Kingdom A/theism

As a part of my efforts to scare away casual, surfy readers (here's a link to Pinterest or ESPN so you can escape quickly) and keep this blog nerdy, I'd like to revisit my recent post about transcendence and Christian a/theism.

To catch you up, you'll recall (if you read that post) that I expressed the view that while Christian a/theism shouldn't be seen as normative (i.e., I don't think it's a necessary thing to be/do) I do think that a/theism can be a helpful thing.

How is a/theism helpful? For two reasons, one epistemological the other moral.

The epistemological reason is that for those who struggle with the metaphysical claims of the Christian faith (people like me) a/theism can be a helpful approach. Doubts about metaphysics don't have to be catastrophic but can, in a/theism, be a productive theological tool, a form of apophatic theology.

From a moral perspective, as I argued in the prior post, by keeping "loving God" (care for the vertical, cultic and religious dimension of faith) tightly connected to "loving others" (care for the horizontal, human and moral dimensions) a/theism can help prevent the dangerous decoupling of the vertical from the horizontal, where religious people come to love God against their neighbors. Or, at the very least, loving God while being indifferent to our neighbors. To be sure, as I noted in the last post, there are other ways to prevent this from happening, ways that preserve the experience of the transcendent as independent from the immanent, but a/theism, in collapsing the transcendent into the immanent, is one way to keep "loving God" tightly associated with "loving others." And as I said, I tend to enjoy any theology that makes that sort of thing happen.

Okay, it's at this point where I'd like to address a common criticism that is made about what I just said. The criticism runs like this. If we collapse or conflate the vertical dimension (love of God) into the horizontal dimension (love of others) what we are left with, it is argued, is a bland and watered down liberalism. If loving God just means loving people then what we end up with is a tolerant but toothless humanism. We end up trading in our prophetic edge for a flower child ethos of "let's just love everyone!"

A related criticism here is that we end up trading in the counter-cultural politics of the Kingdom for the tools of liberal democracy. Basically, we stop becoming the church and start voting for Democrats.

The lines of this debate are pretty well-known. But I'd like to call BS on some of this criticism.

First, a clarification. It will be recalled that in my prior post I expressed the view that I wasn't too keen on a "death of God" a/theism. What I argued for was a theologia crucis focused on the weakness of God and the solidarity of God with victims and "the least of these," where the voice of God (the vertical dimension) is aligned with the voices of victims (the horizontal dimension). Theologically, I'm thinking here of things like Moltmann's The Crucified God, the work of Rene Girard, liberation theology, and Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison. Biblically, I'm thinking of texts like this:
1 John 3.16-18, 4.20
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.
The point here is that when I'm talking about a/theism I'm thinking more about the "solidarity of God" than the "death of God." Though I do believe that there is a sort of "death" that has to take place to get us to this point of solidarity with victims. This is the theological death that the disciples experience when they saw the Incarnate God crucified on the cross. In witnessing the crucifixion of Jesus at Golgotha a view of God died in the the hearts and minds of Jesus's followers. And it's a death that many contemporary Christians have yet to experience. Few of us want the Crucified God and the cruciform lifestyle to which we are called. Bonhoeffer captures the view of God I'm thinking of here:
God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.
This is the theology that sits behind many of my most popular posts, posts like Your God is Too Big, The Gospel According to Lady Gaga, and The Bait and Switch of Contemporary Christianity. If you read (or recall) those posts you'll see the common theological thread: the cultic/religious care of God is aligned with care for others, victims and "the least of these" in particular.

Is what I'm talking about here--this Crucified God stuff--best described as "Christian a/theism"? Perhaps not, but I've tended to see it as a version of Christian a/theism because of 1) the functional outcome, the alignment of the vertical (loving God) with the horizontal (loving others), and because of 2) the fact that a sort of "death of God" is needed (Bonhoeffer's "God lets himself be pushed out of the world and onto the cross") to get us to embrace God's solidarity and identification with "the least of these." That in addition to the death--the taking up of the cross--needed to walk the cruciform path.

Okay, with that clarification made, let me return to the common criticism of all this, addressing the concern that conflating the vertical with the horizontal creates a limp liberalism and humanism, a tolerant "niceness."

Incidentally, another version of this criticism is that the identification of "loving God" with "loving others" is a caving to the Enlightenment, a swallowing of Enlightenment liberalism (what Charles Taylor calls a "universal beneficence"). The argument here is that by reducing the Christian moral witness to this universal beneficence--best exhibited in the call for "tolerance" in pluralistic societies--we hollow out the Christian faith.

But this is a non sequitur. Just because I'm conflating the vertical with the horizontal doesn't necessarily mean I'm adopting liberal humanism. Doing the former doesn't logically entail that I'm doing the latter. Why can't I do something else? In fact, that's the clarification I'd like to make.

Here's my point. When I say we must conflate the vertical with the horizontal--to form an identity relationship between the Greatest Commandments, loving God and loving others--I'm insisting that we do this in a Christian way. With Christian means toward Christian ends.

Okay, then, what would a Christian collapse of the transcendent look like?

Regarding ends, I'd say "loving others and loving God" should look like the Corporal Works of Mercy per Matthew 25: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving water to the thirsty, visiting the sick, sheltering the homeless, visiting the prisoner. In fact, I'd argue that the conflation we've been talking about here is the exact point Jesus was making:
"Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?"

The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
There it is: loving Jesus/God is functionally collapsed into loving "the least of these" through the corporal works of mercy.

But here's my point: when Jesus conflates the vertical with the horizontal in Matthew 25 no one accuses him of caving to the Enlightenment! 

And why is that? Because Jesus isn't talking about a wishy-washy liberal tolerance. Jesus is talking about the corporal works of mercy. And that's my point. A Christian collapse of the transcendent, to be Christian, isn't toward liberalism but toward individuals and communities practicing the corporal works of Mercy (along with many other things). 

Okay, if those are the Christian ends let's turn toward the Christian means.

Again, the criticism you often hear about strongly equating "loving God" with "loving others" is that in doing so we are eschewing the life of the church and trading it in for liberal political engagement (e.g., we start voting for Democrats to achieve "social justice").

But this is still BS. Another non sequitur. There is no logical or necessary connection that if I identify "loving God" with "loving others" that I have to trade in the life of the church for the tools of the state. Sure I could do that, and I might start voting differently, but I wouldn't describe any of that as Christian.

The point being, when I talk about "loving others" not only am I operationalizing this in a distinctively Christan way, I'm also opting for Christian means to reach those ends. Concretely, I'll eschew the political apparatus of the state and invest in the koinonia of the church.

Because as we all know, means are often conflated with the ends. To be concrete about it, I don't care how many Democrats (or Republicans) you vote for: you can't vote your way into being a cross-shaped person. Cruciform people just don't roll out of bed. Most of us would rather watch SportsCenter or Downton Abby than spend time with the homeless. Consequently, to get to Christian ends we are going to need Christan means, an intensive training and formation in the cruciform life. You can't separate Matthew 25 from Acts 4.

To summarize all this. While I understand the knee-jerk reaction and criticism about strongly identifying "loving God" with "loving others" much of this criticism is missing the mark. The criticism is assuming something about ends and means that shouldn't be assumed. Sure, there are many progressive Christians who collapse the transcendent in ways that aren't distinctively Christian, opting for things like tolerance and liberal political engagement. Those aren't horrible things, in fact I think those are good things. I just don't consider them distinctively Christian things because I don't see them as distinctively cruciform things (e.g., pouring out your life in the the works of mercy to give life to others).

So the root problem here isn't the collapsing of the transcendent per se, but with the ends and means of that collapse. I'd argue--I am here arguing--that the collapse of the transcendent that we see in theologies like Christian a/theism can be distinctively Christian, toward Christian ends (e.g., the corporal works of mercy) and with Christian means (e.g., the koinonia of the church).

Now at this point a reader might respond, "Well, if that's what you mean by 'Christian a/theism' I have fewer concerns. My worries are more with other varieties of a/theism." In light of that response, we might need to create some labels to distinguish what I'm describing here from other forms of a/theism, a/theisms that might look a lot like existentialism, Buddhism, liberal/radical theology, death of God theology, or liberal humanism.

So, to help make such distinctions let me presume to label what I'm describing here as Kingdom a/theism.

Why the word "kingdom"? Because the focus of what I'm describing here as Kingdom a/theism is more sociological than a/theisms that are more theological, philosophical and psychological.

Kingdom a/theism is sociological in that it is preoccupied with God's social location in the world. It is a form of a/theism in that it doesn't locate God in the vertical dimension but in the horizontal dimension as God stands in solidarity with the victims and 'the least of these.' Kingdom a/theism is also sociological in two other ways. Specifically, Kingdom a/theism is concerned with the social life of the Kingdom of God on earth (rather than in heaven, yet another collapsing of the transcendent), best exemplified in the koinonia of the church. And finally, Kingdom a/theism is concerned with the social witness and mission of God in the world, best exemplified when God's people are found at the margins of society practicing the works of mercy.

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38 thoughts on “Kingdom A/theism ”

  1. Thanks so much for this. You have articulated, in a very clear way, the move I have made. I have been struggling to articulate it myself for a while. In particular, I appreciate your final paragraph describing "kingdom a/theism." It provides, among other things, a robust and clear alternative frame onto which readers of scripture can hang the words of Jesus and the apostles.


  2. It's ironic how at our present time we have to use terms like a/theism, death-of-God, transcendent/immanent, etc.  in an attempt to describe exactly how the earlier Christians understood their calling.


  3. I love this. I don’t think there is a word here I disagree
    with, and I particularly like the term Kingdom a/theism. Some things building on your foundation:


    think Matthew 25 is a central text for our historical moment: a lot of the “transcendent”
    Christianity you are talking about is in the business of chopping off the last
    couple of sentences of this chapter and then pasting it onto some parts of the
    epistles, in an effort to justify something that I think is profoundly opposed
    to the teaching of Jesus. That is the idea that if you think the right things, you get all the pie in the sky when you die that you can eat, and if you don't, you get tortured forever. I think that with your goals in mind, it is also
    worthwhile to recover some of the reflections on judgment and mercy that an
    honest effort to really wrestle with this whole story bring up. I want to insist on
    reflecting on the whole passage, because I don’t want to be guilty of the same “cut
    and paste” theology that others have engaged in with this passage…is it sufficiently confusing if I call them “transcendentalists”? I also want to read the whole story because I
    think it is probably more powerful at actually eliciting action. This was a
    long post already, so I don’t mean this as a critique of your post; I want to try to keep running with what you are doing here.


    thoughts on Matthew 25:


    The story presents both outrageous mercy and
    outrageous wrath on this issue, and is also highly aporetic because it
    stubbornly refuses to answer our questions about who receives aionios reward
    and who receives aionios fire. After all, I imagine even the worst person has
    given a glass of water to someone in need, and even the best person has at some
    point put unconscionable selfish desires ahead of caring for someone who
    desperately needs it. Everyone is a sheep and everyone is a goat, and I think
    Jesus clearly exhibited an awareness of this throughout his ministry.

    I’m really convinced of the accuracy and value
    of a preterist reading of Matthew 24-25. Up to this story of the sheep and
    goats, Jesus is talking about the old aion and the new aion: the old aion is
    the system of temple sacrifice and Mosaic law, the new aion is the period of
    history which we entered into in 70 AD. On my particular preterist reading, 24
    and 25, up to this story of sheep and goats, are all oracles that have been
    fulfilled. The sheep and goats is an expression of how God judges right now, in
    this aion. It is the central question of this age. This reading seems eminently
    defensible to me, and I think it drives the kind of conflation that you are
    talking about even deeper (in a Winkian kind of way). His Kingdom is here, now,
    and care for the poor is what he cares about. (On this reading, a new distinction between the vertical and horizontal can be mapped onto this, with hard core preterism that believes in no final judgment representing the total collapse into the horizontal. At that point, I part ways with the hard core preterists, and I open my can of "already-not yet"...but that is something of a side point at the moment). 


    that to say, I think a full reading of Matthew 25 intensifies and strengthens the
    point you are making. And it marginalizes the whole “eternal conscious torment
    in hell” crowd in a way that I think does justice to Scripture, and is
    sufficiently off-handed to accord that position the level of respect
    it deserves. I’m not primarily after a softening of the passage, just like you aren’t
    after a weak liberalism; it just so happens that in hardening and insisting on
    the practical implications of the passage, we (? not meaning to drag you into my additional “heresy”
    if you don’t want to go there) can also challenge a destructive mythology that
    has become associated with it, as a sort of side benefit. 

  4. Healthy people eat their vegetables and exercise; but eating vegetables and exercising is not typically a goal of a healthy person's life, except in an instrumental sense. I've always assumed the same about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, educating the unschooled, etc.--that they are instrumental in forming a good and just society, not ends in themselves but instruments in service of seeing to it that each person is seen as a worthy end in herself. 

    So eating vegetables and exercising are essentials of a healthy lifestyle and caring for those in need are essentials of a just society. 

    I think that pushing fort clarification on this is worthwhile...  

  5. I think of transcendence more as a keel than as a mast, a vertical dimension.  The weakness of engagement turns on how it is sustained, that is, why keep doing it? And how do we keep doing it over a prolonged period of time? The practices of transcendence (worship, devotions, prayer, even our theologies) have a way of nurturing, keeping engagement on track. Such practices also help us step away from social idolatries of various sorts.  May it also be that we need a whole, or at least an age-diverse community to engage? I suspect there is some learned wisdom in the act of engagement, too. After all, Benedict did have his abbots.

    As to theology, I've found Moltmann's book on the Trinity to be fruitful.

  6. This is an important point. When I pointed to the church and the need for spiritual formation I was including the corporate practices of prayer, Scripture reading and worship. Again, the word a/theism has that dash because it is a dialectical approach. It's not athesim, but a/theism, a going back and forth between thesim and athesim. I'm arguing that this "back and forth" isn't a death of God dialtectic but, rather, a sustained and consistent return to the cross, a "death of God" that has less to do with metaphysics than with God's social location, where God is to be found in the world. Prayer, worship, and Scripture reading that keeps us going back to the cross, back toward that social location, is extraordinarily important. As I said in the post, cruciform people just don't fall out of bed. We need practices that form and shape us.

    Still, at the end of the day Kingdom theists and a/theists will likely part ways at certain points. Most obviously, the Kingdom a/theists are going to be much more doubt-filled and will find their motivations "closer to earth," more in the immanent domain. For example, in regards to warrant for "why do this?" a Kingdom a/theist wouldn't ever say something like "Because if we do these things we'll get to go to heaven." They would say something like Stringfellow: I do this to "walk humanely in the Fall."

  7. Richard, this is awesome. I have a steep learning curve on these issues because I haven't read the books you've read, but you're making it quite clear.

    Here's my question, which you still haven't cleared up for me--and it comes from a sermon I heard you preach recently. It has to do with the concept of "Christian means." You identify, in this post, "Christian means" almost entirely in terms of the things we do to show our love of God. Cruciformity. The koinonia of the church, directing us to Kingdom acts of mercy. And I love it.

    But in your sermon you told us that we can overcome our ego-insecurities, in a way that makes koinonia possible and motivates us to acts of mercy, through one primary means: receiving God's love. And this seems to me to be a transcendent means that makes possible the imminent ends of showing love. It strikes me as very New Testament--because the Kingdom of God is breaking into the world and destroying the powers of condemnation, because the Spirit of God is being poured out in power, because the love of God is being shown radically in Jesus, therefore we are able to love one another.

    In a second sermon you were careful to let us know that we can function, for one another, as channels of love/ affirmation rather than channels of condemnation/ accusation, so of course there is an imminent dimension of the transcendent experience of "God's love." But this sermon seemed (to me) to build on the first sermon--to assume that before we tried to be loving people, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us to show us a love that comes to us from beyond ourselves.

    Maybe none of this contradicts what you mean by Kingdom a/theism. But it seems that the decision to exclude/ collapse transcendence, the decision to call your project "Kingdom a/theism" rather than simply "Kingdom theism," is in tension with a perspective that begins our attempts at love in the gracious undeserved gift of God's love to us. Ultimately, I fear that Kingdom means are too hard for us unless the transcendent is actually making new things possible--unless the Kingdom really has a King who is breaking into the world, binding the strong man, and pouring out a spiritual power. And for some reason, in that little church, listening to your awesome sermon, I got the impression that you actually believed that--that talking about God, and the love of God, was a starting place for getting to places that we couldn't otherwise get in our own attempts to rise above our ego-projects and be people of compassion.

    If all of this is simply missing your point, forgive me. Again, I'm enjoying what I learn from you.

  8. Digging this Rich. I think a lot of folks are going to need some way to get past the Santa-Claus-ish metaphysics of God Out There, but not just turn to total depravity and the internet as their new religion. I've been pondering writing on the numerous traditions, rituals, and practices that I've found in my Catholic tradition that are beautiful and durable enough to withstand a loss of the transcendent-theistic-vision. Some of them are not only beautiful remnants worth keeping, but inescapable and necessary things we would reconstruct anyway after the God-Out-There is gone. Like: regular gathering, expressing signs of peace, communing with or praying for the dead, doctrines of the fall, disarming people's mimetic rivalries, worshiping babies, and so on.

  9. Many responses:

    First, this post isn't necessarily a description of what I believe. It's a defense of Christian a/theism against the common charge that it is simply liberal humanism with some religious sprinkles on top. My argument here is that I think you can conceive of an a/theism that is distinctively Christian. That's all this post is doing. It's not a personal credo. So, insofar as I like a/theism I like it when it takes this form rather than other forms. I don't totally identify with this approach. I keenly feel its limitations and I still, personally, haven't given up on the transcendent. My theology is very much a work in progress.

    Which brings me to my second thought. As I noted elsewhere in a comment in this thread, the label a/theism is hinting at a dialectic, a critical give and take. To be sure, in my post I didn't frame it that way. I talked about conflation and collapse. Upon reflection my choice of words hides what should be described as a more fluid relationship. If I can clarify here, what I mean by "collapse" is that such a collapse is one pole of the dialectic, a collapse that dialectically critiques the transcendent, a collapse that keeps the transcendent tightly wedded to the immanent. It's the collapse the prophets preform over and over in the OT to criticize temple worship that ignores injustice at the gate, a collapse that deconstructs, say, what "true fasting" should look like (cf., Is. 58).

    Third, regarding those to sermons, three thoughts. First, I find the language of the transcendent most "real" when spoken among and on behalf of the least of these. So, yes, I'll speak in transcendent ways at Freedom or in the prison. But I don't speak in transcendent ways at Highland or in places of privilege. In those locations I speak about the cross and the weakness of God. These choices of mine, to my mind, reflect some of what I'm talking about in this post. I think it's okay to bring an "oracle of the Lord," but it has to be from and with and among the margins. Second, even so, even on the margins, my taste for immanence is seen when I say things like "Forget the ontological status of Satan, you and I are the satan." And third, my locating divine worth and status to the least of these is, I think, consistent with what I'm talking about. Where is that "worth" and "status" rooted? I'd argue that it's simply a confessional statement that could be either transcendent or immanent in nature, but at root a given, an axiom, a confession.

  10. I think your discussion of the Eucharist in From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart is a great example of what you are talking about.

  11. I love this so much. I hate to be that guy who is talking about his own book on someone else's site, but I really feel like a lot of what you've been talking about in this area is reflected in "Never Pray Again" - our tongue-in-cheek book on spirituality we've almost finished.

    I think a way to move perhaps even further with the distinctive Christian character of this collapse of the transcendent is to move beyond just love of neighbor to love of enemy. Secular humanism might look superficially similar to an a/theist morality, but Kingdom A/theism would not only aim use the koinonia of the church toward the ends of the corporal works of mercy for the oppressed in our own society, but even toward those who are hostile toward us, and other societies. In other words we don't just collapse the transcendent God into our generic neighbor, but very specifically we collapse the transcendent God into our embodied enemy.

  12. I think that is exactly right. Beyond the works of mercy I almost went into enemy-love as another aspect of all this. It's a peaceable Kingdom. Because when we talk about loving God against our neighbors that is most commonly and tragically seen in religious aggression toward enemies and out-group members.

    And no worries about plugging your book. I like it when people plug stuff as it alerts everyone to blog posts and books to explore.

  13. I'm not sure if Kingdom a/theism is anything a whole group would subscribe to. My take it that it would be a sub-group in a larger group.

    And to be clear, I do think there are issues here. But then again, doesn't Catholicism have issues? Protestatnism? Any Christian group? Or any theological position? Every church or theology has strengths and weakness. Particular temptations that need to be monitored. Pointing these out for each other is important, but an ecumenical spirit should pervade the discussion.

  14. Oh, I do think there is a question as to if what I'm talking about is best described as a/theism. This is what I wrote this in the post:

    Is what I'm talking about here--this Crucified God stuff--best described as "Christian a/theism"? Perhaps not...

    I then go on to state why I think the a/theism label still applies, while admitting it's not perhaps the best fit. Thus the new label. But maybe the label a/theism really isn't the best fit. Or perhaps it's too cute or confusing. If so, I wouldn't be particularly bothered if I had to drop the tag a/theism. All I'm saying is that, insofar as a/theism looks like this (and maybe it doesn't) I'm sympathetic toward it.

  15. Oh, I think you do a great work being an apologist for that work. My question is whether that work really is helpful to those of us who just want to be-bop along as Christian theists, who don't mind emphasizing the power (not weakness) of God, and yet still follow a crucified Messiah and aren't radical pie-in-the-sky idolaters. The radical deconstruction is out there, and you are responding to it constructively, but I'm still doing a head-scratch on whether I need to take it more seriously than I do . . . . 

  16. At the top of the post I tried to clarify on this point:

    To catch you up, you'll recall...that I expressed the view that while Christian a/theism shouldn't be seen as normative (i.e., I don't think it's a necessary thing to be/do) I do think that a/theism can be a helpful thing.

    I then went on to say:

    To be sure, as I noted in the last post, there are other ways to prevent
    this [i.e., loving God against our neighbors, or being indifferent to them] from happening, ways that preserve the experience of the
    transcendent as independent from the immanent, but a/theism, in
    collapsing the transcendent into the immanent, is one way to keep
    "loving God" tightly associated with "loving others."

    To summarize: A/theism isn't necessary. A/theism is merely one way to go about all this. More, you can love God and your neighbors with a robust (or merely modest) experience of the transcendent. And finally, a/theism is helpful to some (mainly people with a lot of doubts) but likely not to others.

    Basically, be-bop away.

  17. Hey Richard,

    This is a helpful clarifier for reading your earlier post. A few follow-up questions (not having read the thread so far):

    1. What are some of "the metaphysical claims of the Christian faith" that you have in mind which you or others have trouble with? I don't mean personal examples, just any examples.

    2. "Collapse of the transcendent" sounds irreducibly ontological, whereas it seems that you want to redefine it as sociological (or ethical). Is that phrase doing any ontological work for you, or actually none? And if none, why retain it—esp. if others use it in a decidedly ontological vein?

    3. I was going to ask "why keep the label 'a/theism'?" and then you preempted me at the end. I still wonder why that's helpful, given the baggage of the other positions/projects and of the stance suggested (i.e., "atheism"). What you seem to be recommending is what Kierkegaard proposes in Works of Love, but there he doesn't seem to be troubled by traditional metaphysical or ontological claims, or the implications of divine transcendence. What might be the difference between your position here and his?

    (P.S. Did you end up going all the way through Kelsey's E.E.? If so, what did you make of his argument on this question, that is, of love for God versus love for neighbor?)

    As a final comment, I think I'd want to say that I'm not so much worried about Christianity becoming liberal humanism; I'm confused about what it means to claim "a/theism" as a position, or to "collapse the transcendent," and still talk about God in a robustly theological way—that is, in a way that keeps God from becoming a cipher for something else more determinative that we've already got a handle on.

    Maybe I can phrase it this way: Precisely for the sake of the God who becomes incarnate in solidarity with the victims of history, I think we must (on Christians and, indeed, christological grounds) maintain thick talk of divine transcendence and of God's being and independence distinct from (though not cordoned off from!) creaturely others.

  18. My suspicion is that the flip side of speaking of the cross and weakness of God in social locations of privilege—a strategy I fully endorse—is speaking of the free, radical, inescapable, and utterly untameable judgment of the transcendent God in the exact same social locations. That is to say: Speech of the radical transcendence of God does its work first of all in judgment *on the church* for its unfaithfulness to the gospel of the Crucified. I'd suggest that this is modeled by Jesus's own preaching.

  19. At the risk of replying to a bunch of comments at once, I might add to your binary, on the "kingdom theist" side, that they might simply say, "Because God commands it," or "Because this is the way of Christ." Implicit in the first is that what God commands is good for the neighbor/the world; in the second (perhaps) that Christ is the incarnation of the transcendent God's being-which-is-love. Anyway, I'm overdoing it; just trying to expand what seems to be a (no doubt unintended) false choice.

  20. This is where Caputo's The Weakness of God really comes in handy! :) If nothing else, it's just good writing.

    “The name of God . . . is not
    a term of art, a technical or lifeless word coined by philosophers for their
    speculative purposes, but it is a word forged in the fires of life, in the joys
    and sorrows of ordinary life, a word we invoke on the most casual as on the
    most solemn occasions, signaling something familiar, even commonplace, yet
    bottomless, always on the tip of our tongue yet incomprehensible . . . My idea is to stop thinking about God as a
    massive ontological power line that provides power to the world, instead
    thinking of something that short-circuits such power and provides a provocation
    to the world that is otherwise than power.”

    “The notion that Jesus could
    come down from the cross had he wished belongs to unbelieving, uncomprehending
    Romans who taunted him, as if Jesus were a magician, whereas the genuine
    divinity of Jesus is revealed in his distance from this request for magic, in
    his helplessness, his cry of abandonment, and above all, in the words of
    forgiveness he utters . . . The perverse core of
    Christianity lies in being a weak force. The weak force of God is embodied in
    the broken body on the cross, which has thereby been broken loose from being
    and broken out upon the open plane of the powerlessness of God . . . If the kingdom Jesus preached were a kingdom of real power, he could,
    by a mighty roar—nay better, by a soft word—from his mouth, spring the nails
    from his hands, thrust away the spears from the hands of the soldiers, heal the
    wounds of his flesh, and shatter the cross into a million splinters in a
    dazzling display of sheer might. But his kingdom did not belong to the world,
    to the realm of meeting power with power . . . so he was killed, quite against
    his will and against the will of his Father. But in the powerlessness of that
    death the word of God rose up in majesty as a word of contradiction, as the
    Spirit of God, as a specter, as a ghostly event that haunts us, but not as a
    spectacular presence.

    is God’s transcendence.” 

  21. My hunch is that some of our inability to see eye to eye on this (not that seeing eye to eye on this particular issue matters all that much) might boil down to how we value (or don't value) "thick" and "robust" theological descriptions of God's transcendent Otherness. For my part, I don't place a high value on such descriptions so I don't feel the loss or the worry. Such conversations are are academically interesting, to be sure. But I've never been convinced or seen demonstrated that such thick and robust theological descriptions actually get people to perform the works of mercy.

    More, I believe that the works of mercy are a better defense against idolatry than any robust and thick theological descriptions of God's transcendence.

    Not trying to be dismissive or aggressive, just saying that I don't sweat the loss of thick or robust theology. Nor do I think theology particularly adept at dealing with idolatry.

  22. Good stuff. With all that said, for you, why is love of neighbor/works of mercy the greatest good? Why is not some other type of behavior, a different ethic, the goal? I am not pushing back. I'm just curious how you ground your choice to act in these particular ways.

  23. Another atheist angle:
    AbstractThe cognitive science of religion is a new field whichexplains religious belief as emerging from normal cognitiveprocesses such as inferring others' mental states, agencydetection and imposing patterns on noise. This paperinvestigates the proposal that individual differences in beliefwill reflect cognitive processing styles, with high functioningautism being an extreme style that will predispose towardsnonbelief (atheism and agnosticism). This view wassupported by content analysis of discussion forums aboutreligion on an autism website (covering 192 unique posters),and by a survey that included 61 persons with HFA. Personswith autistic spectrum disorder were much more likely thanthose in our neurotypical comparison group to identify asatheist or agnostic, and, if religious, were more likely toconstruct their own religious belief system. Nonbelief wasalso higher in those who were attracted to systemizingactivities, as measured by the Systemizing Quotient.

  24. I ground it out by being Christian. That is, by confessing Jesus is Lord and then being a close student of Jesus and the gospels.

  25. The way I am writing must be suggesting a concern for theology as an academic exercise, but that's really not my concern at all. I'm largely thinking of everyday speech and thought about God on the part of ordinary Christians, as well as prayer, teaching, and preaching. For example, the people I've known with the "biggest God," ontologically speaking, are people in dire straits: homeless, ill, imprisoned, very poor. This God is full of the omnis: always good, utterly in control, a trillion times bigger than you or me, around before the big bang and lasting beyond the end of the universe, cognizant of all that has ever happened and all that ever will. That's the God they know and trust intimately, and honestly, the only God they could devote themselves to in the way they do (a given being that this omnis-God came near in Christ).

    At least in the way I mean it, I *have* seen "thick and robust theological descriptions actually get people to perform the works of mercy." I don't mean disquisitions on the Trinity. I mean reflection on the heights and depths of the living God whose history with us wayward creatures came to a head in Christ, and whose acts and character we learn about and marvel at in Scripture. I've seen the lights come on doing this sort of thing in classes at church—e.g., the God they earlier imagined was a flag-waving American is quite the opposite, or the God they once envisioned as giving people what they deserve is found in the electric chair, and so on. I honestly don't find that much different than much of the substance of what you do here on the blog.

    Perhaps it's just this extremely specific, particular discourse—"a/theism," "collapse of the transcendent"—that either throws me for a loop or rubs me the wrong way. Whenever you get to concrete examples, I'm mostly there with you; it's the description of the theological backdrop that feels off, and maybe that's neither here nor there in this instance.

  26. I have noted that there is something off-putting about the label. We could speculate about why that is. Is it trying to be too cool and hip and post-modern? Too much a nod to unfashionable death of God theology? Trying to look new and fresh when it's just repackaged stuff?

    But I agree, I don't think you and I are so very far apart. I'm trying to puzzle this out because I also agree that seeing God as above all created things is a powerful way to address idolatry. Particularly in America. God is "bigger" than the gods of Empire and war. And to make that critique you go "up" on the transcendent dimension. And this, what you are pointing out, is exactly the one thing that I don't think a/theism does well in preserving. And it is something I do preserve, appeal to and use. (As I keep asserting in these posts and comments, I have great sympathy for a/theism and find it helpful in places, but it doesn't exhaust "my view.")

    But two points about this. First, there are a/theistic theological resources that create move you describe. I noted apophatic theology in the post--a strong use of negation regarding any and all God talk. That's a bit of what puts the a in a/theism. More, a/theists like to point to how Christians were the first atheists, called such by the Romans for their denial of the gods. The point being, while not done in the traditional way, there are resources in a/theism that functionally accomplish what you are talking about.

    Second, I think the prophetic move is two-fold. Beyond the negation that extracts God from the idol-complex there needs to be a positive move to direct Christian mission and spiritual formation. God isn't just "above" us but is discovered to be "against" us. And here I turn to things like liberation theology and the preferential option for the poor as an example of aligning God with the least of these.

    Looking back, the phrase "collapse of the transcendent" is probably ill-chosen. I'll need to keep working on the language and may, in the end, elect to jettison the tag "a/theism." Until that glorious day, blessings to you my brother. :-)

  27. Thanks, Richard, for the encouragement. And I caught all those points. I guess I keep gnawing at this bone (rather than be-bopping away) precisely because the things you say a/theism may help with are things that my community really does need help with. Yes, saying it isn't necessary gives me an out. But you've raised doubts in my mind about whether the focus on transcendence is helpful, or unhelpful, for my community. 

    I realize you have framed a/theism as only one way to go about this. Yet it is a way that I may feel that I need to explore more--an exploration alive to the possibility that some sort of "collapse" of transcendence is really going to help me, but also alive to the possibility that the whole project is a wrong move. It's because you are so balanced in your evaluation of this project that you are intriguing me.

    So I will be-bop, but cautiously.

  28. Just for more clarification, why choose to follow Jesus? Why confess He is Lord? Is it dependent, at all, on the fact that he is God incarnate? And if so, does that get us back into the vertical/transcendent? Are we not doing "robust" theology then?
    I only ask because I resonate with what you wrote in the post, but I can't seem to leave the vertical behind as easily. Choosing Jesus as Lord, for me, is wrapped up in him being "in the beginning." Thus, I'm trying to see how you work it out. Why do you choose the way of Jesus if it's not grounded in the vertical dimension in some way (i. e., Jesus' association with the victim gains its significance because it is the Creator God who makes that move)?

  29. re: christian a/theism vs secular humanism
    just a speculation on a potential difference...  maybe after 'collapsing the transcendent' and focusing on the horizontal, the scale of the human problems can be overwhelming, potentially leading to despair.  perhaps at that point, for the christian a/theist compared to the secular humanist, the transcendence rises back up to give hope.  eg, imagine bonhoffer as an secular humanist -- what would keep him going, keep him from despair while in prison?  (perhaps viktor frankl would provide another example.)

  30. Your reasons aren't so different from my own. So I'll just keep saying it again and again in this comment thread, I'm sympathetic to a/theism insofar as it looks like what I describe in the post (a "Kingdom a/theism") but wouldn't say I am totally on board with it. For reasons similar to the ones you describe here.

  31.  Just a small addition: even the most secular, purely social work perspectives nonetheless smuggle in a sense of transcendence. That is, the human action assumes purpose beyond the mere execution of a task. We educate, care, help for a future, a future we don't or cannot see. The act of mercy pushes us beyond ourselves.

    Is this mystery of our lives a residue of discarded Christendom? The mere (imaginative) arrow of time? Or is it the possibility that our actions, however secularly conceived, nonetheless participate in some larger story?

  32. Pondering all the comments regarding the need for the transcendent to imbue life with hope, openness, mystery, and meaning I'm starting to rethink, or at least reframe, a lot of this.

    Because I agree with you. So why all this talk of mine about the "collapse of the transcendent"? What I care most about in this conversation isn't a denial of the transcendent as much as it is wanting to make sure that the experience of the transcendent (as fleeting and tenuous as it is for many of us) is directed toward love. Looking over what I wrote there are places where, in my zeal to get this point across, I state the case too strongly, as a denial of the transcendent. But reflecting now, I really don't feel comfortable saying that. I'd like for the world to be enchanted rather than disenchanted. It's just that I want that enchantment to thrust us more deeply into the world, into the margins of the world. At the end of the day, that's all I really want. For myself.

  33. are you familiar with maggie ross, a professed anglican solitary of 30 years, who has split her time between alaska and teaching theology at oxford?  as i understand her views, she believes that theology (and in fact the rest of society) had overemphasized a linear, mechanical, heirarchical view to the detriment of a relational, holistic, non-linear view.  

    i mention it because your notion of using god "against your neighbor" and missing out on the horizontal sounds very much like the linear view that she also believes is damaging to christianity.  she's spent the last 50+ years as a scholar researching this from a theological angle, and concludes that contemplation, "the work of silence", has been mostly lost to the christian tradition, causing great damage.  in the last few years, she's finally discovered the neurological and psychological support for her views from the book "The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World" by Iain McGilchrist.

    one summary of her work is the 14 part series on her blog from her speech at Manchester.  you should be able to find the other parts from part I, which is at:

    from part X, a snippet to give a brief glimpse of what i think she's talking about:
    "Beholding opens to the deep mind, which is inclusive, multidimensional and relational, in sharp contrast to the self-conscious mind, which is linear, discriminatory and hierarchical. We have nearly lost the word behold in Christian tradition, and with it the understanding of the work of silence, the importance of the two epistemologies' working together, and the primacy of re-centering in the deep mind.

    The misinterpretation of Christian texts through the lens of a Cartesian methodology has led to the dehumanizing of Christian spirituality."

    you can also download the 17 page introduction to McGilchrist's book, if that's of interest to you, at:

    (since i'm not scholarly in either your field or hers, i'm not sure whether i'm providing a useful pointer, or a completely off-the-mark comment.  so my apologies if this is completely unrelated to anything you're talking about.  but my layman's hunch is that there's a pony in there somewhere, and it might be of use to you.)

  34. i'm not interested in arguing about the truth of various religious beliefs or lack thereof here.  (i'm not myself religious in the conventional sense.)  people i know who use religion to try to improve themselves are some of the nicest people i know.  people that try to use religion to improve everyone else (ie, boss everyone else around) i find personally obnoxious and politically dangerous.

    my intent is to try to understand people.  in this same vein, it might also be interesting to study the various 12-step programs, such as alcoholics anonymous.  as i understand it, they have a much much higher success rate than any other program, and they explicitly include a notion of a "higher power" (which is not defined in detail) as part of their program.  i'm sure the interaction between their success and their inclusion of a higher power has been studied, and might provide further ideas about this transcendent dimension, and how it changes how people behave.

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