In a previous article that I wrote for the Café’s Magazine, Facets of Identity, my remarks on post-theism generated numerous comments as well as social media attention. Comments clustered around three questions: what is post-theism, what does post-theism say about belief in Jesus as the incarnated Son of God, and is post-theism synonymous with atheism. This article replies to the first two of those questions. The answer to the third hinges on the definition of atheism. Narrowly construed, atheism denotes a rejection of theism; post-theism is in that sense consistently atheistic. More broadly and commonly, atheism denotes rejecting God’s existence, however defined, in which case some but certainly not all post-theists may be atheists.
First, what is post-theism? Post-theism, a form of progressive Christianity, is an effort to update concepts of God in light of scientific progress and other changes in human thought and perspective. Post-theism, still in its infancy, has multiple expressions. Most reject scientific reductionism and supernaturalism, striving to make thinking about God intelligible and credible in the twenty-first century.
Greek philosophy decisively shaped much traditional Christian theology but no longer determines how most moderns and post-moderns perceive the world. Illustratively, the idea that God is immutable, eternally unchanging, is a corollary of the Greek philosophical idea that perfection denotes a static wholeness or completeness; any change to that completeness necessarily entails introducing imperfection. God is perfect; ergo, God must be immutable. In the twenty-first century, we recognize the cosmos’s dynamism and widely question the premise that perfection necessarily connotes stasis. Consequently, the idea of a static, immutable God has become incomprehensible to a great many people. Process philosophy provides a basis for alternative conceptions of God whose dynamism makes God epistemologically more comprehensible in the twenty-first century.
Poking holes in crude anthropomorphic images of God (e.g., an old man with a long beard who reigns as the cosmos’ sovereign) is easy. More nuanced conceptions of the God of theism are also proving unsustainable. For example, traditional theism presumes an interactive duality of spirit (an ethereal, immaterial transcendent God) and matter (the earthly creation). From Descartes forward, theologians have struggled futilely to describe the dynamics of that interaction; lacking a credible explanation, numerous persons have abandoned religion, a trend popularized in the New Atheism of Richard Dawkins and others.
Tillich’s Protestant principle highlights the need for continuous reformation in theology. Codifying theology into doctrine inevitably creates an idol. One such idol, perhaps helpful to many for centuries but now increasingly disconnected from a rapidly changing world, is that of an immutable, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God. Similarly, the via negativa, which predates the Protestant principle, taught those following it to approach God by progressively denying the adequacy of every attempt to describe God’s character; the sacred mystery that ultimately remained hidden is the living God, the one whom scripture reports that Moses encountered in a burning bush. Post-theism takes our journey forward along the via negativa while adhering to the Protestant principle.
Globalization, which has exposed many people to a variety of non-Christian religions, adds additional momentum to the shift from theism to post-theism. Claims that all non-Christians perish or worse seem absurd. If God is truly love, then teaching that God condemns the majority of the world’s population for not believing in Jesus, of whom most have never heard, is at best incongruous with the thinking of God as love and at worst an excessively cruel form of religious xenophobia.
On the other hand, if there is only one ultimate reality, then Hindu polytheism, Buddhist atheism, and Taoist emphasis on energy arguably may all be human efforts to translate experience of the one ultimate reality into finite human terms. Some individuals who feel empty and sense the existence of something more than materialism sometimes have turned to a religion other than the one of their cultural heritage, both seeking fresh metaphors for that something more and finding a different set of religious practices beneficial. The growing numbers of persons who identify as spiritual but not religious constitute the next expression of this trend. Post-theism wants to constructively engage with people of other religions as well the spiritual but not religious, cooperatively discovering metaphors and vocabulary for the ineffable that are more meaningful today.
Theologians (e.g., John A.T. Robinson) and scholars from many other disciplines have extensively analyzed theism’s problems: limitations stemming from theism’s dependence upon Greek philosophy, apparently unanswerable challenges raised in its confrontations with science and modernity, the ineffability of the sacred, and globalization as a catalyst to move from narrow exclusivity toward inclusivity. To date, no post-theistic image or metaphor has gained broad popular traction. Consequently, some theologians and others have struggled to construct a neo-orthodox Christianity out of theism’s crumbled foundations. More often, people have abandoned the idea of God, an act to which empty pews silently and starkly testify every Sunday. Meanwhile, parish clergy, who can feel overwhelmed by the far ranging demands placed on them, frequently find staying theologically current difficult, especially if remaining parishioners prefer familiar theistic assurances to the unsettling mystery and uncertainty of post-theism.
Light is presently my preferred metaphor for a post-theistic conception of God. Two millennia ago, people thought that light consisted of particles. Scientists then recognized that light sometimes behaved more like waves than particles. Today, scientists generally accept that light has some properties of both particles and waves, currently rendering a precise definition impossible. The Bible, whether coincidentally or serendipitously, uses light as a metaphor for God. That image underscores human inability to describe God’s nature. Efforts to characterize God in terms of being (the theistic God) or energy (e.g., the Force of the Star Wars saga) both fall short. Nevertheless, God is the light that teaches and leads us to live more deeply and fully. Light is necessary for most life; light shows the way to love, which requires justice and mercy. Light is fully part of the natural world but still mysterious. As with any metaphor for God, this one has limitations and may someday be anachronistic. Nevertheless, I find light a more powerful metaphor than I do any of the metaphors usually associated with theism and its description of God.
Second, what does post-theism have to say about Jesus? A post-theist may or may not believe that Jesus was fully God and fully human. Scripture declares that Jesus is the light of the world, but this declaration, like all characterizations of Jesus, is metaphorical.
Illustratively, the story of Jesus’ virgin birth is inescapably metaphorical. Jesus received the first of his two sets of chromosomes from Mary. If Jesus received his second set of chromosomes directly and supernaturally from God, Jesus would still be only fully human. DNA literally defines physical existence. Yet the story’s intent is to communicate that Jesus is qualitatively different from other humans. That is, the story of the virgin birth is a pre-scientific explanation of why those who knew and lived with Jesus experienced God directly through him, an experience not tied to his DNA.
Post-theism therefore wants to update our Christological thinking. For example, theistic conceptions of Jesus as the Lamb of God are increasingly viewed as more akin to child abuse than salvific. If God wrote the rules (no forgiveness without sacrifice), if God knew people would sin (God’s omniscience), and God intended to forgive humans (God’s love), then God must have recognized that forgiveness would be possible only through the sacrificial death of God’s son. Generations of Christians found that theological paradigm life giving and life enriching. Today, that paradigm at best portrays a masochistic God who chooses to suffer and at worst portrays a father inflicting suffering and death on his son.
In contrast, post-theism variously portrays Jesus as the symbol, incarnation, or metaphorical incarnation of God’s love. Words are always symbolic. Indeed, humans have been called the symbolic species because we alone, among all of the known species, utilize symbolic communication. Sadly, Christians forget words’ inherent symbolism in vain attempts to invest the words of creeds, dogmas, and catechisms with a timeless capacity for conveying propositional truth. Jesus, the word that God spoke, is therefore a symbol and, like many powerful symbols, both incapable of being easily defined and perhaps even unintentionally emptied of meaning when we attempt too precise a definition.
Proponents of propitiatory and other sacrificial theories of atonement almost universally acknowledge that Jesus was also the manifestation of God’s love. Further, this position coheres with widely accepted Christian thinking about God’s presence and activity in Judaism, if not also in other religions, both before and after Jesus. These Christologies employ love as a second post-theistic metaphor for God. Like the metaphor of light, love eludes facile definition, is not readily susceptible to scientific or materialistic reductionism, arguably permeates the cosmos, and is inherently and entirely natural rather than supernatural. Importantly in this information age, incarnated love is an essential corrective to virtual reality’s disembodied nature.
This essay’s brevity requires leaving many aspects of post-theism unexplored, brushes over details, unhelpfully condenses much analysis, and inadequately sketches post-theism’s diversity.
As The Episcopal Church initiates its timely new emphasis on evangelism, we will do well to remember that our theology is an earthen vessel or lamp. The time honored earthen vessels and lamps used by previous generations, now cracked and falling apart, need replacing. Hopefully, this essay will be a catalyst for that process, encouraging the conversations and work to produce earthen vessels and lamps better suited for use in twenty-first century proclamations of the good news of the light that suffuses the world and nurtures life abundant.
George Clifford is an ethicist and retired priest in Honolulu, HI. He served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, recently authored Just Counterterrorism, and blogs at Ethical Musings.