Christianity Minus Theism
What is Christianity?
Does it refer to "the faith which was once for all delivered to
the saints" (Jude 3)?
Do we mean, for example, the belief system expressed in the
creeds and confessions of the church (including the doctrine of the
Does Christianity consist of living a sacramental life within the
authoritative institutional structure called the Church?
Is the essence of Christianity to be found in accepting Jesus
Christ as ones' personal Lord and Saviour?
Does Christianity mean accepting uncritically a set of ancient
scriptures as the written record of what is ultimately true?
Or does Christianity consist simply of a set of moral values by
which to live?
Various groups at one time or another have promoted one or more of
these definitions, as the essence or sine qua non of Christianity.
Modern historical research has made it very clear, however, that
there has never been a time when all who confessed to be Christians (or
followers of Jesus) shared exactly all the same beliefs. The New
Testament phrase "the faith which was once for all delivered to the
saints" was itself part of the developing Christian myth. That faith
consists of embracing a set of beliefs which are permanent and
unchangeable. Christian beliefs have changed and diversified through the
Today, more than ever before, Christianity has no definable and
eternal essence on which all Christians at all times, or even at any one
time, agree. It is misleading, therefore, to use the term Christianity in
a way which implies that it names some objective and unchangeable essence
or thing - such as the theistic belief in God.
I suggest we think of Christianity as a stream of living culture
flowing through the plains of time.
Sometimes, like a river, it divides into sub-streams and sometimes it
is joined by other streams. As it flows onward it gathers new material
from its banks it passes through. Sometimes the fluid material in it
crystallizes into more rigid objects. Sometimes it drops these objects and
other forms of sediment it is carrying along.
There is a tendency for people to regard the visible objects in this
cultural stream, such as the priesthood, episcopal government, creeds and
even the Bible, as being of the essence of the stream. In fact they have
less permanence that the stream which carries them along.
Through church history people have attempted to reform the Church.
Their critics have warned that they are throwing out the baby with the
That is a misleading metaphor. Christianity has no permanent and
absolute essence. There is no "baby". There is only the bath water, or
what is preferably called the ongoing cultural stream, broadly known as
Two of the chief doctrines which are often regarded as the sine qua
non of Christianity are the Trinity and the Incarnation. I have
already sketched how and why the doctrine of the Trinity evolved and how
it began to come apart in modern times.
The doctrine of the Trinity made a radical transformation of theism by
incorporating the new doctrine of the Incarnation.
What is the doctrine of the Incarnation and how did it arise?
This is the brief answer. The doctrine of the Incarnation evolved by
a series of steps which developed through a process can be documented even
within the New Testament.
Jesus was claimed to be the Messiah (Christ) awaited by the Jews.
Jesus was claimed to be a Son of God (remember, at the time all
anointed kings were " sons of God").
Jesus was claimed to be the Lord (a euphemistic title for God)
Jesus was claimed to be the Saviour (a play upon the name Jesus =
Joshua in Hebrew).
Jesus was claimed to be the only Son of God.
Jesus was claimed to be the Logos or Word of God.
Jesus was God and creator of the world.
Jesus was the incarnation of God (the human "enfleshment" of
Where was this process of raising Jesus to divine status taking place?
It was not a cosmic event. It was taking place in the minds of Christians.
In this process Jesus was coming to be valued more and more highly in
Christian devotion. Like the doctrine of the Trinity to which it later
contributed, the doctrine of the Incarnation was a human construction.
In the process of raising Jesus to divine status, they almost rejected
his humanity altogether and steps had to be taken to affirm his humanity.
Even so, through most of Christian history until modern times, the
humanity of Jesus has been played down if not wholly obliterated.
To the extent that the humanity of Jesus was ignored, the doctrine of
the Incarnation was being restricted to a short period of earthly time - a
past event. Christ became the glorified Son of God sitting at the right
hand of God the Father.
The humanity of Jesus had been shed like an empty shell. The
Incarnation was, in effect, now being denied. The denial of the
Incarnation in turn affected the validity of the doctrine of the Trinity.
The Trinity was reverting into theism.
This is the reason why orthodox Christianity today believes it is
theistic. It has failed to appreciate its own most central doctrines.
From our vantage point in the modern world we are in a better position
to appreciate the fact that these doctrines were constructed by human
minds. They were not divinely revealed. Indeed everything which
has been claimed to be divinely revealed is in fact of human origin.
Several important points follow from this:
The doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are not set in
concrete. We need not be unduly concerned that these mental
constructions of the ancient church are now falling apart.
They are not the only forms in which useful doctrines could have
been constructed from the fluid material available at the time of
We are now recovering some of the early material, including the
footprints and voiceprints of the historical Jesus. These show that he
was truly human in every way, even to being a man of his own times.
But the Judeo-Christian cultural stream still carries on. It has
given rise to the modern global, secular world. This is the current form
of the same cultural stream.
The intellectual context today is very different from that in which the
doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation were constructed. The
Judeo-Christian cultural stream is now in a very fluid and complex state.
It contains within it many different sub-streams each claiming to be the
genuine form of Christianity. They threaten to leave the main stream, now
increasingly secular, and go off into a backwater of their own.
It is in this context that I now turn ... to fly my second kite.
Christianity is the rejection of theism
The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation states that
The Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to
be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man.
I suggested a moment ago that the final glorification of Christ to
heaven had the effect of negating the Incarnation in that Christ was
worshipped as God but no longer seen as a man.
Instead of abandoning this idea of joining Godhead and manhood together
I now wish to recover it and take it to its logical conclusion. When we do
so we find that it takes on an unexpected new relevance in the global,
To restrict the Incarnation to one human person, namely the man Jesus
of Nazareth, is to miss its full significance. The idea that God could
become enfleshed even in one special person was more than most Jews could
accept at the time. All Jews and Muslims since that time have rejected it,
insisting on preserving a pure theism.
The idea that God could become enfleshed in humanity as a whole is more
than most Christians have been able to accept. Yet the seeds of the
beginning of this are in the New Testament. Jesus was at first not
separated from his fellow-humans by a great gulf, in the way that God had
been, and in the way that the glorified Christ later became.
Rather this Jesus was said to represent or symbolise the whole race.
Just as the first Adam (meaning "mankind") embodied the whole human race,
so the Christ figure evolving out of Jesus was said to be the " New Adam"
(i.e. the embodiment of the new humankind): "For as in Adam all die, so
also in Christ shall all be made alive"
(1 Corinthians 15.22).
That is why Paul spoke of all Christians as being "in Christ". They
were conceived as participating in the Incarnation. This is why it later
became common to speak of the Christian life as one of "sanctification"
and why the Eastern Orthodox spoke of it as the process of "deification".
Thus, from the beginning, and continuing in later hints, there has always
been the seed-thought that humans were now to become the enfleshment of
the divine. The doctrine of the Incarnation was to be applied to the whole
The first theologian to take the doctrine of the Incarnation to its
logical conclusion was Ludwig Feuerbach. This he did in his book, The
Essence of Christianity.
For him, the coming of Jesus, mythically interpreted as the
incarnation of God, marked a turning point in history. From then onwards
the human race was to manifest the virtues of love, justice and
compassion, the very things long regarded as the exclusive attributes of
God - the very attributes, incidentally, which constituted the being of
God ("God is love").
The implication of the doctrine of the Incarnation in the context of
the global secular world is that the mythical throne of heaven is empty.
The God, once conceived by humans as sitting upon that throne, has come
down to dwell in human flesh - in all human flesh. Not only is the throne
empty but heaven itself is empty. As the Pope said in 1999, heaven is not
a place but a state of mind.
The implications of the Incarnation are these:
The doctrine of the Incarnation and the doctrine of the Holy
Trinity both affirm that the human and the divine are becoming united.
We must learn to live without the divine heavenly props thought
to exist in the past.
We must be perfect as God is perfect (Matthew 5.48).
We now have to play the role traditionally attributed to God.
But we must not play that role in such a way as to lose the
distinctions between the divine and the human. Even the strange words of
Chalcedonian formula take on a new relevance. They tried to describe how
the divine and human natures were to be related in the idea of the
Incarnation, as applied to the one person Jesus Christ.
When we extend the Incarnation from one person to humanity as a whole,
the words are still relevant, perhaps even more relevant.
What the ancient theologians said about the Christ figure can be
applied to the human race as a whole. They were anxious to preserve both
the unity and the individual identity of the human and divine natures. So
The divine and the human natures are not to he confused with each
other - the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the
union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved.
To put it in more simple terms, it would be a gross example of
megalomania for us humans to assert that "We are God". Yet we humans have
the potential to display all the divine attributes and to play the divine
role. We do so the more we relate to one another in a healthy human
If the doctrine of the Incarnation was intended to be applied to the
whole of humankind then why has it taken so long for this to manifest
itself within the cultural stream?
We may answer this simply (even if somewhat simplistically) by
referring to four related steps:
It was the apparent failure of Jesus to return and usher in the
expected new world that led Christians of the second and third centuries
to engage in the mental construction of a supernatural world to take its
place. (This process somewhat parallels Aaron's fashioning of the golden
calf, when Moses delayed his return from the mountaintop).
The elevation of Jesus to a supernatural throne in the heavens
had the effect of virtually cancelling out the Incarnation.
Not until the mentally-constructed supernatural world began to
dissolve into unreality (as it has been doing over the last four hundred
years) could the ultimate significance of the Incarnation come to be
The restriction of the Incarnation to one human person is to miss
its full significance.
Curiously enough it needed a modern Jewish thinker to bring out the
abiding significance of the doctrine of the Trinity. It was Martin Buber
in his great spiritual classic I and Thou. The divine is a presence
and it is found in relationship. He took up the idea from Feuerbach.
Father, Son and Holy Spirit form a relationship. Feuerbach said:
The secret of the Trinity lies in communal and social life; it is the
secret of the necessity of the "thou" for an "I"; it is the truth that
no being - be it man, god, mind or ego - is for itself alone a true,
perfect and absolute being.
That led Buber to speak of God in terms of the quality of personal
relationships. Wherever there is true community there is the divine
Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the
midst of them (Matthew 18.20).
Thus the doctrines of the Trinity and of the Incarnation take on a new
relevance in the global, secular and ecological world.
More than any other living species on this planet the human race is
being forced increasingly to play the role of God with regard to the
sustaining of life on this planet. We have become responsible for the
planet's future. It is not too much to say that this self-evolving planet
is (in a sense) becoming conscious in us humans with all the
responsibility for the future that that entails.
Just as Father, Son and Holy Spirit were conceived as "three-in-one"
because of the Incarnation, so today we are coming to acknowledge a new
but secular form of Trinity or three-in-one:
- the creativity in the cosmos itself;
- the human species that the cosmic creativity has brought forth;
- our collective consciousness and the knowledge it has brought forth.
These are not independent but a whole. These three must act in unison
to meet the challenges ahead. The more we become an harmonious global
society, relating to one another and to the planet, the more we make
manifest the lasting aspects of the doctrines of the Incarnation and of
I now haul my two kites to the earth. They are no more than one
person's constructions. There is nothing final or authoritative about
I have tried to show that Christianity, understood as a broad
cultural stream, can and will continue without theism.
This is because, in the first place Christianity made a radical
departure from pure theism in the early centuries. And in the second
place because in modern times it is taking that radical departure to its
logical end, which is the abolition of theism.