By David Madison
PhD Biblical Studies, Boston University
It was about 1970, when I was studying for the ministry at Boston University School of Theology, that I wrote an essay entitled On the Improbability of God. Many years later I found out that Percy Bysshe Shelley had been expelled from Oxford in 1811 for writing his essay, The Necessity of Atheism. Well, 1970 wasn’t 1811, and I survived my blatant cheekiness. Since I never went to chapel while I attended seminary, I was considered the class eccentric, the contrarian seminarian.
I wasn’t kicked out, and I finally managed to write a statement of personal theology that was given the imprimatur by that liberal Methodist institution. I leaned heavily on the obtuse theology of Paul Tillich, who called God the Ground of All Being—and said that God didn’t exist because existence would be a limiting concept.
So I survived to make it into the ordained ministry, but the obtuse theology wore very thin as the years passed—as did conducting weekly worship services. After all, the members of my congregation thought of God as “the man upstairs” who looked forward to hearing their songs of praise and flattery, and listened to their prayers. How does the “Ground of All Being” play that role?
Over the years the conviction increased that I’d been on the right track with my cheeky essay. I had argued in that piece that we don’t know enough about the Cosmos to jump to conclusions about God. It’s not a matter of feeling so tiny in the scheme of things, rather, we need to come to terms with our isolation. It was only about 15 years before my birth that Edwin Hubble had demonstrated that the Andromeda Galaxy was indeed a galaxy far outside our Milky Way. With that discovery came the realization that the Cosmos is vast beyond imagining, and that our isolation is even more profound. I had argued in my essay that, until we’ve been able to compare notes with a few other thinkers ‘out there’—especially those who have been thinking about the Cosmos far longer than we have—we’re in no position to be so confident about deities. Theologians should take the hint.
Clearly in the decades following Hubble we’ve made great advances in analyzing light. On the basis of that analysis, we know that the Cosmos is 13.7 billion years old, and that thousands of stars within 6,000 light years of Earth have detectable planets. But we still have no way of knowing what thinkers on some of those planets may be thinking. Our isolation remains utterly profound.
But theists claim that our isolation has been mitigated by the open channels of communication that exit between God and humans, such as meditation, prayer, visions, and revelations. However, the believers who embrace such channels have paid scant attention to a major epistemological roadblock: how do you tell the difference between revelation and imagination—or hallucination? Can it possibly be true that our mammalian brains are in touch with deities? What would be the mechanism for that? All of these channels are unverifiable, and revelation in the form of holy books is especially suspect, given, for example, that the Bible is such a deeply flawed book. Theologians have devoted considerable effort to picking out the bits and pieces that could deserve the designation “holy writ.” But few people outside the cult are convinced.
In the years following my departure from the ministry, my interest in theology and Biblical studies has not diminished—not because I’m trying to find my way back or conquer disbelief. There has been no grief or regrets; it was a relief to move on. I’ve just been curious how religious folks still try to make their case, as the case against Christianity piles on. In the last decade especially the rush of atheist writings—the full frontal assault on Christianity—has been robust, and in the last two or three years my thoughts have been coalescing around the categories of problems that Christianity faces.
Hence one of the books that I’m writing is 10 Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief. My goal is to help those who are curious understand why it can be said that Christianity has been falsified. One of the ten tough problems is that the Bible falls far short of revelation status, hence two other books that I’m writing are secular commentaries on Paul’s Letter to the Romans and the Gospel of Mark. These are two of the charter documents of the Christian faith, and both are treasuries of magical thinking and bad theology.
If you’re interested in learning more, I maintain a Facebook as a platform for getting the word out about my projects. Check it out here.