Christian A/Theism and the Transcendent

A common move in Christian a/theism is to collapse the transcendent into the immanent. That is, the vertical dimension where humans reach toward heaven and God is collapsed into the horizontal dimension where we reach toward other human beings. In a sense, the two dimensions become conflated, an identity relationship is formed. To love God is to love your neighbor. With no remainder. Those are the same thing.

I'm very happy with this move. In fact, I argue for something very much like this in Unclean. When push comes to shove if you ask me what loving God means I'll respond with "loving your neighbor." In fact, I'd go on to argue that when the two become decoupled--when loving God is pursued independently of loving your neighbor--we create the ingredients for the most toxic aspect of religion: loving God against your neighbor.

All that to say, Christian a/theism recommends something very much along these lines. The collapse of the transcendent dimension is a sort of "death of God" move that allows us, in the wake of this collapse, to find God immanently, in the brokenness of our human relationships.

And again, I'm comfortable with this move. Though I don't tend to read the collapse of the transcendent as a "death of God" move as much as a theologia crucis or Girardian move. That is, in the cross God divinizes the victim, calling us to stand in solidarity with the victim to instantiate the Kingdom of God. The cry of dereliction on the cross is less metaphysical than sociological. The issue isn't that God is dead as much as it is about where God is socially located (i.e., among the god-forsaken and cursed--the victims of the earth).

Still, the Christian a/theists make a good point in noting that when the transcendent dimension is alive and well it often captures the horizontal dimension. A theology of the cross is often trumped by a theology of glory. A related temptation that I talk about in Unclean is how the transcendent dimension creates a Gnostic pull, where we ignore the brokenness of the human, horizontal plane by escaping into spiritual and religious pursuits.

The point being that the Christian a/theists are right. As long as it exists the vertical dimension is always going to be a temptation and the source of the most toxic manifestations of religion. And if that is so, perhaps it is best, or just safer, to jettison the whole thing. Do the "death of God" a/theism thing and collapse the transcendent.

And it's at this point where I'd like to make a clarification.

It's one thing to find this move advantageous and quite another to insist that this move is necessary. Sure, it's safer, but safer doesn't mean necessary, that love of neighbor necessitates or requires a death of God move. There is a weaker claim here and a stronger claim. The weaker claim is that a death of God move facilitates love of neighbor. The stronger claim is that a death of God move is necessary for love of neighbor. The weaker claim I'm totally on board with. But I don't think the stronger claim is correct. And yet, the stronger claim is often implicit in a lot of Christian a/theism argumentation: To become a humane and authentic Christian you must undergo the death of God experience.

But that can't be right. There are just too many exemplary saints (and no Christian a/theists of comparable caliber) who had robust experiences with the transcendent aspects of faith. Think of Mother Teresa, St. Francis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Dorothy Day. Shoot, think of Jesus who went off in the early mornings to pray, who studied the Scriptures and who celebrated the Jewish rituals. The point being, you can be intimately engaged with the transcendent dimension and still radically love your neighbor. Like Jesus, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, St. Francis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. People who prayed intensively, read and studied Scripture, and were devout in religious observance. These things do not have to be rejected or deconstructed to create radical compassion. In fact, for these cases engagement with the transcendent dimension fueled and supported engagement with the horizontal, human dimension.

Still, these are rare cases. Engagement with the transcendent is, for the reasons noted above, probably more likely to lead you away from the needs of others. You start becoming religious and pious and spiritual and self-righteous. But then again, while the transcendent may tempt you into a variety of toxic or unhealthy directions, and though a great many will succumb, this trajectory isn't necessary or inevitable.

All that to say, while I get the point of Christian a/theism and largely agree with its concerns and impulses, I do reject the notion that it is a necessary move. I think you can have a robust experience of the transcendent and be an exemplary Christian and human being, a person who is, on a day to day basis, radically available to others. Like Mother Teresa, St. Francis, or Dorothy Day. Or Jesus.

In short, you don't have to be an a/theist to be a Christ-like human being. Though for many, and this I'll readily admit, a/theism may be the best, quickest and safest route.

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73 thoughts on “Christian A/Theism and the Transcendent”

  1. Reading this reminded me of something a friend once told me. "Never be so heavenly minded that you are no earthly good". He shared this with me in a conversation concerning those that place more importance on piety than on compassion. That statement has stuck with me and reminds me of the importance of loving my neighbor. If I want follow Jesus I must follow His example of compassion, for those that surround me.

  2. [quote]"-when loving God is pursued independently of loving your neighbor--we create the ingredients for the most toxic aspect of religion: loving God against your neighbor."[/quote] That's the best way I've seen this concept verbalized, Richard. And, I'd submit there are secular people all along the political spectrum that feel this attitude from churches. 

  3. Just a niggle....Mother Teresa experienced a very deep and prolonged "dark night of the soul". If she did not quite reach the "death of God" point, she seemed to be very close to it. Funnily enough, I took Mother Teresa's name as my confirmation name when I was confirmed in the Catholic Church almost 13 years ago. Who knew I would end up in such a confused place of faith/non faith.

  4. Very true. I've been a close student of Mother Teresa's dark night of the soul. The difference, I think, is that she wasn't deconstructing the transcendent. It wasn't a philosophical, metaphysical, or theological move on her part. It was experiential. The transcendent dimension existed for her but was empty, creating an acute sense of loss and abandonment. She eventually identified her experience as an experience of thirst for God. Which, I would argue, is still an experience of the transcendent. So in my taxonomy I'd describe Mother Teresa as more a "Winter Christian" than a Christian a/theist. Basically, I think there is a hot and sad emotional experience of the transcendent in the experience of lament.

  5. One other comment. I don't mean to suggest that the examples of Mother Teresa or St. Francis are so very rare. There are people in my faith community who have robust experiences of the transcendent who are exemplary human beings, real heroes of mine. And when I see these people I'm made aware that they don't need Christian a/theism much at all. In their witness to radical compassion they are doing just fine.

  6. Your use of Ernst Becker in Unclean fills in a back story to Tillich. A couple of interesting qualifications come into play when that is noted. First, Tillich notes that functionally whatever we love with our whole heart is our god/God, and that's entirely independent of theology/atheology, as is the consequent potential to deform the human heart. 

    A quick story taking advantage of the connection between being a sports fan and fanaticism to illustrate this. When I was in college I wondered whether this urban myth-like story were true: that during the Denver Bronco's first Super Bowl appearance a man sitting in a bar in Denver, watching the game, shot another man for turning the TV channel. The interesting thing about the story was that everyone who told it noted how foolish the two men were--which put turning the channel on par with murder. And last summer a long-time Denver resident assured me that the story really happened. (Sorry, Richard, to put you in the position of spreading an urban myth through your blog, but I don't have time to research this right now--something I've intended to do for some time...) Even if it didn't, the reaction to the story opens a very interesting window on the human psyche. (Tillich opens the window by drawing parallels between atheistic nationalisms in the 20th century and this murderous reactions to all that challenges our god/God. But the sports analogy is more fun.) 

    And second, Tillich makes the very point of the gospel narrative ending in crucifixion to be that we must confront this fanatical tendency in our (in)humanity: we must crucify our false gods and inform our hearts with the gospel.   

    Tillich--as you are--opened himself up to fanatics when he made a subtle theological/atheological point tied to this: He claimed that God does not exist (which he called idolatry), but rather is: God is being itself. That makes any specific location of God false and idolatrous. Interestingly, C.S. Pierce was the first to make this move, that I know of. He called the identification of God with any finite thing or point of view "fettishism." And for Pierce that was connected with what he called "apagasm." (His essay "Evolutionary Love," is an interesting read in this regard.)

    I thought that identifying the point of the gospel, in Tillich and Pierce, as the confrontation of fanaticism and idolatry was worth noting. (Someday I'll check out that story and get back to you.)

  7.  I think that's why Jesus connected "loving your neighbor" to the Shema. He fused the two in a quite radical way.

  8. Thank you for this post.
    Somehow, I’m finding myself in a season where I'm struggling for hope -  in the sense of  a “future hope” and experiencing the kingdom
    of God here and now..."the now and the not yet." Maybe it has
    something to do with also being in a season of life where my faith is
    undergoing a lot of deconstruction -> reconstruction - where many paradigm
    and theological shifts are taking place. I have no doubt that I will ever "lose my
    faith" or cease following Jesus, but, still, I don't want to die in a
    state of pessimism, cynicism, or hopelessness. I want to learn to live in this
    tension while at the same time have a vibrant faith that is both vertically and
    horizontally fleshed out.

  9.  Just to follow up on that a little your examples are interesting (though as you said not exhaustive) as many of them Mother Teresa, Bonhoeffer, and Jesus are figures used by some death-of-god theologians to explore what they mean.  Also, could you clarify some writers or figures who you are thinking of here.  I don't imagine this is a monolithic group.

  10. Hmm, I do understand what you are saying, but I still feel like the case is being overstated to the side of a/theism.  I've always agreed that to love God is to love one's neighbor, and that to be in touch with God is to be filled with love for one's neighbor.  In fact, my own experience was that I was hopelessly depressed without faith in God in this meaningless world, and this did not play out in loving behavior towards others in my life.  And then, through a series of events, I came to believe in God and along with faith, hope came, and along with hope, love towards others began to be expressed in my life as never before. 

    I believe in dark night of the soul and I believe that people can be caught up in religion in toxic ways which block love, but is it really the fault of the transcendent?  Are they really praying too much?  Are they really reading too much scripture? 

    To me when I pray I feel love for others grow in my heart and I see it play out practically in my life.  When I don't pray I struggle to love others as well.  I would say that a/theists are less likely to be distracted by transcendent and other religious concerns and so they will have more of a laser focus on the real pain and problems of this world, I'll grant you that.  But on the other hand, like you said, those with faith can be fueled and motivated to love with an energy and a hope that is out-of-this-world, to maintain an optimism ground in faith in God which enables a perseverance at a level that those without such faith may not be able sustain.

  11. My head went with Melanie - could there have been times of death that they never documented.  My own experience is that there are no words available to me in those moments, and if there were, would I ever want anyone being witness to it.  The shame and stigma is still so very great.

  12. This is interesting and timely for me. I have been going through a long and painful period of deconstruction, and death-of-god has seemed like a pretty good description of the experience. I am familiar with Rollins and Caputo and with A/Theism / Radical Theology and have found it to be very helpful. But, as of yet, I have not seen how this could end well for me. I sense an increased level of compassion and identification with the "other", the "outcast" and the "unclean", but it is coupled with an increasing depression and hopelessness that actually moves me away from, instead of towards, active love.

    Recently I found the whole of George MacDonald's "Unspoken Sermons" in audio format from and have been listening to it. The more I listen, the more I want to push someone like Peter Rollins to engage it. MacDonald definitely belongs in the cast of characters you list: Mother Teresa, St. Francis, Dorothy Day, Jesus, etc. And he not only lived the radical identification with all of humanity, but was able to teach and communicate a way of life that was thoroughly against the christian religion but brimming over with the gospel of Christ.

  13. I think the death of God experience described/encouraged by a/theist christians serves several functions:

    #1 empathetic: many people experience God's absence quite profoundly. This theology offers a way to redeem a potentially very painful experience. So in one sense it is a response to an observed phenomenon, and a compassionate one at that.

    #2 purgative: as you point out above for many the transcendent dimension is a distraction. Or as Rollins would say the "God' of most of religion is an idol. Undergoing a death of God can be a salutary experience, freeing us for greater joy and service.

    It's that 2nd purpose of the death of God that you take issue with here and provisionally I agree with you: it isn't necessary for your God to die in order to be a person of heroic virtue. It is very possible to live a good life, be a good Christian, while having a robust engagement with the transcendent.

    But here's where I feel the need to say more - Jesus DID call his disciples to the cross. I do think that at some point (potentially even postmortem) we will all have to face the various ways we have had an idolatrous relationship with a God of our imagination rather than with Jesus Christ embodied in the victim, the outsider, the poor, the oppressed and the suffering. I think some type of death of God probably is a necessity for all of us, not because you can't be compassionate otherwise, but because we can't be in perfect communion with God otherwise.

    To borrow an old Christian distinction these might look similar to the difference between White Martyrs and Red Martyrs. Plenty of people love and follow Jesus in this life without ever undergoing a purging of their idols. They are White Martyrs - faithful witnesses that through good fortune were never asked to make the final sacrifice. Others undergo Red Martyrdom experiencing the painful death of their God. No one should necessarily demand that all White Martyrs intentionally seek to become Red Martyrs, but isn't there a sense in which Red Martyrs more exactly image their Christ?

  14. If this line of thinking were to be cross-checked with what the gospels say about Jesus, the oppositions laid out in the diagram above fall apart in a hurry. In the gospel of John, Jesus is pictured as an embodied word, an incarnated communication from a vertically-positioned God. In John 15 and elsewhere, Jesus encloses his life and ministry within prophecies and submission to a will outside (and necessarily "above") his own will. All the major and minor prophets are built around the idea that a top-down revelation is a premise for the ability to love, to even know what loving would look like; these two are not merely "buddies" which can go together or live separately. A collapsed vertical relationship disables the very possibility of prophetic critique and would render Jesus' ministry absurd.If one is aiming for an uncritical compassion bath within the existential despair of living on earth, of course a vertical relationship is completely irrelevant. But Jesus ministry, in all of its radical judging and dismissing and loving-to-change, has very little to do with that kind of life project.Contextual explorations of the person of Jesus, as well as the lives of his followers throughout the millenia, are essential but those of us engaged in this task should be careful not to apologize for and/or edit out core aspects of the person of Jesus.I share your fascination with Mother Teresa, Bonhoeffer, et al. These individuals are pioneers at attempting to integrate advanced enlightenment concepts and concerns with the tradition of Christian witness. But such a highly contextualized goal, while important, should humbly take its place in reference to that long, broad tradition. Day, Bonhoeffer, Teresa, Francis of Assisi all understood this; I'm confident all of them would criticize your apparent comfortability with "collapsing the vertical" and chumming up to the illusion of a merely horizontal human experience.

  15. I think the issue goes to if the belief and experience of the transcendent is inherently idolatrous. I'd argue that it is often so, but not necessarily so. People like Dorothy Day and St. Francis both believed in God and communed with God. Where those experiences idolatrous? I'd say no. And, to flip this on its head, can Christian a/theism be an idol? A heroic self-esteem project? Sure it could.

    The point being, there seems to be daylight between idolatry and belief/experience of the transcendent. And no clear guarantee that Christian a/theism sets you free from idolatry. Sure, a Christian a/theism properly practiced would but so would, I'm arguing, a properly practiced belief in the transcendent (per someone like Francis). Which suggests that there is a missing ingredient to all this, something that goes beyond belief and the deconstruction of belief. I'm curious about that missing ingredient.

  16. I very much agree about the location of prophesy. As for how Day, Bonhoeffer, Teresa, and Francis of Assisi might criticize my "chumming up to the illusion of a merely horizontal human experience," your likely right. But the critique I most feel from their lives is their lived witness. In that, in the sermons of their lives, I feel their prophetic voice. As to if they agree with the contents of my theology I really could care less.

  17. I'd definitely be interested in your exploration of what you think that missing ingredient is.

    I'm having a hard time imagining any way to avoid idolatry with a belief/experience of the transcendent. Isn't any idea of God at some level an idol since God, by definition, is beyond our comprehension? You're right though that christian a/theism can absolutely be a heroic self-esteem project (and I love that terminology).

  18. I'm sure that may be the case. But what I'd point to in the life of, say, Mother Teresa is that she was a devout Catholic. She prayed the rosary, attended mass and confession, practiced spiritual disciplines, and was the head of a religious order. Those practices are cultic, centered on the care and approach of the transcendent. And if that's what Christian a/theism looks like--prayer, fasting, regular religious observance, etc.--then I'd just clarify that my post was talking about something a bit different, something that eschewed and deconstructed all this.

  19. Well, I'd nominate something like radical compassion as the missing ingredient. That is to say, I don't really care a whole lot about the contents of your head--if your midnight ruminations be theist or a/theist--I don't really care a whole lot about how you make this happen. Take whatever road you want to take and, yes, some roads have more pitfalls than others (see: this post), but at the end of the day: "by their fruits ye shall know them."

  20. Oh, I definitely think these have been resources for death of God theology. But I think you'd be hard pressed to name any of these people as death of God believers. Mainly because, well, they believed in God. (Though I'd like a conversation with Bonhoeffer as he was more liberal than evangelicals tend to think).

  21. Well, I thought I was painting with a very broad brush. So...all of them? I guess I'd ask, what death of God or a/theist thinker doesn't collapse, conflate or deconstruct the transcendent into the immanent?

  22. are you familiar with M. Scott Peck, author and Psychiatrist, and his 4 stage model of spiritual growth?

    "In chapter 7, “Spirituality and Human Nature,” Peck talks about an
    odd thing he’d noticed in his practice. Some patients would begin
    therapy as deeply troubled, deeply religious people. He’d help them,
    and—to his mind—part of their clear growth would occur when they’d leave
    their religion behind. Other patients, just as troubled and then just
    as helped, would find faith as a result of their work together. What did that mean?

    That question agitated Peck into proposing a four-stage theory of human spiritual and emotional development. "

    a summary of his stages is written up here:
    or even shorter here:

    i think your a/theists correspond to his stage 3.  curious what you think.

  23.  I would agree with you - having experienced both a lamenting/dark night of the soul period and the death of God - they are very different.  (For the record, while God's death throes are a bit messy and traumatic, once God is thoroughly buried, it's totally fine.)

    Although I don't understand the Christian a/theism position...Perhaps it's that I think words with backslashes are inherently pretentious, but if you ditch the Trinity (which is inevitable if you "collapse the transcendent"), in what way are you still Christian? I know for me, that none of the liturgies or rituals or explicitly Christian practices made any sense any more once I let go of the idea of an all-powerful, personal God who is Out There Somewhere more or less running things in favor of my current, somewhat fuzzy spiritual location that does not require parsing the existence or non-existence of God.

    Given that I don't go to church, participate in any Christian institutions, believe core Christian doctrines like the Trinity, or center my spiritual practice around anything explicitly Christian, it seems disingenuous to identify myself as any type of Christian - even a Christian a/theist. But maybe I just don't understand their position. I've read some of Peter Rollins stuff, and even heard him speak once, and I can never decide if he's brilliant or just really likes to hear himself talk.

    Having said all that, I would totally agree with you that the important thing is radical compassion, and how you get there is relatively unimportant. My path is just my path, and I wouldn't necessarily prescribe it for anyone else.

  24. I hesitate for two reasons: first, there's the problem of God as Agent. History is littered with those who bump into or have their lives overturned by the Transcendent. Case in point would be Sara Miles. Something happens in the Eucharist she cannot explain. At all. Something that transforms. On occasion, the Transcendent (however named, see Paul at Mars Hill) enters into a person's  existence, and when that happens, something like transformation becomes possible. We are no longer the same. Myself, I like Heschel's description of the ineffable, the first-order knowing in Man Is Not Alone. 

    I would suggest that this first order experience is what creates the grounds for human hope, that makes caring for the neighbor a better alternative than the trip to the Mall or saloon.

    And that's the second hesitation about a/theism, that it gives a subtle priority to my own knowing as the determining factor. In helping my neighbor I deal with a thought/policy world that is largely closed. Without a hope, without a door outside, my actions degrade into pragmatism, or worse an instrumentalism turning the helping of the other into merely a building up of oneself. This commitment to others seems to need a sort of humility about one's agency, a humility I find suggestively outlined in our mutual friend, Benedict.

  25. I guess I'd ask, are there Christian death of God or a/theist thinkers to whom this post doesn't apply, who don't collapse/conflate/deconstruct the transcendent into the immanent?

  26. No doubt this is mostly a turn in a new direction, or just a new conversation altogether, but I don't totally understand, in the scope of this post (and then this comment, Richard), why we are talking about God anymore. That is, what it *sounds* like—though I'm not saying that's what it is—is that "the thing" in question here is radical compassion, and whatever gets us there (instrumentally, as a means) is fine so long as we arrive at that end. Apart from not knowing quite how to make theological sense of that (no doubt owing partly to my never having much success in grasping the a/theology folks), it also doesn't seem to square with Jesus's ministry, nor with Israel's (scriptural and lived) witness before him or the church's after him. (And it seems to me important that Jesus not be wholly, or even very, discontinuous with either.)

    Moreover—to make a quick list rather than expand everything I'm wanting to say—I wonder here, on the one hand, why we're taking Jesus as seriously as Christians say we should, given certain logical consequences that would follow from "radical compassion" being the end in the service of which any means is good so long as it is helpful in getting there; and on the other hand, why this doesn't quickly become something approximating sheer moralism. The transcendent become wholly immanent in the neighbor has a kind of functional sense (and force) when thinking about obedience to God's command to love; but what of my own inability to love, or my own history of brokenness, or my own soul's emptiness, or my own hurting of others, or my own isolation from others? (Put differently: my need, as representing the need of all, to be reconciled to God, to be made whole—myself and all of us together being unable to do this ourselves.) Other than simply being told to love others, and that doing so is loving God, what else is left? Even apart from the question of one's continued motivation to take this command seriously (granted that one does), it all seems pretty thin.

    Apologies for the abruptness and potentially harsh tone, just wanted to get this off while I had time.

  27. Thank you for writing.  I can not begin to explain to you how much I needed this exact post.  It explains so much of where I am spiritually. Thank you.

  28.  You keep saying 'Christian' so that is part of the distinction.  Many death-of-god theologians may part ways there.  I am not sure Philip Goodchild fits into your typology, as one example.  Also, collapsing, conflating, and deconstructing sound like very different processes which could have different expressions/engagement, which seems to be a thrust of your point here.
    I am not looking to blacklist, I am just curious about your influences or experiences (Rollins, Altizer, Zizek, Caputo?)

  29. No worries Brad.

    To start, I do think it's interesting that in this comment thread I've been getting critiques from both sides. From those wanting to defend a/theism from my perceived criticism and from those criticizing a/theism in light of my sympathy and support of it. I'm trapped in the middle! Maybe that's a good thing. Sometimes I feel like I'm a bridge between these two camps, not at home with either but oscillating back and forth.

    But to your comments...

    I hear and see everything you are saying. I get that what I'm talking about will seem thin, impoverished and hollowed out. And that's because it is thin, impoverished and hollowed out. Because at the end of the day this is biography, not theology. I'm not "doing theology" in the abstract. Which means that issues of theological quality (however that is judged) isn't anything I'm striving for. What I'm cobbling together here is something being held together with duck tape. Christian a/thesim is theological duck tape for me, a tool to keep in contact with the Christian faith when one has experienced the collapse of the transcendent. A collapse not due to a theological project but because of my lived biography, the difficulty I have believing many of the metaphysical tenets of Christianity. The point being, I understand that my faith struggles have hollowed out and impoverished my theology, but I don't have many other options. What you are looking at here are the theological reflections of a struggling layman, not the thoughts of an academic theologian creating a robust, systematic, orthodox and historically informed theology that can stand up to peer review.

    This isn't Barth's Dogmatics. It's a little weak broken whimper in the dark.

  30. They might be very different processes, but the functional outcome is the same in my mind. That is, there is no transcendent notion of "God" and the divine is identified with immanent human relationality. In this we could group Rollins, Altizer, Zizek, and Caputo together. Not to say they are doing the same thing, just that in this narrow regard they share this common move. To claim otherwise you'd have to show me that Altizer, say, or Zizek or Rollins or  Caputo don't "collapse" the transcendent, that they, well, that believe in a transcendent God traditionally understood. Which they don't, and that's really the only point I'm making.

  31.  Hi Richard,

    That's helpful; thanks for the reply. Though I would want to make clear that I'm not looking for academic consistency or even conceptual coherency—just trying to make Christian theological sense of it, at least in my own understanding of the range of what that means. I don't think I had quite grasped that, for you, on an experiential/biography level, there *has* been a collapse of the transcendent, or a question mark set next to many of Christianity's metaphysical tenets. That may be a failure of my reading of you, since I've been following the blog for half a decade . . . I think I had thought you were simply more willing to question, to push back and tease out loose threads or minority traditions or even (esp.!) heterodox/heretical lines of thought. I guess maybe, if there are lots of theological sides to you (as a thinker+Christian), I gravitate toward the Stringfellow/universalist side; and suffice it to say that that side of your theological self (as seen in your latest W.S. Project post) requires a lot of metaphysical and theological (and transcendental) heavy-lifting indeed!

  32. It's not a complete collapse. It comes and goes and feels fragile. So I don't put a lot a weight on it. Like a hurt leg. A limb. Which means I have to put my weight elsewhere and that means leaning heavily on orthopraxy. And, yes, if you lean too hard on orthopraxy (which I defined as radical compassion) you have to deal with the criticisms raised from your line of questioning. Which is fine, those are legitimate questions, it's just that I don't have the option of shifting weigh to the other leg.

  33. Okay. And sorry if I sound evasive, but I really do think I'm making a sort of generic, broad-based assessment about this current of thought. Even if certain thinkers aren't "Christian." Zizek isn't a Christian, but insofar as he uses Christian materiel he makes the sort of move--denying the Big Other/Signifier--in a manner that seems to following the broad strokes of what I'm pointing to in the post. Same for the other people you mention, though just how they go about it varies as does the degree to which they identify as Christian. But if I'm wrong in that assessment, if any of these or any others, don't make this move I describe in the post (in some form of fashion) then I'm willing to be corrected about a particular case and learn more.

  34. I wouldn't deny any of that. For me, my glimpses of the transcendent are intimately associated with the human experience of love and connection. Heaven is revealed to me in the faces and hearts of others. And it moves me emotionally and spiritually. In profound ways. The point being, I don't think I'm saying that the horizontal plane is devoid of God but is, rather, filled with God.

  35. Personally, I've found it hard to fuel my spiritual life with a steady diet of deconstruction. I've needed, and have found, other locations that feed me. Like helping with the prison bible study and my experiences befriending and worshiping with the poor and homeless.

  36. Well, I hope the post did articulate room for a variety of experiences and approaches. I basically argued that, though I have positive views about Christian a/theism, it's not a necessary thing in my view.

  37. If true, it's a powerful illustration of Tillich's point. Holler back about what you find out. Incidentally, Tillich's essay "The Lost Dimension in Religion" has greatly influenced how I think about this horizontal/vertical dynamic.

  38. As someone who feels a sense of belonging to the a/theist label (non-label?, anti-label?) I really enjoyed this piece. I certainly wouldn't say the collapse of the vertical/trancendant is necessary myself. So perhaps I am a weak version?

    For me it is merely that worshipping (a God of) love requires a willingness to reject worship of the transcendant for the sake of their might or ownership of creation leaving only a worship of them for their love or even just a worship of their love. From there I would say that worshipping love may lead you to worship a transcendant God or to reject one but the real object of worship is the same either way. In fact even that is something I have moved away from, recognising that a relational experience of the trancendant also cuts some more slack than this kind of existentialist will-to-love allows for. I'm all for a bit of religious slack so long as its acknowledged.

    I also feel that just as many of my conversations are with atheists as with theists. In those I am attempting to give importance to deifying interpersonal ideals - lest we end up sold a purely materialised and commodified sense of ourselves which is the great fear of a purely horizontal landscape.

  39. As I read over your post again I think my biggest issue with it is the way you create clean lines of distinction as to who belongs to which camp.  This presupposes far too much in terms of psychology and in terms of criteria.  I know that you identify some of these folks by their practices but I don't think that is good enough to make the claims you make.  What if the transcendent was indeed collapsed . . . for a time?  What if just 'on their death bed' they renounced it all?  Would it make a difference?  They are engaged in a struggle, an ordeal.  While I am not sure you would have much interest there is a book series going on working with concept of 'spiritual ordeal' as influenced by Gilles Deleuze ().  I don't see this fitting into your typology, but again your parameters seem set and determined by being still somehow 'Christian' (theist or atheist).  If that is the case then I guess it all holds.  But again, my concern is what people are doing after they have made a sort of immanent shift and may or may not identify as Christian.  I find myself in this sort of liminal space (perhaps not the best phrase).  But it seems that for you, so long as the ordeal of broadly Christian practices continues then the issue is solved in 'favour' of transcendence.  But I don't think that give sufficient respect to the ongoing practices and expressions of those for whom this is not so easily delineated.  Does this make sense?

  40. I'm curious about what you mean by your agreement about the "location of prophecy".

    I was trying to suggest that prophecy depends on and presupposes a vertical relationship with God and that all of the prophets are intensely invested in that vertical relationship - experientially, theologically, etc. If you agree, does that mean you think that prophecy was once but is no longer valuable in our world - it has run its course and has no further usefulness? Why has the quality of relationship with God that is so crucial to Isaiah, Jesus, et al, suddenly become so optional in our day?

  41. By agreeing I mean that I agree that prophecy, to have the moral leverage to "speak over" human arrangements, needs to come from the vertical dimension. That without that vertical aspect the prophet's voice is just one human voice among a chorus of human voices. That the vertical dimension is required for the "Thus Saith the Lord."

  42. Turns out that Denver Post archives for 1978 are only available through local libraries in CO. Some day.

    BTW: my head is spinning. Belief in the crucified Christ was an affront to Roman state religion, in which Caesar was a god. So Christianity can be seen as a flattening of not just the vertical dimension, but of value judgments projected on the immanent frame. That explains the focus on treatment of "the least of these" as the determinant of faith/belief. So far, so good, I think. But all that flattening, in the abstract, could be construed to mean that nothing has value. Yet again, in the concrete, making our love of the least a measure of our love for Christ is seen as an affirmation of the infinite(?) value of all people. But then our ideas about humility as lowliness are dead wrong. It's lowliness that is jettisoned. Loving others as self cannot be good unless we are raising them up--honoring them.

    So perhaps the horizontal bar on the visual should be on top.  

    But I'll be chewing on this a long while. 

  43. Excellent post and discussion.  Here is a quick tuppence.
    If we understand it correctly - classically - the discourse of transcendence does not encourage, rather it forestalls the corruption of faith by idolatry.  Bad transcendence is, of course, rife, and with it corrupt worship and discipleship, but can we really think that its corrective is the privileging of the discourse of immanence?  Do you hear that sound?  It is Karl Barth rolling in his grave!  Indeed, without a robust understanding of transcendence, would not Jesus still be in his?  Or is it coincidental that the a/theologians that have been mentioned have rather thin understandings of the resurrection, not to mention the Trinity? 
    Mind, I have learned much from the a/theists and death-of-God theologians, as I have from proper atheists themselves (by "proper" I mean the likes of Freud and Marx, not pseuds like Dawkins and Harris).  But I think we must be suspicious of the masters of suspicion.  My fear is that a total collapse of transcendence into immanence may finally lead not to radical compassion but to a moral vacuum that might be filled by demons as well as angels.  And, hey, Richard, if you actually cite Jesus himself, who is not just our example but our Lord, as one who engages authentically with transcendence - well, 'nuff said, really.
    In short, the (bad) transcendence of the God of ontotheology, Bonhoeffer's metaphysical God, the Big Other God of power, is one thing, the (good) transcendence of the Abba of Jesus, the God who is human in Christ, the God whose ultimate earthly locus is on the cross, is quite another.  You could say that while immanence without transcendence is empty, transcendence without immanence is blind.

  44. I'm not sure I'm tracking with everything you are saying. I've never read Deleuze (nor really know who he is).

    A part that I think I'm picking out from what you are saying is that the "collapse of the transcendent" might be episodic, a season of ordeal or doubt or a dark night of the soul. If that's what you are pointing to (at least in part) then I'd clarify that that isn't what I mean by Christian a/thesim. Christian a/theism, as I'm talking about it, is more of a deliberate theological approach rather than an experience of ordeal. Though I do think that many, after experiencing an ordeal or dark night of the soul, pick up the peices afterward by gravitating toward things like a/theism as it provides a cognitive theological structure that can be inhabited and used to make Christianly sense of the ordeal/dark night if it is protracted or prolonged. A chronic rather than acute experience.

    But I may be missing what you are getting at as I'm having trouble locating your exact concern.

  45. So do you ever find a healthy usefulness in your relationships for a "Thus Saith the Lord", or it's less stark cousin, "Stop doing that, God has better designs for your life"? Or is that kind of statement something you find yourself leaving behind in pursuit of radical compassion?

  46. I don't know if this is relevant at all, but this kind of reminds me of the program of exercise that is supposed to make your sex life better, and the salesman says, "And people who get far enough into this program of exercise enjoy it so much that many of them decide never to have sex at all!"

    I guess for half the people on your blog, transcendence is the point. For most of our lives (if we're young and have been around progressives) we have been trying to feed the horizontal dimension in order to better experience transcendence. For us, suggesting that we could get the horizontal dimension even BETTER if we dumped transcendence at all, is--unappealing? Heretical? Pointless? Not just "useful and unnecessary" but radically unhelpful.

    For half the people on your blog, compassion is the point. These people have somewhere decided that transcendent systems (faith, religious community) can help compassion happen better, but if they find out otherwise, they're very happy to dump the vertical dimension.

    For the life of me, I can't figure out why transcendence is more "idolatrous" than is compassion. Locating God in human compassion helps us understand God WAY better, but making compassion a god in itself puts me off. I fear a non-transcendent compassion as much as I fear a non-compassionate transcendence. If the "face" of the one is the Inquisition, the face of the other is the Eugenics movement. Both scare the willies out of me.

  47. To be honest, not much. I tend to align the prophetic voice with the voice of the victims, as one sees in something like liberation theology. This move preserves the prophetic voice but does so in a way that keeps the vertical conflated with the horizontal.

    Will that view of the prophetic voice be satisfactory to all? Assuredly not. But I take comfort in that fact that this view of prophecy aligns well with the biblical witness, with the concerns of the OT prophets, as well as Jesus's Nazareth Manifesto and Mary's Magnificat. "Let justice roll down like a river" and all that jazz...

  48. Hmm, I feel a clarity in trying to speak concretely about this. Personally, I can say that liberation theology has been a helpful lens for initiating or focusing my desire as a person of privilege to cross the divides of class and culture. In that crossing there is a humility and a silence. And there is drama here that plays well and can easily generate excitement back among other privileged types. But it hasn't gotten me far in actual intimate relationships across the lines of class and culture, of which I can only point to one or two in a few years of attempted living with the poor. In other words, I have experienced liberation theology as a good way to talk *about* the poor but not a good basis on which to talk *with* the poor.

    The intimacy I have been blessed to find has been built upon a very personal and often contentious discussion, an iron sharpening iron of diverging conceptions of God's will for the here and now, discussions of prophecy and the history of revelation, and always appeals to various vertical authorities (often implicitly). In short, a remarkably similar conversation to the ongoing discussion that was already going on in the other social circles of my life. A generic church-y, fellowship conversation that invokes all manner of transcendant authority just like what shows up in Paul's epistles or your weekly expositions of Benedict's rule. Very little sitting tearfully in silence at the feet of the holy poor.

    Maybe your experience is quite different. I'd be curious to hear, whether here or in another post, about your concrete experiences of the "conflated vertical" in the context of this prison group for example.

  49.  I think I am stretching the conversation beyond your parameters, and probably beyond my conceptual grasp as I am 'in transition' theologically/philosophically.  My main concern is that your categories appear too neat (which is why I was looking for examples).  I brought up Delueze because folks like Philip Goodchild and Dan Barber are doing some interesting things with respect to this conversation theology, philosophy, God, Nature, transcendence, immanence (which again is likely beyond your own parameters, which is why I was looking for examples).  Part of what Barber does is demonstrate (conceptually) that it is harder to 'collapse' transcendence than we might think.  So while a Christian a/theist may have moved beyond a particular account of transcendence does not actually mean they have abandoned transcendence as a way of engaging and understanding the world.  In any event we appear to be reading different people (which is why I asked) so I am not sure how much further this can go.

  50. Perhaps because I have an aversion to Romanticism (or maybe because I'm a secret Barthian) the notion of a world filled with God leaves me cautious. It can sound as if this encounter were sufficient to itself. Rather than a metaphor of filling, I find a metaphor of a window more compelling, or perhaps as the light creeping in under the door.

    Or to turn to Heschel again, there's a surplus of meaning in these encounters, and it asks for an explanation or narrative, since we are after all, pattern-perceiving creatures. Our wonder is an open door. And yet, that knowing is so limited by reasons of culture and social circumstance. This necessary limitation of knowledge provides the bounds for a horizontal approach: the meaning of our best encounters points to a mystery or transcendence that is only explained by the Transcendent.

    And to speak in my Christian voice, I think this conversation between mystery and experience, even with its seeming absence of "God," points to a Trinitarian understanding, a topic for  another occasion.

  51. I'd like to be a naive empiricist for a moment. You say things a few times like: "Engagement with the transcendent is, for the reasons noted above, probably more likely to lead you away from the needs of others." But all of your examples point the other way. The data on charitable giving (even to non-religious causes) seems to point the other way as well (at least at first glance.)

    In my own experience, I gave up believing in God for Lent one year, and kept it up for about 3 years or so after that. Most thorough Lenten observance ever. While it did help me re-individuate in a helpful way, it clearly lead me away from focusing on the needs of others. So my own experience points the opposite way as well. 

    Which all leads me to suspect that this is just rhetoric, dressed up all fancy as theory. Rhetoric for intellectuals, similar to the rhetoric embedded in neoclassical economic models, but designed for a different type of intellectual. The rhetoric works this way: I've said a bunch of smart-sounding stuff, which exhausts your system 2 (Daniel Kahneman style), and lets me slip in the rhetorical payload while your analytical capacity is exhausted. Good trick for getting smart people to accept stupid claims. Any empirical evidence that this is something other than that kind of rhetoric?

  52. A part of the confusion is that what I say in the post is that loving God becomes loving your neighbor. So this has very little to do with belief in God or giving up belief in God, even for Lent. Basically, if "giving up God" means giving up on your neighbor then that's off the grid of anything I'm talking about here. The first paragraph is pretty clear about the identity relationship I'm talking about.

  53. Thanks for sharing that. It resonates with my experience and is a helpful way to conceptualize the transition I'm going through. Dr. Beck, I would love to hear your thoughts on it, too.

  54. Thanks for the reply, and that does help some. Maybe what I did was different, but maybe it was exactly what you are talking about. I made a commitment to live according to Christ's call to practically love the poor (which was, and is, at the center of my understanding), even though we all know that there is no God. In practice, this looked like an elimination of prayer (except the prayer of charity, with no expectation of it being anything more than that), which seems to be part of what you are suggesting would come from this. At the time, I felt the notion of God had seduced me, and that believing in a transcendent God who we could interact with was a bad idea, because my efforts at radical solidarity with the poor, supplemented with constant prayer, had failed radically.  I was deeply involved in Franciscan spirituality at the time, and still am, so the idea of giving up on my neighbor was never part of it...the language may be a bit mis-matched, but I think this probably puts my experience back on your grid (or perhaps teetering on the edge of it.)

    The part of your post that I am keying off of is mainly the "with no remainder."  To my ear, this suggests a reification or, perhaps more precisely a hypostasization, of experience, specifically the experience of practical solidarity with the poor. It is this that brings the critique of reification to mind for me (and here, I'm thinking of something resembling the critique offered by Theodor Adorno). It seems no room is left for any kind of via negativa, or a critical metaphysics, or an awareness of our models as models.

    Or, less fancy: a priest once told me of the students in his seminary hanging a banner that said, "God is other people." A grumpy old priest came along, and placed a comma after "other." As I read it, your a/theism suggests a world where eliminating that comma is helpful, and where keeping it is risky but permissible. I tried something very much like a deletion of the comma, and found it unhelpful. I find it best to always keep this phrase in mind, with and without the comma, maintaining a creative tension between the two.

  55. Your clarification helps me as well.

    First thought. I agree that a/theism can, for many, be unhelpful and that it has pitfalls and temptations of its own. I didn't much discuss these in the post so it's important to point those out. My praise of a/theism was really just the suggestion that a stronger identification (if not an exact identification) between loving God and loving your neighbor would have salutatory effects on many Christians.

    Second thought. I thought I made it clear--in fact it was the point of the whole post--that having a roboust experience of the transcendent is very legit. In fact, as I mentioned in the post, most of the exemplary Christians we know are just these sorts. So I don't think I can be read as being dismissive of that sort of experience given that I praise it so highly and set it up as being the very best of the Christian witness.

  56. ""Your so heavenly minded Your not EARTHLY GOOD!, thats the worst lie that ever cracked out of hell" Paul Washer"--

    I remember that most acts of mercy of the Church came from the people of God submitting their theology to God's theology. Charity is defined & motivated by theology. John Newton Sought to free slaves after being set free from slavery to sin in Christ. "

    Whilst driving to work and listening to Paul Washer the other day, I was challenged by what he said and had to totally agree. When you get spiritually/heavenly minded people you will always have someone who will usually say something like this:

    …you’re too heavenly or spiritually minded that you’re no earthly good…

    But let’s consider for one minute those radicals who have been TOO spiritually minded and examine how God used them.

    Jonathan Edwards - Studied the things of God for about 13 hours a day. God used this man to send one the most powerful revivals in Church history;
    John Bunyan – Accussed of being too spiritual was thrown into prison. God used this man to write one of the most pioneering pieces of literature, ‘Pilgrims Progress’ whilst in prison. A book which changed the face of modern literature and spiritually impacted the world.
    John Wesley – Traveled 250,000 miles on horseback, preached 40,000 to 50,000 sermons, produced hundreds of pieces of literature, and at the age of 83 he was angry with his doctor because the doctor didn’t let him preach more than 14 times per week. At the age of 86, he wrote these words in his journal, “Laziness is slowly creeping in. There is an increasing tendency to stay in bed after 5:30 in the morning.”
    David Wilkerson – Was so spiritually minded that he gave up everything and went to New York to reach the lost gangs. What a glorious work God did through him when Nicky Cruz, one of the most hardened gang leaders was saved.
    George Muller – So spiritually minded that he spent most of his days just praying that God would bring the funds for the orphanage work. He didn’t ask for a penny, yet God opened the heavens and started a wonderful work amongst the homeless and deprived children of Bristol."--

  57. Thanks for that. And I completely agree. I think a basic reading of the Gospels should make it abundantly clear that without placing practical, loving service to the poor at the very center of your spirituality, you aren't following Jesus at all. Christian theology often seems designed, perversely, just to obscure this. Stripping all of that away, at least for a moment, might be the only way to get some people to hear the Gospel, when they have grown accustomed to hearing it and then instantly interpreting it away (with something like substitutionary atonement, or a "pre-Calvary" reading of Matthew.)

    I think you were clear that an experience of transcendence is great, for a few special people. Here is what I took from your post: The death of God move facilitates love of neighbor, but is not necessary (for everyone). In rare cases, people can be saints and integrate transcendence, but these are exceptions to the rule. You don't have to be an a/theist to be a Christ-like human being. Though for many, a/theism may be the best, quickest and safest route.

    That is great. I don't feel at all disrespected by it. Actually, I think it looks, usefully, like something that could be operationalized and studied empirically. For those people who aren't the rare, occasional saint, is a/theism (1) safer and (2) quicker? I appreciate that you are respectful of people with transcendent experience, but maybe the "gasoline" in my story is an apt metaphor for how you are treating it: dangerous, generally unhelpful, generally dead weight that slows you down. It seems that you are suggesting it would be generally helpful to remove something, and the question is: is it the fuel, some lubricant, some water in the engine?  The research questions this suggests to me, are: (1) What is the effect of a/theism on most people (or some subset, like self-identified Christians who don't value caritas)? (Perhaps just as a concept presented to them, perhaps as a practice, such as the abandonment of prayer). (2) What is the effect of a pro-transcendence, pro-caritas message on most people? and (3) What is the effect on a community as a whole of adopting these different approaches to cultivating caritas? Maybe a comparative analysis by types (summer, winter, maybe some others) would be interesting, too. 

    Or maybe I am reading you wrong, and you are just saying, "This is what I need right now, and I know a few people who could sure use a dose of a/theism." I think that is completely fine...but I'm actually curious about, and interested in, the broader sorts of claims I got out of the post. I hope you were making the more ambitious claims, because they are a lot more interesting! Whether you intended it or not, I thought the post raised interesting, testable, empirical, questions.

  58.  I do think I made it seem rare in the post so I added this comment soon after::

    One other comment. I don't mean to suggest that the examples of Mother
    Teresa or St. Francis are so very rare. There are people in my faith
    community who have robust experiences of the transcendent who are
    exemplary human beings, real heroes of mine. And when I see these people
    I'm made aware that they don't need Christian a/theism much at all. In
    their witness to radical compassion they are doing just fine.

    Also, when I recommend a/theism at the end of the post I'm not recommending a "death of God." Earlier in the post I noted that what I would rather see here is a theology of the cross, seeing God in the victim. That's the view I have in mind and, yes, I recommend that path to any Christian as quicker, safer and better.

  59. This is great. I was raised in a very "Stage 4" kind of family, and when I was 12 or 13, I have the distinct memory of being aware of something like this. However, in my own life I still felt the need to go through the stages myself, experientally and very intensely. It all resonates, with this addition: the rhetoric of progress in all of this seems very socially useful, similar to the rhetoric of progress in the Marxist stages of history. Maybe a little too useful. I suppose I've still got a lot of stage 3 in me :)

  60. Since when does transcendance have to involve a deity? Theistic transcendance is but one form. Everywhere we raise the standard of the immanent we engage in transcendance. Theistic transcendance more serves one individual while communal transcendance allows both the servant and the served to take a step up. Your assumption of transcendance as properly belonging to a theistic worldview is similar to saying that one can't be good without God.

  61. "Since when does transcendence have to involve a deity?" It doesn't. I'm not offering an exhaustive analysis of the transcendence. I'm describing ways in which transcendence is handled within the Christian faith. 

  62. Dear Richard,

    Well, THIS post has certainly had me pondering for DAYS (not un-typical of your many others)! Combined with our global time differences please forgive this late comment.

    It has been an interesting morsel to add into my studious research on the continually evolving friction and saga existing between Open Evangelicals/Anglo-Catholics/Conservative Evangelicals within our Anglican communion. Many of the comments to this have added food for thought. And coffee. Add chocolate.

    So thank you, thank you, thank you! The coffee-to-aid-brain-cells is strong and full-bodied indeed.

    It is further fitting that today is Ash Wednesday. Tonight's ashing will be especially cogent, probably causing my horizontal to painfully crash into my vertical. Or possibly the other way round?

  63. To follow up on my aborted comments on this thread you may (or not) be interested in some death-of-god and Christian a/theists disagreeing over here (read post and especially comments).

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