A God for Atheists: Not Dogma but Mystery

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by Robert V. Thompson

I have an atheist friend (well, actually, I have a lot of atheist friends) who asked me how it is that otherwise intelligent people can possibly believe in God. At one of his parties, he kicked back a martini and, swaying back and forth, said to me, “So from what you say Bob, encountering God is like some sort of cosmic orgasm.” (That’s not exactly verbatim but it’s close enough.)

He caught me a little off guard. I stood there and thought, huh, I’ve never thought of it like that. I said, “Phil, that’s not a bad analogy. In orgasmic pleasure, we lose our sense of the separate self, with its self-importance and self-consciousness, for a moment. We are utterly blissful. So, yes, your definition works for me!”

The word “God” carries a lot of baggage.  If  “God” refers to a separate supreme being who lives up there or out there – if that’s your definition – then I’m an atheist too.

Everyone has an ideology. Everyone has a body of principles that govern their lives. Our ideologies are the principles by which we live. Our ideologies are how we put the puzzle of life together so it makes sense.  Ideologies are rooted in the brain’s left hemisphere.

As Jill Bolte Taylor so powerfully put it in her book My Stroke of Insight, the left hemisphere of the brain has a place, but it’s not the whole story. The left hemisphere is sometimes called logical brain. The right hemisphere of the brain performs creative and intuitive functions. The left hemisphere sees details; the right sees the big picture. Jill Bolte Taylor argues that we cannot live whole and complete lives unless both hemispheres of the brain are in balance.

I don’t know anything about neuroscience. But I do know that there are some experiences in life that cannot be explained by the available “evidence.” For example, out in nature, sometimes we get so caught up with the mystery and wonder of the natural world that we lose self-consciousness and experience our unity with everything.

Sometimes this happens between human beings; while gazing into each other’s eyes we see that we are not two, but one.

No matter how hard we think about life, we all have experiences that shatter our logical thinking and our ideologies.

Eckhart Tolle asks, “Have you ever gazed upon the infinity of space on a clear night, awestruck by the absolute stillness and inconceivable vastness of it? Have you listened, truly listened to the sound of a mountain stream in the forest? If so, you have put down for a moment your personal baggage of problems or past and future, as well as your knowledge. To experience these things, your total presence is required. But beyond the beauty of external forms, there is more here: something that cannot be named, something ineffable, some deep, inner, holy essence…”

There is no ideology that is “true.” There is no belief system to contain it all.  The truth is — life is a mystery.

In every moment we dwell in this Mystery.  To see it, to touch it, to enter it requires our full and complete presence. This wondrous mystery is always here and now. This I believe. This inexplicable Presence is always in us, always living through you and me and every sentient being.

Presence is the power of connection: not only of the brain’s hemispheres, but the connection for and of all of life. Presence is always within us and we in it. We are forever held by It, and when we awaken to It, we touch the ineffable Mystery.

Life is an inexplicable and wondrous Mystery.  I’d even go so far as to say that life is itself God.  Wherever there is life, there is God. It’s a matter of waking up.

So what does “God” mean to you?

A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Bob Thompson graduated from Berkeley Baptist Divinity School (Graduate Theological Union) and was ordained an American Baptist minister in 1973.  He served American Baptist Churches in Kansas, Ohio, and for 30 years, as Senior Minister of the Lake Street Church in Evanston, Illinois.  He retired in November of 2010. Over the years he has contributed articles to periodicals including The Christian Century, The Chicago Tribune (op-ed), Sound Vision (a Muslim outlet), and others. He is the author of A Voluptuous God: A Christian Heretic Speaks (CopperHouse, 2007), and a contributor to the book for preachers, Feasting On the Word, Westminster John Knox Press.


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Categories: Christian Life, Experiential Learning, Interfaith, Religion, Robert V. Thompson, Spiritual Growth


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