Christian Humanism is a Viable Option
Critics of the more radical of contemporary theologians have complained with some justification that after modern theologians have removed what they claim is the mythical baggage of earlier times, (a) there is not much of anything left that is recognizable as the traditional Christian view of god and (b) what little is left is not much different than having no god at all. In a world in which we have learned to get along without a concept of god as the explanation for what we do not know, that may be a valid point, which is why some of the more radical mid-20th Century theologians have not objected too much when their views of Christianity were characterized as Christian atheism.
Strictly speaking, atheism is a philosophical position that holds that there is no referent of the word god. Since god does not refer to anything [any thing], so goes the argument, the word god has no meaning and no proper use in our language.
The term agnosticism may be a better descriptive term for those without a viable concept of god, because agnosticism is a philosophical position that argues the proposition that whether or not the term god has a referent cannot be known because by definition whatever the word refers to is not a part of our world of experience and existence and is therefore unknowable. Since god does not “exist” in space and time and is not demonstrable by any means that we ordinarily use to test the validity of factual statements, we must conclude that god is not subject to the same principle of verification that we use to determine what can be known. Since we cannot demonstrate the validity of the concept, nor can we demonstrate its falsity, it is better to suspend judgment on the matter and agree to frame our view of Christianity without resorting to the notion of god. As a practical matter there is little to choose between atheism and agnosticism, because with either option we are left without a functional concept of god in our religious vocabulary.
I prefer to characterize my view of Christianity as Christian Humanism. As will become evident after I have laid out the central theses of an interpretation of Christianity that makes sense to me, my views have something in common with both Humanism and Existentialism. A viable approach to Christian belief will inevitably share some ideas with both of those secular philosophies because both concepts are inextricably bound up with the way we view our world, whether we recognize it or not. Each has had a role in shaping the cultural and intellectual climate of our contemporaries in the humanities, the arts, and the sciences, and in turn these disciplines have a significant impact on the way we see and understand our world.
To put this another way and to continue the thesis argued earlier, what is valid and important in Christianity needs to be reinterpreted and translated into the language and conceptual forms of our generation or it will not make any sense to us and we will have lost what is vital, valid and important about Christian faith that is relevant for our world and in our time.
We are certainly not alone in finding it difficult to talk about god. The ancient Hebrews had the same problem, although they understood the problem a bit differently. In the Hebrew bible, which ultimately became the Old Testament as we know it today, the word that is translated God or Lord in our most common English translations was written in the Hebrew characters as JHWH. Today this word, which represents the name of the Hebrew god, is referred to as the sacred tetragrammaton, literally ‘sacred four letter word.’
Because the name of god was sacred, the Hebrews believed it should not be said out loud. The ancient Hebrew language was written with characters that represented consonants only; there were no letters or characters to represent vowels or vowel sounds. In medieval times, to assist Jews in the pronunciation of Hebrew words when the Torah was read in the synagogue, small symbols known as vowel points were written over Hebrew words to indicate which vowel sound readers should use to pronounce that word. Because the name YHWH could not be pronounced out loud, a different word, elohim, the generic word for god, was substituted when the Hebrew passage containing god’s name JHWH was read out loud, so the vowel points for elohim were placed above the characters JHWH. [As a footnote to history, the translators of the King James Version of the Bible did not know this and wrongly translated the name of god as Jehovah rather than Jahweh (Yahweh).]
The ancient Hebrew people believed that it was presumptuous to speak knowingly about god and sacrilegious to say his name out loud. For them as for us god did not function like an ordinary word, although there is a considerable difference between the Hebrews and us in how we understand the problem of talking about god. While we may be stretching the point somewhat, the ancient Hebrews believed that god could not be contained in words or images. The meaning of idolatry to the ancient Hebrews was substituting a ‘thing’ for god, and while they applied that to tangible things such as statues or representations (idols) that were meant to localize and capture the god in a physical object, it is not unreasonable to extend the concept of idolatry to include any attempt to contain god in words, as if the word god could capture the essence of what we mean by god.
The lesson here may be that we should be very cautious about presuming to talk about something about which we can really know nothing. The best that we can do is to use god as a symbolic word that points beyond itself to a reality that we cannot contain in our words and to which our natural and most appropriate responses are awe and reverence in the face of what we cannot know. [For those who may wish to pursue this topic in more depth, two books may prove useful: Rudolph Otto’s The Idea of the Holy; and Martin Buber’s I and Thou.]
We cannot get very far in theology by arguing from the creation to the creator. Nevertheless the concept of creation is still useful in our thinking about religion because it implies two fundamental qualities of the religious life: a sense of awe and an attitude of reverence. When we think about the most important aspects of our experience as human beings, we cannot help but feel a sense of awe at the wonder of birth and new life, the beauty of a spectacular sunrise or sunset, the immensity of an unlimited and ever-expanding universe, the perfection of a snowflake or a crystal, the intricacy of the atom, the precision of mathematics, the creativity of the human mind, the blooming of a rose, the ecstasy of love, or the mysteries of DNA. From awe comes reverence, a sense of the holy.
Awe and reverence together are the fundamental characteristics of the religious life. From awe and reverence we derive respect, the fundamental quality that underlies the attitude of the truly religious toward our world and forms the basis of ethics and a guide to our behavior toward our neighbor.