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.  
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