30 May – That God does not exist

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Trinity Sunday

Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 29
John 3:1-17

Our psalm, as we heard it this morning, began with a call to the ‘heavenly beings’ to ‘ascribe glory and strength’ to the God of Israel. There is an older translation, however, which runs like our call to worship this morning: ‘Ascribe to the Lord, you gods, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.’ Either translation can be justified, in part because many biblical scholars believe that the psalm is probably borrowed from one of the neighbouring polytheistic religions and pressed into service for Israel its God.

This older translation perhaps jars with the sensitivities of believers today, for we’ve long held that there is only one God. We have understood that there has been a progression from a polytheism (the belief in many gods) to henotheism (the belief in only one god, among many options), to monotheism (the belief that there is only one god – not least because it is a nice neat philosophical idea. And so it seems odd now to speak again about ‘the gods’. Yet perhaps it’s time to take up once again talk of a pantheon – a field of many gods. The reason is, perhaps surprisingly, the rise of the current form of popular atheism.

The basic assertion of popular atheism is, of course, simply that ‘there is no God, God does not exist’. But what, in the first place, could we mean if we declare that ‘God does exist’ or that ‘God is’? Our the first problem here is the word ‘is’. We say ‘is’ about ourselves and other things in the world: that chair ‘is’; that man ‘is’, that tree ‘is’. These things ‘are’ or ‘exist’. ‘Isness’ is a characteristic or property of stuff lying around the place in the world. To say then that God ‘is’ – that God ‘exists’ – is to reduce God to being an object like a chair or a man or a tree, somehow also lying around the place in the world. Atheism observes that we can’t find God anywhere in the world, and concludes that God does not exist.

The logic is impeccable, on the assumption that God is a part of the world – that God ‘exists’. Perhaps surprisingly, however, faith also holds that God does not exist in this way. God is not a ‘part’ of the world, not even the biggest thing in the world. The doctrine of creation recognises that God and the world are related but also that they are different. There is, of course, much difference within the world but the difference between God and the world is a ‘different difference’ from every other difference and distinction we see around us. The difference between God’s ‘is-ness’ and our ‘is-ness’ is so great that it is most simply expressed by saying that God does not ‘exist’.

But see that this is said not at all to deny God but that we might give God right praise – that we might know at least what can’t be said about the God who matters.

If we were, as a matter of definition, to insist that God does ‘exist’, we would then have to say that there’s a very important sense in which we do not exist. None of this is to say that God or we don’t matter, but only that questions and assertions about God’s existence won’t get us anywhere very interesting. The existence of God is not a question which ought to exercise us too much one way or another,  because it is a question which is usually too confused to admit a sensible answer. From the point of view of Jewish and Christian faith, to say that God does not exist would simply be to say that, however God is, God is not like we are, which is simply the logic of a sensible doctrine of creation.

Of course, we wonder about the existence of God because many Christians (and other theists) do assume that God’s existence is central to belief – we assume that faith is faith that God exists, and that God exists as an explanation of ‘all that is’. Yet talk about God would do well to take the lead of the older translation of Psalm 29 with its many ‘gods’, and begin to speak again of a pantheon. For the question of the Scriptures is not whether God exists. Rather, the Scriptures are always interested in which god matters, and not whether there ‘is’ a God, or how many gods there are.

To make more sense of this, there’s one more thing to note about our use of the word ‘God’, which is that we use it in a double sense, sometimes to denote a kind of thing and sometimes as a name. This is a little like the words ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’. A child knows that everyone has a ‘mummy’, but when he addresses his mother the word mummy is not a thing everyone has but the name of his mother. There are many mummies, but we only call one of them ‘Mummy’. It is much the same for the word ‘God’. In the Scriptures there are many entities which are called gods, but when we say ‘I believe in God’, we mean only one of them. The question is, which one of them?

The psalmist gives his answer: the one whose name is ‘Yahweh’ – which is translated as ‘the Lord’ (with the small capitals). In almost every line of the Psalm we heard this name repeated:

[you gods…],2 Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name;
worship the Lord in holy splendour.
5 The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars…
7 The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
8 The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness…
9 The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl…
10 The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
11 May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!

What the psalmist does here is have all the (other) gods turn their gaze towards ‘the Lord’, and ascribe to this one the sovereignty over all things, including the many lesser gods themselves. The poet’s concern is not oneness of God but the sovereignty of this particular [g]od over all the others.

This distinction between the gods is central to Old Testament theology. The divine names are a way of differentiating between the gods as different powers available to us to deliver the life we seek. In the Old Testament a god is something you call upon for security, health and prosperity, something you fear, or invoke against your fears. The only question is, which of the gods will deliver? It is the purpose of the gods – their function in human life – which is the important thing for re-casting our talk about belief and unbelief today.

To the extent that we today call upon powers to save us, we find ourselves in the theological space of the Scriptures, whether or not we call these powers ‘gods’. There are many such powers we seek to placate or to control and wield in modern life. We might name the economy as one, with its doctrines of the need for constant consumption and for constant increase in consumption. You don’t have to be a professor of economics to notice how large economic concerns loom for us as a society or the religious fervour with which it is served. We might name the nation as another power-cum-divinity with a powerful grip on us. The nation-state is a relatively recent invention in our history, but something like it has been with us for as long as we’ve drawn distinctions between tribes and clans. And we see the tragic consequences of our service to different national gods every night on our TV screens.

Other quasi-divinities lurking in our world, their divine characteristics unrecognised, include ‘tradition’, ‘the individual’, ‘youth’, ‘money’. Any one of these has the potential to take on demonic dimensions by which what is small and specific and precious is crushed by what is large and general. The poverty of popular atheism is not the paucity of its arguments about God but the absence in all that polemic of a viable economic political model or ethical framework which would make sense of us in our malaise and our tendency to worship worldly things as if they were heavenly. This fundamental confusion about ourselves and our world is central to the testimony of Scripture.

Our problem is not God or religion as such – at least as they are cast by our atheistic critics. Our problem is that we cannot save ourselves, without a lot of us being lost or crushed along the way, and that is scarcely being ‘saved’. Getting rid of religion is not going to solve the problem, for getting rid of our religious bent has been the work of God among his people at least since the call of Abraham, and it’s not been managed yet.

We need a better atheism than that which is trotted out every now and again as the solution to all our problems. This better atheism would be one like that of which Christians themselves were accused in the early days of the church in Rome – an atheism which does not deny the presence of the many god-like powers in our lives, but distinguishes between them in order to identify which is the one which speaks us – all of us – the best.

There is much more which must be said, but today it will have to be enough simply to suggest that, for the sake of the gospel, we might have to allow that the God we gather to worship on Sundays is in fact one among many gods in our lives, and yet this one actively seeks us out, that we might have peace and freedom. This the psalmist knows better than most of us. We are under the influence of the gods, and they are at best untrustworthy and, at worst, outright dangerous.

It is, then, to the God of Israel – the God and Father of Jesus Christ – that the poet calls the gods and all peoples to turn, that they might watch as this One – Yaweh, the Lord – sets his people from the powers which diminish us and takes from our hands those powers we exercise over others, and so blesses all people with peace (v11).

May God’s people, then, hear the poet’s call, and turn with the gods to the Holy One of Israel, that he may put us right.