Chapter 10: Toward a New Theism by Schubert M. Ogden
Revised from "Love Unbounded: The Doctrine of God," The Perkins School of Theology Journal, XIX, 3 (Spring 1966), pp. 5-17; and printed in Theology In Crisis: A Colloquium on The Credibility of ‘God’, pp. 3-18, by Muskingum College. Used by permission of the publisher and Schubert M. Ogden. Schubert M. Ogden attended the University of Chicago. Formerly Professor of Theology at Perkins School of Theology, he now teaches at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He has written Christ Without Myth.
If anything is clear, it is that no religious tradition can long continue as a vital source of faith and life unless it is critically appropriated in each new historical situation. The importance of such tradition always lies in the precious freight of meaning it bears, not in the forms of expression through which that meaning is borne from the past to the present. All such forms are only more or less adequate to the actual occurrence of tradition, and they are to be retained, if at all, only because or insofar as they still make possible the "handing over" which the word "tradition" (tradition) originally signifies. Since whether any given forms of expression continue to serve this purpose is determined by our ever-changing historical situations, the more radical the changes from one situation to another, the more urgent and far-reaching the task of a critical interpretation of the tradition. There must be a winnowing and sifting of its essential meaning from its inessential forms — to the extent, indeed, implied by an Anglican bishop in the seventeenth century who remarked that "the most useful of all books on theology would be one with the title De Paucitate Credendorum, on the fewness of the things which a man must believe."1
Yet no less evident is that any such theological criticism has its bounds. What makes any religious tradition a tradition is that it has an essential meaning or motif which can be criticized as inessential only by abandoning rather than appropriating the tradition itself. Every tradition admits of critical interpretation for the simple reason that its forms of expression may always be appraised in the light of the basic motif they more or less adequately express. But no tradition may be fairly treated as a nose of wax, to be twisted and turned into whatever shape the exigencies of the present seem to demand. It will be appropriated by us only on its own terms; and we honor it more by rejecting it on those terms than by pretending to accept it on any other.
It is not the task of this lecture to attempt anything like a restatement of the Christian tradition. Yet one thing I am confident must be said, which does provide the starting-point for these reflections. The vital center of this whole tradition is its unambiguous witness to the reality of God as decisively re-presented to us in Jesus Christ. So evident is this, in fact, that it should be unnecessary even to point it out. But we live in strange times, when even the most obvious things are being called in question. I do not mean, of course, simply that ours is the so-called "age of atheism," for which the traditional Christian belief in God has become profoundly problematic for large numbers of thoughtful men. Nor am I thinking primarily of the various proposals of a "religion without God" with which all of us are familiar. Neither atheism as such nor the attempt to develop a religious outlook from the premise that "God is dead" is new to our present situation. As a matter of fact, a generation and more ago, experiments along this line were made by several prominent American philosophers of religion. In some cases — I think especially of George Santayana, John Dewey, and Henry Nelson Wieman the results of such experiments were exceedingly fruitful and, to my mind, are still deserving of the most serious consideration. But what is in a way novel in our situation today is that somewhat similar proposals are now being put forward by certain Christian theologians. We are confronted by the strange phenomenon of a self-styled "Christian atheism," which maintains that the witness to God’s reality has to be surrendered if there is to be anything like a tenable contemporary theology.
This position has been stated with the greatest clarity and consistency, in my judgment, by Paul M. van Buren in The Secular Meaning of the Gospel.2 Van Buren argues that the attitudes of contemporary men are in every respect "secular" and that no presentation of the Christian witness can hope to be understandable which fails to reckon with this fact. Actually, what van Buren means by the word "secular" is just the outlook I should wish to distinguish as "secularist" or "secularistic." In his terms, "secular" refers to an essentially positivistic understanding of the scope of knowledge, as well as to an understanding of moral action that is exclusively humanistic. On my view, both understandings involve certain arbitrary negations which make it impossible properly to refer to them by the essentially positive term "secular." It is one thing to affirm the validity of the scientific method and to insist on its complete autonomy within the field where it alone logically applies. But it is clearly something different to deny with the positivist that there is any other valid means to knowledge because the method of science circumscribes the limits of the whole cognitive sphere. Likewise, it is one thing to affirm that the sole standards of moral conduct are those implicit in human action itself, and quite another thing to deny with the humanist that our actions realize any will to good beyond the merely human and either require or admit of a transcendent justification. I hold that the positive affirmations here are entirely of a piece with the legitimate secularity of modern culture, and that no theology can fail to take them into account. Yet I equally hold that the denials in question do not follow from the affirmations and are, in that sense, arbitrary. They are the defining characteristics of that secularism, which seems to be becoming ever more widely prevalent among contemporary Western men, but which no theology can possibly countenance.
Terminology aside, however, van Buren is insistent that the outlook typical of men today makes any meaningful assertions about God impossible. "The empiricist in us finds the heart of the difficulty not in what is said about God, but in the very talking about God at all. We do not know ‘what’ God is, and we cannot understand how the word ‘God’ is being used."3 Consequently, the theologian’s only real option is simply to abandon any claim for God’s reality and give himself to interpreting the Gospel in completely secular — or, as I should insist, secularistic — terms.
Oddly enough, van Buren holds that this choice is not only made necessary by our situation, but is also permitted as possible by the Gospel itself. Indeed, he finally assures us that the reality of God can be completely denied without in any way doing violence to the real meaning of the Christian witness. But I fear that with this assurance, his proposal ceases to be convincing and begins to appear as a not altogether ingenuous tour de force. However absurd talking about God might be, it could never be quite so obviously absurd as talking of Christian faith without God. If theology is possible today only on secularistic terms, the more candid way to say this is that theology is not possible today at all.
Of course, similar judgments are constantly passed by theological reactionaries, and there are many who regard a theology even on secular terms (such as I should want to defend) as equally out of the question. But the two cases, I am convinced, are at the crucial point totally unlike. Faith in God is not merely an element in Christian faith along with several other elements; it simply is Christian faith, the heart of the matter itself. Therefore, the very thing about the expressions of faith in the Christian tradition which makes a properly secular interpretation of them possible and even necessary also makes a secularistic theology impossible. By my lights, at least, the issue here is indeed either/or. For good or for ill, the Christian tradition stands by its witness that God is not dead but alive; and to decline to bear this witness is not simply to criticize that tradition, but to abandon it.
But the problem one faces in bearing this witness to God’s reality is, as it were, compounded by yet another consideration. If we have regard for what may fairly be described as the "catholic" or "ecumenical" tradition in Christian theology, nothing is more striking than its repeated insistence that Christian belief in God is essentially reasonable. It is true that theologians have generally stressed the limitations of human reason, especially in things divine, and have left little question that the knowledge of God realized by Christian faith has both a scope and a certainty that reason as such is powerless to provide. Moreover, they have often invoked the distinction between a mere acknowledgment of God’s reality intellectually and an actual acquaintance with him existentially, holding that the latter is impossible save where man’s natural reason has been enlightened by the grace of God’s own self-revelation. But, while theologians have thus emphasized that reason cannot produce faith, they have never tired of insisting that faith is always consistent with reason; and this explains why the greatest among them have again and again leaped to the defense of their Christian belief with an obvious confidence in its power to carry conviction with reasonable men. Thus almost all of the church’s teachers have held that the existence of God is knowable, if not indeed demonstrable, even to reason, and that the dependence of all things on their primal cause is as definitely affirmed by the truest philosophy as by a theology whose source is the Christian revelation.
Yet it is just this confidence in the reasonableness of Christian theism that many of us today find it hard to share. In the back if not in the front of our minds, we are aware of the thoroughgoing criticism of classical theism which was so vigorously launched by Spinoza, only to be further confirmed and extended by virtually every major intellectual development since. We are forced to recognize that the form of theism which most Western men have taken for granted and have by and large made use of to explicate their understanding of faith in God is now widely held to be anything but reasonable. In fact, there are many today who make the more sweeping claim that theism as such has now been shown to be an unreasonable belief. But analysis discloses that this claim is what Kierkegaard might have called "an acoustic illusion": it is actually the negative echo of the prior claim of classical theists that theirs is the only form of Christian theism there is. Whether this claim is valid, or whether the question of theism is more complex than theists and atheists alike conventionally assume, we will presently want to ask. The important point just now is that recent announcements of the death of God are as widely received as they are largely because the God who is said to be dead is quite clearly the God conceived by a form of theism which has long since ceased to be reasonable to a vast number of contemporary minds.
How are we to account for this widespread rejection of classical theism? Without pretending to offer an exhaustive answer, I would suggest two main reasons why so many men today find the traditional form of belief in God unacceptable.
First, it seems to them that they can accept this traditional theism only by affirming statements to be scientifically or historically true without the requisite backing and warrants. Thus Christian faith in God as the Creator has usually been understood to require assent to a whole series of beliefs that are now widely regarded as false — e.g., that the creation of the world took place as recently as 4004 B.C. and that man and the various animals were all created as fixed species, in no way related to one another by any pattern of evolutionary development. Of course, it has gradually come to be agreed in the church that such beliefs are not essential to Christian faith in creation; and theologians today commonly maintain that the first two chapters of Genesis are properly interpreted as mythological. But, even from these theologians one encounters the claim that although "faith does not entail the correctness of any particular cosmological theory," some such theories "would lend the Judaic-Christian doctrine of creation a certain degree of external support."4
Likewise in matters of the so-called "last things," which have to do with God’s action as Redeemer, men have traditionally been asked to assent to assertions that any cultivated mind today is bound to find incredible. Nineteen hundred years of unfulfilled expectations, together with our present knowledge of nature and history, have utterly discredited any notion of a near end of the world such as Christians in the past have often entertained; and even in the church the eschatological passages in Scripture are now rather generally allowed to be as mythological as those portraying creation. Yet some of the very theologians who are most insistent about this still hold that eschatological myths include a reference to "the final state of history" or "the chronological moment of the end," with which, presumably, scientific theories about the future development of the universe are also somehow concerned.5
Then, there is the whole matter of miracles, belief in which has traditionally been considered an integral element in Christian faith in God. According to the principal teacher of my own denomination, John Wesley, "If it please God to continue the life of any of his servants, he will suspend [gravitation] or any other law of nature: The stone shall not fall; the fire shall not burn; the floods shall not flow. . . . Gravitation shall cease, that is, cease to operate, whenever the Author of it pleases."6 Today, of course, many churchmen and theologians no longer find it necessary to take so extreme a position. They know, as Wesley did not, that many of the supposed miracles reported in Scripture can be interpreted as perfectly natural occurrences and that yet others are clearly the products of faith, instead of extraordinary happenings that somehow produced faith. Nevertheless, most of these persons would probably agree with the recent statement of a contemporary Christian philosopher that "Christian belief means accepting the resurrection of Christ, and therefore it seems to involve believing in at least one miracle."7
As usually presented, then, even by its more sophisticated spokesmen, classical theism requires acceptance of statements about the world, about its origin or end or the happenings within it, which men today are willing to accept, if at all, only with the backing and warrants of science or history. In the case of some of these statements, the problem is simply that our best scientific or historical knowledge clearly tells against them. In the case of others, the evidence we have either is inconclusive or else hardly even seems relevant to the question of their truth or falsity. In all cases, however, to accept such statements as true is to challenge the full autonomy of science and history within their own proper spheres; and it is this challenge to a genuinely secular outlook, rather than any particular statement in itself, which makes classical theism so widely unacceptable to contemporary men.
The second main reason for the rejection of this form of theism is that one can accept it only by affirming the entire classical metaphysical outlook of which it is integrally a part. To explain just what this means in such a way as also to do justice to the complexity and subtlety of classical metaphysics would lead us too far afield. But, allowing for considerable oversimplification, I can at least try to make clear the essential point: the understanding of reality expressed in this kind of metaphysics is one for which all our distinctive experience and thought as modern secular men is negative evidence.
From its first great formulations by Plato and Aristotle, the chief defining characteristic of classical metaphysics has been its separation of what is given in our experience into two quite different kinds of reality. On the one hand, there is the present world of becoming, of time, change, and real relations, of which each of us is most immediately and obviously a part. Of this, Plato speaks in The Republic as "the twilight of becoming and perishing" (508). On the other hand, there is the wholly other world of timeless, changeless, and unrelated being, which is alone "real" in the full sense of the word and so alone worthy of the epithet "divine." Again, in Plato’s words, this is the world of "the absolute and eternal and immutable" (479). Just how these two worlds are to be conceived, especially in relation to one another, has always been a problem for classical metaphysicians, to which they have offered a number of different solutions. Yet on one point, there has been complete consensus: the relations between the two worlds are one-way relations only, since the other divine world of pure being can be in no sense really related to this ordinary world of mere becoming. Ordinary beings are indeed related to God, whether as the formal cause which they somehow exemplify or as the final cause toward which they move in their several processes of self-development. But the converse of this statement does not hold: God is in no way genuinely related to the ordinary beings beyond himself, because for him to be thus related would involve his dependence on others and thus his participation in the time and change which are the very antithesis of his own utterly timeless and immutable being.
It is this general metaphysical outlook, bequeathed to the Western world by Greek antiquity, which provided the first fundamental concepts for the full theological explication of the Christian witness. Beginning with the church Fathers, theologians undertook to conceive the God attested by Holy Scripture as the wholly absolute Being of the philosophers. That this was a difficult, if not indeed impossible, undertaking had already been made evident by the parallel efforts of the Jewish thinker, Philo of Alexandria, who has perhaps the best claim to be the founder of classical theism. His writings leave no question that the God of Israel, whose very being is his involvement in the creatures of his love, can in no wise be simply identified with the Absolute of classical metaphysics. Even so, the whole tradition of what is usually called "Christian philosophy," whose most admirable expression is, doubtless, the imposing system of Aquinas, is but a series of attempts to make the identification; and the profound influence of that tradition, even on those who now declare its God to be dead, is proof that these attempts have enjoyed some kind of success. So far as most Western men have conceived God at all, in distinction from believing in him or merely picturing him in the manner of mythology, they have done so in the concepts of the Greek metaphysics of being.
Just this, however, enables us to understand the major stumbling-block which classical theism places in the way of many of our contemporaries. Not only have such men long since become convinced of the essential incoherence of this theism in its efforts to combine the religious insights of Christianity with the philosophical wisdom of the Greeks, but they are also deeply repelled by the central claim of Greek wisdom, that this world of time and change is somehow inferior or not fully real. Thus one of the so-called "death of God" theologians, William Hamilton, states that "in this world . . . there is no need for religion and no need for God. This means that we refuse to consent to that traditional interpretation of the world as a shadow-screen of unreality, masking or concealing the eternal which is the only true reality.
The world of experience is real, and it is necessary and right to be actively engaged in changing its patterns and structures."8 I find this statement revealing in a number of ways. For one thing, it discloses how easy it is for many of us to move in our thought from the words "religion" or "God" to "that traditional interpretation of the world" in terms of which these words have usually been understood. For another, it suggests that the event the "death of God" theologians are so confusedly and confusingly summoning us to acknowledge is not the death of God but the demise of this traditional interpretation of reality. But, most important of all, this statement exposes the real nerve of modern man’s profound opposition to the traditional form of Christian faith in God. Man today finds this form of faith so objectionable because it directly contradicts his profound secularity, his deep conviction of the reality and significance of this world of time and change and of his own life within it. If God must be conceived as the Absolute of traditional metaphysics, and so as in the nature of the case totally unaffected by man and the world, this can only imply that the entire secular order is in the last analysis neither real nor of any consequence. What we do or fail to do can finally make no difference one way or the other, since God is in any case a statically complete perfection, utterly independent of anything beyond himself. But simply to exist as a contemporary man is implicitly to deny any such understanding of reality. The whole direction of modern culture, from the Renaissance onwards, has been away from this kind of metaphysical other-worldiness and from a Christianity which Nietzsche could plausibly dismiss as "Platonism for ‘the people.’"9 We now realize that whatever is real and important must somehow include the present world of becoming which we most certainly know and affirm; and this means that we find the classical form of Christian theism simply incredible.
It will have become apparent from this discussion that I myself recognize the force of these two main contemporary objections to traditional Christian belief. So far as I understand the matter, the conditions of reasonableness in our situation are secular, even if not secularistic, conditions, i.e., they demand the unqualified acceptance both of the method and world-picture of modern science and critical history and of the reality and significance of this world of time and change, which is the context of our lives as secular men. Consequently, I hold that if one is to continue to affirm with the Christian tradition that faith in God is both indispensable and reasonable, it is incumbent on him to show that such faith may be explicated in other terms than those of classical Christian theism. By the same token, to decline this obligation seems to me in effect to abandon the Christian heritage. For, in that case, one either countenances the charge that the Christian witness is as unreasonable as its modern critics allege or else abets the claim that it can dispense with faith in God altogether as some of its own theologians are now trying to persuade us it can.
The crucial question, then, is whether there can be any form of genuine theistic belief other than that represented by classical Christian theology. My own clear conviction is that there can and that important recent developments both in theology and in philosophy enable us to reckon quite legitimately with a neoclassical theism. By this I mean that we already have before us a way of conceiving the reality of God, in comparison with which the theism of the classical tradition can be seen to be but a first and rather rough approximation. Moreover, while I cannot fully support it here, my belief is that this new theism may fairly claim to be reasonable in a way that the older theism in principle may not. At any rate, the neoclassical view clearly seems capable of meeting the two main objections with which classical theists today are generally confronted — as I now hope to show by briefly considering the fundamental insights from which the new view has developed.
The first of these insights derives primarily (though not exclusively) from existentialist philosophy and from the use to which this philosophy has been put in certain forms of contemporary theology.
This is the discovery that the real meaning of all religious language, regardless of its terms and categories, is existential, or, if you will, metaphysical, rather than scientific or historical. Basic to this discovery is the recognition that human experience is not exhausted by the external sense perceptions of which science and history are in their different forms the critical analysis. Man also enjoys an internal awareness of his own existence and of the existence of his fellow creatures as finite-free parts of an infinite and encompassing whole. Hence the questions to which he naturally wants answers cannot be confined merely to those that seek a more reliable understanding of the variable details of reality disclosed by his senses. Beyond all such questions, he also inquires about the constant structure of reality, of himself and the world and of their ultimate ground, of which he is always more or less clearly aware insofar as he exists as a man at all.
The driving motive of this second kind of inquiry, as, indeed, indirectly of the whole of human existence, is what can only be described as an elemental confidence in the final worth of our life as men. We exist as the selves we are only because of an inalienable assurance that our lives are not merely indifferent, but are somehow both real and of ultimate significance. Thus one of the principal tasks set for human reflection right from the start is so to understand the constant structure of all our experience that this original assurance can be understood to make sense. But this is to say that the kind of meaning most fully expressed by the statements of science and history is not the only kind of meaning there is. There is also the existential or metaphysical kind of meaning which arises from this second kind of human questioning and whose most direct form of expression is the language that we ordinarily distinguish as "religious."
The importance of this discovery can be fully appreciated only if we recall a peculiarity of religious language in its primitive form as myth. It is the very nature of myth to obscure the basic human purpose it exists to serve. Although its real use is the existential or metaphysical use of clarifying our original confidence in the worth of life, the terms and categories in which it speaks are not derived from our inner awareness of our existence in relation to totality, but from our external perception of the world by means of our senses. Consequently, if mythical statements are considered in themselves, in abstraction from their actual function in human life, they can only too easily be taken as simply man’s first crude attempts at what we now know as science or history. The Christian myths of creation and of the last things can then be dismissed as primitive cosmology, while all talk of miracles can be treated as a misguided effort at scientific explanation. But as soon as we recognize that mythical language has another and logically quite different use from that which its terms and categories suggest, this whole familiar situation appears in a new light. We are then able to see that a mythical assertion may be put forward as both meaningful and in a sense true without in the least challenging the full autonomy of science and history within their own proper domains. Because the meaning of such an assertion is really existential or metaphysical, the conditions of its truth are the conditions implicit in that kind of meaning, not those with which either the scientist or the historian is quite rightly concerned.
I noted earlier that it is rather generally conceded today that traditional Christian talk about creation and the last things has the character of myth. But, often enough. as the statements previously cited make clear, theologians still assume that mythical language is in part, at least, on logically the same footing as that of science or history. Hence, even though they acknowledge myth’s existential import, they nevertheless look for support for the doctrine of creation from cosmological theorizing and suppose that eschatological myths somehow make reference to some remote "final state" of history or nature. I am convinced that this position, widespread as it is, must now be rejected as a compromise in view of our deeper insight into the real meaning of mythical language and of religious language generally. The use of such language is neither in whole nor in part a properly scientific or historical use. Rather, its entire meaning is existential or metaphysical, in the sense of expressing some understanding of our existence in its constant structure and in relation to its ultimate ground and end. This means that the reference of religious language is never to the past or to the future, but always and only to the present — to the present constituted by our own existence as selves in relation to our fellow creatures and to that circumambient reality from which we come and to which we go. Therefore, the real meaning of the Christian doctrines of creation and of the last things is to illumine each present moment of our actual existence as an existence within and under the all-embracing love of God. They teach us that the ultimate beginning and end of all our ways indeed, of the whole finite order of which we know ourselves to be parts — is the pure unbounded love which is decisively represented in Jesus Christ. And no less clear is that the irreducible core of meaning even of miracle is wholly existential or metaphysical. Thus, rightly to believe in the central Christian "miracle" of Christ’s resurrection is in no way to challenge the method of science or to suspend the warrants of responsible historical inquiry. It is to believe, rather, that the gift and demand which are re-presented to us in Jesus are none other than the very love of God himself, and so a love which is even now the encompassing mystery in which all our lives are set.
Important as this first insight is, however, it is not alone sufficient to justify speaking of a new and more adequate theism. So long as it is assumed that classical metaphysics in some form is the only metaphysics there is, the claim that the meaning of religious language is really existential or metaphysical in no way allows the theist to take up a tenable position. But it is just the assumption that metaphysics somehow has to be classical which other recent developments in philosophy give us every good reason to question. In fact, through the work of several philosophers both in America and in Europe, our century has witnessed the emergence of a distinctively modern metaphysical outlook which at last offers a real alternative to the philosophia perennis of our Western tradition. Part of the reason the new outlook presents such a choice is that in the very philosophies in which it has achieved its most complete and uninhibited expression, notably in the philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, it has taken an explicitly theistic form. Hence the second insight which permits us to reckon with a neoclassical theism is that one can clearly arrive at a genuinely theistic conclusion without in any way presupposing the premises of classical metaphysics.
To see how this is possible, we may contrast these classical premises with the quite different ones of the new metaphysics. We saw earlier that the main assumption of all classical metaphysicians is that such fundamental features of our experience as time, change, and real relations to others cannot possibly be conceived to characterize the ultimate or divine reality. It follows, then, that, while ordinary beings are indeed related to God, he himself is in no way related to them and that the present world of nature and history is neither fully real nor ultimately significant. In the case of Christian thinkers, to be sure, these implications have usually been obscured by the presence in their thought of another quite different understanding of reality which derives from Holy Scripture. They have spoken of God not only as the metaphysical Absolute, whose only relation to the world is wholly external, but also as the loving heavenly Father revealed in Christ, who freely creates the world and guides it toward its fulfilment with tender care. But even then, the most that can be said of these theological positions is that they are essentially incoherent, since the fundamental premise of all their reasoning is still the main assumption of classical metaphysics. It is just this assumption, however, that the new metaphysicians most sharply call in question. They maintain that the very nature of reality is to be temporal and related to others and that even the ultimate reality denoted by the word "God" can be properly conceived only in these terms. That such a conception is possible, they argue, at once becomes clear as soon as we free ourselves from certain arbitrary prejudices.
Thus, for example, to be affected by all others is evidently as unique a property as to affect all others, since neither property could conceivably belong to any but a completely perfect or divine being. Hence there is at least as much reason to think of God as the ultimate effect of the world as to conceive him as its primal cause. And what is it, after all, that is truly admirable in one whom we consider good, even in our ordinary relations with one another? Is it a complete indifference to the being and needs of others, a stubborn independence in pursuing one’s own aims? Or is it, rather, that sensitivity to others, that taking account of their being and needs as one’s own which we call by the word "love"? The whole idea of moral goodness as we ordinarily make use of it clearly seems to depend for its meaning on such other basic ideas as real relation to others and capacity for change. Consequently, if we are to conceive of the truly perfect One, the One who is eminently good, it can hardly be otherwise than as the supreme exemplification of these very ideas, as himself the supremely social and temporal reality. So far from being the wholly absolute and immutable Being of the classical philosophers, God must really be conceived as the eminently relative One, whose openness to change contingently on the actions of others is literally boundless.
As such, of course, there is a sense in which God may be appropriately characterized by the classical attributes. Since his sociality or relativity to others is itself relative to nothing, it is quite properly spoken of as absolute. God, one may say, is absolutely relative. Likewise, the one thing about God which is never-changing, and so in the strictest sense immutable, is that he never ceases to change in his real relations of love with his whole creation. Precisely as eminently temporal, God is also of necessity strictly eternal or everlasting. But, important as it is to acknowledge this continuity with the older theism, there is no mistaking the radical difference. Although all the classical attributes contain an element of truth, they are neither the whole truth about God’s nature nor the surest clue to discerning it. That clue, rather, is to be found in the ancient religious insight that the very principle of all being is love, in the sense of the mutual giving and receiving whereby each of us becomes himself only in genuine interdependence with his fellows. If to be even the least of things is somehow to be related to others and dependent on them, then the One "than whom none greater can be conceived" can only be the supreme instance of such social relatedness, the One who as the unbounded love of others is the end no less than the beginning of all that either is or can ever be.
As conceived in terms of the new metaphysics, then, God is without quibble or qualification a genuinely personal, because a genuinely temporal and social, being. Indeed, it will have become clear from even this brief summary that there is a strict analogy between God’s existence as the eminent person and our own existence as men. Even as we are the selves we are only in relation to others and most directly to the others, the organs and cells, that constitute our own bodies, so God, too, exists as the supreme self only in relation to the cosmic body which is the world or the universe as a whole. For some, of course, this implication is sufficient to discredit the claim of the new view to be genuinely theistic and to provoke the charge of pantheism. But I do not think this charge need worry us very much. If we have any knowledge at all of the views that have usually (and properly) been called "pantheistic," then we should have no difficulty recognizing that the new theism is as different from them as from their traditional theistic counterparts. Both of the older types of view can be easily shown to rest on the same classical metaphysical premises, and it is just these premises which, as we have seen, a neoclassical theism is most concerned to question.
In any event, such a theism definitely seems to overcome the second main objection that reasonable men today make to the classical position. Not only does it appear free from the theoretical incoherence of the older theism, but it also removes what we saw to be the major stumbling-block to modern man’s ever really hearing any witness to the reality of God — namely, the implication that this world of time and change is ultimately unreal and lacking in significance. The clear implication of the new theism, on the contrary, is that this world could not conceivably be more real or significant. Because nature and history are nothing less than the body of God himself, everything that happens has both a reality and an importance which are in the strictest sense infinite. The ultimate end of all our actions is not simply ourselves or our fellow creatures, but the everlasting life of the One to whom no thing is merely indifferent because each thing is known and valued forever for exactly what it is. Thus the positive motive of the "death of God" theologian cited earlier is entirely legitimate: "the world of experience is real, and it is necessary and right to be actively engaged in changing its patterns and structures." This is so, however, because anything we do to advance the real good either of ourselves or of one another is done quite literally to "the glory of God," as an imperishable contribution to God’s ever-growing perfection, which is, indeed, "the true life of all."
I am well aware of the inconclusiveness of this argument. The most I can have accomplished by it is to have suggested a somewhat unconventional approach both to the problem that Christian faith in God raises today and to the way in which it might just possibly be solved. But I do hope you will have carefully noted the real nerve of this whole approach — namely, its rejection as superficial of the kind of "two-cornered thinking" which tries to reduce basic problems to the familiar dyadic formulations of philosophical and theological controversy. In my judgment, such conventional forced options as monism or pluralism, idealism or realism, determinism or indeterminism are all question-begging from start to finish, because they fail to exhaust all the relevant alternatives between which a reasoned choice may in fact be made. But the same is true, I have tried to suggest, of the usual discussion of the reality of God. If we are to have any hope of advancing this discussion, it is necessary to challenge all the answers to the theistic question, affirmative and negative alike. This is so not merely because the current formulation of this question, "Is God dead?" is as such meaningless, since it seems evident enough that the issue this formulation is intended to express is the clearly meaningful issue between theism and atheism. No, the more basic reason for the challenge is that this very issue of theism or atheism is too complex to admit of the simple either/or kinds of answers apparently called for by the question emblazoned on the cover of Time for Easter 1966.
Thus, in the argument I have set before you, I have been following what I take to be the only truly rational method of getting at the problem. This is the method of the "double rejection," of challenging both sides of the usual two-cornered dispute with the aim at descrying a genuinely new position in which the legitimate motives in each of the older ones are given their due. Specifically, I have ventured to challenge both of the simplifications whereby the problem before us is most commonly rendered incapable of solution — namely, the simplifications that one can be truly secular only by accepting modern secularism and that one can believe in God only by accepting the claims of classical theism. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the conclusion for which I have argued unites as well as divides me from all those who represent the more conventional views. With those who contend that "God is dead" I am at one in attesting the demise of a particular form of theistic belief which not only is unreasonable to contemporary men, but has also proved incapable of doing justice to the historic witness of the Christian community. On the other hand, with those who witness that "God lives" I gladly join in what seems to me not only the central affirmation of Christian faith, but also the conclusion more or less clearly implied by all my experience and thought simply as a man.
1. Quoted by W. R. Inge, Things New and Old (London: Longman’s Green, 1933), 48.
2. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1963.
4. John Hick, Philosophy of Religion (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1963), 9.
5. John A. T. Robinson, In the End God. . .: A Study of the Christian Doctrine of the Lost Things (London: James Clarke, 1950), 36, 50; cf. also p. 90: "Of course, something must actually happen to the individual, just as the world must end in one way and not another."
6. The Works of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M., ed by Thomas Jackson, (London: Wesleyan-Methodist Book-Room, 1829-1831), Vol. VI, p. 322.
7. Ninian Smart, Philosophers and Religious Truth, (London: SCM Press, 1964), 26.
8. "The Death of God Theology," Christian Scholar, XLVIII, I (Spring 1965), 45f.
9. Beyond Good and Evil, trans. by Marianne Cowan, (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1955), xii.