God beyond theism and atheism

This week, in the pages of John Caputo’s The Weakness of God, I think I’ve found a way of talking about God that dodges the potholes of normal atheism and normal theism. 

For Caputo, “God” seems to be similar to art.  Whether it’s a song or a play or a sculpture or something else, good art moves you.  It changes you.  It leaves you different than you were before the encounter  Good art can provoke you, calling out the inconsistencies or inhumanity in the way you typically see the world.  You might say that something “miraculous,” something “revelatory” happens when good art breaks into your world.

But do we need physicists to remind us that the laws of nature aren’t budged by a painter?  If a psychologist came along and told us that art was just a deep projection of the human psyche, would that require us to stop talking about art altogether?

Of course not!  Art is something that happens to us, something we hope for, something that surprises us and shakes us up.  The fact that it is quite possibly reducible to chemicals in the brain is perhaps interesting, but totally irrelevant.  The fact that we could call art by another name makes no difference.  In our experience, it is as if art were just as real as anything else, something which comes to us from the “outside,” and so we talk as if it is.  Yet this as if shouldn’t be mistaken for a simple is.  No scientists were harmed in the making of our art.

I think God can function in the same way.  Rather than getting bogged down by philosophical arguments and scientific squabbles, all attempting to determine what really is, why not locate God in the same space as art, in the land of as if?  Maybe God is something beyond human experience, but maybe not – and either way, that’s not the point.

Here’s the point:  From time to time, something causes people to change their name from Saul to Paul, from Abram to Abraham.  Something calls to us in the faces of the poor, the powerless, the excluded, the weak.  Our everyday lives are built on the assumption that actions have consequences.  Yet every now and then, something calls us to forgive rather than repay our debtors.  Something makes us restless, and we hope for something better than what we can reasonably expect; we long for something to break into our lives and disrupt our expectations without warning.

Why not call that something “God”? 

This isn’t garden-variety theism, atheism or even agnosticism.  Theists and atheists argue about metaphysics – whether or not we have ample reason to believe in something immaterial, beyond human experience, which we should place at the center of our lives and name “God.”  Agnostics say that we don’t or can’t know either way.

To me, that squabble is largely irrelevant.  Unlike a theist, I give up on metaphysical “proofs” and definitions of God.  But unlike an atheist, I pay close attention to the call I hear and long for, the call that I call God.  And while agnostics say they don’t know the answer to the question of metaphysics, I say I don’t care.  After all, “good art” might just be a matter of chemicals swirling about in the brain, but that doesn’t protect me from the earth-shattering beauty of Beethoven.  The same goes for God.


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