My mother and I have an annual tradition of spending a day together at the Canadian National Exhibition. This year, as we sat in sunny chairs near a shady gingko tree, listening to the approaching parade, a tall man folded himself into the neighbouring chair. Taking a break from his booth, he told us it was his 38th year exhibiting there. He showed us a smooth rounded stone with a hole in the middle: a cobblestone he’d reclaimed from the lake. They were dumped there because they were obsolete, but he finds beauty in them.
Alex’s story, and the beautiful smoothed cobblestone he gave my mother, helped me understand a question headlining a newspaper article: “Is the idea of God obsolete?” Something obsolete was useful once, but no longer is. Old bits and pieces now turn up in odd places, and maybe somebody could weave it into beautiful art, or write interesting treatises on it. But it’s outdated, useless, like slide-rules or milk deliveries, or cobblestones in a modern city.
Yes, the idea of God is obsolete. We don’t need it. Society has many other ideas to occupy it: ideas of political and social structures, ideas of how to save the economy, of coping mechanisms for the plethora of problems that assail us, ideas for movies and computer programs and entertainment. We don’t need to come up with an idea of God (although I suspect such ideas will always be part of human striving).
Recognizing the obsolescence of the God-idea is a Christian charism; people who ask such questions are allies for us. Christianity is about old gods becoming obsolete. Early Christians were called “atheists” — violently persecuted for it — because they were ceaselessly questioning the status of the gods that propped up the unquestionable structure of order in society. Christians were the original atheists. Christianity revealed a new order of things, allowing a new way of living, by making obsolete what culture still calls “god.”
Today’s atheists have much to teach us: that ideas of God come and go. Ideas may become culturally quaint or artistic, and may be echoes of the pageantry of human longing. But ideas of God aren’t God, and it’s not for ideas that our fellow Christians have lived and died. Can we debate God into existence, or out of existence? Can we prove or disprove God by our thoughts and reasoning? We need to talk, discuss, engage intellectually. But the idea of God is less risky than setting out with our bodies, our lives, on the quest to meet him, than leaping into the abyss and finding out whether it’s emptiness or love.
“I Am” was God’s answer to Moses, not, “Do you think I am?”
“I am with you” is God’s answer in Christ, not “I’ll give you proof so you don’t have to hear the questions of atheists, or of your own hearts.”
We need to know that those outside our Christian circle might hear our God-talk as “ideas,” unless we can show them the nail-holes in our flesh, our true love of our neighbour, our willingness to learn from those who are poor and lowly in the world. We need to know that we Christians are sometimes pleased to let God be only an idea, encased in rules and confined to a periodic hour in church.
“I am, you anxious one!
Don’t you sense me,
ready to break into being at your touch?”
(Rainer Maria Rilke)
Can we touch?
What if we break?
Our doubts and crises of faith are opportunities for faith to begin. When we argue them away or fill them with platitudes, we’re left with an idea of God. An idea won’t threaten our way of life or lead us daringly into the public square. It might leave us empty and lonely (and obsolete).
When I began theology studies, an introductory New Testament course seemed designed to raise doubts and create faith-crises: devotional reading of Scripture came up against scholarly studies. One assignment was to read a Gospel right through, at one sitting. I sat down with Luke’s Gospel.
Quickly I discovered how little I knew. I didn’t know it would take me hours to read from the first chapter to the last; that it has a narrative, a style, a personality of its own. I didn’t know Luke has an eye for the poor and outcast, for women and those who weep. The feast of St Luke, Oct. 18, took new meaning for me.
It was illuminating to see that behind this Gospel narrative is someone — not an idea, not a scientific demonstration or philosophical proof — a person in love with Christ. One who touched God. A human being in conversation with the Divine!
Christ brings us into conversation between God, in his infinity, and humanity in our present struggle, in our doubts and faith-crises, our atheism and need of practical results. Christ makes obsolete the idea of God. Thank God.
Marrocco is a marriage and family therapist, teacher of theology, and writer, and co-ordinates St. Mary of Egypt Refuge. She can be reached at email@example.com