Meeting the odd god of atheism
by Elaine Storkey
Originally publised in Church Times 28th January 2011
Meeting a former university colleague I noticed with interest how some of his previous views had changed. This wasn’t surprising, for maturity challenges many of our attitudes and ideas. What was more surprising was that when he began to talk about religion, his views were exactly the same as they were twenty five years ago. He was still an atheist. What’s more, the reasons he gave for his atheism were identical to the justification he had offered then. He simply couldn’t conceive of a disembodied superior being, invisible but all powerful, who knows everything, wills whatever he wishes and existed before time began. To him, ‘God’ seemed an abstract and unnecessary concept, one quite irrelevant to what he knew to be ‘normal life’.
I was intrigued to find that I didn’t want to contest his statement. In fact, I could quite see his point. Conceiving of such a being, divorced from any experience of relationships, emotion, moral decision, prayer and wonder, would require a substantial amount of imagination! And supposing we did find someone who could conceive of a supreme being with these attributes. Would that enable her to live a better and more purposeful life?
The question for my colleague boiled down to whether he could give intellectual assent to the existence of a Deity, as rationally defined and described. He could not give assent, so was therefore an unbeliever. Yet judged on these criteria, many believers would also be ‘unbelievers’. They would find it difficult to imagine a supreme being in the abstract terms which he outlined. This would not necessarily be a failure of faith, however, but more a failure of language and imagination.
The Church has recognized since the thirteenth century that the concepts we form and the language we use about God are deeply inadequate. Theologians have struggled with how to speak of an ineffable God, how to express the inexpressible, how to picture One who is so infinitely beyond our finite human powers of conceptualisation. In an attempt to get away from rationalist abstractions, we are frequently invited into worship and silence as more reliable ways of encountering God. For God, we are often told, can be known, but not pictured; experienced, but not imagined
The problem in conversing with my colleague was that he and I seemed to be talking of different things. He saw belief as a mental process. I see it as intrinsically relational, as trust.. He saw belief as a ‘tag-on’ to real life. I see it as the lens through which I experience all reality. He saw belief as conferring access to a privatised spiritual zone of religious rituals and language. .I see it as relating to a material world where God is disclosed by every bird in the forest, and the cattle on a thousand hills. He saw God as remote. I see God engaged in everything around us.
So is there any point of contact? Yes. From my perspective it is everywhere. We live in the same world, share a common humanness, recognize the same needs and emotions, experience the same longings for wholeness. Whether he acknowledges it or not, my colleague, like me, is made by a God who is love and who invites us into loving, healing relationships. So the first step is to explore belief in a relationship of mutual respect and openness. There, rather than argue about how to define or describe God we can enter the narrative of the Christian faith. And as we experience the implications of the Word made Flesh, we might even find that Christ begins to bring God within reach.
Elaine is a writer & broadcaster, lecturer and author. She was President of Tearfund from 1996 to 2014, has lectured in many continents, is a member of Newnham College, Cambridge and an Ambassador for Restored. She served on The General Synod of the C of E for 28 years, until 2015.. Her most recent book is “Scars Across Humanity: Understanding and Overcoming Violence Against Women”. elainestorkey.com