/or read is here.]

Pantocrator Christ with orb - Artist: El Greco, 1600 CE National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Pantocrator Christ with orb – Artist: El Greco, 1600 CE
National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Note: Part One in this series considered the notion of “God,” or “gods,” as the single most elusive idea the human imagination has ever concocted or tried to fathom. But we typically constrain ourselves, thinking only in theistic terms; and fashion our notion of “God” in an anthropomorphic image so we can more easily relate to the idea. We ascribe to such a being all kinds of desirable characteristics that might comprise this composite character. The Christian then proceeds to incarnate that idea with a Christology in which Jesus is typically construed as mediator and chief negotiator; to the extent such a savior is willing to atone for all our wretchedness and secure our own immortality in another existence. It’s all pretty fanciful stuff. But for those progressives for whom such a construct is no longer viable or credible, it is not simply a question of what remains amidst the theological rubble, but what more, or other, might yet be discovered? As such, we ask how we might speak of such things. What language might we use?

 

“What do sparrows cost? A penny apiece? Yet not one of them will fall to the earth without the consent of your Father. As for you, even the hairs on your head have all been counted. So don’t be so timid: you’re worth more than a flock of sparrows.”  Matthew 10:28-30

 

Each spring in recent memory two house finches have returned to make a nest under the eaves of our house, outside our kitchen door.  For days they toil to intricately weave together their temporary perch, made from twigs, and leaves, and who knows what else.

This year an unusually blustery series of days blew their first attempts to kingdom come. But the two persisted, and eventually succeeded long enough to lay a few eggs; only to have a brutish jay steal them for a fine feast. Undaunted, the two rebuilt, hunkered down, and were eventually able to successfully hatch four chicks. Day after day, we’d watch as the parents would leave and return to the nest again and again to stuff regurgitated nourishment into the tiny straining beaks that chirped with a high-pitched squeal, competing for every morsel.

One day I discovered Sally the bird dog curiously sniffing the ground beneath the eave, where three scrawny, fuzz-covered hatchlings had fallen from their nest.  They were trembling and flailing about in distress. Not knowing if they could survive, I gently scooped them up, tossed them back into the nest, and then waited to see what would happen.  Hours passed.  But by nightfall I heard the familiar high-pitched chirping once again, and found the parents had resumed their task.  Then with each passing day, I’d watch the chicks grow, stretching and flapping their wings; until one day the nest was empty and abandoned for good.

Telling the tale to my spouse when she returned home from work on that first day, she praised and exalted me for my great compassion, mercy, graciousness, wisdom and benevolence. “You saved them!” she exclaimed.

“You know, I did!” I replied. “It’s like I’m their savior! I plucked them from certain death, lifted them up as if on angel’s wings, and gave them back their life!”

Never mind the meddlesome fact that — like all mortal creatures — their salvation was only temporary, forestalling their eventual demise. And God forbid anyone should question why whoever designed and presumably continues to orchestrate this whole cosmic business would allow these birdbrains to act so precipitously and fling themselves from the nest prematurely in the first place.

The salvation business is one of the world’s oldest professions, of course. Religion routinely markets the illusion of certainty in place of what would otherwise appear to be the indiscriminate and capricious nature of all things, to allay our mortal fears; when, in fact, the most authentic kind of spirituality calls for a kind of laissez-faire trust in the face of all the uncertainty and unknowingness that deeper wisdom comes to eventually appreciate and accept.

The salvation business is one of the world’s oldest professions. Religion routinely markets the illusion of certainty in place of what would otherwise appear to be the indiscriminate and capricious nature of all things, to allay our mortal fears; when, in fact, the most authentic kind of spirituality calls for a kind of laissez-faire trust in the face of all the uncertainty and unknowingness that deeper wisdom comes to eventually appreciate and accept. 

But that certainly brings into serious doubt the existence of a theistic kind of God that sometimes saves, if only for awhile; or doesn’t save us, because of all the naughty reasons we can tally up to condemn or absolve ourselves. It’s no wonder someone came up with the idea of Jesus taking the rap for us all.

Previously, in Part I of this commentary series, I concluded those remarks with the suggestion one of the central tenets of Christian orthodoxy — namely that Jesus’ crucifixion somehow atoned for our collective wretchedness and put us in right relationship with God once again – was certainly worth re-examining; in part, because it suggests a theistic notion of God which makes little sense anymore.  As a consequence, it not only makes consideration of the sacred problematic, but misdirects the power of Jesus’ message by resting his authority on some sort of exclusive “co-eternity” with a “Father” God, offering true believers the same immortal stature.

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