Atheism and Creative Love Theism

“Killing God?!” I received many warnings from concerned Christians about the movie The Golden Compass. I was warned to avoid the movie because the author of the books it was based on was an atheist and the goal of his books was killing God. I rarely take these type of forwarded emails seriously but decided to investigate this claim for myself. I googled the author and discovered indeed, he is an atheist. And indeed, the books do culminate in the killing of the “God” character called “The Authority”. But, I wondered, was this an assault on the God of the Bible? Was there really any danger to Christians if we watched such a film and allowed our children to watch it? Since I am not one who is easily motivated by fear, I took my kids to see the movie and we even bought the DVD. I have since bought the trilogy it was based on and read it from cover to cover. “The Authority” portrayed in Pullman’s trilogy is nothing like the God I have come to know and love. If the “God” portrayed by Pullman were real, I would want to kill him too! Where did Pullman get this idea of God from? Why are so many Christians afraid of Pullman’s view of God? Pinnock and Brow seem to have wondered something similar inspiring them to write Unbounded Love: A Good News Theology for the 21st Century.

Pullman’s fictional God figure was likely inspired by the models of God he had been exposed to in his life. While clearly fictional and obviously created in his imagination, his God figure offered a critique of a prevailing view of God. “The Authority” in Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was authoritarian, capricious, dictatorial, controlling, power hungry, and fearful. And the religion founded upon the image of that authority likewise has leaders who are authoritarian, capricious, dictatorial, controlling, power hungry, and fearful. Ultimately, Pullman's "Authority" is revealed as weak and impotent and able to be killed. Pinnock and Brow assert in their introduction that, “modern atheism is often not so much a denial of the existence of God as a denial of a God like that one.” (pg. 10, emphasis mine) They propose that their book “will arouse debate and cause a degree of discomfort, because it is never altogether comfortable to be asked to reconsider one’s model for understanding God.” (pg. 10) But if we are holding models of God in our imagination anything like Pullman’s characterization of God then we desperately need to reconsider our model for God. Unfortunately, most people tend to equate their “model of God with God himself - and this we should never do.” Nevertheless, we do need models to inform and guide our thinking about God and Pinnock and Brow invite us to consider a different model of God than the traditional model hoping to clarify our vision of God where it may have been clouded. The model they offer, creative love theism, reveals God as a “dynamic and loving triune being who wants to have meaningful interaction with us.”

When I think of books on theology, I imagine encyclopedia-like volumes or huge dictionary-like textbooks like the systematic theology book I have on my bookshelf, but Pinnock and Brow’s theology for the 21st century not only breaks the stereotypes of traditional models, it does so in a compendious and exoteric fashion. In under 200 pages they cover the critical doctrines of the Christian faith and present their model in a compelling fashion. They cover the Doctrines of God, Sin, Salvation and Faith leading us from the nature of transcendence to the kind of life creative love theism inspires. Their decision to start with the doctrine of God in the context of world religions was a welcome shift in focus from the traditional Bible-centric theologies and doctrinal statements I have encountered in my experience. For instance, Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology begins with The Doctrine of the Word of God. Such Bible-centric theologies tend towards the belief that the only things that can be known about God are revealed to us in the Bible. Pinnock and Brow assert that the Bible is a critical source of revelation as “what we know about God surfaces by way of the stories and metaphors the Bible gives us” but, they do not limit revelation to only coming from the Bible. They assert that “God is revealed everywhere in his creation, and there is revelation also in the history of religions.” (pg. 33)

In introducing their creative love theism model, they review other varieties of theism and focus their discussion by comparing creative love theism in contrast to the forensic model of theism. “Creative love theism celebrates a different set of theological categories from those of the forensic model. Even when the images overlap (both models see God as Judge, for example), the meaning is somewhat different. When it thinks of God as Judge, creative love theism does not think of him as a law-court judge, but as a judge of the biblical type (recall how judges in the Old Testament cared about liberating oppressed people and putting things right).” They go on to propose that the resurrection has been neglected in theological thinking, even though it is central in the New Testament. Creative love theism strives to bring a theology of resurrection to it’s proper place in theological thinking. Their treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity is also a welcome corrective, proposing the Trinity as a model of personal love, a social reality and an inclusive community as opposed to a hierarchy with power over others. They propose that “Jesus does not seek power over people. ... God-power does not want to dominate - it wants to persuade and build up.”

Creative love theism also offers a welcome corrective to the concept of sin which may have been clouded by traditional theological models. In creative love theism sin is seen in a relational sense rather than merely missing the mark of perfect behavior, or law keeping, or right beliefs. Sin, rather than a failure to live up to some standard of behavior, is seen to reverse and distort what we were meant to be. “Sin is not primarily lawbreaking or a code violation (serious though that is), but a rejection of God and his love for us.” (pg. 58) The authors further offer a corrective to the notion of original sin and total depravity as they note, “although we are fallen creatures, we are still bearers of the image of God. We participate in God’s image now under the conditions of sin, but the likeness is not annihilated.” (pg. 62) Their treatment of judgment and wrath is also refreshing and they make many good points about the difference between God’s wrath and human wrath. Some may be concerned with their focus on God’s mercy and grace, refuting their argument that God’s anger only lasts a moment with verses like Ex. 34:8, Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation. Whether God’s anger is visited upon future generations or not, they propose judgments are more a means of correction than punishment and are “meant to warn, deter, heal and restore. They are not proof that God does not love us but proof that he does.” (pg. 70)

As I read the sections on the doctrines of salvation and faith I found myself saying yes and agreeing with the author’s assertions over and over again. I especially appreciated their focus on salvation pertaining to the here and now, not just some distant by and by. “To follow Christ is to become a disciple and engage in work just like his. The goal of salvation is not just an otherworldly hope. It means to impact this world and introduces a process of healing in the whole universe.” (pg. 117) In their final section they focus on the doctrine of faith and our reconciliation into a community of faith as mirroring that of the social Trinity. Throughout the work they return to the theme of freedom of choice as integral to understanding creative love theism reminding us that “love cannot be coerced: it must be invited. God invites us to a free, interactive, loving relationship with him.” (pg. 139) While some of their ideas are very idealistic, they offer hope for a world in need of creative love. I love how they talk about fellowship when they say, “We belong to a new community of friends where everyone is welcome. It is not a closed circle or group limited to persons like ourselves. The circle is open. As God’s friends, we must be friends to everyone in the spirit of the kingdom Jesus announced.” This is an ideal I long to experience in reality. Unfortunately, I have met too many Christians who seriously do not buy into this and many loving Christians have been wounded and taken out of service for the kingdom as a result.

The authors’ intention to “portray a vision of God, the dimensions of whose love are boundless and whom to know is life eternal” (pg. 178) has certainly been met. And they didn’t have to write a dictionary size book or multiple volumes to accomplish it. The message of creative love theism is clear and compelling as well as accessible to all who would seek a new model for mission in the 21st century. The model of God described in Unbounded Love is a God worthy of my devotion, and even worthy of my protection. If someone were to write a book aiming at killing this kind of God, I would certainly stand in this God’s defense, for a God of creative love is worth dying for, but even more so - worth living for.