Sunday Godblogging: Thank God for Atheists

Christopher Lydon hosted a conversation with Harvey Cox, Mary Gordon and Cornell West at the Boston Book Festival last month, and the conversation showed up on Lydon’s Open Source Radio’s podcast. A little Lydon goes a long way, and there’s never just a little West, so I don’t necessarily recommend that you go listen to it. But toward the end (around 38:07), Cox quoted Tillich so:

Atheism is always the shadow of some understanding of God.

I don’t recall exactly what point Cox was trying to make; you can go listen for yourself, I guess. But I was curious about the context of the Tillich line, but I couldn’t track it down online—perhaps Cox was paraphrasing enough that Google couldn’t make the connection. While I was searching, I found this from Sri Aurobindo (Thoughts and Aphorisms, Bhakti, 538):

Atheism is the shadow or dark side of the highest perception of God. Every formula we frame about God, though always true as a symbol, becomes false when we accept it as a sufficient formula. The Atheist and Agnostic come to remind us of our error.

(Sri Aurobindo and Paul Tillich were more or less contemporaries. Is there more of a connection between them than that? I have no idea, but it seems likely. Frederic Spiegelberg is a likely bridge, and Google gives us some 1700 hits on the two names together.)

2 thoughts on “Sunday Godblogging: Thank God for Atheists”

  1. I think this is a paraphrase of Tillich from Theology of Culture p. 18, not online but I found what looks like a lengthy excerpt here. I found this on Google books here but you can’t see much context in the preview. (If it helps, it sure wasn’t easy to find, I had to use several tricks along the way.)

    Would you elaborate on the quote you did find? I don’t think I follow at all terms like “frame” and “symbol” and “formula” in context of theology, it sounds more like cognative psych.

  2. Aurobindo goes on in Aphorism 539:

    God’s negations are as useful to us as His affirmations. It is He who as the Atheist denies His own existence for the better perfecting of human knowledge. It is not enough to see God in Christ & Ramakrishna & hear His words, we must see Him and hear Him also in Huxley & Haeckel.

    (I’m having trouble parsing that second sentence.) Thanks for the Tillich pointer; at the very least it confirms my somewhat vague impression of what he was saying.

    Aurobindo comes out of a very different tradition, of course. My guess is that he’s not using those terms very technically—that “every formula we frame” is not too far from “every characterization”. And “symbol” gets at the idea that we’re always talking about, at best, aspects of God, or, if you like, “ultimate reality”.

    There’s a strong sense of transcendent mystery to much of contemporary talk about the nature of reality from a scientific point of view. Feynman comes to mind.

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