Can One Be a Christian
without Being a Theist?

by the Rt. Rev. John S. Spong,
Bishop of Newark

from: The VOICE - October 1996

As a person who lectures extensively across this nation and the world, I have been asked a wide variety of questions from my audiences. They have ranged from the naive to the profound, from the obvious to the obtuse. Some questions have been hostile, designed not to gain knowledge or insight, but rather to embarrass, attack and minimize. Some have been profoundly questing, seeking in the wasteland the questioner occupied some hint that the living water of faith might yet be available. However, no one has ever confronted me with a question at once so penetrating and modern and yet so devastating and threatening as the one with which I began this column.

To my amazement and delight this question was asked by a lay person within the Diocese of Newark. It originated inside that activity we call Education for Ministry (EFM) and specifically from a member of St. Thomas' Church, Vernon. It was posed at an EFM graduation ceremony held at St. Stephen's Church in Millburn in June. It made me newly aware of the significance of the EFM program. If that program can free this person to inquire into her faith on this level, then it has renewed my conviction that EFM is the best educational tool available for lay people in the church today.

Theism is the historic way men and women have been taught to think about God. Most people think theism is the only conceivable way to think about God. The primary image of God in the Bible is a theistic image.

By that I mean that God is conceived of as a Being, even the Supreme Being, external to this world, supernatural in power, and operating on this world in some fashion to call this world and those of us who inhabit it into the divine will or the divine presence. This theistic Being is inevitably portrayed in human terms as a person who has a will, who loves, who rewards and who punishes. One can find other images of God in the scriptures, but this is the predominant and the familiar one.

Theism is also the primary understanding of God revealed in the liturgies of the Christian churches, including the various Anglican Books of Common Prayer. There the God we meet is described as a Being who desires our praises, elicits our confessions, reveals to us the divine will and who calls us into the spiritual life of communion with this Divine Being.

So dominant is this theistic understanding of God that if one rejects theism, one is thought to be an a-theist. An atheist is defined as one who dismisses the theistic concept of God and, since theism exhausts most people's definition of God, an atheist by definition is one who rejects the concept that God might be real.

So when one is confronted with the question, "Can one be a Christian without being a theist?" it opens vast doors for further thought and theological speculation.

This question becomes askable only when one lives in a world that has rendered the traditional theistic view of God inoperative. We may not like to confront that reality, but in a real sense, this is what the post-modern world forces the contemporary religious community to face. The Supernatural Being that we have traditionally called God has increasingly been rendered impotent by the explosion in human knowledge over the last five hundred years.

We once attributed to the will of this deity everything we did not understand, from sickness to tragedy to sudden death to extreme weather patterns. But today sickness is diagnosed and treated with no reference to God whatsoever. Tragedies, like the crash of the TWA Flight #800 or the rise of the AIDS epidemic, are investigated by this secular society without reference to the will of God. That was certainly not the case when ancient tragedies, such as the black death or the bubonic plague, swept across the world. When death strikes suddenly today, we do autopsies that reveal a massive coronary occlusion or a cerebral hemorrhage as its cause. We do not speculate on why the external Deity, the theistic Supreme Being, might have wanted to punish this particular person with sudden death. Even what the insurance companies still call "acts of God" are today thought to be completely explainable in non- theistic language. We chart the formation of hurricanes from the time when they develop as low pressure systems in the southern oceans and we mark their paths until these weather systems are broken up either over land, after unleashing their fury of wind and water, or in the cold and heavy air of the extreme northern parts of our hemisphere. No weather man I know of refers to this phenomenon of nature as divinely caused to inflict godly punishment upon a wayward region, people or nation. Only someone as naive theologically as American televangelist Pat Robertson would assume, as he did a few years ago, that his prayers could steer a hurricane away from his television and radio enterprise in Norfolk, Virginia. Interestingly enough, Mr. Robertson did not pray to break the storm up, but only to redirect its fury. Furthermore, there was no expression of concern on Pat Robertson's part about what might happen to those in whose path his prayers might have redirected the storm.

At least one English theologian, Michael Goulder, saw this shrinking conclusion of the theistic God destroying his faith. He became an atheist when he came to the perception that the God of traditional theism "no longer has any work to do." This God no longer explains mysteries, cures sicknesses, directs the weather, fights wars, punishes sinners, rewards faithfulness. Indeed, the idea of an external supernatural Deity who invades human affairs periodically to impose the divine will upon this world, though still given lip service in worship settings, has nonetheless died culturally. If God is to be identified exclusively with this theistic understanding of God, then it is fair to say that culturally at least God has ceased to live in our world.

If the theistic understanding of God exhausts the human experience of God, then the answer to the question of the EFM student from Vernon is clear. No, it is not possible to be a Christian without being a theist. But if, on the other hand, one can begin to envision God in some way other than in the theistic categories of the traditional religious past, then perhaps a doorway into a religious future can be created. That is to identify what I regard as the most pressing theological issue of this generation. Christianity has been shaped by traditional theistic concepts. Jesus was identified in some sense as the incarnation of this theistic God. It was said that He came to do "the father's (read: that external supernatural Supreme Being's) will." Indeed, Jesus was portrayed as a sacrifice offered to this God to bring an end to human estrangement from the Creator. Theologians talked of original sin, and "the fall" to which it was asserted the cross spoke with healing power and in which drama of salvation the shed blood of Jesus played a central role. But in a world that has abandoned any theological sense of offering sacrifices to an angry Deity, what could this interpretation of the Cross of Christ possibly mean? In a post-Darwinian world, where creation is not finished, but is even now ongoing and ever- expanding, the idea of a fall from a perfect world into sin and estrangement is nonsensical. The idea that somehow the very nature of the heavenly God required the death of Jesus as a ransom to be paid for our sins is ludicrous. A human parent who required the death of his or her child as a satisfaction for a relationship that had been broken would be either arrested or confined to a mental institution. Yet behavior we have come to abhor in human beings is still a major part of the language of worship in our churches when we speak of God. It is the language of our ancient theistic understanding of God. It is also language that is doomed first to irrelevance and later to revulsion. The real question then becomes, "Can Christianity be separated from ancient theistic concepts and still be a living faith?" That is why this inquiry from the EFM student was such a threatening, scary question. Once it is raised to consciousness, it will never again go away. It will also destabilize forever the only understanding of God most of us have had.

The "religious right" does not understand the issues involved here. On the other hand, the secular society, where God has been dismissed from life, has also answered this question by living as if there is no God. Only those who can first raise this question into consciousness and who then refuse to sacrifice their sense of the reality of God when all theistic concepts fail will ever wrestle with these issues.

It would surprise many pew sitters in our churches to know how deeply this debate already rages in the theological academy. In this world of scholarly dialogue God has not been spoken of as an external Supernatural Being who periodically invades the world in decades. Yet the experience of God as a divine presence found in the midst of life is all but universally attested. Jesus as a revelation of this divine presence is the heart of the Christian claim. The normative language of theism by which this experience has traditionally been processed and transmitted is, however, today all but universally rejected by the academy.

So perhaps the major theological task of our times is to seek a new language of faith or at the very least a new way to translate those pre-modern theistic categories into the post-modern, non- theistic language of tomorrow. That is not an easy assignment. It is, however, the vocation to which my mind and heart are dedicated as I begin to create the last major theological book of my active career. I cannot begin to say how much the posing of this frontier question about the relationship between the Christian faith and the theistic language of the past encouraged me. At least one lay member of this Diocese is wrestling on the same frontier where my mind is now engaged; I rejoice that I am not alone.

John S. Spong