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How Atheism Can Help Christians Avoid False Idols

“Atheists are hard at work cleansing our temple of idols. We should thank them”

So begins Paul Wallace’s insightful (and provoking– think about who else notably “cleansed the temple”…) post about the service that atheist movements are doing to refine theological reflection. He distinguishes the conceptualization of God through philosophical theological reflection as idolatry, akin to worshiping the image of God that we have created. Worshiping the God of our projections, which is a sanctified way of worshiping ourselves.

The essence of Christianity, he advances, is that God is not purely conceptual, but incarnational, a truth we are keenly aware of during Advent and Christmas seasons. He illustrates this point with an anecdote from his astronomy course in which a student realized that stars exist in the universe in every direction (not just from his perspective of “up there”):

What had for years been conceptual became incarnational; that is, it became profoundly present in a way that Greg himself got involved. He was no longer playing with an idea; he himself was being played by reality. The incarnational contains the conceptual, but the conceptual does not contain the incarnational.

God is incarnational and not conceptual. That’s what we Christians say. But in truth we prefer God as a concept, because then we’re in charge. It’s not easy to let go of the steering wheel, because then we have stop talking and thinking and be a certain way and do certain things. We Christians call God “good” and “loving” and “wise.” Which is fine, but insofar as these remain mere concepts, we are idolaters. Insofar as these concepts are incarnated in our actions and attitudes, however, we are being true to our calling.

I am convinced that atheists — at least the ones I have read and the ones I know — are working largely with conceptual idols when it comes to their rejection of God. They are not rejecting God; they are rejecting ideas. What is more, they are rejecting idols of Christians’ making: a God who deals in rewards and punishments, a God who created the world in six days about 6,000 years ago, a God who shames their sexual desire and shuts down their intellect, imagination, and curiosity. It is easy for Christians to lament the fact that that atheists never seem to go after real theology, but we can hardly criticize them for not looking beyond our own idols.

To see atheists exposing the theological concepts which we have unwittingly idolized, we see in Wallace’s context the need for university students to have a faith that withstands honest intellectual scrutiny. Concepts, regardless of their validity, can always be deconstructed through logical process. Incarnation, lived experience, cannot. To hold tightly to the supremacy of our projections of God limits the scope of our faith to our own cognition, willingly unaware of the vastness of  creation which the Ultimate Reality inhabits. It also replaces the centrality of Jesus Christ (the image of the invisible God, Colossians 1:15) with the images which we can inhabit and control.

Paul Wallace is a freelance writer currently teaching physics at Agnes Scott College and an MDiv graduate from Emory University. The blog post referenced was titled How Atheism Can Help Christian Avoid False Idols. He blogs at Religion Dispatches and psnt.net.

Review was provided by Michael Shepherd.

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