When the American theologian Thomas JJ Altizer first published his work on Christian atheism back in the 1960s, he received an avalanche of hostility, including death threats. But most people were just plain puzzled. Christians believe in some big God up in the sky. Atheists don't. There is no middle path. Surely it's that simple. So Altizer's big idea that the project of the Christian God was progressively to work himself out of existence, found few friends on either side of the God argument.
The fancy footwork of Hegelian dialectics – refusing to accept the simple binary of God existing/not existing – just did not cut it in an age where God's existence had become such a raw issue politically. Nonetheless, Altizer's account of the Christian God being in a gradual process of divesting himself of His God-ness is a pretty good way of recapturing some of the puzzlement and shock value of the original Christmas story. "He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant," is how St Paul described the incarnation in a letter to new Christians at Philippi. This word "emptied" – kenosis in Greek – has been argued about by scholars ever since. To some it implied that, in becoming human, God was almost giving up divinity, or at least giving up something of the power that we often associate with it. From here on in, God would cry, bleed, and (horror of horrors) defecate. No longer omnipotent nor omniscient, He would be vulnerable to the constituent conditions of humanity. And all this seemed a bit too much like the beginnings of atheism. Like a prince becoming a pauper, or Prospero throwing away his magic.
Yet the astonishing assertion of the Christmas story is that the God who comes as a pathetic child is all the more God-like for the total evacuation of power. It's a birth story at one with what would become the central message of His teaching: the first will be last and the last first. It sounds like a phrase from the French revolution, with the mighty being pulled off their thrones and the weak being held up high. But it's the buried message of Christianity, extravagantly heralded in the festival we know as Christmas. At Christmas, God becomes a child. Power is divested. Might and right no longer nestle comfortably together. But how many people would follow this new God if He were no longer able to smite enemies or call down a plague of frogs? For what the Gospel drama goes on to demonstrate is that if might (in this case, the Romans) and right (in this case, Jesus) point in different directions, many haven't the guts to follow what is right.
Of course, none of this is in the slightest bit acceptable to an institutional church that has looked to the state for comfort, protection and kudos. No Christian coronation service is going to proclaim the first being last, or the mighty being pulled off their thrones. No state is going to hold up banners to a powerless poverty-stricken God screaming in a dirty shed. Indeed the whole reason Christianity came to have official status with European political leaders is because the Emperor Constantine superstitiously believed it helped him win battles. Talk about getting the wrong end of the stick. The Christianity of Christmas is not the religion of a warrior like David – despite the irony that He was born in David's city. A religion of the baby, one that has forsworn hard power, can no longer be a warrior religion. This is not a religion that can support Trident. Nor can it have any need of seats in the House of Lords.
I know, this is a Christmas column and you might have been expecting carols and community. But this sentimental stuff is such a massive distraction from the earth-shatteringly radical nature of the Christmas story which tells us to forget about the God of power. That's not what God looks like. No, when thinking of God, imagine a tiny child, unable even to look after itself. Still, 2,000 years later, the full theological and political consequences of this astonishing about-turn continue to be lost, forgotten, betrayed, ignored and denied – and I'm talking about by us religious people.