In Defense of (Christian) Atheism

If there is a topic to make the blood of a believer boil, it tends to be atheism (or the liturgy, but that's a post for another day!). In light of a conversation I had with my friend Jane , I have been thinking a great deal about the topic of atheism and its importance in the life of faith.

To my mind, the intolerance and derisive way I have watched believers talk about "The Atheists" is deplorable. It is as though moral righteousness is de facto for one who avers belief in and denied to one who questions the existence of God. CNN carried on Sunday a story about a family that has been ostracized by their small town for demanding that their children not be subjected to Bible Study and Prayer at their public school.

I have always taken comfort in Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner's quote "I am a man who has been sorely tempted by atheism...but there is nothing more self-evident to me than the existence of God." For I, too, have long been wracked with doubts and questions and it has been only in prayer that I have been able to nestle my restless questioning into the heart of God's Mysteriousness and find peace. In a country that is so God-fearing as ours, the fact that Anna Nicole-Smith has occupied the headlines for over two weeks when there is a war being waged in Iraq and there are homeless people freezing to death in the US inspires me to pray: "I do believe, Lord. Help my unbelief."

As a believer, I cannot say that I "understand" atheism. With Rahner, I will attest that God's existence is self-evident - "I believe because I pray." But I do know the doubt that always threatens to swallow me whole is also present to the atheist. Joseph Ratzinger, then a young professor of theology, wrote in his Introduction to Christianity that no less than doubt unites the believer and unbeliever.

Lent, I would suggest, is a period of Christian atheism. How quickly we have become complacent and at-ease with God! And now Jesus begins his journey toward Calvary, ending with the heart-churning cry from the cross "My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?"

The response to this cry? Silence. Doubt-filled silence.

Christian atheism demands that we break ourselves free of the self-securing idols that we erect in the place of the holy and living and mysterious God of Jesus who leads all who claim discipleship toward the cross. This is not meant to say that we must but that doubt is very much a part of our faith lives. Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane is a prayer of doubt and fear, of sheer terror at the realization of where his Abba had led him.

My opening salvo concerning "atheists" intends only to call our attention to the fact that we are all looking. The doubt that has often threatened my own faith is, nevertheless, outstripped by my belief in God. This does not make me morally better or more worthy than the person for whom doubt is the horizon that greets the eyes. Both journey, led by nagging questions doubts, with hopes for fulfillment. The true crime is the out-of-hand dismissal of one side or the other, a refusal to gather to dialogue that both parties might find unity-in-doubt and come to respect one another as genuine seekers of Truth.
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