Atheism or God as other

Atheism or God as other.  My original idea for this post was to review a book defending atheism and promoting humanism.  As I said in a previous post, on some days I think I’m an agnostic, and I’m open to a good argument against theism. 

The book I chose, after looking at several, is The God Argument, by A. C. Grayling.  It is so bad it’s hardly worth reviewing.  Still, I’ll briefly summarize it before going on to explain the position shared by a number of theologians: that God is completely other.  This isn’t the term used by most theologians, but I think it captures their position.

The reason the “God is other” argument is important is because most critics of religion criticize a version of Biblical literalism, showing almost no awareness of theology. 

Grayling,The God Argument

The justifications offered by religious people for their beliefs very often turn out to be . . . rationalisations for something that is in its deepest depths is non-rational. (p 4)

Well of course religious people don’t base their arguments on reason; they base their arguments on faith.  If you don’t understand this, then you don’t understand religion.  Elsewhere Graying argues that religion hasn’t “passed the test of reason.” (pp 49-50)  But of course that’s the wrong test.

Grayling’s favorite philosopher seems to be Karl Popper, whom he interprets as saying that if claims are to be meaningful, they must be testable (p 55). A long time ago I had an opportunity to speak with Popper about this.  Popper never meant testability to be the standard of meaning.   Don’t art, literature, and music have meaning?  Yet, how would you test them?  The opinion of educated experts is relevant, but educated experts often disagree, and there is no way of definitively distinguishing among them.

Popper was talking about scientific statements.  He was arguing against logical positivism, a movement that arose in the years before World War Two claiming that only verifiable statements had meaning.  On the contrary, said Popper, this claim applies only to scientific statements, such as testable hypotheses.  The verifiability theory of meaning would consign art and literature to the ash heap of meaninglessness.  In the end this is what Grayling would do with God.  Only he doesn’t understand the philosophy he employs, much less recent thinking about God.  I can’t imagine how Grayling, a noted philosopher, could get it so wrong.  In the end, believing in God is more like appreciating art and music than it is corroboration of a scientific statement. 

Recent theology: God as other

I’ve posted about a number of theologians on this blog: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich, Emmanuel Levinas, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Søren Kierkegaard.  More detail about each can be found in the linked posts.   

It’s easy enough to figure out where they differ.  But what do they share?  Above all the idea that God is other.  God is other than humans can even begin to imagine him, and even the pronoun “him” is misleading, as it implies a similarity to humans in regard to sex.


For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God chose weakness.  This is the significance of Christ.  God did not send a powerful leader to save us, but one who died like the least of us, alone, tormented, abandoned, like a refugee dying of thirst in the Sonoran Desert.  This man or woman is close to Christ.  Our task is to grasp this image of Christ, which means understanding that God chose  weakness, but we can be strong if we follow the teachings of Christ.

Bonhoeffer knew that a category such as God’s omnipotence was not to be seen as an authentic experience of God’s nature, but was our understanding of power extended outward into the world. (Pugh, p 99)

Nor did Bonhoeffer think the question of individual salvation was important.

Hasn’t the individualistic question about personal salvation almost completely left us all? Does the question about saving one’s soul appear in the Old Testament at all? Aren’t righteousness and the Kingdom of God on earth the focus of everything, and isn’t it true that Romans 3.24ff. is not an individualistic doctrine of salvation, but the culmination of the view that God alone is righteous? It is not with the beyond that we are concerned, but with this world as created and preserved, subjected to laws, reconciled, and restored. (Letters, p 286)

If all one knew about religion was what Grayling says, one would not realize that Bonhoeffer is talking about the same book, the same teaching, the same God that Grayling denies.

Barth and Bultmann

None of the theologians mentioned in this post try to prove the existence of God.  As the myths that organize Christianity become more transparently mythical, faith remains the only alternative, and it is pointless to argue someone into faith.  Bultmann (1984, p 4) states the point most clearly.

We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament. 

“The Gospel has the power to grant freedom from the world.”  Freedom from this world means having a place to stand that rests not on the values and judgment of this world, but that of another, expressed in the teachings of Christ.  For Barth, particularly, freedom has nothing to do with the afterlife, which Barth calls “pagan dreams of a good times after death.”  (Church Dogmatics, III.2)  In many respects these theologians take the New Testament more seriously than Biblical literalists, for it is the teachings of Christ (often called the kerygma) that will set us free.  

Tillich and the God above God

It sometimes seems as if Tillich would turn Christianity into existentialism.  God becomes our “ultimate concern,” and sin becomes estrangement, separation from God, from self, and from neighbor.  Some seem to find this language useful.  I am not one of them.  The most moving part of the Bible is its stories (including ones with miracles and wonders), and they get lost in an existential approach. 

Tillich’s concept of a “God above ‘God’” makes the most sense.  Tillich is taking aim at the image of God as the man upstairs, wearing a white cloak and a long beard, and ticking off the sins and good deeds of everyone.  Or is it just everyone who believes in God? 

The “God above `God’” means that our language of talking about God has become banal and bereft.  Needed is a way to talk, or at least think about a God who is above and beyond the limits of our imagination.  God must be rendered unfamiliar, more and different than we can begin to imagine.

Levinas, God in the face of the other

For Emanuel Levinas, a Jewish theologian, God is experienced in the ethical encounter with the other.  Religion is Levinas’ term for this ethical relationship.  For Levinas, there is no direct relationship with the Divine, which can only be experienced in the needs of the human other. 

We know God when we act ethically toward another person.  We do not keep God alive by trying to prove his existence, a waste of time.  Everything I can ever know about God, everything I can ever do to serve God, is experienced in caring for others.  As for the afterlife, Levinas holds that as a “religion for adults,” Judaism tells us there is no individual afterlife (DF, pp 11-23).

Kierkegaard, Religiousness A and B

Kierkegaard makes a big deal out of the difference between what he calls “religiousness A and religiousness B.” (CUPs, p 494)  The main difference is that in religiousness A, God is thought of as comprehensible by humans, and understandable by reason, at least to a certain degree.  There is continuity between the ethical and the religious in religiousness A.

Religiousness B, which Kierkegaard sometimes calls simply Christianity, is where God is beyond human reason, infinitely different and utterly inexplicable.  Kierkegaard frequently uses the term “absurd” to characterize this God and his commandments.  The experience of God as absurd is good, for it means we have abandoned trying to understand him.   To act on the absurd is to act completely on faith.   Grayling, by the way, sees Kierkegaard’s embrace of absurdity as the complete abandonment of reason (p 149).  To Grayling that’s like committing intellectual suicide.  I see it as the meaning of faith.

“Truth is subjectivity,” another of Kierkegaard’s outrageous claims, means that through an act of “imaginative reorientation,” one chooses to see the world as gift, and Christ as our savior, because doing so makes life more meaningful.  Reasons can be given, but the world as gift and Christ as savior becomes a reality by acting as if it were so. 

What these theologians share

What they share is an attempt to estrange us from a comfortable view of God as superman: super good, super powerful, super everything.  God gave up his power when he sent Christ to earth, a view shared by Reinhold Niebuhr who refers to this act of willed humiliation and suffering as “the scandal of the cross.” 

Most (Bonhoeffer, Bultmann, Barth, Levinas, and probably Kierkegaard) disbelieve in personal immortality, personal salvation. In whatever way we participate in God’s existence, our deaths will not lead to a reunion with families and friends around a heavenly kitchen table. 

None has solved the problem of how to talk about God in the presence of suffering (the proper subject of theology), but for each God is so other than man that there is almost nothing to say about him.  “Almost nothing,” for so many of us keep trying. 


Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 3. T&T Clarke, 1975 [13 volumes]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, enlarged edition.  Touchstone, Simon and Schuster, 1971.  [Letters]

Rudolf Bultmann, The New Testament and Mythology.  Fortress Press, 1984.

Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript.  Princeton Univ. Press, 1944. [CUPs]

Emmanuel Levinas, Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism.  Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.  [DF]

Jeffrey Pugh, Religionless Christianity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Troubled Times.  T&T Clark, 2008. 

4 thoughts on “Atheism or God as other”

  1. I never knew before what ” the scandal of the cross ” was.Partly because Catholics were forbidden to even go into a Protestant Church and did not read the theologians above. I wonder why we were so heavily controlled?
    When I was 16 we began to study a terribly ill written,simplified book purporting to explain Aquinas.When I saw his proofs of the existence of God, I experienced my first doubts.Ironic.

  2. Katherine, Aquinas was a fairly subtle thinker. I can’t think of any other philosopher or theologian who has been so oversimplified so often. It’s hard to prove the unprovable isn’t it? Fred

    1. There’s nothing worse than a poorly done simplification of a good book.
      Translating poetry is hard but people do it

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