Post-Theism? What the Hell is That?

I got a chance to speak at the Ever Wonder conference in Edmonton, Alberta the first weekend in September. My topic? Post-theism, of course! Below is a transcript of the talk. Let me know what you think.

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I am a post-theistic Anglican with one foot in the humanist world and one in the Christian world. As an author and a theologian, I think of myself as a bridge for those I minister with. I myself am unimportant. What I envision is providing the example of a new way of being, a visible answer to the question, “Do I have only two choices – that of supposed “belief” or “unbelief”?” Popular culture tells us that this is so and that we need to take up arms in either of these ill-defined camps. But that way of thinking is an illusion. It does not describe what a good number of people experience in their spiritual and intellectual lives.

Many people are unaware of the idea of post-theism despite, I believe, being functionally post-theistic. Post-theism is different from popular conceptions of the terms atheism, theism, nontheism, etc. We can quibble about what these words really mean, mainly because we don’t actually have even academic consensus, but broadly speaking, post-theism is a nontheism (in other words a non-belief in a supernatural god) combined with the sense that to even ask the question about whether such a god exists is unimportant and sometimes even distracting. Post-theists can be religious or nonreligious. They come in many varieties from those who plumb the depths of religious traditions, including Christianity, for the wisdom of their ancestors, to those who reject those traditions and God language entirely. I myself am of the first type. I revel in God language, finding in it a rich source of inspiration for the otherwise unnameable fluctuations of the human condition. Though I understand and fully advocate the need to think twice about what we mean when we speak of God, I think most current attempts to abolish God language absolve us of the heavy task of having to examine what God might actually be. Theists don’t have a monopoly on God or God language. Not all gods are omnipotent. Not all gods are supernatural. Not all gods are even beings.

I was raised in a religiously neutral family back in the states. I had an interest in religion but it was rather academic. By the age of 12 I was calling myself an atheist and I held some pretty antitheistic ideas. But something weird happened when I was 21. While I felt I was being intellectually honest in my atheism, it was not enriching or fulfilling me personally. In 2000, I decided that it just might be possible to be a religious atheist and I became, of all things, a Roman Catholic.

I was drawn to the meditative pace of the liturgy, the sense of common humanity that the mass can inspire. But I was also drawn to Catholic social justice teachings, finding there a way to live out my values in a way that “hard” atheism was too broad to encompass. But I hadn’t taken my life as a feminist and reproductive justice activist into account. Well, rather, I had some naïve idea that I would be able to navigate the situation, holding fast to my love of the liturgy as well as my convictions. I also discovered that I had a calling and that it wasn’t to the convent, the only avenue open to me as a Catholic woman. But the final nail in my Catholic coffin was dealing with a family crisis that left religious hypocrisy laid bare before me. I began to see that my thinking about faith, about religion, and, most importantly, about what God means, was so vastly different from those around me that I no longer felt like I was at home in the Church. So, I left.

And in my disappointment, I began again to navigate the choppy waters of antitheism. For those who don’t know what antitheism is, it is an opposition to the idea of gods, any gods. For three years I didn’t see the inherent problem with such a theologically unaware definition, namely that anything can be declared a god and that not all gods fall into the neat categories that some antitheists create for them. I became even more active in the atheist movement, publishing articles, writing blogs, appearing on TV, founding groups, serving on boards. And lest it sound like I’m picking on atheism, let me tell you that I don’t regret this. I think I needed atheism at that moment in my life to help me really think about what it was I believed in. But I was still in the old cycle, vacillating between hand-me-down constructs of “belief” and “unbelief” that I unquestioningly bought into.

During this time, my calling never went away, it just confused me. What was I supposed to do with it? I became a Humanist celebrant and chaplain but it still wasn’t right. Humanism, a belief in the ability of humans to better the world through reason, science, and technology, was, on its own, too vague and too scientistic (not to be confused with scientific) to be of any real use to me. I still had an affinity for Christianity and especially the life of Jesus but I couldn’t seem to make it work with the definition of reality I was being handed. And this was when I thought, “What if we don’t have simply two choices? What if our choices aren’t restricted to supposed belief or unbelief? What if philosophical humanism has a natural home within Christianity? What if I don’t have to police my “God language” because it can still serve a vital function in my faith life?”

I began to explore this question by reading the usual suspects – Paul Tillich, John Shelby Spong, etc. and a new world of possibility opened up to me. I started listening to the Nomad podcast, a show put out by two guys undergoing what they call a “faith deconstruction” and searching for what really matters to them. I began to delve into the history of Christian thought which is replete with references to a nontheistic God and chock full of humanism. And eventually, I found a place for both myself and my calling within the Anglican Church, a church so historically theologically open that the joke is that it is hard to find a Church of England priest who believes in God. In short, I found a context for my humanism. I’m hoping to be ordained a deacon within the church and continue my ministry working for reproductive justice and advocating for the needs of the post-theistic and nontheistic in our local congregations.

I relish my journey, every bit of it. I don’t reject a single moment of it. I’m glad I found new ways of naming God as well as new ways of understanding what the name of God has meant to people throughout history. I’m also glad that I had a cleansing period in which I could reject everything and start again. Because of my time in “hard” atheism, I feel much more grounded in what I believe. I’ve thought hard about it. I’ve studied. I’ve even, dare I say it, prayed about it when I felt like it. Because of this, I no longer feel the need to capture and cage the idea of God.

My journey has prepared me well, I think, for the work that I do now. As I said before, I’m often a bridge for people who are functionally post-theistic but have never heard the term or explored the idea. There are millions of people out there who have religious sensibilities but no language for it since its definition has been claimed by a false theist/atheist dichotomy. Readers of my blog, my articles, people who appear in my ministry work, tend to be those people who are not comfortable either with a “traditional” religious framework or strict secularity. They are the inbetweeners who haven’t yet realized that nothing is wrong with them, that they aren’t ignorant or sinful or lacking in education. I’m happy to provide a living example (as poor as it may be at times!) to show that we never have just two choices. But I also feel I need to say that those who choose one of the two traditional choices – there’s nothing wrong with them either. My way of being is not everyone’s way of being. Both of those two traditional choices provided me with an incredible learning experience, not to mention lots of great friends. Besides, I try not to imagine that I’ve reached the end of my journey. I haven’t come to some great revelation and now all I have to do is dispense wisdom. That’s ridiculous. As my journey has shown, I’ve gone all over the map in search of wisdom and will likely continue to do so. In a way, it’s my job as a theology student! My publishing record also shows the roads I’ve been on. I’ve written everything from theistic to antitheistic and now post theistic content. I’ve got a book coming out on Humanist celebrations from Humanist Press and the book I’m researching now is on post-theism. Later on, I want to write a more traditional lectionary (albeit with some non-traditional elements). So, I’m not done traveling yet, not by any means. Who knows where the future might take my thinking? For the time being, it is important only that I stay in dialog with my fellow humans, that I hear about what is most meaningful to them in their traditions, what has ceased to serve them, and what they envision for their own futures and communities. I’m thankful that this conference exists, that it has given us a chance to begin to spread the good news that there is not just one way of spiritual being.

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