Human Definitions of God Need Revision
by John Shelby Spong
I welcome the attention that serious atheists like Richard Dawkins and
Sam Harris are offering the world at this moment through their
books. They are bringing what I regard as a deserved criticism and a
necessary correction to what Christianity has become in our
I, for one, have no desire to worship a God who is thought to favor
the war in the Middle East in order to accomplish some obscure
prediction found in the late first century book of Revelation, who
suppresses women in the name of ancient patriarchy, or who is so
deeply homophobic that oppressing homosexuals becomes the defining
issue of church life.
Such an irrational, superstitious deity has no appeal to me and the
attack of atheists against this kind of God is welcome. I also do not
want to be told that the 'true God' can be found either in the
inerrancy of the Bible or in the infallibility of a Pope. Both are
absurd religious claims designed not to discover truth but to enforce
religious authority and conformity.
I believe, therefore, that atheism as a challenge to organized
religion has a worthy vocation to fulfill. The real atheists are
saying that the God they have encountered inside the life of the
church is too small and too compromised to be God for their lives. If
the church is dedicated to such an unbelievable, magical and
miracle-working deity that it cannot admit to any genuine probing of
the divine, then the atheist speaks a powerful truth.
Atheism, technically, does not mean a denial of the existence of
God. It means literally a denial of the theistic definition of
God. That is to say, theism is not what God is; it is what human
beings have decided that God is. Human definitions of God can die
without God dying. Theism means that we perceive of God as 'a being,
supernatural in power, dwelling somewhere external to this world
(usually conceived of as above the sky), who periodically invades this
world in miraculous ways.'
This is the God who split the Red Sea to rescue the chosen people and
who invaded the world in the person of Jesus to rescue the fallen
creation. This is also the deity displaced by Galileo, made impotent
by Isaac Newton, ridiculed by Freud and relativized by Einstein.
The theological question that needs to be explored in both church and
state is this: Can God be understood in some way other than through
these infantile and tribal images? Can Jesus be seen in some way other
than as the divinely appointed sacrificial victim who paid the price
owed to God for our sinfulness? Because I believe that both God and
Jesus are so much more than these distorting images suggest, I am
confident that a dialogue with those who call themselves 'atheists'
would not only be good for the church but it would also allow deep and
profound truth to emerge.
Among the issues for discussion between atheists and believers would
be: What leads human beings to seek to define God in the first place?
Is it the human experience of transcendence? Otherness? Divinity? How
then do we conceptualize that experience? If the worship of our God
leads us to justify our killing religious prejudices that have
throughout history created such things as the Inquisition, the
Crusades, religious wars and even the current ecclesiastical attack on
homosexual persons, can this God really be anything other than a
creature of our own making? Will we remain deluded enough to call this
creature God? Since that is what the theistic God has so regularly
given us, would not the world be better off without such a deity?
The choice between the theism of the church and the atheism of those
who reject the God of the church is to me a sterile and lifeless
choice. Such a meeting between believers and atheists might lead us to
examine what Paul Tillich called 'the God beyond the gods of men and
women.' If believers cannot have that conversation because it
compromises their God definition, then that is a tip-off that the God
they serve is in fact an idol and atheism is always a proper response
Tell others about this article: