Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Return to Christian Atheism

Two years ago, I wrote a post entitled "In Defense of (Christian) Atheism."  In the background of that post stood figures such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennet: the 'new atheists' who had garnered significant media attention. Media attention to and fascination with ever more vocal unbelievers has not abated, with yesterday's story by Laurie Goodstein's "More Atheists Shout it from the Rooftops" appearing in the New York Times.  

Now, I might be in the minority among believers, but I think this is great news. Mainstream Christianity has, too often, treated atheists as though they were pariahs, mean-spirited God-haters who want to destroy Christianity. One of the great merits of Goodstein's article is that doesn't focus on what these women and men reject and focuses, rather, on their need for community and their desire to change the public perception of atheists. Josh Streetman, the man quoted at the end of the piece, admits that his group is not out to confront believers or to win converts; their goal, he says, is to change the public's stereotype of atheists. One way they do this is by offering "Free hugs" from "Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheists."

Why do I see this as good? Because these atheists at least take very seriously the struggle that is faith. And their seriousness ought to prompt believers to take seriously their own faith and their understanding of it. For each of us, unbeliever and believer, confront and wrestle with the question of God. For the serious theist and atheist inhabit a common ground: the land of doubt where they wrestle, like Jacob, with God (Genesis 32:32). As then-Professor Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) wrote years ago: 

Neither can quite escape either doubt or belief; for the one, faith is present against doubt; for the other, through doubt and in the form of doubt. It is the basic pattern of man's destiny only to be allowed to find the finality of his existence in this unceasing rivalry between doubt and belief, temptation and certainty. (Introduction to Christianity, 47)
Doubt, as Professor Ratzinger then saw it, is not the enemy of faith. Instead, it is an essential and unavoidable aspect of it. 

Archbishop Bruno Forte writes that "to believe is to be taken prisoner by the Totally Other." (for the text of his 2006 Walgrave lecture, scroll down and click the link). Where the believer surrenders to the darkness of faith, the unbeliever cannot so capitulate. Both wrestle mightily, calling forth everything within them as they do battle with the question of God, with the question of meaning, with the question of Truth. The sincere believer and unbeliever are united in this struggle, although the outcome of the struggle is radically different. The believer surrenders to the darkness of faith. "Believing thought is not yet totally lit up by the day, which belongs to another time and to another homeland, but it still receives enough light to bear the burden of keeping the faith." The light of Christian faith finds its density in the Cross, both the promise and consequence of discipleships.

But we are not to despise, or pity, the unbeliever! "Serious, thoughtful non-belief, which pays attention to the real questions, means suffering: it is a passion for truth that pays a personal price for the bitter courage of unbelief." True unbelief is not a simplistic rejection of God. It is the recognition of the abyss that at the very heart of the human condition, a gaping chasm that poses questions of Ultimate Meaning. Where the believer glimpse the form of the Cross in the depths of the abyss and commends herself to it, the unbeliever sees nothing implied ultimate implied in these questions. 

Faith, Forte writes, is struggle, scandal, and submission. We are forever struggling with God, wrestling with the God who has called us into the darkness of faith, and it is this grappling with the Holy Other that prevents us from ever being truly comfortable in our faith. The pronouncement Credo! or "I believe!" finds its origin in the Latin cor-dare which means "to give your heart." In faith, we give our heart to the God with whom we wrestle, God who is other than we are, the God who is and remains a dark Mystery. The struggle with God and the scandal that God is other than we are, that God is not some thing to be possessed and is Other than we are, that in darkness God calls us into the poverty of the Cross...this is the call to submission. Through the submission of faith, we "understand that the loser really wins." We submit in love and entrust ourselves entirely to God.

If Archbishop Forte is right, are we so different from our unbelieving sisters and brothers? When we are authentically engaged in interrogating the Ultimate Questions, do we not experience the question of God as a struggle? As a scandal? If we do not, we are not taking the question seriously. If God does not give rise to scandal, then we have made God a pawn in our own ideologies, a thing to be controlled rather that the source of all that is, the Author and Creator of all being. The believer finds somehow the courage to submit to the darkness of faith, whereas the non-believer finds the courage not to submit. For them, the latter, the light of human reason is sufficient; for the former, the light of human reason is seen to be awfully powerful, but not strong enough to dispel all darkness. 

Belief and unbelief are united in the common soil of doubt and struggle. When we are sincere in asking the questions of ultimate meaning, the hearts of both come so very close together. For this reason, much stands to be gained from sincere, reasoned dialogue between both parties: how can mutual engagement shed light on common struggles, common hopes and aspirations, common fears? How can we, as siblings who raise Ultimate Questions, come together to learn from one another?

To my mind, the real enemy of belief is not unbelief. The real enemy is self-assured, self-righteous, lazy and anemic belief that dismisses others out-of-hand without taking seriously their positions. Self-conscious (un)belief, unsure of itself, is prone to anger and hostility. Such hostility is glimpsed on both sides of the debate: "Stupid Atheist! Why is there something rather than nothing?" "Stupid Theist! Why do you believe in all this superstitious mumbo-jumbo?" Such unthinking, unengaged, and wholly uninspired thinking serves only to polarize further various interlocutors rather than bring them together in mutually beneficial exploration. 

For believers and unbelievers, the challenge is to surrender oneself to the quest for Truth, to embark upon the journey of questioning the very Meaning of human life. Done sincerely and in a spirit of charity, dialogue between the two will reveal our common origins: we are kin who trace our heritage back to the Land of Doubt, a heritage we both struggle with and embrace throughout our human pilgrimage.  


Lunicycle said...

"But we are not to despise, or pity, the unbeliever!"

Of course we are not to despise the unbeliever, but why shouldn't we pity the unbeliever? I should certainly have a hunger for God in my own heart and should work daily to walk along the road of conversion, but shouldn't I also long for the unbeliever to find God?

Mind you, I don't think "finding" God is a finish. Oh, I found God, I'm done now. Just as conversion must be an ongoing process, so much finding God. But, as a believer who has found something wonderful, shouldn't I long to share that with those who don't have it? Shouldn't I long for them to discover that pearl of great prices and do whatever I may be able to do to help the process along?

As a Christian and a biologist, I have had lots of discussions with believers of all types and with nonbelievers as well, and I'm always delighted to engage in dialog, because through such dialog I may come to know God better and so may the other person.

Ryan Duns, SJ said...

I think you're right: as believers, we should long for others to enter into the life of faith. We are, each of us, charged as believers to be speakers and doers of the Word so that, through our living testimony, we bring the liberating news of the Gospel to a world so in need of hearing it.

Pity may not be the best word, but I want to caution against any line of thought that diminishes one's struggle with belief. When we use labels like 'pity' we are just taking shots at one another: non-believers pity believers for being benighted, believers pity non-believers for being myopic. Labels foreclose, rather than open, dialogue and efforts toward mutual understanding.

Crucial is that we evangelize and share with others *not* merely through intellectual discourse, but through the way we give testimony to the Gospel through our lives. That's what's so great about the NY Times article: "Free Hugs" from your "Friendly Atheist" is actually doing something, showing that atheists aren't cruel, snarky people. It'd be nice if Christians gave more hugs, born out of our experience of the Gospel!

Barbara said...

I love this post. As a science prof (now retired) in secularized Quebec, I have had to deal with agnostics and atheists all my adult life. I don't care for the sort that wants to belittle me for my belief, but I am content to walk alongside those who experience the same darkness that I do. My belief challenges their unbelief as much as the reverse and we acknowledge one another with good humour and affection.

Shane said...

Very interesting post! I'm what you might call a Christian Atheist; I do not believe in a god, although I used to. But then I discovered the sheer joy of systematic doubt. Theists frequently make doubt sound like a bad thing; doubt is great. Uncertainty makes life interesting, particularly since the "certainty" professed by many is really just a psychological state; it does not reflect a real knowledge of what the future holds, or how they will cope with it.

I think where a lot of the tension between theists and atheists arises is in the area of science, and I *really* (yes, really) think that religious statements need to be kept out of science. From the scientific point of view, there is no point in postulating a god that scientifically "exists" - indeed, such silliness pollutes the endeavour. Many theist scientists accept this, and this is their practice. However, we do still frequently run across people who can't help but slot in the gods as explanations for the beginning of the universe, or life, or human consciousness, etc.

Atheists simply (and correctly) deny their basis for doing this. But that is not to deny what Christians "believe". Giving one's heart does not mean giving up one's brain. If "belief" is allowed to incorporate the crucial element of doubt - and even certain elements of contrary opinion (such as denial of the virgin birth or resurrection, or even "existence" of god), then we stand to learn a lot more about our own minds, and about each other.

But I expect many people will disagree with this :-)

Anonymous said...

It has not being the first time religion clothe themself in the sheep when they didnt hold power, and it will not be their first time they will be the wolf once they gain it again.

Of all i've studied the history of yours (and your particular branch of jesuit), its the same over and over again. "christian atheist" is just a "Pop star" name that clothes the incompatibiity of the pov, its a political commitement, not a reconciliation of cosmovisions.

Each sane and honest teologian know that once you embrace doubt, reason, science and naturalism it will corrode any religion to the core, and any compromise you made to be less than that is just a monster like Inteligent Design or the like that Templeton Foundation.

I as many atheist live in the process of dissecting its own belief and ended with you cannot call "christianity" or anything else for the matter.

Megan said...

I would also consider myself to be a Christian Atheist. My faith in God diminished a while ago, however I do believe that the moral philosophies of Jesus in addition to our intrinsic values can lead to happiness. I have even started a blog myself on this. However, for the larger questions in life I do indeed struggle.

Anders Branderud said...

You wrote: “or believers and unbelievers, the challenge is to surrender oneself to the quest for Truth, to embark upon the journey of questioning the very Meaning of human life.”

Since you are a Christian I think the website www.netzarim.co.il will be of interest to you. It contains research, previously unknown to most Christians, about Ribi Yehoshua (the Messiah) from Nazareth and what he and his followers taught. It is a essential read to learn about his teachings, which are in accordance with Torah – the instruction manual from the Creator.

His teachings will help you on the quest to find truth.

Have a very nice weekend!
Anders Branderud

pendens proditor said...

As an atheist, when you say things like, "belief and unbelief are united in the common soil of doubt and struggle," I just don't see myself in your depiction. As my theism gradually dissolved so did my struggle with the Great Unknown.

Human beings have an innate aversion to mystery. When we encounter it we must fill the void with something, anything, in order to regain our peace of mind. However this aversion must be overcome (through discipline) by anyone who wishes to embark on a "quest for truth" because someone who needs his voids neatly filled will inevitably sabotage his own progress.

For example, say I'm presented with a sack and I'm forbidden from touching it or lifting it and I'm not told what's inside. If I make a decision about what the sack contains, do I really gain anything? Am I any closer to the truth? Or have I just sated myself with the illusion of certainty that my human psyche craves? In my view I would have accomplished as much as chewing bubblegum accomplishes when you're starving. Someone who's genuinely after truth, however, will be honest with himself on the matter. He'll be okay with the fact that he has no clue what's in the sack. He'll realize that he can't increase the likelihood of the sack being filled with bricks or coconuts or pebbles just because he'd prefer it to be one or the other. The sack simply doesn't care what anyone thinks is inside it; it contains what it contains regardless.

So where belief in God is concerned, I see myself living in a world full of "brickists" and "coconutists" who are locked in a struggle that I find totally unnecessary. I would never argue that we should not be curious about what's in the sack, but we can only discover what's in it through objective investigation. Until we've done the investigating it's entirely appropriate to refrain from having any position whatsoever on what the sack contains. Sure, we can idly speculate, but there's no struggle in that. If we're truly unable to interact with the sack then it may be that we'll just never know what's in it. Again, that's okay. By deciding for ourselves what it contains we don't get any closer to the truth -- it just feels like we do. For many people feeling like a truthseeker and being a truthseeker are unfortunately the same thing.

So, I'm an atheist (yes, atheist, not agnostic, though technically also agnostic) because I don't have a reason to believe in a deity just as I don't have a reason to believe the sack is full of some item in particular. With good evidence I can be convinced. Maybe that evidence exists and maybe it doesn't (after years of philosophy and cognitive science studies I'm inclined to think that it doesn't and that there are much simpler explanations for our persistent belief). This, in my opinion is what it really means to care about truth: not caring about what the truth will end up being. God exists? Great. God doesn't exist? Great. Both realities are palatable to the genuine truthseeker. Whichever reality he exists in, he only cares that he comes to a correct belief about it; he cannot change it by will any more than he can change the sack contents.

Whenever I begin to struggle with mystery in the way you describe, I usually realize that I'm just chewing bubblegum again and the tension quickly subsides. I won't come to a better understanding of the universe by projecting my desires onto it and letting my hunger for answers lead me to unconsciously fabricate them. Objective investigation (sans expectations) is the only tool I have -- whether it can do the whole job or not. Even if this means that I'll always have one foot in the dark, I'm very comfortable with this. There is no battle with doubt here, only relaxed, open curiosity. I find that other atheists I talk to are similarly comfortable. This struggle that you endure seems to me to be yours alone.

Dean SJ said...

I won't pretend to be a learned theologian or philosopher here, but I want to offer my take. I would refer to myself as a Christian atheist. I don't see evidence of supernatural beings, places, zombies, or mythic spirits. I do think by sheer mathematical probability alien life exists but have doubts about us receiving visits. I was, however, raised in the catholic faith.

I would say the main issue I see as problematic for the faithful is the dogged emphasis of faith and belief over trying to emulate the good and loving works of Jesus. Perhaps the carrot and stick approach of heaven and hell, the all knowing vigilance of God has been a nessesary tool to keep humans' savage nature in check as much as possible.

Even so, isn't it about time clergy began devoting more effort encouraging the faithful ( and others) to take more Christlike activities helping and loving others? Why does it seem like so many church organizations put spreading the word, etcetera as their primary function. I like to ask those showing up at my door, "besides spreading the word, what good works does your church do?" most of the time I hear very little in terms of Jesus type caring. You know, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and downtrodden, loving those nobody seems to care about because they're old, or smell bad, or sleep by the railroad tracks. Instead what I see are fancy showpiece churches, and religious conventions in exotic locals and stadiums where people pay to sing and sway and be 'saved' but really do nothing selfless and caring like Jesus would.

If Jesus was just an extraordinary man who loved and cared and inspired untold millions to follow his example, does it really matter so much if he was divine or not?