A dramatic declaration of atheism is usually an assertion of disbelief in a god no one else believes in either. Judging the shadowy masculine presence at the center of the Hebrew Bible to be a tyrannical father figure and a lie — Richard Dawkins calls him “the most unpleasant character in all fiction” — atheists who cross over into militant antitheism make quite the show of manfully defying the Lord’s authority to command them. They plant their flag in the ground. There they stand, they can do no other.
They lose their footing when they recoil as they do, reflexively, from classical theism as well. They don’t trust it. If it’s related to Him, they’re not interested; they won’t be seduced. They plug their ears to keep from hearing too distinctly the siren song of sweet reason, which they dodge, rather than confront. Either they see plainly or they intuit that God in his aspect as God of the philosophers is ground on which reason offers no apparent means of escape or resistance. We might as well try to refute the multiplication tables. They are what they are.
“I Am That I Am” is the conventional translation of the enigmatic Hebrew expression by which God in the burning bush identifies himself to Moses (Exodus 3:14). In the Greek of the Septuagint, “I am” is egō eimi. Jesus scandalizes his critics when, shifting to the present tense in a context in which you would expect the past tense, he answers them, “Before Abraham ever was, I am” — egō eimi (John 8:58). In first-century Jerusalem, that statement is either blasphemous or a theophany.
Greek philosophy influenced this turn toward equating God with Being itself, as Hellenistic culture spread across the eastern Mediterranean, and the influence was reciprocal: Classical theism is the cumulative achievement of generations of theologians reading scripture in the light of Plato and Aristotle, but also vice versa. From the New Testament we can estimate the extent to which Jews by the time of Christ had come to understand that Yahweh was not a god — not, at any rate, in the sense in which their ancestors had spoken of “strange gods,” “household gods,” or the gods of other nations. The discernment of God as what Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century would term “ipsum esse subsistens” — the “Ground of Being,” in the parlance of Christian mysticism and theology — developed organically over the course of more than a millennium, with no clear moment of birth, although it was mature certainly by the High Middle Ages. Where the approach to God had been anthropological, it was now also philosophical — ontological, to be more precise.
So now we know that something of what Moses experienced when God visited him on Mount Horeb is available to anyone who will only take enough thought. The mystery of being induces wonder, or awe, commensurate with our willingness to engage it. It’s astonishing, when you think about it, that anything exists.
Q: Why is there something rather than nothing?
A: God, although maybe we need a new name for him.
Many people who would never think to participate in the rancor of public antitheism are nonetheless susceptible to the zeitgeist in which atheism flourishes. It’s what they know. Doesn’t it speak well enough for them too? They start from the proposition that God is a person and rule it out as implausible. The argument that God can only be personal because he can’t be less than we are may be cogent in itself, but it needs a lot of unpacking. It has as its premise the God of the philosophers. To begin to make theism intelligible to a modern atheist, you have to bracket the God of the patriarchs and start from the premise.
Atheism is religion for people in a hurry. They’re quick to assume they understand someone who, engrossed in the question of why there isn’t nothing, says a few words to indicate what he sees the question pointing to. They mistake his verbal gesture for an answer that’s intended to close the question or do it justice. To see what he’s trying to get at, they would have to enter into the wonder that the question elicits in him and dwell there for a moment. The closest thing the question has to an answer is the wonder itself.
Religious culture adorns our collective understanding of God but also conceals it. The Psalms, the Sistine Chapel, the terms of art employed by philosophers and theologians — all those noble efforts at representing God can be helps to someone who speaks their language. To someone who doesn’t, they can be a hindrance. For their rejection of all “gods” in the familiar sense of the term, Christians in ancient Rome were sometimes accused of being atheists. Now the misunderstanding is turned on its head: Atheists hold the Christian, and indeed any modern theist, to be most glaringly wrong in his understanding that God is a person, like a god of pagan antiquity. Training their sights on the notion of an anthropomorphic god, they excite and distract themselves. God as Being itself barely registers with them.
“Why don’t you see the extraordinary beauty of the idea that we can explain the world, life, how it started, from nothing?” Dawkins asked the archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Rowan Williams, during a debate at the Cambridge Union Society last year. “Why clutter it up with something so messy as God?”
“I’m not thinking of God as being shoehorned in,” Williams answered.