“God” is, without a doubt, one of the most slippery terms, with infinite varying concepts from one person to the next, yet a term which both parties (atheists and Christians) tend to treat as if there is perfect definitional agreement.
In one sense there is agreement. Both parties tend to treat the idea of God as a being that amounts to one more object within the universe of known objects. The Christian argues that this object is a personal being who caused the universe to come into existence, and the atheist denies the very existence of this being relegating it to the same category as Santa, Tooth Fairies, and Spaghetti Monsters. The atheist offers the Christian a simple challenge: provide physical proof of God’s existence and he will no longer be counted among fairytales. The Christian then offers the atheist a simple challenge: prove that God doesn’t exist. Both parties then fold their arms, high five themselves and imagine they’ve accomplished something heroic.
It’s a cat and mouse game typically aimed not at exploration and understanding, but at humiliating and ‘one-upping’. In reality, both sides are arguing something that finds no traction in the historical Christian understanding of God. This article is a short clarification on the issue from an Orthodox Christian perspective.
Simply stated: Orthodox Christianity has never believed in a God that is another being among other beings, differing only in power, authority, and durability; it has never conceived of God as a mere ‘First Cause’ and master craftsman of existence; in short, it has never believed in God as a ‘demiurge.’ Rather, as David Bentley Hart has put it, “Beliefs regarding God concern the source and ground and end of all reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and of the totality of all things, the ground of the possibility of anything at all” (From: The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss).
What usually passes as the Christian God in popular debates today is that of a demiurge. In classic Greek thought, the demiurge was a creator god; a kind of ‘world-craftsman.’ In Plato’s Timaeus the demiurge was the intermediary between the world of eternal forms and the world of physicality. He took forms present in the eternal realm and translated them into physical form, acting not as the ground of being, but rather the fashioner and causal agent of physical reality.
This idea of God is remarkably similar to a doctrine of Christ put forth by Arius in the early days of the Church. He taught that Christ was something like the demiurge of the Father who was created for the purpose of creating the universe. Arius’ stray from orthodoxy occasioned one of the longest and most fierce battles in the early Church.
Without going into a thousand historical details, I only wish to emphasize that many Christians today – by defending a concept of God that fails to rise above the category of demiurge – promote a concept of God that was thoroughly rejected by the historic Church and therefore effectively argue for a God foreign to Christianity.
As an Orthodox Christian it seems to me that many Christian vs. atheist debates are really in-house debates between parties operating from the same modern philosophical spin on existence – that of mere material and efficient causality. It’s almost punishing for an Orthodox Christian to witness such discussions. It’s like a third party candidate who really does have more to offer the situation than the two popular candidates; parties who dominate the spotlight not because of the veracity of their positions but because of cultural momentum.
My overriding point is to draw attention to a specific contrast in how God’s existence is envisioned by many today versus the actual claim of historic Christianity; not a rehearsal of the many Orthodox dogmatic statements of faith concerning God’s being. The point is that Orthodox Christianity does not insert “God” among all other known entities in some sort of naturalistic taxonomy; “God” is not a term to be inserted wherever one lacks sufficient understanding of how some mechanical something works or what ‘caused’ said mysterious something to exist. Rather we hold that God is the ontological ground of all existing things. This is not a position that is supplanted by science, but rather one that gives science meaning.
I hope the simplicity of this difference does not sacrifice its profundity for my reader. If this point is well understood it changes almost everything in modern Christian apologetics and reorients those who imagine to have landed a right hook on the chin of Christianity by attacking its phantom.
Thanks for reading!