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Christian Atheism

Posted on: October 02, 2016

Category: Theology

Christian Atheism

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once stated that if the White South Africans wanted to keep the Black South Africans down, "they never should have given us the Bible." Though the situation is neither the same nor as severe, the outline seems familiar: if churches do not want their leaders to be skeptical theologians, then they should stop teaching biblical criticism.

All Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and mainline Protestant churches teach biblical criticism in their seminaries. Some with greater and some with lesser freedom, but all teach it. Religious leaders know, or have every opportunity to know, that Paul did not write all the letters attributed to him, that Jesus hardly said anything attributed to him, that Moses did not write the Torah, that the exodus was not a historical event, etc. and etc. With all this contemporary, critical knowledge at hand, is it surprising that many leaders in religion conclude Christianity needs to be reinvented?

Some Christian clergy surprisingly use the word "atheism" to describe their theological position. This should not be a surprise, either. Paul Tillich, the great systematic theologian of the 20th Century who is also taught at every seminary, said that atheism is the proper theological response to fundamentalist claims in religion (Theology of Culture, 1959, p, 25). It is not possible or fair to teach this to religious leaders in seminary and then, upon graduation, expect religious leaders to never mention it. Ministers of religion often find themselves trapped in the dilemma of not believing what they are supposed to preach. In fact, clergy who suffer in this way have set up a solidarity group called the Clergy Project (www.clergyproject.org), which is a safe space for expressing their learnings and their doubts.

The United Church of Canada, one of the more liberal expressions of Christianity in North America, recommended this September that The Rev. Gretta Vosper should face a formal hearing about her suitability for ministry. The recommendation came through the Toronto Conference and is based on Vosper's unequivocal claim to be a Christian Atheist. Similarly, in the United States, The Rev. John Shuck of the Presbyterian Church has attracted equal suspicion and disciplinary action. We need to remember that "Christian Atheism" is not something new. It's been around since the time of David Friedrich Strauss (1835) and even before in the philosophy of Hegel (1807). There is also a certain sense in calling David Hume a Christian Atheist, perhaps even the first (1740). Traditionally, few outside of academic circles have used the label for self-designation. What is provocative now is that active Christian clergy are using this self-identification.

In Vosper's case, she claims to use the word atheist to be in solidarity with all people who are excluded, oppressed, and persecuted because of this identity. Her desire is to identify with the oppressed. This is the "Christian" part of her atheism. In Shuck's case, he suggests that he could use the word "post-theist" in place of atheist, but this cumbersome and academic word does not invoke feelings of discomfort. Shuck knows, because he was taught so in seminary, that the historical Jesus was also a provocateur who invoked feelings of discomfort. If around today, Jesus might well adopt the same nomenclature.

Atheism can mean many things, but largely it means not believing in an invisible man named God. It is easy to argue that practically no one, outside of extremists in religion, believes such anymore. Still, the Christian Church struggles with people who openly make this admission of unbelief. Why should so much trouble be built around admitting what most modern people generally know? My suspicion is that the Church remains a creedal community. The definition of Christianity remains in the confession of its Creed, which begins with "I believe in God." The challenge Christian Atheists bring to the Church is the challenge to move Christianity to a post-creedal era. In such a Christianity -- in a post-creedal Christianity -- how you love is more important than what you believe.

Until such a time that Christianity is able to change itself, my concern remains that Christians everywhere respect the courage of Christian Atheists. Those who so identify themselves often do so in the midst of isolation and suffering. Before isolation and suffering, the Christian act is to hold solidarity, express love, and seek justice.

 

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