Back in the 1960’s, the then vicar of Selby caused a lot of controversy by preaching on the theme “God is Dead” at Easter, in a service which the BBC recorded. What he was engaging with was the then very young area of Radical Theology; in particular he referred to Nietzsche’s parable of the madman running through the streets shouting “God is dead – and we have killed him”.
I’m writing this on “Holy Saturday”, which is one day of the year when that would be the most appropriate sermon title – except very few churches do a service on Holy Saturday. Yesterday was Good Friday, when we would supposedly meditate on the death of Jesus (the death of God?) if we ever managed to forget that we knew the outcome of the story, tomorrow we will celebrate his resurrection, but today, perhaps, God is dead.
I’ve been doing Peter Rollins’ “Atheism for Lent” course this year. The course seeks to challenge all of our preconceptions about God, to deconstruct our constructions and expose those beliefs we weren’t aware we had. Perhaps the ideal outcome would be to leave us with a child-like wonder, able to accept the pure experience of God without it being tied down by dogma and philosophy – but then, I’m a mystic, and I would say that!
Atheism for Lent is really situated between Good Friday and Holy Saturday, between the potentially violent destruction of ideas about God and the place arrived at once that has been achieved. Some of those taking the course (over 1000 this year, I believe) have found it too violent and have retreated, perhaps to have another go next year. That is much my situation with one of the daily “readings” for the course, which was to watch the 2016 film “Silence”. I still have nearly two hours of that film to watch. Some have stuck doggedly to our existing conceptions and improved our ability to defend them against all comers. Some have arrived at a place of anxiety, where nothing is certain any more, and some have arrived at the same lack of certainty and found peace there.
I am not completely certain whether I’ve merely improved my ability to defend preconceptions or have found peace in the storm. I feel fairly peaceful, to be sure, but there are those pesky subconscious instincts which may not be completely exorcised – I know, for instance, that there’s a bit of my subconscious which is apparently a five-point Calvinist (despite the fact that I’ve never consciously espoused Calvinism or, since I first actually thought about it, the salvation mechanism which leads to it). Happily, it doesn’t make itself known very often, but it’s still there…
I’ve been aware of the course for a few years now, but haven’t actually done it previously. I’d thought that as I was already well aware of the criticisms of the “Masters of Suspicion” (Freud, Niezsche and Marx), and had read widely in the mystics and dipped into some of the Radical Theologians such as Rollins and Caputo, the course would not offer me much I hadn’t already looked at. In addition, I “am not now and have never been” a fundamentalist or “Evangelical” Christian – unlike, as it seems to me, the vast majority of people taking the course, I started (after some years of Sunday School which at least apparently “didn’t take”) as an atheist, a confirmed rationalist materialist, and have moderated my position the minimum possible consistent with having a language of expression which would accommodate and express my mystical experience. Somehow the statement “it was a brain fart” which an atheist friend came up with after we’d knocked down all the more usual reasons for the kind of symptoms I described, such as drugs, physical or mental distress or psychiatric or neurological disorders, didn’t “do it for me”.
I also come via having sampled a lot of other spiritual traditions. Peak mystical experiences are very good indeed, and I started out wanting more of them, so tried the methods of any tradition which produced accounts of similar experience for some years. Those often required you to adopt a mental posture involving some theoretical concepts, so I became fairly good at holding those lightly, in much the way as you’d “suspend disbelief” while reading, say, a work of fantasy, or think in terms of a wave or a particle when considering the behaviour of an electron. However, my culture is Christian (or at least post-Christian) and my basic language of expression was Christian (some of that Sunday School stuff apparently did rub off…) and other traditions required learning new concepts and new languages, and I’m lazy – so where I’ve ended up is with a largely Christian practice and vocabulary. That doesn’t preclude me asserting that “Atman is Brahman” or that “the Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao” or that we should practice the “Willow way” (which is not a long way removed from “al-Islam”…).
I was, however, surprised to find that this level of engagement with the texts, among a lot of other people giving their reactions, was particularly powerful. I re-engaged with issues such as the abominable history of persecution by Christianity and it’s encouragement of undesirable psychological traits and found that those still had the power to disturb me (though perhaps the most disturbing thought I had was “what if the five-point Calvinists are right?”).
However, perhaps the most worrying thing for me was watching the reactions of some others. I’ve been discussing spirituality and faith with others for nearly 50 years now, and on a few occasions have had someone complain that I’ve shaken their faith to the point that they lost it – and as one of those people was my mother (and she never really regained it, nor did she arrive at being entirely comfortable with its loss), I tend to be reluctant to press too hard in deconstructing concepts where I can’t provide a new framework which someone can be content with. Myself, I can flit between frameworks to suit the occasion, but not everyone can, and equally not everyone is able to be comfortable with an overwhelming lack of certainty. I’m probably not comfortable with an overwhelming lack of certainty myself, to be honest; I tend far more to the mindset of the revolutionary, who wants to take apart the existing order in order to construct a new one, who has something of a new one already in mind, rather than the rebel who just wants to take things apart. I may accept that there’s always going to be something not quite accurate, not quite complete about current concepts, but I want the next concept to be a better fit to reality, rather than abandoning any hope of a better fit – which is what I see the rebel as embodying.
Equally, I used to say “I don’t need to believe in God, I experience God”. I may not be able to describe that experience adequately; as the week we spent looking at mystics indicates, it is perhaps impossible to do that, but nonetheless the experience is real. I experience God for some value of God unspecified, therefore. I’ve never found a way to make others experience God, however – I can’t have a mystical experience for you, you have it happen for you and in you. What I have found is that analysing what is going on is the best way to stop such an experience happening, however, so our concepts can only really get in the way. Should we therefore deconstruct those concepts in the hope that we will then be able to have a peak experience? What of those who are left with nothing to cling to, with no consciousness of the presence of God? The closing benediction from Pádraig Ó Tuama ends with “And so, friends, the task has ended. Go in pieces to see and feel your world”. Have some people been left “in pieces” but still unable to see and feel their world – or God, inasmuch as God is not already implicit in “their world”?
I hope and pray that they haven’t. “Pray?” you say – “what to?” I don’t know, to some value of God, I suppose. I doubt it can have any real effect, as the values of God which I can conceive and which might make that possible seem improbable to me. But I hope I’m wrong… and tomorrow morning, at silly o’clock, I will be affirming “Christ is risen”. For some value of “Christ” For some value of “risen”. May that be true for those now feeling cut adrift as well.