Perhaps one of the most basic assumptions that underlie much debate between Christians and atheists is that the two positions represent polar opposites, between which no common ground exists. Not only are the two positions ultimately irreconcilable, they are also in total and complete opposition to each other. There is no way in which disagreements can be knocked down to size, and the debate honed and focused, as the antithesis is absolute. There is no scope for appreciative dialogue, or to learn from each other. One of the most immediate effects of this assumption is to raise the temperature of our conversations significantly.
Ben Myers of Faith and Theology, wrote a very thoughtful piece a year or so ago, in which he remarked upon the complex relationship that Christian thought and atheism bear to each other, a relationship that is far less obviously one of diametrical opposition than is commonly supposed:
In the 20th century, the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth would begin his courses not with the Bible but with Feuerbach – that brilliant atheist who argued that “God” is a fantastically large projection of ourselves. Far from trying to refute this argument, Barth insisted that it is the beginning of wisdom, the true point of departure for all Christian thought.
Even more pointedly, a contemporary theologian like Jürgen Moltmann can insist that “only a Christian can be a good atheist!” That may be overstating the matter, but it is nevertheless true that Christians have always had a vested interest in thinking critically and subversively about the very idea of God and the uses to which it is put. This is why in the work of great religious thinkers – Kierkegaard or Milton or Dostoevsky – one can scarcely tell at times whether they are advocating belief in God or the most devastating atheism. The line between the two is often blurred.
At its best, atheism is a questioning tradition that thinks ‘unflinchingly about what it means to be human in a world without God.’ It is a tradition that resolutely challenges the self-delusions that we entertain in order to avoid the pain and shame of the world stripped naked by truth. The facile confusion of atheism with anti-theism represents a shrinking back from the discomforting and unsettling tradition of genuine atheism, a tradition that can leave its adherents disoriented and uncertain of their footing, into a movement that casually dismisses and ridicules others, while priding itself in its intellectual superiority. ‘Enlightenment’ becomes a boast freed from all burden. This is an ‘atheism’ no longer confronting the prospect of an abyss yawning beneath its feet.
Christianity has its own related forms of failure of nerve, as we close off our questions to the icy draft of reality, and lock ourselves into a sterile dogmatism. If the casual confidence of the anti-theist, who will rigorously question everything save the ground he is standing on, is unworthy of being associated with the best of the atheistic tradition, the unquestioning tribalistic opinion that masquerades as ‘faith’ in many Christian circles is no less unworthy of association with the best of our tradition.
The ‘Atheist’ Voice of Christianity
Any serious thinking Christian should be able to recognize some profoundly Christian elements in the atheist tradition, and should be at once heartened and troubled by that fact. Long before the dawn of modern atheism, the early Christians were known as ‘atheists’, on account of their denial of the gods of paganism. While many might regard this as an accident of shared designation, I believe that there are grounds for identifying a deeper affinity between the movements.
A central feature of Christianity is an attack upon idolatry, and the manner in which it holds people hostage. While some might regard biblical attacks upon idolatry as a cynical means by which to secure the allegiance of the faithful, the underlying intention is liberational. The goal of the teaching on idolatry is to exalt mankind above the petty things to which we would otherwise devote our service, ensuring that humanity is oriented towards something greater, which will serve to render us even more deeply human. Belief in falsehood imprisons and impoverishes us. We become like the things that we worship and when something that is less than fully personal and humanizing becomes our focus of concern, we will gradually become dehumanized. False gods will ensnare our entire existence in untruth. Consequently, the interrogation of our beliefs and practices, the honing of our worship, the questioning of our conceptions of God, and an uncompromising rejection of idolatry in all of its forms are characteristic of Christian faith and practice (perhaps most especially in the context of traditional Protestantism).
Atheist thought shares a similar impulse, but believes that Christian faith itself falls under the category of false belief. I do not believe that it is an accident that atheism has found some of its most fertile soil in the context of cultures that have been leavened by Christian – and especially Protestant – thought. It is also interesting to observe how atheists often charge Christians with false (‘idolatrous’) belief in a manner that strikes notes that, despite themselves, can sound almost Christian. Who cannot read Marx or Feuerbach’s descriptions of religion, for instance, without hearing an echo of the sentiments of Old Testament prophets?
The target of much atheist protest is the god that secures all meaning and makes sense of the world, the religion that serves as a crutch and underwrites the social order, the faith that inures one to truth and reality and gives birth to dulling and enslaving illusion. This is the god in whom they don’t believe. They might be surprised to find that Christians stand alongside them in attacking this deity: we don’t believe in that god either.
Christian thought involves a radical challenge to the way that we naturally view and ‘use’ god. It strikes at the idea of the distant and transcendent absolute being, believing that God was revealed in human flesh, with all that that entails. Christians believe that God came in a regular human body and pooped, sweat, and ate, just like the rest of us. Christians overturn the deity that underwrites and secures the pyramidical hierarchy, teaching that God himself became a servant for our sakes.
Christian faith teaches that God gave himself to die a criminal’s death at the hand of man and that he was dead for a few days. We believe that God’s character was most fully revealed, not in the beauty and perfection of nature, or the stillness of the human heart, but in a mangled and bloodied body on a Roman cross. It is in this eclipse of all light, and even the knowledge of God’s presence, that God’s face is most powerfully disclosed: God makes himself known in this moment of hell. It is also ultimately by this means that God achieves his purposes in the world, not by mere detached fiat.
If God himself felt the deep absence of God (‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me…?’), such an experience is far from alien – indeed, it is completely proper – to Christ-ian faith. Only Christians have a Holy Saturday, the day when God himself lay dead in the tomb, the day when all lights are out. As Tomáš Halík observes in his superb Patience With God, a living with the silence of God is integral to Christian faith and piety, an experience that bears much in common with that of atheists, but that the distinguishing character of the Christian response to this silence is patience.
In other words, Christians believe in an upside-down God, who stands utterly opposed to the deity that human beings naturally believe – or don’t believe – in. In the protests of atheists against this supposed deity, Christians can recognize the voice of the biblical prophets railing against the idols and false gods of the surrounding nations. In the moral protests of atheists against the injustice of the world, and any attempt to palliate us to this by reassuring theodicies, Christians can recognize the voice of the psalmist, who is inspired by God to challenge and question God. In response to the atheists who complain of God’s absence, Christians speak of exactly the same the experience (the ‘dark night of the soul’), the difference being that for Christians this is something to be passed through with struggling patience. In response to those atheists who resist attempts to impose meaning upon suffering and death, Christians can highlight the example of Job’s resistance to his counsellors. In response to the atheists who speak of the opacity of the world, Christians can point to the book of Ecclesiastes.
If atheists question God, believers in YHWH have been doing it for millennia. Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of the Jewish nation, was given the name ‘Israel’ after wrestling with God. The Bible is filled with examples and patterns of wrestling with and questioning God, and demolishing the comforting idolatrous notions that people have about him.
Christ, the Question
Christians often proclaim that Christ is ‘the Answer’. This is true enough, but perhaps the more exciting truth is that Christ is the Question. A question is something with the power to open up your world. A question is something that you can follow into the unknown. One could argue that it is our choice of and relationship to our questions, rather than our answers, that most defines us. Not all questions are helpful, and many questions lead nowhere. However, some questions have proved so fertile that they have continued for millennia.
The most important thinkers in human history are not those who have given the cleverest answers, but those whose work has posed the profoundest questions. It is a question that underlies and drives every quest. It is in this respect that Christ towers over all others, as God’s own Question to man. Christ is the Word of God that opens the conversation and poses a Question that touches to the quick of our entire reality. It is through this Question that we, like Augustine, become questions to ourselves.
In looking at atheism, I am often struck by the manner in which the strongest forms of questioning atheism can seem particularly Christian, and could not grow from another religion in the same manner. It is within Christianity in particular that the idea of God as the guarantor of some tidy cosmic meaning is undermined. The book of Job is a great example of this. All of the attempts to give meaning to Job’s experience collapse. This undermining of the notion of cosmic meaning reaches its completion when God himself dies on a cross. The opacity of meaning and the throwing open of reality to radical questioning is profound.
The Christian distinction between God and creation had much the same effect. The world ceased to be a divine thing, or a prison of determinism, but became simply ‘the world’. Scientific questioning of reality was empowered by the Christian (and especially Protestant) attack upon idolatry and superstition.
The light of Christ’s advent brings with it the means by which other realities can be exposed. It is through the light that we discern the darkness. In our society’s account of justice, ethics, goodness, beauty, and evil the light of Christ still shines, granting these notions a clarity that they would not otherwise possess in a culture that was not haunted by him. It was through Christ that many of the core concepts of humanism most powerfully impinged upon our consciousness: personhood, the dignity of man, genuine freedom. We should not presume upon this knowledge not retreating with the withdrawing tide. As Christ is denied, the descent to the gloaming begins, and these notions, and the cultural quests they once encouraged grow dim, and our feet begin to stumble on uncertain ground.
Christianity provided one of the greatest challenges to state domination, and one of the greatest sources of questioning of it. As Peter Leithart has argued in his book, Defending Constantine, Christianity desacralized the state, exposing it to a deeper questioning. Many of the questions that underlie Western political thought arise out of a specifically Christian context of thought. Christianity also powerfully relativized the social-symbolic substance, both through its eschatology, and through its practice of the Church. Ultimately a Christian was not a Jew or a Greek, a slave or a free person, a male or a female, but a person in Christ, possessing equal dignity with all others. This understanding of the person called the social structure and its settled inequalities into question and gave a face to people who were faceless, sensitizing Western culture to the oppressed and alienated and exalting the person above their place in the social structure. Further examples, such as the scapegoat theory of Réné Girard could be mentioned here, could be brought forward of illustrations of the manner in which Christianity exposed all reality to deep questioning, thereby rendering every aspect of our existence a quest.
The manner in which the ‘Christian revolution’ (as David Bentley Hart terms it) threw the natural world, political authorities, social and economic structures, the complexities of existence, and our very own selves wide open to questioning (to a degree that the Greek philosophical tradition couldn’t quite do by itself) is one of the reasons why I still find it so important in my own thinking. Although many atheists engage in such radical questioning, one wonders whether atheism itself can provide either the sort of enlightenment or the source of questioning that Christianity has and does. The character of much recent atheism provides little encouragement on this front. In certain quarters, the sort of radical and transformative questioning that forged Western society has shrunk to the trickle of the disengaged cynicism and irony of self-assured elites, delighting in the frisson of a sterile novelty. This worries me, precisely because it is the slow progress of the deep questioning started by the Christian faith that has led to much of the freedom that we enjoy in the West. Any atheism or Christianity that neglects this tradition of questioning exposes us to the risk of losing our freedoms and the introduction of a new darkness.
The bold and terrifying metaphysical questions that one finds in the atheists that knew and experienced what Christianity is, and how much Western society, its ethical vision, and their own questioning tradition owes to the Christian legacy are far more profound (often seeking to ask with even greater force the questions that Christianity first threw open). For instance, they recognize the loss of a degree of our ability to question our actions with the abandonment of terms such as sin and evil. Such a form of atheism recognizes that certain questions are not accessible to everyone, and that, with their atheism, they must risk forfeiting certain lines of questioning that once illuminated reality.
In short, I do not believe that Christianity and atheism are as far apart or unrelated as people may think. There are good reasons why atheism found its most fertile soil in the lands of Christendom, and of Protestantism in particular (a movement particularly sensitized to the dangers of idolatry and superstition). Atheists work with the legacy of Christianity a lot more than most Christians and atheists realize.
What does this mean for Christians and atheists? I believe that Christians can often see in atheists disavowed aspects of their own faith, which have been neglected or rejected on account of their troubling character. The questions of the atheists are often Christian questions, questions that we should be asking too. One wonders whether, if Christians had the courage to embark upon the quests that Christ opens for us, atheism would be quite so powerful a movement in Western culture. I suspect that atheism is a ‘question’ from God to us. Perhaps when we don’t faithfully ask God’s questions, God will get others to ask them for us and of us. In our relationship to atheists, I believe that we should recognize a kinship, and should explore the place of ‘atheist’-type voices within Christian faith itself (without obviously denying the existence of God). Unbeknownst to them, atheists are squandering an unacknowledged patrimony in the far country. This is another sense in which atheism can be seen as a ‘question’ to us: can we see ourselves in our atheist friends, and recognize them as our kin?
For atheists, I believe that the challenge is to relate to the explicit character of Christian thought, and not to some supposed natural conception of deity that is exploded in Christ and the upside-down God of the gospel. I believe that atheists should seek to discover the source of their questions, and ask themselves whether these questions will survive the departure of God. Finally, I believe that many atheists have a grasp – and a stronger one than one than many Christians – of certain aspects of the truth. I believe that these can be shown to be fragments of a far deeper account, an account through which, paradoxically and unexpectedly, God is revealed to be all in all. The unresolved note left hanging in atheism rings clear but finds rest in the Christ of the gospel.