“Is There No God?”Dr. David Rutledge Jeremiah 4.11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 51; Exodus 32. 7-14; Timothy 1. 12-17, Year C: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
“The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God.’” (Ps. 14.1a)
The Psalms — the “hymnal” of ancient Israel — is such a rich resource that it is probably the part of scripture that is most frequently used today, by both Jews and Christians. At weddings, at funerals, in worship, in private devotions, the psalms capture an amazing variety of subjects, of moods, of styles, and theological perspectives.
Perhaps none is more surprising than Psalm 14, with its abrupt beginning, “The fool says in his heart, / ‘There is no God.’ This is not how we expect worship to begin! Typically, a psalm opens with pleas for help, with words of praise or lament, or cries for help. But here are words of anger about those who give up the search for God, and the appetite for goodness. “They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none that does good” (vs. 1b).
One of the remarkable things about these verses is that they are in scripture at all. How did it happen that people who seems to be atheists were present in a thoroughly religious culture like that of ancient Israel? And why would the authors and editors of biblical books have included an acknowledgement that some Israelites rejected the central claim of the nation? One would think that such a negative fact would be carefully repressed, hidden from faithful readers.
We should, of course, note that it seems doubtful that the claim ‘There is no God” is exactly the same claim the modern atheist makes, simply because other passages that expand on the claim suggest that the biblical writer is referring to those who deny God’s power, or God’s interest in moral behavior.
For example, Psalm 10:4 refers to the wicked whose thought is “There is no God,” but then goes on a few verses later to say of the wicked man, “He thinks in his heart, ‘God has forgotten, he has hidden his face, he will never see it [that is, the evil deed he has done]” (10:11; see also 10:13, and Ps. 94:7). The “fool” of Psalm 14:1 is not making a sweeping metaphysical claim about the existence of a transcendent being, but arguing that God cannot see the wicked man’s deeds, or is helpless to control them.
The assertion that ‘there is no God’ is at most a kind of “practical atheism” that, while not denying the reality of the divine, assumes that God has no power or influence over human action — from the perspective of the wicked, God might as well not exist, for all the difference God makes in the wicked man’s life.
This difference in perspective is hardly surprising, because the term “atheism” today has been thoroughly colored by its modern history in Enlightenment philosophy, in the debates between science and religion, and in a growing secularity. Our embrace of ‘freedom of speech’ also means that people today have no hesitation in voicing their thoughts, no matter how challenging they may be to traditional values. Yet it still seems odd that Israel would acknowledge that such enemies of faithful believers existed, and were a powerful threat to ‘orthodox’ Israelites. How do we make sense of this?
When we step back from particular verses and consider the larger sweep of the Bible’s understanding of God, helpful perspectives appear. First, the entire biblical story describes God’s efforts to lure human beings back to their better selves, to ‘abundant lives’ with God. The default position, at least after the disobedience of Adam and Eve in Gen. 3, is that human beings have been given freedom of choice, and yet continually misuse that freedom because of their self-love, their obsession with preserving and guarding themselves without regard to the larger realities of other people, other parts of creation, or of God. So, no biblical writer is surprised that some people deny God’s power to be involved in, engaged with, the world.
Thus, the normal narrative of the Bible is apostasy (“standing apart” from God), denying in deeds if not in words that God is real, a presence one must deal with. Cain’s murder of his brother in anger and envy, and then lying about it to God (Gen. 4); Abraham’s giving of his wife to Pharaoh to save his own life (Gen. 12.10ff., and Gen. 20); David’s sins because of Bathsheba (II Samuel 11); Solomon’s apostasy because of his many wives (I Kings 11), and on and on: the Bible is frank, amazingly transparent about the human inability to maintain faithfulness to God.
What is more amazing than the ‘practical atheism’ of scripture is God’s merciful overlooking of human unfaithfulness, over and over again. If men and women turn from their apostasy, and return to following the way of righteousness, God will repent of his anger, as he shows in today’s Exodus reading (Exodus 32:14), and in David’s prayer in Psalm 51:17: “a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (see also I Timothy. 1:12-17, and Jerimiah 18.7-8). Though theologians speak of the “unchangeableness” of God, this constancy of God is not a wooden, sterile, logical sameness, but a passionate commitment to changing the hearts and minds of people, so that their lives might be fuller, and happier.
And there is more to be drawn from a meditation on today’s scripture. One of the reasons that a verse like “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” startles readers of the Bible is that our expectations of the God of the Bible are so limited — as J.B. Phillips put it, ‘our God is too small.’ Again, when we step back and look at scripture as a whole, we find that the understanding of God that we find there is constantly changing — deepened and broadened by the different experiences of Jews and Christians in their dialogue with God.
In the crucial moment in Exodus 3 when God is first revealed to Moses, we find a profound ambiguity: God does not give the ‘divine name’ in typical fashion, as Ba’al, or Marduk, or Zeus, or Ishtar. Rather God proclaims to Moses “‘I AM WHO I AM….’ Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM’ has sent me to you” (3.14).
Scholars have debated for hundreds of years what this enigmatic announcement might mean, especially when we consider that another legitimate translation of the Hebrew is “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.” At the very least it shows that the God of Israel is not just another being in the world, like ‘Tom, Dick, or Harry.’
We might think instead of God as that power of existence that allows all things to exist, the power of reality itself (“I AM”). It is a dynamic reality, as complex, as surprising, and as new as reality itself (“I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE”). The biblical writers are trying to push beyond the limits of language to say something altogether unprecedented about who God is, and so there is necessarily a mystery, an ambiguity, to God’s self-revelation.
With this in mind, we can see how small, how paltry, it is to say, “There is no God.” Is there no Reality? Is there no mystery about the power behind the universe that brought everything into being? “And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). Is there not something awesome about the way the future constantly surprises us, confounding our expectations? “And he who sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new’” (Revelation 215).
Again, and again, the Bible encourages us to admit that our view of God is too small. The prophet Isaiah speaks for God: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, / neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. / For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways,/ and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah. 55:8-9)
The prophet Elijah is told to wait for God, and he encounters “a great and strong wind” that breaks the mountains in pieces, but this is not God. And then he encounters “an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.” And then a fire comes, but God is not in the fire. And then there is “a still small voice,” and Elijah heard, and went out to meet God (I Kings 19. 9-13).
And for Christians, of course, Jesus of Nazareth is both a man, a human being they can understand like any other carpenter in a small town of Galilee. At the very same time this man is also the Divine in human flesh, as mysterious as the universe itself: “He is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together…. he is the beginning, …that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…” (Colossians 1:15-19). Perhaps we can now begin to see that to say ‘there is no God’ is to speak of a god that is too small by far to accommodate the God of biblical faith.
A final example of the resistance of the God of the Bible to easy description, or easy dismissal, is the claim by Judaism and Christianity that the creation, the world of nature both human and non-human, is the purposeful making of God. In contrast to the modern insistence that there is nothing beyond the material order explained by science, biblical faith suggests something more subtle and more profound: that there is an intimate connection between thoughts, intentions, dreams, hopes, plans, language — the intangible world of Spirit — and the objects we encounter with our five senses. God is Spirit, but Spirit also is connected to Matter, to Nature, by the Mind of God which brought it into being.
This connection of God to the natural world that humans are a part of is found not just in the creation stories of Genesis 1-3, but also at the end of scripture, in Revelation 21. There we find the record of a vision by the mystic John, which he saw on the Aegean island of Patmos in the Second Century C.E. Near the end of his account is the following:“And I say the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, …and I heard a great voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them…’” (Revelation 21.2-3).
It is a tragic misunderstanding to suggest that “God” has to do with some world other than the one we live in, that there is something foreign to human life in the practice of religion. It is true that many religious believers have shared this tragic misunderstanding with those who say, ‘There is no God.’ A fair reading of the words of scripture shows that a denial of the existence of God simply misunderstands what the word “God” actually means.
About the Writer:
Dr. David Rutledge retired from teaching at Furman University as the Reuben B. Pitts Professor of Religion. He is an elder in Westminster Presbyterian Church of Greenville, SC (PCUSA), and a former board member of the Phillis Wheatley Association, and the Interfaith Forum of Greenville. Rutledge received his A.B. in philosophy from the College of William and Mary, his M.Div. from Duke Divinity School, and his Ph.D. from Rice University.
He is the author of Humans and the Earth: Toward a Personal Ecology (Peter Lang), numerous journal articles, and chapters in books. He is past President of The Polanyi Society, an international scholarly organization. His religious interests are in religion and science, religion and ecology, classics of spiritual devotion, and the work of Michael Polanyi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Wendell Berry, Soren Kierkegaard, and Dante.
Scripture and Music:
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing
Abide with Me
Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise
We’re Marching to Zion
Come, We That Love the Lord
The Marvelous Work (F.J. Haydn from Creation)
Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing (Mack Wilberg)
Gentle Shepherd Kind and True (Hal Hopson)
The Shepherd s Psalm (Gilbert Martin)
Lily of the Valley (Michael Smith)
Shepherd of Love
Steal Away to Jesus