Hey Tony Jones, God is Not Real

Tony Jones recently challenged “progressive theo-bloggers” to dismount our normal hobby horses for one post and say something substantive about God. I may be a progressive theo-blogger, not sure. Just in case, here’s my go at saying something about God.

God does not exist.

Let me explain… Let’s consider two possible errors that people sometimes make thinking about God.  The modern world tends to think of reality in two highly distinct layers, a material one and a spiritual one.  For most modern people, God—if there is a God—is “out there” somewhere not connected to the world in any deep sense.  Instead, God created the world and subjected it to a set of rules by which it continues in existence, like a watch maker who makes a watch such that the gears do the work of keeping time.  Electrons swirl around nuclei repelling and attracting to magnetic poles.  Cells divide.  Planets orbit around the sun.  The whole thing just works.  Of course, just as a watchmaker may have to repair a watch, God may at times intervene in his creation in miraculous way.  But for the most part, if everything is working normally, God leaves creation to run itself—a sort of Cosmic Supervisor.  This view is called deism, the idea that God is utterly separate from creation.  In theological terms, deism affirms the transcendence of God, the doctrine that God is beyond creation.  But it ignores the immanence of God, that God is closely and covenantal bound to creation.

In this postmodern world, however, we have reverted to an understanding of the world that is more organic, not so bifurcated.  We postmoderners do not imagine that there are two distinct worlds, one physical and one material.  Rather, like the ancients, we picture the spiritual and the material as interlocking and overlapping realities. Demons are exercised in our movies.  In our churches we are taught to seek the will of God for common everyday decisions.  Angles even play on our baseball teams.  In our postmodern world, we are less tempted by deism than by pantheism.  From pan meaning “all” and theos meaning “God,”pantheism is the doctrine that God is everything.  God can be found in the smell of the sap from a budding tree, by looking into the vast ocean, or in the face of the poor, because God is the trees, the ocean, and the poor.  Pantheism, the opposite of deism, affirms divine immanence but it ignores God’s transcendence.

According to Christian theology both deism and pantheism are misunderstandings of God.  The Christian tradition affirms that God holds transcendence and immanence in dynamic tension. The theological term for what we’ve called the dynamic tension of divine transcendence and immanence is ontological disparity.  Ontological, from ontos, means having to do with being or reality.  The ontological disparity of God means that God is not just a different being from you and me; God is a different kind of being, a different sort of reality.

Try this thought experiment. Imagine a woman lying on a couch and dreaming of a boy playing of a swing set.  Think about the relationship of the boy to the woman.  In a manner  of speaking, this is a real boy.  He has some reality.  He’s a real dream.  But now imagine that the woman, startled by a sudden noise, awakes.  What happens to the boy?  He is gone.  The woman’s being is in no way affected by the boy’s, but his being is utterly dependant upon her.  If later in the day she remembers the dream, she thereby brings the boy back in to existence by the mere imposition of her will.  She is the source or ground of his being.  Now think about the woman’s relationship to you.  This is something like what we mean when we talk about the ontological disparity of God.  God’s reality is different, deeper, more real than ours.  Properly speaking, God is not real.  Rocks are real.  Trees, birds, humans and dreams are real. God is reality itself, and thus all things that are real have their reality in God.  In much the same way that the boys reality was dependant upon the woman’s and hers upon you, the reality of all real things are dependant upon Reality Himself.

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10 responses to “Hey Tony Jones, God is Not Real

  1. Luke

    Are we God’s dream or his he ours? I know I’ve muddled your meaning, but I think it’s fair to address the concern that we could be the ones who drempt up or are dreaming up God in whatever manifestations there may be. In addition to that question we have another follow up question: So what?

    I mean follow up in the sense that we should answer the first question before asking the next, however it seems all too often that most people have decided what the second answer is before even asking the first.

    Once we believe that we are God’s dream (in the sense that you mean) we must also decide all of the details of what that means. We must further define God and his desires for everything certainly a lofty goal of which many people have invested much of their lives to. It seems to be that we can be far less certain of the answer to this question than the other question.

    If we believe that God is our dream then we have very simply to wake up and move on. It’s actually quite simple and I hate to sound trite but the end effects of either option is almost always “go ahead and live.” I think that atheism might be attractive to many people simply because you can end the struggle to find out what someone else thinks and go ahead and do what you think.

    On determining the details you do have to embark on just such a quest. Finding out what you should do now that you recognize a deity. This sort of progressive liberal theology is unique to me, but fascinating especially when exemplified by Christians. What brings anyone to the conclusion of which God is dreaming and further how does any one who recognizes that he is merely a dream propose to be able to know anything at all of the dreamer?

    Can the woman on the couch tell the boy to stop and wash up for dinner? Of course not. In the same way I wonder how anyone claims to know anything about God (or that one exists.). Often times they tell me ‘sola fide’ it is but through faith that they come to that knowledge, but I still am lost as to why they picked this thing to put faith into? What caused your faith to be placed in one thing and not another?

    These are all rhetorical I suppose because there is no satisfying answer for an atheist. I imagine that if he had a satisfying answer he’d probably be a theist. It’s more just a comment that asks generally, “So God exists – so what?”

    • Michael

      Luke,
      “These are all rhetorical I suppose because there is no satisfying answer for an atheist. I imagine that if he had a satisfying answer he’d probably be a theist.”

      If you are truly interested in pursuing answers to your questions, I encourage you to do so! I think that an atheist hasn’t found any “satisfying answer[s]”, but that doesn’t mean that such answers don’t exist. He might be convinced if he genuinely pursued the answers and was open to what he discovered.

      So, if that’s you, I encourage you to genuinely pursue good Christian answers to your questions and be open to the answers you find.

      • Luke

        Michael,

        You speak under two really unnecessary assumptions. First you assume that there are satisfying answers. I see no reason to believe that. Second you assume that Christian answers are the correct answered. As though no atheist has been exposed to Christianity?

        I appreciate what you are trying to do but it comes across like a sales rebuttal. “Don’t like soda? That’s just because you haven’t had Christ-Cola!”

        Although since we have moved on to the topic of actual answers I would not be upset if you did answer these rhetorical questions. I wager that you grew up in an American family (or at least a western one) you parents are probably Christians and you can probably be described as being part of the Church your whole life. That is the case with the largest portion of the religious community. Sure there are American Muslims but they are exceptions the same as Christian Converts.

        Now if that’s true and if it’s true that answers are what you seek I would like for you talk to me about your study of all the other religions and why you found them lacking truth and explain the happy coincidence of ending up in the majority religion rather than any other religion.

        I know I’ve made a lot of assumptions there and if I’m wrong about your circumstance then you are merely an outlier but you must be aware that the majority of Christians were born into that faith long before they were born again.

  2. Michael

    Luke,
    My immediate response is simply to ask you the same question you just asked me: “I would like for you talk to me about your study of all the other religions and why you found them lacking truth.”

  3. I guess I don’t see how the distinction between what you call “theism” and what you call “ontological disparity” can be sustained. Isn’t it just two different ways of explaining a situation where god sits outside of the everyday world?

    If I understand you correctly, your counter argument would be that a a different order of being, god can’t be understood as outside or above our reality because god’s being is so different from ours. But then how can we understand god to be relevant at all? If god is dreaming us, our relationship to god is so attenuated it might as well be none at all.

    And if we try to imagine how god might be relevant, how god might still interact with the world, then we will inevitably fall back onto the watchmaker’s model.

    • Joe

      Hi, stevennardi, welcome to theologoholic! Great question! Probably the most poignant critique of Paul Tillich, to whom I owe the language here, is: How do you pray to the ground of being? In other words, have we so de-anthropomorphized God here that the concept retains little if any practical religious significance? It’s probably too big a topic to take up in the comments, but I will consider writing a follow-up post. In the meantime, allow me to recommend a couple of resources.

      The best by far is John Robinson’s classic Honest to God, which I think is now out of print, but you can still used on amazon pretty cheap. Robinson popularized Tillich’s work (which is not very accessible), and codified what came to be know as “the death of God movement” in theology. Robinson was a bishop in the Anglican Communion, and he writes very much as a pastor. He has a chapter entitled “worldly holiness,” devoted to spirituality in light of the fact the God does not “exist” in the traditional sense.

      Some more contemporary reflections on this topic can be found in the work of John Caputo and Peter Rollins. Check out, for instance, Caputo’s The Weakness of God. Or listen to this interview, where he talks specifically about prayer. Just about anything by Rollins will touch on this, but his new book, Insurrection, is particularly good. Or you can listen to his lecture from the book tour here.

      • Joe, thank you for the thorough reply! I do hope you get around to the follow up post. I’d like to read it.

        If you do, I’m also curious about what Tillich is gaining by defining away Theism. I can see the downsides to the distinction, but I’m not clear on the advantages. My guess is that it’s a reply to contemporary philosophy, which has since Heidegger at least has pretty thoroughly critiqued the division of existence into material/spiritual. Is that the case?

  4. Pingback: I have arrived | Theologoholic

  5. There is no point in me trying to ramble on and on about why God is absolutely 100% real! Scientist and other people try so hard to disprove God that they don’t even know that they are further proving His existence! So I’ll tell you what, email me and I’ll tell you why, feel free to ask any questions that you want and I’ll answer them to the best of my abilities! Ask about, science, evolution, big bang, drugs, aliens, dinosaurs… Whatever you name it and I’ll answer.

    Thanks :-)

    alliehnd@aol.com
    (yeah I know aol is super old)

    • Joe

      Hi, Alex, thanks for stopping by theologoholic! I appreciate your comment, but I’m afraid that you may have misunderstood the argument in the post. I’m a theist—a Christian, no less. So you don’t have to convince me that there is a God.

      I was simply arguing—in the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas—that ontological categories like “existence” and “being” can’t be applied to God in the same sense that they are applied to rocks and trees and bird and people. To say “God is real” is a category mistake. That’s just not the way the language works. Rather God is that within which all real things have their being. You might say God is Reality Himself.

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