Vicar’s kids have spent all their lives back stage and are often unimpressed with religious razzmatazz. “No Dad, I don’t want to go to Midnight Mass again. It’s boring. And anyway, God doesn’t exist.”
I summarise a little, but that’s the gist of it. Bulging with semi-digested food (we have our main Christmas meal on Christmas Eve) a declaration of post-dinner atheism has traditionally been the most effective way to stay firmly planted on the sofa. I am considering implementing an ‘atheists do the washing up’ policy this year. I reckon that might make a difference to the religious affiliation of the household. We will see.
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But what about God’s existence? This is the time of year when surveys are commonly commissioned by newspapers to show that, as every year passes, fewer people believe in God – at least in Europe. These surveys have become as seasonal as Christmas itself, though what they say is rarely much of a surprise. God is dead, said Nietzsche over a century ago. For some, the problem is not God per se, so much as the church itself: the scandals, the hypocrisy, and (worst of all) that false/pious sanctimonious tone of voice. Others (most, I suspect) just don’t care one way or the other. For such as these, the question of God’s existence is something of a non-question. Like the politics of a distant country or the sex lives of beetles, the question is so distant it has no purchase on our lives.
So, for those of us who are believers, the rise of so-called new atheism around the end of the 20th century came almost as a welcome relief from all the shoulder-shrugging indifference of the ‘who cares?’ brigade. The new atheists cared enough to resurrect the question of God’s existence. It was almost as if God’s corpse needs to be temporarily re-animated, just so he can be killed off all over again, so as publically to demonstrate his death to each new generation.
The problem with discussing the question of God’s existence is that it often turns into an argument about what we mean by existence rather than an argument about God per se. Consider, for instance, the surprisingly difficult question of the existence of numbers. Philosophers have been debating this since the Greeks. Is there an independent reality to the number seven – something over and above the objects that there may be seven of, like tables or cars? Or is mathematics simply a clever and complicated organising principle supplied by the human mind? Or something else entirely? No one is doubting that there are such things as numbers – the question is more like, in what way do they exist or what do we mean by their existence?
In other words, most philosophers don’t believe that the existence of numbers is an empirical question at all – it is not something that scientists can design experiments to establish. And the same may be true of God. For many theologians, God is not a thing. Thomas Aquinas says that if you made a list of all the things that exist in the universe – cups and saucers, human beings, planets, black holes etc – God wouldn’t be on that list. So there is no point looking for God in the same sort of way that one would look for physical objects. Aquinas explains this by saying that God cannot be both the creator of all things in heaven and earth and one of the things created.
Another shorthand way of saying this simply is that God doesn’t exist. Thingliness may not be a property of the divine. And a number of the more mystically inclined Christian theologians – Meister Ekhart in the 13th century for instance – come pretty close to saying this. Existence, as we understand it empirically, is the wrong sort of thing to ascribe to God.
Another way of approaching this same problem is to ask whether it would be possible for any sort of thing that we encountered actually to count as God. Imagine that a being presented itself that has all the apparently God-like properties – an all-powerful, all-knowing being with flowing robes and a long white beard could that thing ever be God?
Now it must be said that the way philosophers conceive of God and the way that the Bible conceives of God are often sharply contrasting. Omniscience and omnipotence, for example, are words that philosophers like to use to describe God; but they are not words used in the Hebrew scriptures. And why would such a mighty being be in any way worthy of worship? Wouldn’t the worship of this sort of thing be little more than the worship of power, supplication to the biggest force on the block? And if God really had all this executive power and refused to use it to save Jews from the gas chambers or refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, wouldn’t s/he just be a callous bastard undeserving of any sort of praise, let alone worship?
So I almost want to say – to be deliberately paradoxical – that the one thing that would stop me from believing would be if God actually existed. And this is the problem with the new atheists’ approach to God. They confuse believing in God with believing that God exists. It is perfectly possible to believe that God exists without actually believing in God.
The point here is that God cannot be simply a big powerful thing hidden somewhere in the universe. If that is what we are arguing about, then the atheists are right and the believers wrong. But this is not what Christians mean when they talk about God. Take Christmas. The story here is that to imagine a God who is indeed worthy of worship is not to imagine a being of power and prestige but quite the opposite: it is to imagine a powerless child in a shitty shed. Only a God that could share fully in the human condition, only one that could experience suffering and death, only one that could give up all his God-like super-powers, could ever be counted properly as God.
Christmas is a sort of practical atheism. Forget about that big God in the heavens, that God is dead. From now on, to imagine God is not to imagine a set of abstract properties all maxed up to 100%. At Christmas, all of God is small and helpless. “He emptied himself” as the book of Philippians described it. A bit like Prospero at the end of The Tempest, giving up his power. Powerlessness is God’s only excuse. Only justification. Only chance of redemption.
The philosopher Mary Warnock, in her Confessions podcast talk with me, described God as love. She meant this as a sort of definition. That love is the essence of God’s being, the manner of God’s existence. And she is exactly right. For many of us, when we are arguing about the existence of God we don’t care about a thing called God, we care about a belief that all things are orientated towards love and the loving celebration of all existence. And the way many of us experience this is though the astonishing beauty of the Christmas story.
Religion is not physics. And those who confuse the two, be they religious fundamentalists or the so-called new atheists, will always miss the point. Religion is the poetry of cosmic love. Which is why my kids’ “God doesn’t exist” is, in my book, not a good enough reason for staying on the sofa. You will come with me, I will say, and listen again to the message of the angels: “Peace on earth, good will to all.”