10 April 2008

The atheist's gift

Most believers I know don't spend much time hanging out with atheists, but maybe that's too bad.

Michael Ireland of ASSIST News Service recently interviewed Michael Shermer, founder of Skeptic magazine. It's a fascinating, revealing, troubling interview on several levels, which charity prevents me from enumerating. Anyway, I began asking myself the old questions about whether our evangelism is genuinely communicating with unbelievers, or is more an exercise we go through to reassure ourselves. If there's anything that atheists do for us, it is (at least!) to provide that much-needed reality check, providing we don't go out of our way to avoid them!

The whole interview reminded me of a quotation from Nikolai Berdyaev that I've spent a good part of the evening trying to track down. (I read it about thirty years ago.) Berdyaev said something like this: atheism is the dialectical purification of the church's collusion with oppression. (Can anyone help me find the actual quotation?) Thanks to Yakov Krotov's online library, I did find two other relevant quotations from Berdyaev:
Grace has nothing in common with our worldly understandings of obligation, strength, power, causality. Therefore grace is not only compatible with freedom--it is in unity with freedom. But theological doctrines rationalized grace and communicated a sociomorphized grace. For this reason, atheism ('high' atheism, not 'low' atheism) could be a dialetical cleansing of human ideas of God. Those who rebelled against God, because of the world's evil and unrighteousness, were assuming the existence of a higher truth--that is, in the final analysis, God. In the name of God they rose up against God; in the name of a purified understanding of God, they rose up against an understanding of God that had been contaminated by this world. [source]
We must liberate the idea of God from sociomorphism that distorts, degrades, and blasphemes that idea. Human beings can be horribly dehumanized; just so, God too has humanness and demands humanity. Humanity is the image of God in humans. Theology must be freed from sociology, which reflects the fallenness of the world and of humanity. Apophatic theology must go hand in hand with an apophatic sociology. This means purifying our perception of God from any hint of worldly theocracy. The absolutist-monarchist understanding of God has spawned atheism as a justifiable revolt. Atheism (not the vulgar, malicious kind but a higher atheism, acquainted with suffering) was a dialectical turning point in understanding God; it had a positive mission. In this atheism, a cleansing of the idea of God from false sociomorphism was accomplished--a cleansing from human inhumanity that had been objectified and carried over into the realm of transcendence. [source]
Once again, nearly a century later, atheists are reminding us that our faith cannot depend on self-contained systems of ideas--the "the self-contained, internally-coherent belief system that is Christianity"... and that ultimately proved unsustainable for Shermer.

We are right to want to base our most intimate communities on a shared faith, but if those communities seal themselves off from any intellectual challenge, they will become micro-tyrannies, substituting group-think for actual knowledge of God, and unable to discern their drift away from the living God. As Shermer points out from his own experience, "The study of comparative world religions and mythologies from around the world showed me that other people believed just as passionately as I did that they were right and everyone else was wrong about religious beliefs that are mutually exclusive...." We are followers of Jesus not because the church has somehow patched together a religion that's superior to all those other religions--better art, architecture, ethics, miracles, divine beings; nor did we commit ourselves to Christ because someone held a winning hand of dazzling argumentation. (Well, I guess I'm speaking for myself!) We are followers because we are called and we are in relationship to the One who called.

This is why discipleship is far more important for the future of genuine Christianity than any vain attempt to maintain a higher social status or privileged position in society. Grace and relationship are the closest we can come in this life to "proof" of God's promises in Jesus. I can't blame anyone or any group for not taking us seriously if our relationship with that person or group has no grace in it.

[Updated version of this post is here.]

One Christian periodical that frequently has great interviews with atheists is The Wittenburg Door.

It was a lot of fun going through some of my old books in search of that Berdyaev quotation. I found a dusty copy of his Slavery and Freedom that I bought at the Book Exchange on Charles St., Boston, nearly 30 years ago. Next to it, equally dusty, was Nicolas Zernov's The Russian Religious Renaissance of the Twentieth Century, that I bought 31 years ago with my employee's discount at Canterbury House in Ottawa. I had made notes in both books, mostly on notecards, and I had that odd sensation (described beautifully in Milan Kundera's Ignorance) that someone else had written those notes in my handwriting. I found a Berdyaev quotation in my handwriting with the annotation "page 180"--but page 180 of what book? Not one I own. And more intriguing references with page numbers to some book somewhere: "Freedom as burden (Dost.) 28-9." "Moral action--bridge from necessity to freedom (Kant) 41." And I can see that I was already interested in the theme of objectification, which is still important to me.

And here are three cards with a whole sermon in my own handwriting, but I cannot remember writing or delivering that sermon, even though it's not bad. (It's hard to take credit for something I have no memory of composing!)

Looking through an issue of Charisma magazine yesterday, I saw a reference to Barack Obama as "just another pawn in Satan's kingdom who adheres to destructive liberal ideas." How those Christians love one another!

As I thought about that Obama reference, a caution just hit me: to relate with grace and courtesy to atheists does not mean to run down other Christians. There's plenty of stupidity in churchianity, and we're right to point it out, but to tear down actual people--those (fill in the blank with the category of your choice)--neither demonstrates graciousness nor builds credibility. With all my heart, I believe that President Bush and the neocons made terrible choices, and their methods verged on the demonic (employing deception to unleash a lethal conflict that continues to bleed us dry humanly, morally, financially, while not hesitating to use Christian celebrities to puff their case). But I will not call them pawns of Satan or any other name that implies I know more about their spiritual situations than I actually do.

I was visiting a city in the Midwest last weekend, and went to an unprogrammed Friends meeting on Sunday morning. Talk about a low-overhead religion. There were six adults and two children present; although two of the adults took turns worshipping and providing child care outside for one of the children. Of the five adults other than me, four were new to the meeting, having been present either once or twice before. Only one was a long-time participant.

I am all in favor of meetings growing and being large and attracting lots of people. But I also need to report that our tiny group had a wonderful meeting for worship, followed by a delightful time of conversation. Lesson 1: The Holy Spirit does not discriminate! Lesson 2: One committed Friend, anchoring the community at a known time and an accessible place, performs a precious ministry.

Righteous links:

Those "destructive liberals" turn out an embarrassingly large number of times to take biblical positions. Today's exhibit: "Illegal immigration is a red herring."

Simon Barrow's own concern to communicate a non-"sociomorphic," authentic Gospel (to borrow from Berdyaev for a moment) is often reflected in his blog. Here he meditates on "The elusiveness of God."

A fascinating public correspondence across the militarized boundary between Israel and Gaza: Life must go on in Gaza and Sderot. (Thanks to blogger.com's "Blogs of note.")

Bending my usual categories for the sake of the purest nostalgia: Jr. Walker and the All Stars. (Another artist whose album I cherished as a teenager, but kept hidden from my family.)

Junior Walker and the All Stars, Shake and... by johanpdx


anj said...

Sunday am, before my husband and I leave for MFW, we do home church with our teen-age sons. This Sunday I was angry when I woke up, not sure where we needed to go to spend time with God, unsure of what I could do, angry that I felt alone in my desire to connect during this time as a family. I read this post and the Spirit used these words to speak to my condition and gentle my anger - Lesson 1: The Holy Spirit does not discriminate! Lesson 2: One committed Friend, anchoring the community at a known time and an accessible place, performs a precious ministry.- Our time as a family Sunday am was my best of the weekend. Thank you for your part in that.

Johan Maurer said...

You are so welcome, and thank you for telling me!