Ted Grimsrud—January 17, 2021
I flirted with atheism for a while when I was a teenager. I realize now that that happened because I was very interested in God, not because I was rejecting God. Unlike most of my current friends, I did not grow up in the church or with a detailed embedded theology. I wasn’t exposed to theology or philosophy, but I liked to think. I didn’t think the God I had superficially heard about made a lot of sense, so I tried on the idea of rejecting God’s existence.
It wasn’t any kind of argument that got me to accept the existence of God, nor was it some sort of crisis or sense of need. Initially, it was simply an experience of presence at a friend’s funeral. But I also wanted to understand, to make sense of things. It happened that I turned to a trusted friend, a kind of mentor who was several years older. He guided me toward a personal conversion, educating me in what I in time came to recognize as a Christian fundamentalist orientation toward God and salvation.
My conversion when I was 17 was genuine, I believe. But I was driven more by a desire for intellectual coherence than a profound personal encounter with the personal God of American evangelicalism. I tried to believe in that God. The first couple of years I absorbed the doctrines of my faith community. These especially centered around belief that Jesus was returning at any moment and that the most important expression of Christian faith was the necessary conversion where a sinner turns to Christ as one’s personal savior.
When I was about 21, I began to get quite interested in theology and rather drastically to revise my belief system. The first steps were to reject both the future-prophetic theology of the End Times and the personal conversion centered understanding of faith. I experienced those moves as steps toward God even as they were decisive steps away from the God I had been presented with after my conversion. But the movement has never stopped, and it has left me with a notion of God that is incompatible with what I was first taught when I affirmed Christian faith.
The appeal of atheism
I have never considered myself an atheist, but I have come to appreciate a great deal about what many thoughtful atheists affirm. I guess I would say that in relation to the God I tried to believe in after my initial conversion fifty years ago, I am an atheist. I’m pretty sure that that is the term college student Ted would use of the current Ted.
It does seem to me that the term “atheist” needs to be understood in relation to the God or the notion of God that the atheist chooses not to believe in. To say I don’t believe in the God of the Bible Baptists of 1971 would make me an atheist for those who do believe in that God. In my experience, though, over these years, I have not rejected God but have evolved in my understanding of God.
Thinking in terms of the kinds of things I tried to believe about God fifty years ago, I would say that I do not believe in God as a person in the same way that an individual human being is a person. I do not believe in God as a personal being who controls events in the world or even who intervenes to cause specific things to happen or prevent other things from happening. If denying such beliefs makes one an atheist, I suppose that would apply to me.
However, I also think “atheism” should be understood as a self-conscious affirmation. An “atheist” is a person who wants to be seen as such. Maybe, we could say that an “atheist” is best understood as someone who disbelieves in all notions of God. I disbelieve in many kinds of God, but not all notions of God (more on this below).
I do think all formal religions are problematic—including Christianity, though I still do think of myself as a “Christian.” My age 17 conversion was a genuine event and I have not repudiated that. I see Jesus as centrally important to my faith, powerfully shaping my convictions about God and about what is normative for human life. And I like the Bible a great deal. I think the Bible provides deeply profound guidance about how we best think of life and the world we live in. Finally, I see the Christian tradition as having in it over the past 2,000 years some powerful embodiments of truth and healing community.
Nonetheless, formal Christianity has a deeply problematic history. So much violence has been underwritten in the name of this religion. It has been responsible for many kinds of views of God, most of which have been hurtful to life and should be rejected. If I am more comfortable with identifying myself as a Christian than as an atheist, it’s not because I think the standard Christian sense of God is true. In a genuine sense, I am a kind of atheist in relation to that.
I do disbelieve in any God that underwrites violence—be it through direct intervention, direct command, or theological construction. This is part of the complexity of discussing atheism. Many people, perhaps appropriately, see the affirmation of atheism as a way to protect themselves from the corruptions brought on by belief in a violent God. I have rather myself decided that it is better to try to find another alternative—to construct notions of God that underwrite the rejection of violence and the affirmation of love as the center of the universe.
Why not atheism?
So, even as I have moved away from the kind of God I was introduced to when I became a Christian fifty years ago, I have not been attracted to the self-designation of “atheist.” I have various reasons for this. Let me mention a few.
I tend to think of “atheism” as a kind of statement of certainty. “I know for sure that there is no God!” That seems too definitive for me. While I think there are good reasons to affirm the reality of God (as I will sketch below), I also think that it is good to recognize the inherent uncertainty about ultimate reality. If everything we can possibly think and say about God is filtered through our human finitude of language and thought, it seems that we need to respect the indeterminacy of our God-language. I’m not insisting that atheists are all definitely trying to claim too much certainty, but I do feel uneasy with the sense that many do.
While, as mentioned above, I think all formal religions are problematic, certainly including Christianity, I also think that a simple rejection of religion is quite problematic. Such a rejection could even perhaps be anti-human in the sense that it seems that religious beliefs and practices are an inevitable part of human communities. I think it is better to try to redeem the religious impulse, to work within that sensibility and try to help religious practices and beliefs to be humane and life-enhancing. If we are going to try to be redemptive in this way, we likely need to work with positive notions of God rather than simply reject any and all affirmations of God.
I also think that denying any positive notion of God may make it more difficult to reflect on core convictions, the kinds of convictions that shape our worldviews and our ways of living in the world. The challenge, I tend to think, is to affirm the task of such reflection, to recognize that to do such reflection actually is to engage in “theology” where “God” signifies that which matters the most to us, and to seek to understand God in ways that empower us to be peacemakers and to help heal the world.
Along with this sense of the value of God for thinking about the things that matter the most, I also think that having a solid and life-affirming understanding of God can be an invaluable asset for identifying and resisting notions of life and values and ideologies that harm life. The traditional biblical perspective on this dynamic uses the language of “idolatry.” If we think of “idols” as values and ideologies that shape us to harm others, we could understand a God of love as a reality that helps us identify and reject idolatry.
So, what about God, then?
As I noted above, my religious evolution has led me to reject beliefs about God that I was taught as a new Christian. In time, I have moved further away from many traditional beliefs about God held by less fundamentalist and evangelical Christians as well. However, the dynamics have mainly been those of affirming new understandings more than simply rejecting older understandings. I would never had said I was an atheist.
How would I describe my positive affirmations now?
A couple of important theologians for me in recent years have been Gordon Kaufman and John Caputo. They have been important in helping me to deepen and clarify my core convictions about the God of Jesus and the rest of the Bible more than in providing the core content of my set of convictions.
Kaufman helps me understand God as my basic orienting point. What matters the most to me? What helps me make the best sense out of everything else? What helps me live a morally faithful life? If I answer those questions descriptively, I will have a sense of what my God is like. I recognize that whatever I say about God is my construction of a theology. I’m not simply echoing traditional beliefs or interpreting texts and traditions. I am engaged in creating something distinctive out of my interactions with those texts and traditions.
Caputo helps me affirm that God as I understand God, based on my reading of the Bible, on my reflections on religious traditions, on my hopes and dreams, on my experiences in life, and on my observations of the world around me, is indeed a “weak God.” That is, God as I understand God is love—vulnerable, persevering, compassionate, wide-ranging love. We can have good reasons for rejecting what Caputo calls the God of “ontotheology,” the God whose power is domination and control. This rejection need not lead to atheism though; it can lead to affirming a weak God who is, simply, a God of love.
I do believe that the God of Jesus (and the rest of the Bible) is indeed a God of love and, hence, a weak God. I am comfortable working within the language of Christianity in constructing a theology that places such a God at the center (see my book, Theology as If Jesus Matters: An Introduction to Christianity’s Core Convictions). However, to me the appeal of such constructive work is not to set up Christianity as uniquely true but to seek language that can connect my kind of Christianity with other ways people seek to affirm and cultivate the preciousness of life.