Many Christian theologians in the modern era have been cited as saying that God is not real, or to put it a bit more strongly that God does not exist. As it turns out, they are not actually saying anything different from than Christian theologians from time immemorial. We moderners just like to say things in ways that are a bit more…well, shocking. Let me explain what I mean by this considering two possible errors that people sometimes make in thinking about the existence of God. The modern worldview envisages reality having 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 in any deep sense to creation. Instead, he 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 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 not so bifurcated, more organic. We postmoderners do not imagine that there are two distinct worlds, one physical and one material. Rather, like the ancients, we picture the spiritual breaking into the physical realities of our everyday lives all the time. 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 these two: 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. Ontology, 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 certain way 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.