Book Review: Walking Without God by Ben Whitney

Before beginning the review proper, I need to say a few words about how I came across this small volume.

One of the blogs I occasionally peruse is that of Simon Clare (who operates on Twitter as @FaithlessEye). A little while ago, he posted a review/critique of Thomas à Kempis. I have, for some time, been of the belief that it is a good thing to engage with those with whom you are naturally inclined to disagree. So I was impressed that an atheist would be reading quite an old treatise on christian faith; one, I hasten to add, that I have not read myself. I left a comment asking if there was anything he might recommend for me so that I could do a similar exercise, only from a different angle. Walking Without God was his recommendation.

Whitney begins by giving us an introduction to himself, as a former baptist preacher who has, for some reason, given up his faith, though he doesn’t go into the details of when and why. He simply states his case as he now sees it. The bulk of the book is made of 9 short essays, where he has picked a phrase or a verse from one of the Psalms and looks at what it might mean to think about the subject matter of each quote from a perspective that wants to engage with the idea of ‘spirituality’ but from a perspective without God.

In terms of atheist writing, this is about as far removed from, say, Christopher Hitchens, as one might hope to get. Whitney is almost relentlessly positive. Though he gives some critiques of traditional religion, particularly christianity, these are quite reasonable and never descends into the ranting rhetoric that so marred God is Not Great when I read it last year. One might not expect me to agree with everything that Whitney writes but I probably agreed with more than I disagreed with. He is almost relentlessly positive and espouses a worldview that does not set itself against any other, but rather one that can stand up in its own right. I would wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone of faith or anyone of none.

Probably the aspect of the book that chimed with my own take on the Psalms is the sort of “theologically jingoistic” tone of some Psalms, where the author(s) seem to demonise their enemies. I get raised eyebrows when I mention the topic in christian circles. Rather than give a blow by account of each essay, I shall copy somewhat Whitney’s style, by picking some quotes and saying a little about them. Hopefully, this will give you a little flavour of the book, along with my own responses to a small sample of quotes. Though, whilst I acknowledge my choosing of the quotes may not seem wholly representative of Whitney’s book, I admit I cherry-picked them because I found them interesting points of engagement, I think it reflects that Whitney’s style, as he is not really attempting a full-blown study of the Psalms.

“Religion, including the Christian version of it, is about the ‘big questions’ in life; or it should be.”

I’m not wholly convinced about this. While I think christianity should ask the ‘big questions’ I am not sure that that is the point, nor should it be, of christianity. Rather, christianity is the story of the relationship between God and people. What then differentiates christianity from any other philosophy or religion is how the ‘big questions’ are then looked at in the light of this story. It’s asking the questions in particular context. Though the start of this sentence hints at a generalisation of christianity to religion (similar, in my opinion, to using potatoes to make generalised statements about food) Whitney does avoid this for most of the book, which only adds to his credibility.

“The gospel accounts were written later of course by those who now believed certain things about him so they are not to be trusted as any kind of impartial record.”

I would agree with to an extent. As I write my reviews partly as I’m reading, but partly after I finish, I must confess that this sentence is being written about 4 days after I finished the book. Already, I have moved on and am reading Marcus Borg’s book, ‘Jesus: Uncovering the life, teachings and relevance of a religious revolutionary’. He takes a very similar tack to Whitney here, but then, as a member of the Jesus Seminar, that may not come as a surprise. I will write more about this anon. But for now, I would merely say that to recognise that there is an angle does not mean that the gospels should be disregarded. Scepticism doesn’t mean throwing the historical baby out with the metaphorical bathwater. When it comes to gospel hermeneutics, I would side more with the critical realism of Tom Wright (as espoused in the first half of The New Testament and the People of God) than with Whitney, who seems to be more on the side of Bultmann’s demythologisation programme. I may be wrong about that, but it’s the impression I got.

“I suspect that Jesus has been turned into something he never intended to be and that many subsequent claims made about him are based on misunderstandings, such as taking things literally about his birth and death that were never intended to be seen in that way.”

The question of literalism is indeed a thorny one, as alluded to above. In order to any kind of sensible or coherent opinion, one must ask the question, ‘how did the particular anecdote (or pericope) arise?’ One considers the testimony of Papias of Hierapolis that Mark’s gospel was based on the eyewitness testimony of Peter, so it should not be surprising that that particular gospel omits a story of Jesus’ birth. Who then, was the source for Matthew & Luke? It seems most likely that the one person who remained with the disciples after the resurrection who was also present at Jesus’ birth was Mary. The difficulty faced then, when looking at the figure of Jesus, is trying to come up with a sensible and consistent set of criteria that would allow for the distinction between what was the written form of oral history and what were ‘editorial’ embellishments. Whitney doesn’t give any such details, so the reader is left slightly guessing at how Whitney thinks Jesus’ history has been distorted. It would also be worth exploring, in my view at least, precisely what Whitney thinks the original intention was behind the stories of Jesus’ birth and death.

“Religious faith should be a means through which we grapple with and express our deepest emotions, not, as it sometimes seems, a way of repressing them into a set of rules and regulations.”

My response to this epitomises my view of the book. There is little here which I disagree with; I think it’s a very good statement. However, when it comes to saying “faith should” it just seems to be pointing slightly in the wrong direction. Expressions of the christian faith come in many shapes, sizes and colours. I hope readers of this blog get a fair impression of where I stand; what I accept, what I reject and what I am agnostic about. Amongst those that I disagree with are those who hold to something akin to a Pelagian point of view that christianity is about rules and regulations. This may come about by trying to get everyone in society to adhere to your moralistic rules or when routine becomes a ritual which must be observed with pious regularity, usually at the disdain of non-conformists such as myself. That said, I have long been suspicious of christians whose faith is primarily, if not wholly, based on emotions. So while our feelings may inform, colour or shape our beliefs (and indeed vice, versa), neither one should dictate the  other.

“In respectable Victorian Britain city businessmen stopped off at a child prostitute on their way back to their home in the suburbs where the family both stayed together and prayed together.”

This comment towards the end of the book stands out as most unusual when one considers the whole book. It is certainly a novel statement, made seemingly as a statement of fact, though with no evidence offered in its support. I include it here as it highlights the fact that Whitney doesn’t cite any references. I’d be interested as to what support he has for it.

“…Jesus also seems to have taught that the poor and the helpless were at the centre of what he called the ‘kingdom of God’. This is when we are closest to the historical Jesus, whatever the church has done with him since… It is an interesting phrase [and]…is one of the most common phrases in the New Testament and so must be at the heart of what religion is supposed to be about… The rule of God on earth, or ‘the right way of living’ in my understanding, is what matters.”

This reflects possibly a far more insightful view of the christian message than most I have heard either from any atheists or a great many christians. It brings to mind something Tom Wright once said, that the authors of the gospels would take exception to the apostles’ creed, as it jumps from Jesus’ birth straight to his death & resurrection when the gospels actually contain quite a bit about what he said and did in between. Thought I wouldn’t equate God’s rule on earth with ‘the right way of living’ this is a far better portrayal of christianity than the straw man of ‘magical sky pixie’ or similar such terms that get banded about on tiresome internet arguments. For that, I doff my cap to Mr Whitney.

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