CHRISTIANITY WITHOUT GOD: MOVING BEYOND THE DOGMAS AND RETRIEVING THE EPIC MORAL NARRATIVE
By Daniel C. Maguire
Published SUNY Press, $24.95
Begin at the end of Daniel Maguire's Christianity Without God. The epilogue provides context for his searing scholarship on core Christian beliefs: the existence of God, Jesus as divine, an afterlife. His rejection is not new, but it presents unsettling arguments that a larger audience today will find easier to process. He candidly acknowledges reaction to his work will vary from grief to anger. The "nones," those who do not identify with any religion and who make up one-fifth of adults in the United States, may find his work a gospel.
Maguire's Christianity without God would be similar to Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, where a way of life, not a god, is the focus. Unlike present-day atheists, Maguire doesn't throw out the baby with the bathwater. "God-talk is never emptiness. It is rich in symbolic power. When we realize that 'God' is not dead, that 'God' as a person was never alive, our need of symbols does not die." For Maguire, the core message of the Judeo-Jesus traditions is salvific.
Maguire contends the Exodus liberation event, historical or not, is a radical, revolutionary and conscious vision of an egalitarian, communal society based on distributive justice, "the first ideologically based sociopolitical revolution in the history of the world."
The prophets, at personal cost, irked Israel when it found implementing the vision "too demanding." Jesus, picking up the prophet's baton, continues the Exodus liberation vision, speaking truth to the new pharaoh, Pilate, the Roman Empire's man.
Maguire maintains that god is better left lower case, because "God" is "a slippery mutant," more subjective than objective. God or gods are the medium for tribal needs. "Scratch a god and find a need," he writes.
Gods vary in number and kind. What is consistent is humanity's inconsistency of godly flavors. Hinduism, the world's oldest religion, evokes millions of gods, making Christianity's Trinity a paltry pantheon. Though Judaism, Christianity and Islam believe in one god, they differ in interpretation. Judaism and Islam consider the Trinitarian concept blasphemous.
For Maguire, the core message of a religious tradition is more significant for belief than the god(s) who convey it. Whether or not Moses, the Exodus or Jesus ever existed in history is less important than the liberation message, a "revolution of political consciousness and social reorganization."
Many reject an anthropological concept of god, as it would be simply a projection of an upper-case version of humanity. But Maguire is dismissive of any concept of a god altogether, even of an apophatic nature.
The biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan offers a professional definition of god as "evolution." Many could embrace such a definition, but Maguire would still side with Denys the Areopagite to "leave behind us all our conceptions of the divine." Maguire believes currently that "God-talk is a no-think zone." For him, such discussion would suck the oxygen out of the more important quest of humanity, which is peace through justice of the liberation message of the Scriptures.
"Never in history has so much been written about someone of whom we know so little," Maguire says about Jesus. Though scholars like Crossan have met with great resistance in their quest to "save Jesus from Christ," Maguire argues, "Divinizing Jesus was actually something of a put-down."
Jesus, the pugnacious upstart from obscurity, was a new David against Goliath. Then, as now, power and wealth were in the hold of the 1 percent. A rejection of the current status quo of inequality of persons and wealth, Maguire writes, echoes Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom of God, a vision of the way life as it should be here, a reign on earth, not in an afterlife. No divinity rescued Jesus from a Roman cross. Ultimately, the message is more important than the messenger.
Maguire sympathizes with Mary Magdalene's lament, "They have taken away my Lord and I don't know where they have laid him." For Maguire, there is no divine Jesus.
Maguire demonstrates that Christians effectively killed Jesus' dream by projecting a version of Christianity that is out of sync with its roots. Popular Christianity today is more psychological pandering than prophetic witness, focused on personal needs and anxieties.
Regarding an afterlife, Maguire quotes Lucretius, "Fear was the first mother of the gods ... fear, above all, of death." Paul, more than Jesus, Maguire observes, was instrumental in selling a cure for it with the promise of an afterlife for the deserving.
"Afterlife is more popular than 'God,' " Maguire writes. He understands that people want to be reunited with loved ones, but he finds this problematic. The Exodus vision for life on earth is too demanding, he argues, and so the focus shifted to a life to come elsewhere. The inequality of persons continues, but private rather than communal concerns remain the priority for many Christians.
"There is no manna for the poor ... in the neoliberal desert," Maguire concludes, "and 'sharing' is called redistribution, the dirtiest word for neoliberal fundamentalists."
Jared Diamond, cited by Maguire, documents the collapse of societies. Religions, too, collapse. Zoroastrianism, once a world religion, is now statistically insignificant. Christianity, if it remains aligned with nationalism, corporatism and social inequality, will bleed adherents, especially among the educated and young. Christianity's only chance of survival is to return to its prophetic, revolutionary and radical roots. The subtitle of Maguire's scholarship ought to be "Saving Christianity."
[Fr. Emmett A. Coyne is the author of The Theology of Fear.]