God is Not Great. The End of Faith. The Godless Constitution. The Portable Atheist. They are stacked up on my desk in my apartment, their abrasive titles piled one atop the other. Christopher Hitchens abounds.
Yes, I am taking a class on atheism. And agnosticism, to be exact. In US history. With the amazing Stephen Prothero (yes, he’s that BU Religion professor who was on the Colbert Report). And, not surprisingly, I’ve already found it troubling–but not for the reasons you might think.
The first book that we read for the class was called Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America. Its author, James Turner, aims to traces how the assumption that God did exist disappeared. In other words, how unbelief became possible. And he places the blame for unbelief squarely on the believers.
Yes, I’m sure you’re aghast at this. But his argument is twofold: that by claiming that God could be proven through science (through the discipline of natural theology) and by making God more humanitarian, believers actually pushed people toward unbelief.
The science part came about with the discovery of Newton’s laws of nature, when there seemed to be a demonstrated need for a divine Lawmaker. Then theologians of the 19th century latched onto William Paley‘s idea that the exquisite design of nature proved the existence of God. Turner claims that this was a mistake because by limiting God to scientific proof, it cut out the whole mystical, transcending-the-laws-of-nature aspect of God.
I can buy that.
But then there’s the other part of the argument. Turner talks about the humanitarian causes that arose in the 19th century–such as those aimed at helping the poor–and how the religious people who carried out these humanitarian missions ascribed them to the will of God. Basically, they claimed that God was a moral being with humanitarian interests at heart. And Turner thinks this is a problem, because he says that by making God human-like, people lost the mysterious and unknowable side of God–and without that, why believe in a God that is just basically a good person?
It’s a sticky place for me. Because I believe that old cliche that God is love. I believe what Martin Luther King, Jr. once professed when he said, “God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty. God intends for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and he has left in this universe ‘enough and to spare’ for that purpose.”
I believe in a God of love.
But also believe in a God who is too incredible and immense for us to understand his workings. I believe in a divine power too great for any of us to fathom, too large to fit in any human box of morality. A power terrible to behold, vast beyond our imaginings, both immanent and transcendent.
So I’ve been struggling with the question of whether I’ve made God too moral–whether we’ve made God too moral. And this is the thought I’ve reached–God created us as part of this interconnected universe, and purposefully gave us minds capable of conceiving of morals. They are not spelled out for us in words, but across creation. We must understand our place in this world, and take our guides to living from the interdependence we see therein. From that will come treating our neighbors as ourselves. From that will come honoring life. From that will come, as King once said, the discovery that “love is most durable power in the world, and that it is at bottom the heartbeat of the moral cosmos.”