living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

The God Graveyard: A Theologian’s Approval

with 10 comments

Yesterday I saw an interesting post come up on the Patheos blog, “The Friendly Atheist.” It was about how certain college atheist groups were erecting “god graveyards” on their campuses filled with the names of the gods we no longer worship. The question they wished to provoke was basically “when will yours be next?”

As a theologian, I thought this was pretty sweet (for reasons that I will point out shortly), so I decided to tell them so.

As a Christian theologian, I support this message. It is at the heart of classical Christian theology that Yahweh, understood as a particular divine being, must have his own gravestone. The death of the Gods is precisely the truth of God who is Truth itself.

The response to this was mostly:

1. A lot of “down votes”

2. Utter confusion

3. General rudeness, or at the very least, hostility.

I’ll take responsibility for 2. I’ve rarely been applauded for my clarity of expression. But I was honestly surprised at 1. and 3. At least one of the other commentors felt similarly, lamenting:

The downvotes here depress me. Just because we disagree or find the message muddled doesn’t mean we should discourage those who want to respectfully discuss the topic at hand.

Here was one that I could speak to. He also authored a brilliant response to a sci-fi fan who was in the process of creatively taking me to task by way of a Star Trek example. I should not have such difficulty speaking to them, my critic suggested, for they were rational thinkers, not like the perplexing Tamarians. He went on,

I am reminded of the Star Trek: TNG episode Darmok, where Captain Picard encounters an alien civilization (the Tamarians) whose language is purely metaphorical. For instance, rather than saying, “I went to the store,” a Tamarian would say, “Darmok at Shaka,” which would reference a famous event of the past where a person named Darmok went to a store in the city of Shaka.

To this my ally responded:

I think the point of that episode was that Picard DID learn to communicate with the Tamarian captain once he abandoned his prejudices and began to listen in earnest (finally accepting the dagger as an offer of alliance instead of conflict, ha, I out-nerd[ed] you).

Truly brilliant, and better, to my point! In what follows I respond to him and do my best to briefly set out what my point ultimately was.

This, I love. The truth of it goes both ways and is really at the heart of what I was trying to suggest. “The gods,” in a very important sense, ARE our prejudices. They are our little securities, the ideas, habits, and patterns of life that make us feel safe in the face of the threats of existence. The trouble is that our little gods necessarily limit us. If they are the source of our security, then fear keeps us living in their power. And in their power, the gods of others can be nothing but a threat, an opportunity for conflict. This is why the graveyard is so appropriate. We are not meant to live in fear, so let the gods die. All of them, regardless of the name we give them, be it Zeus, Yahweh, Reason, Science, or Jesus…

But this leads to my deeper point. It’s not easy to describe, so please bear with me. We say that Jesus revealed God, not because he said he was God; rather, it is because he deflected every attempt by others to make him into “a god.” His divinity consisted in his freedom from “the gods,” not that he was one.

As some of you may recall, Peter wanted Jesus to be the source of his own security. Jesus, on the other hand, said he came to serve and to die. Peter, feeling his security threatened by this, freaked out and tried to stop him. Jesus’ subdued response was basically to call Peter the Lord of Darkness and to suggest that his framework was a bit narrow.

graveyard of the godsAnd that’s our basic human problem. In light of the eternal, all of our frameworks are a bit narrow. That includes my own. To live with faith in God as eternal, is exactly to live free from “the gods” of our narrowness. If we can’t manage this, we’ll cling to our own little constructions, and fear will cause us to lash out at those who pose a threat to our god. Those who have been in some way gripped by the mystery of the eternal feel no such need to defend their own ways of seeing things, for their own gods have already been crucified.

My one concern for this community is that it is not nearly atheistic enough. The rather ‘un-friendly’ reception I’ve been given does not seem to evidence freedom from the gods. Perhaps the graveyard could use a few more tombstones? 

Written by Alex

November 1, 2013 at 9:58 am

10 Responses

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  1. Be honest, Alex, did you have to Google what Star Trek is?


    November 1, 2013 at 10:54 am

    • I still don’t know what it is. I just ran with the implied philosophy.


      November 1, 2013 at 1:06 pm

  2. Well, I think the Atheist point of view, very broadly speaking, is one of defensiveness, and that is what you’ve keyed into. True, as some people cling to ideas of “little gods” like Jesus, others cling to reason and science. In their defense, though, Atheists have been a minority for years, and their defensiveness is, I think, pretty understandable. I encountered this at the UU Fellowship, where people described any theological discourse as making them deeply uncomfortable. Like, don’t you have 100s of churches for that? Why do you have to come to this “safe place” and talk about god? I haven’t gone back to look at the comments, but I’m sure it was like the experience I had being shamed in every conceivable way by the “open-minded” mothers at a certain “progressive” parenting site. You think you are amongst friends, or that civility is at least assumed when BAM! the haters arrive. You know what I think is missing a tombstone? STAR TREK!


    November 1, 2013 at 12:48 pm

  3. Thanks for this, Jen. I think you’re right; the defensiveness is understandable. It took me a long time to see that my own “evangelicalism transcended” stance was still under the power of little gods. It showed every time I would get reactive in the presence of fundamentalist religion. Such religiosity remained a threat to my new “progressive” stance. I’m not going to try and suggest that I don’t get reactive anymore, but I’ve at least become able to recognize it for what it is: a form of ego preservation. Fear.

    The truth is, no, we don’t have 100s of churches in which to engage theological discourse of the sort I’m describing. It seems that all of us are too busy keeping up appearances to bother with being turned inside out.


    November 1, 2013 at 1:05 pm

  4. Being the “ally” in question here, I’m flattered for the full blog post in response 🙂

    I identify with much of your interpretation of Jesus’ message (your take on Peter’s response is very interesting). I identify as Atheist, but one who’s moral philosophy is heavily influenced by Jesus of Nazareth, and maybe even thinks the resurrection really happened (though definitely not bearing the theological significance of the LCMS church I grew up in). I do not identify as Christian, too many things are attached to that label that I despise to mess with it. Yet for this, I will be rejected as an atheist by most atheists, and have an attempt to “claim” me by many Christians, which isn’t fair. I should get to choose the labels I feel comfortable with. So if I may offer a suggestion, per your last paragraph: please be careful disqualifying people from their preferred titles. You’d be surprised how much good you can un-do in one swift stroke that way.

    Best wishes.

    Brian K

    November 1, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    • Brian,
      Thank you for commenting, and spirit in which you comment. I appreciate the caution and I think you have a point. What do you think might have been a better way to have made the point without, as you say, “disqualifying people form their preferred titles”?

      My aim was to turn the noses of the audience back to their virtues by way of their preferred title. You (and likely others) seem to have felt that differently. Thoughts?


      November 1, 2013 at 1:25 pm

      • Goodness, what would I suggest? That’s a tough one.

        I see things like this fairly often in the atheist blogosphere, where a theist will propose themselves an unexpected ally to the atheists, and our knee jerk response it converge on them like white blood cells. One thing to remember is that a lot of us have been really hurt by theists at some point. (If certain members of my family knew of my apostasy, I would be worse than dead to them.) And we repeatedly have to fend off people who troll atheist articles and post some variation of “repent or burn in hell raaaaaaa!!!!!” Or they doll out tired stereotypes about us, like our life is meaningless, etc. (Spend half an hour searching Hemant’s articles and you’ll find plenty of examples.)

        I guess my advice is to try to remember that things that sound familiar or innocuous on your end can sound very cutting on our end. And be patient, be kind, don’t boast, etc, etc.

        Brian K

        November 1, 2013 at 2:00 pm

  5. Sound advice. A thinker like myself is in a spot rather near to your own. I also know the pain of having loved ones threaten with hell for divergent beliefs. I’ve had the experience of being asked to leave professional ministry among a community that my family worshiped with for many years, again, because of divergent theological beliefs. Religion, when turned to the task of self-preservation, can be more poisonous than any force humanity possesses.

    Over the last few years of graduate school, I’ve really sorted through a lot of that, and feel for the first time largely free from being compelled by its anxiety. It’s been deeply liberating. I suppose that new sense of freedom may have made me less sensitive to how my words land for others for whom the pain is still much more present.

    I suppose that’s a part of what motivated me to write on the matter at all. To basically affirm that the world of religiosity is a much bigger place than what they’ve perhaps been exposed to. There are those of us out here who, in the name of love, are just as ready to put the gods to death. For love is patient, love is kind, etc, etc.


    November 1, 2013 at 2:34 pm

  6. Happens to me All the time. I post a comment that I agree with an atheist and happen to mention that I am Christian and somehow people must attack me or at least treat me like a lower life form. I don’t understand. Sounds like an interesting article though. However, I won’t comment on it. I’ve had enough of those kids of “Why are you angry with me, I said I like this?” conversations for a long while.

    I do have several theories why it happens. Here’s one.

    Also, Jon Stewart made a funny point. “I don’t believe in unicorns, but people who do don’t make me angry.” I wonder why it’s not the same for Christian and atheist relations?


    November 1, 2013 at 6:04 pm

  7. Hi Anna,
    I’d wager it has something to do with the fact that unicorns are pretty and don’t pose any real threat to one’s autonomy. 🙂


    November 1, 2013 at 6:31 pm

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