Nothing Out of Creation

I dreamt about being lost in a set of corridors that I thought of as Kings College London and in the dream I was there researching a theology based on a notion that God had nothing to do with creation.  Then when I awoke I thought of turning around the tradition Christian doctrine of Creation Out of Nothing into Nothing Out of Creation. I briefly expanded that into God is Nothing Out of Creation, but rejected that as I thought that it was presuming too much to name my non-creation musings as God.

Creation Out of Nothing [SCM, 1990] is coincidentally the title of the first theology book that I read after my undergraduate studies in theology (1985-88).  I had bought the book because I was planning a PhD on the topic of creation from a viewpoint inspired by the Neo-Orthodox theologian, Emil Brunner (1889-1966).  This book by Don Cupitt (born 1934) was not about a traditional doctrine of a God who created the universe, but was about the creation of human meaning through language, including language about a God who does not exist.  I was much more conservative in my theology at the time that I read this, and rejected Don’s atheism.  Nevertheless, I was fascinated by his exploration of a postmodern theory of the priority of language, which had resonances with the philosophy of religion that I had studied under John Heywood Thomas at Nottingham University.  This inspired me to drop that idea of doing a PhD on the doctrine of creation and instead I undertook one on the postmodern hermeneutical theology of David Tracy, supervised by another devotee of the priority of hermeneutics, Werner Jeanrond. Interestingly, on a return visit to Nottingham I called in on John, who informed me that Werner had written to him when I applied for the PhD.  John had recommended me highly and suggested some areas of research linked to work that I had done at Nottingham.  I often wondered what recommendations he made, but I doubt that they would have borne any relation to the type of theology that interested me by that stage.

This was in 1990 and 18 years later I returned to undergraduate study, this time as a student nurse at Manchester University.  At the time, I had become practically atheist as a result of my negative experience of being constructively dismissed from my post as a priest in the Church of Ireland, although I interpreted that atheism as a very long dark night of the soul, which had begun in Lent 2007, while I was still working as curate of the Douglas Union of Parishes in Cork.  In Manchester, I worshipped at the Metropolitan Community Church, but I never felt comfortable in that quite conservative theological setting.  Yet I thought that if I continued in my spirituality that my faith in God would eventually return.  An important part of faith for me as my theology became less conservative was the notion of a creator God.  Indeed this became more important than Jesus as it was an aspect of faith derived from philosophy, not the Bible.  So I looked forward to my physiology lecture on the nature of the human body, expecting to be so awed by the complexity of life, that I would be brought back to a belief  in a creator God.  Instead, I sat in the lecture thinking that the human body was so complex and dependant on a symbiosis with dangerous micro-organisms that I could not believe that the human body could arise from anything other than the gradual development of evolution.

When I quit my nursing degree and moved to London in June 2009, I began worshipping at the Anglican parish of St James Piccadilly.  There I continued in doubting the existence of God, but in a much more comfortable setting of a church where I was not the only member of the congregation to do so and where a Gloria was often used that expressed a belief in evolution.  My theological views at this time were definitely atheist and I connected to the Christianity proclaimed in the worship via a strong belief in Jesus that finished with his death on the cross, but could not move on to the resurrection or a belief that Jesus was divine.  At first I inwardly cringed when a priest preached about faith in God, but gradually settled down to seeing that language as a part of the poetry of worship.

Later on, I even began to come back to a sort of belief in God, but not in the God that Christians tend to believe in, i.e., not in a creator God.  This partial retreat from atheism was inspired by two ideas from my theological education, one postgraduate and one undergraduate.  In my early days in the Trinity College Dublin Graduate Seminar in Theology, we studied On Religion:  Speeches to its Cultured Despisers by Frederich Schleiermacher (1768-1834).  That formative text of modern theology contains the notion of intuiting the universe and the memory of that phrase made me reflect that maybe I could move away from a creator God without being atheist. That move was inspired by my undergraduate study of Sikhism under Douglas Davies.  In that religion, there is a very different concept of God to that found in Christianity, with the world being seen as co-eternal with God.

In my context at St James Piccadilly, and in general English culture, this might not be much of a departure from atheism.  For the Christian notion of God is so tied up with the doctrine of divine creation that believing in a co-eternal universe will appear to most to be much the same as not believing in God.  As a consequence, I tend to describe myself as an atheist as it is much simpler that saying that I might believe in God, but not in the usual way that people in the West believe.  Whether or not that qualifies as atheism is a very moot point, but what is definite is that in my belief I take nothing out of (the doctrine of) creation.