Tag Archives: Atheism

Mortals Die, and are Laid Low

tumblr_ma8azfhZEg1rgpruxo3_r3_1280[1]A couple years ago in a course that I was team-teaching with two other colleagues, the final seminar text of the semester was Shakespeare’s King Lear. One of my teaching colleagues, an accomplished Shakespeare scholar, described the play on the syllabus as simply “the greatest play ever.” I love Shakespeare and find his plays more insightful about human nature and the human condition than any other texts (certainly more insightful than any philosophical tomes I have read), but had not read this particular tragedy in its entirety since I was an undergraduate the age of our current eighteen and nineteen year old freshmen. The play blew me away, disturbed me, and made me wonder whether we perhaps should have sent our students off into the summer with something slightly less dark.

King Lear pushes to the limit a hypothesis that has a long and complicated pedigree: We live in a universe that is malign, at the very least indifferent, and human life within this universe is brutal, wretched, and meaningless. As various nasty and morally awful characters—including Lear’s two older daughters—apparently prosper from their rejection of their father, those characters with even a shred of dignity, honor, or love—including Lear’s youngest daughter—are rejected and ultimately destroyed. By the end of the play, the stage is littered with the bodies of both the good and the bad, while a handful of dazed survivors are left to pick up the pieces. Naked in a driving storm in the middle of a Scottish heath, Lear rages that human beings are nothing but “poor, bare forked animals,” living on a “great stage of fools.” Lear demands an answer to the question “Is man no more than this?” The blinded Gloucester despairingly directs his accusations heavenward:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods; They kill us for their sport.imagesCAOCS0RP

And have a nice day.

King Lear took me back to a Holy Saturday liturgy a few years ago. At our Episcopal church, our rector Marsue decided for the first time in her many years as a priest to do the Holy Saturday liturgy. Holy-Saturday-e1364654989214[1]It’s a tough sell to get people to church on any Saturday except for a wedding or funeral, particularly during Holy Week when the most dedicated may have already been in church two or three times in the previous few days. I was one of only a few people present; if any of us had possessed the presence of mind to check the prayer book before coming, we probably wouldn’t have bothered. It’s a very dark liturgy. Jesus is dead in the tomb, the altar is stripped bare, and everything in the rubric is intended to get you notjob[1] to think about what is coming the next day. A central line in one of the prayers that day was “In the midst of life we are in death” Most striking that afternoon, however, was the following from the book of Job:

A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last . . . For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease . . . But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep.

These lines would have been appropriate in the mouths of any number of characters in King Lear, but they predate Shakespeare by thousands of years. The earliest text my interdisciplinary class studied this academic year, the gilandenki[1]Epic of Gilgamesh, is infused with similar energies—fear of death, as well as impotence in the face of forces we cannot control.

In the middle of Easter season, it is easy for Christians to immediately address these dark realities with the story of divine suffering and redemption that lies at the heart of Christian belief. And that is the message—God has overcome darkness and death, a victory that we are the beneficiaries of.  Yet it is so easy for this powerful story to become little more than a superficial panacea for all the darkness and loss that surrounds each of us, a truism that can blind us to an otherwise inescapable truth: mortals die, and are laid low. And during its short duration, human life is often filled with nothing but suffering, pain, and meaninglessness.

The great eighteenth-century essayist and philosopher Voltaire once provocatively wrote that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”voltaire_if_god_did_not_exist_necessary_to_invent_postcard-r747d414000d64546b6a280ed3f476a5d_vgbaq_8byvr_210[1] This statement shook up a number of Voltaire’s contemporaries, leading many to imagine that any person who could write such a thing seriously must be an atheist. The statement remains provocative, and it is clear from his body of work that whatever Voltaire might have been, he was not a traditional religious believer in any sense of the word. But with the apparent meaninglessness of human existence and reality in view, Voltaire’s famous claim is absolutely true. There is something about the darkest and most sobering parts of human reality that cry out for, actually demand, a response. The human epitaph cannot be “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.”

All sorts of responses, ranging from religious through philosophical and literary to political, have been offered over the centuries, responses that often conflict with each other and even more frequently fail to take the fundamental problem on squarely. Which of these stories is true? More importantly, how can we know if any of them are true? How can we be sure that these stories are anything more than a collection of tunes human beings have written to whistle in the dark until the night overwhelms them? I submit that we cannot be sure. Yet billions of people have been willing to shape their lives, to stake their very existence at least virtually, sometimes literally, on the truth of one or more of these stories. Simone_Weil-11[1]Why? Because there is something in the human heart that has to believe them, something that has to hope. And it is that very longing and hope that is perhaps most convincing. As Simone Weil reminds us, “if we ask our Father for bread, he will not give us a stone.”

The third and final portion of Handel’s Messiah,handels-messiah[1] immediately following the “Hallelujah Chorus,” begins with “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth,” a soaring, spectacularly beautiful soprano solo setting of the following text from Job, with a concluding sentiment from First Corinthians:

I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth;

And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.

For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.

From the depths of despair, literally from the middle of a pile of ashes, Job clings to a hopeful story, that there is a transcendent and triumphant divine response to human incapacity, despair, and hopelessness. It’s a wonderful story. How can I not believe it? I hope and pray that it is true. It had better be.

Getting Ready for the Apocalypse

A colleague and friend from the English department contacted me a few months ago and asked if I would be interested in developing a team-taught course with him to be taught for the first time in the Spring 2018 semester. This is one of the things I love about teaching at my college. Because the core program at the center of our extensive core curriculum–a program that I directed for the four years that ended just before my sabbatical last year–is taught by teams of colleagues from all over campus, the opportunities for collaboration across disciplines are abundant, as are the chances to create new courses from scratch. My colleague, with whom I taught for a semester several years ago during his first semester at the college, suggested to me that we create a course called “Apocalypse,” which we eventually described in our official proposal as follows:

This colloquium asks students to think about how civilization – and even humanity itself – might end.  With a bang? A whimper? A rapture? A zombie apocalypse? Visions of the destruction of civilization are currently experiencing a renaissance, from literature to television, film, and video games.  The “Apocalypse” colloquium is designed to connect this contemporary moment with the long tradition of apocalyptic writing and thinking.  Since their appearance, human beings have expressed their fears and hopes about the end of the world.  By asking students to think about the end of civilization and its aftermaths, we invite them to reconsider some of the fundamental questions their earlier core classes:  what is civilization? what responsibilities do human beings have to each other? what role does the divine play in promoting moral behavior? what is virtue, and does it apply in all circumstances? what things are essential in life? At a time when a poor internet connection or missed flight or speeding ticket can seem like a minor catastrophe, it can be instructive to imagine life in a world without electricity, planes, cars, police, or laws.

Truth be told, this topic is well outside my areas of expertise–I agreed to develop the course with my colleague because I thought it would be fun to teach with him again. In addition, I do have some experience with apocalyptic thinking–I was raised in it.

A new HBO miniseries called “The Leftovers” began a few years ago. TLindelof-The-Leftovers-HBOhis is the sort of series that I usually have no interest in—something weird has happened (like a huge invisible dome randomly dropping on top of a town) and the entertainment of the series is to see how people deal with the new situation. As my father would have said, it’s fun to observe a cow’s reaction to a new barn door. Shows with such premises are generally too Stephen King-ish for my taste. But the idea kernel behind “The Leftovers” is different.video-the-leftovers-trailer-shows-us-what-the-rapture-looks-like On a seemingly unimportant day, October 14th to be exact, millions of people worldwide inexplicably disappear into thin air. Here one moment, gone the next. The first episode of “The Leftovers” drops us three years later into a small Pennsylvania community as they prepare for a third year anniversary celebration (wake? remembrance?) of the dozens of friends and family members who evaporated on October 14. So what makes this bizarre premise any more interesting than a giant dome falling out of the sky? This one hits close to home, because in the parlance of the people I grew up with, the October 14 event that is at the heart of this show is the Rapture.

rapture_1_I don’t know if “Rapture Obsession” is an official medical diagnosis, but whether it is or not my family, my church, and just about everyone I knew growing up had it. In spades. The basic idea is simple—Jesus is coming back. And when he does, he’s going to take those who believe in him, who have “accepted Christ as their personal savior,” with him back to heaven (the Rapture) and leave the billions of unraptured losers here on earth for a seven-year period known as the Tribulation during which, literally, all hell will break loose. Armageddon. The Antichrist. The Apocalypse. All of these are triggered by the massive in-gathering of the faithful. At least in my youthful understanding, the primary reason to put up with all of the restrictions, limitations, and general annoyance of being a Christian was to guarantee that one is going and not staying when the Rapture occurs. Not that there was any solid guarantee that I was “in” rather than “out.” I spent many panicked moments as a youngster when my mother wasn’t where I expected her to be thinking that the Rapture had occurred and I was screwed.

Where did people get such a ridiculous idea from? The textual evidence in the Bible, surprisingly, is relatively thin and mixed at best. There are a few cryptic comments in the Gospels, a few more hints in Paul’s letters, but the bulk of the relevant material is in the Bible-closing Book of Revelation and the Book of Daniel from the Hebrew scriptures (as read through Christian filters), material containing predictions so cryptic and visions so strange as to suggest that the authors were on hallucinogenics. 375px-Tribulation_views_svgThere’s enough there to draw one’s attention if one is so inclined, but not enough for anyone to be sure about what the texts actually mean.

But that didn’t stop my church community from being sure as hell (!) that we were in and just about everyone else (including Catholics, Universalists, and tons of other people who claimed to be Christians) was out. There was plenty of debate about the details. We believed that the Rapture would be the official kick-off of the Tribulation (we were “Pre-Trib” people), but some Rapture believers thought it would happen half-way through the Tribulation (“Mid-Trib”) and some even thought it would happen at the end, just before the Final Judgment (“Post-Trib”—I never saw the point of a Post-Trib Rapture). Pastors preached on it, Bible scholars and experts gave week-long conferences piggy-backed on revivals (my Dad was one of these experts), The_Late,_Great_Planet_Earth_coverand we all went into a tizzy when in 1970 evangelical minister Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, called “the number one non-fiction bestseller of the decade” by the New York Times, exploded on the scene. And this is not a dated phenomenon. Hal Lindsey’1972 bestselling sequel had the eye-catching title Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth; a brief Internet search or a Sunday road trip to the closest megachurch will confirm that Rapture mania is also alive and well on planet Earth. “The Leftovers” is likely to be a big hit.

perrotta__120628065425-275x411I first became aware of the series when Tom Perotta, whose novel the series is based on, made the rounds of my favorite NPR shows the week before its debut. In one of the interviews, Perotta said that part of his research for the book was living as an embedded person in a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian community and church for a certain amount of time, sort of like how the Soviet spies in “The Americans” live embedded in Maryland as a typical middle-class 1980s American couple. Assuming that, as always, the book would be better than the television series (it is), I ordered The Leftovers, published in 2011, from Amazon. It is clear from the outset that Perotta had done his homework well; on page 3 of the novel’s Prologue, the narrator describes that, as one might expect, there is a great deal of confusion and debate about “what just happened” in the weeks following October 14th—was it the Rapture or not? Many argued that it couldn’t have been.

Interestingly, some of the loudest voices making this argument belonged to Christians themselves, who couldn’t help noticing that many of the people who’d disappeared on October 14th—Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews and atheists and animists and homosexuals and Eskimos and Mormons and Zoroastrians, whatever the heck they were—hadn’t accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior. left-behind-people-on-rapture-dayAs far as anyone could tell, it was a random harvest, and the one thing the Rapture couldn’t be was random. The whole point was to separate the wheat from the chaff, to reward the true believers and put the rest of the world on notice. An indiscriminate Rapture was no Rapture at all.

My church would have been at the forefront of those who denied that this was the Rapture on theological grounds. It would be understandable if not everyone in our congregation was raptured—not everyone was a good enough Christian. Those in the inner circle would have even been happy to predict who was not sufficiently up to snuff. But non-Christians? Atheists? Catholics, for God’s sake? Underlying Rapture obsession and mania is the very familiar human attempt to put God in a box, to figure out ahead of time what God is up to, what God is like, and what God likes best—then to act accordingly. A rapture such as fictionalized in The Leftovers is such an affront to our best efforts at putting the divine in a straitjacket that it has to be rejected as something other than the real thing. young_earthMaybe God threw this pseudo-rapture into the mix early just to test our faith, I can hear someone suggesting, sort of like God planted dinosaur fossils and made the earth appear to be several billion years old rather than the few thousand that the Bible says, just to fuck us up (for a good reason, of course).

Truth be told, though, the random harvest described in The Leftovers sounds exactly like something God might do, once as many human boxes and straitjackets for the divine as possible are left behind. God’s apparent randomness and lack of respect for our human obsession with fairness and justice is on display everywhere. It is entirely understandable that Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? has been a record-breaking bestseller. The very process of natural selection that has and continues to produce the vast diversity of living things is energized by randomness and chance. For those who insist on going to their favorite sacred text to get a handle on the divine, you need go no further than Jesus’ observations that “it rains on the just and the unjust” and “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” Every time we believe we have God figured out, it is good to remember that if you want to give God a good laugh, just tell her your plans.when-will-the-rapture-happen-flowchart

Just Do It

I9780547725147_custom-7ea8f0969dfd404059558eab13a60fdfc6cf6a67-s6-c30n the early hours of a Sunday morning not long ago, I read the final pages of Daša Drndić’s Trieste, the most powerful, unrelenting and unforgiving book related to the Holocaust I have ever read. As a reviewer for Amazon wrote, “Trieste is not a book for the faint-hearted, either in style or subject. . . . Enter if you are brave enough, and if you stay the course you will be changed.” No one—those in authority, the church, those who turned their heads, those who simply did whatever they could to stay alive—are spared in this brutally honest and unflinching account of what human beings are capable of.

As I read I was reminded of something a post-Holocaust Jewish theologian wrote: “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.” 5210537_f248With regard to those men who were at the same time both murderous killers and yet tender fathers and husbands, Drndić writes that a father is not “a sacrosanct being. . . . There are no sacrosanct beings. Even God is not sacrosanct, perhaps He least of all.” To those who wish to excuse the culpable silence and frequent collaboration of religious institutions, she writes that “this caricatured parade and more than revolting fabrication, this costumed theatre of transparent lies and empty promises should be done away with right now, once and for all.”

And then Jeanne and I went to church. I was lector, she was chalice bearer—we couldn’t skip, but I was hardly in the mood. I was responsible for the Isaiah reading from the Jewish scriptures, a text I had briefly glanced at during the week, describing it to Jeanne as “kind of weird.” At the lectern, I found myself channeling something unexpectedly disturbing.

Isaiah 58 begins with the prophet mimicking the complaints of the “house of Jacob”: We have been fasting and humbling ourselves, just as you require. Why aren’t you answering our prayers? Why aren’t you taking notice? In response the prophet laughs with the voice of God. pisaiah“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight. Is such the fast that I choose? . . . Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?” In other words, your “fast-day” is all about you. It’s all about your pitiful and self-centered attempts to twist divine favor in your direction. It’s all about having convinced yourself that skipping a few meals, attending a few extra meetings at your preferred house of worship, that arguing with each other about which forms of ritual are best, are all that it takes to draw God’s favorable attention. “You call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”

You want to know what a real fast-day would be like? What it would really be like if you humbled yourselves? Here’s a clue:

script_poster_5_isaiah_585B15DTo loose the bonds of injustice

To undo the thongs of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free

To share your bread with the hungry

To bring the homeless and poor into your house

To cover the naked when you see them

Try doing that for a while and see what happens.

As I considered in a post shortly after the November election, Jesus says this sort of thing frequently in the Gospels.

http://freelancechristianity.com/blessed/

But in Isaiah’s prophetic tones, the call to attend to the hungry, poor, widows and orphans is not a suggestion or an invitation to try out something new, as we might mistakenly read the New Testament texts. imagesThe text from Isaiah is a flat out command. Just f–king do it. And until you do, stop pretending that you are anything other than a self-centered piece of crap. And stop expecting anything other than a perpetuation of the continuing, sad human story of injustice and violence. Period.

As I haphazardly told Jeanne about some of the difficult aspects of Trieste on the drive to church, she said “I hope I die before this all happens again. Because it will—eventually no one will remember.” As my teaching colleague and I proceed through the early weeks of our colloquium on the Nazi era with very bright nineteen- and twenty-year-olds, the most frequent sort of question raised isReichsgründungsfeier, Schulklasse “How could they have done this?” or “How could people have gone along with those who were doing this?” Trieste has convinced me that before proceeding with these students, for whom the Holocaust is history as ancient as Julius Caesar and Pericles, to love, grace, truth and freedom in the midst of horror, perhaps more time should be spent in the horror part. No one in Trieste dropped in from an evil planet other than Earth—each person is a human being with darkness ready to erupt when inattentiveness and self-interest push common human decency into the background.

tumblr_l5rqy6R4A01qbmt20When one of the characters in Albert Camus’ The Plague is described as a “saint,” he responds “I have no interest in being a saint. I’m more interested in being a man.” This strikes me as a good place to start. A central problem illuminated by texts such as Isaiah and Trieste is the powerful human tendency to set the moral bar so low that even the most basic moral behavior looks like heroism or sainthood—a standard perhaps to be admired but not one that I hold myself to. We are told in sacred texts over and over again that God demands that we be fundamentally aware of each other. But the belief that basic morality and common decency require a conscious awareness of needs other than our own, particularly those of other human beings, need not be rooted in religious faith or practice. Whatever it takes to convince even a few of us that not only our thriving, but our very existence and survival depends on expanding the membership of our moral community to more than one is worth hanging on to.

On the final page of The Plague, at the end of a harrowing tale of individuals fighting against an out-of-control evil that could not be stopped, the main character Dr. Rieux takes stock of what he has learned now that the plague has left as inexplicably as it came. “He knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saint but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.” 220px-William_James_b1842cThis is both a thankless and glorious assignment, one that William James in “The Will to Believe” recommends that we embrace with enthusiasm:

For my own part, I do not know what the sweat and blood and tragedy of this life mean, if they mean anything short of this. If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight,—as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem; and first of all to redeem our own hearts from atheisms and fears.

The Time of the Angels

Is there any true transcendence, or is this idea always a consoling dream projected by human need onto an empty sky? Iris Murdoch

 

I just finished reading Fredrick Backman’s A Man Called Ove, a novel I stumbled across in my college’s bookstore while looking for something else. I haven’t decided yet whether I give it a thumbs up or thumbs down, but one brief passage has stuck with me. As a sixteen-year old whose beloved father has just died (his mother died when he was much younger), Ove tells his parish vicar “that there was no need to reserve a place for him in the pews at Sunday service for the foreseeable future. Not because Ove did not believe in God . . . but because in his view this God seemed to be a bit of a bloody swine.” Those who are obsessed, as I am, with questions about what is greater than us often assume that the most important question is “Does God exist?” I submit that an even more problematic question is “What if God does exist, but has character traits entirely different from those we project heavenward?”

In her beautiful and moving memoir Testament of Youth, recently made testament of youthinto a major motion picture, Vera Brittain quotes the following excerpt from a letter she received from a friend, a man whom she would ultimately marry in middle age:

There is an abiding beauty . . . which may be appreciated by those who will see things as they are, and who will ask for no reward except to see. There is a high aesthetic pleasure in seeing the truth clear-eyed, and in not being afraid of things.

This expresses eloquently what many (including myself) would consider to be the ultimate driving force behind one of the highest of all human activities—the pursuit of truth. In many cases, such activities take on religious and spiritual significance—the search for transcendent Truth and God. Yet such pursuits are fraught with dangers and pitfalls from the start. What if human beings do not possess tools adequate or appropriate for the search? What if transcendent truth does not exist at all, and there are only little, contingent truths that we construct for our utilitarian and pragmatic purposes, then baptize as Absolute Truth? time of the angelsOr most problematically, what if transcendent Truth does exist, but it is radically different than what we believe or expect it to be, different in some disturbing, frightening, or nightmarish way?

In her darkest and most disturbing novel, The Time of the Angels, Iris Murdoch grapples directly with the possibility that we might want to think twice about pursuing ultimate truth. Marcus Fisher, one of the novel’s main characters, asks “Suppose the truth about human life were just something terrible, something appalling which one would be destroyed by contemplating?” The Time of the Angels is a complex novel whose central events are driven by one of the most dysfunctional families you’ll ever encounter. The various characters take very different approaches to what Murdoch elsewhere calls the most important question of the contemporary age: How is one to address human spiritual hunger and need in a post-theistic age?post-theism Murdoch takes it for granted that the traditional religious frameworks within which spiritual needs have been addressed and spiritual hungers have been satisfied traditionally are no longer meaningful for the vast majority of human beings. Through her characters, she provides a wide range of ways to cope with this situation.

The real philosophical interest and “heavy lifting” of the novel swirls around the Fisher brothers, Marcus and Carel. Marcus is an academic whose writing project is a book with the working title Morality in a World without God. Marcus’s strategy is to accept the challenge of preserving a transcendent framework for morality, given the demise of the traditional religious frameworks that have previously provided such support for moral absolutes. He intends to argue that the religious myths and models of the transcendent are disposable so long as some other transcendent concept occupies the vacated space. spongHis insight, in other words, is that morality requires rootedness in the transcendent, but perhaps most any transcendent concept will do.

The energies and concerns underlying Marcus’s thinking come to light during a conversation with the local Anglican Bishop and Nora, a no-nonsense neighborhood woman. The three are having tea and discussing what to do about Marcus’s brother Carel, an Anglican priest whose expressed atheism and erratic behavior have raised serious concerns in his new parish. For Nora, the problem has an easy solution—the crazy priest should be removed by the Bishop, since “it is highly dangerous for an unbalanced man to have that sort of power.” The Bishop, surprisingly, disagrees, showing an unwillingness to make moral judgments of any sort (“let he who is without neurosis cast the first stone”), let alone one this specific. As the conversation progresses, the Bishop appears to be rather unconcerned about the imminent loss of traditional religious structures or even about conventional and traditional conceptions of morality. God and moralityMarcus begins to perceive the dangers of divorcing morality from a belief in a good God or a benign transcendence and realizes that although in the post-modern world it might be “cutting edge” and “intelligent” to reject the idea of God, he surely doesn’t want to live in a world in which everyone has done so.

It occurred to him now how much it mattered to him that all that business should still go on in the old way. He did not believe in the redeeming blood of Jesus, he did not believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, but he wanted other people to believe. He wanted the old structure to continue there beside him, nearby, something he could occasionally reach out and touch with his hand.

What if there truly is no God? Much worse than that, what if there is something transcendent, but it is dangerous, black, destructive? With no underlying guarantees, anything seems possible, including the worst.

As noted above, Marcus’s brother Carel is an Anglican priest who, despite the fact that he has lost his faith (or worse), has been assigned to a parish in London whose church and parish house are in partial ruin, unrestored since being bombed during the blitz in World War II. church blitzHe is a recluse, refusing to see anyone but the odd handful of persons living in his household. Marcus spends a good deal of the book trying to see him; when he finally succeeds, Carel’s soliloquy raises some of the most disturbing possibilities concerning transcendence that can be imagined. Priests have lost their faith before—in Murdoch’s novels, most of them do—but Carel is unusual in pushing his “there is no God” hypothesis to its logical conclusions. Most non-theists are like Marcus, paying lip service to the loss of familiar structures, yet naively hoping that the moral “good stuff” can be preserved and packaged in a less simplistic way. As Carel suggests, however, the truth may be too terrible to even consider.

Suppose the truth were awful, suppose it was just a black pit, or like birds huddled in the dust in a dark cupboard? Suppose only evil were real, only it was not evil since it had lost even its name? Who could face this? The philosophers have not even tried . . . And if they did perhaps, through some crack, some fissure in the surface, catch sight of that, they ran straight back to their desks, they worked harder than ever late into the night to explain that it was not so, to prove that it could not be so. you can't handle the truthThey suffered, they even died for this argument, and called it the truth.

When we believe we are searching for God, suppose we are just furiously constructing barriers between ourselves and a truth we suspect but cannot face? Perhaps the job of the philosopher and the theologian is not so much to pursue the truth as to construct better and better ways to protect us from it. This is not a matter of weakness or delusion—it’s a matter of survival. As Carel concludes:

With or without the illusion of God, goodness is impossible to us. We have been made too low in the order of things. God made it impossible that there should be true saints. But now he is gone we are not set free for sanctity. We are the prey of the angels.

Marcus has no answer for Carel. Perhaps consistent with the vision of reality he has presented, Carel ultimately commits suicide. Iris Murdoch once said that the best question that anyone can ask is “What are you afraid of?” IrisIn an interview, the question was once turned back on her by the interviewer—in response she identified her greatest fear.

I think I’m afraid of somehow finding out that it doesn’t really matter how you behave, that morality is just a superficial phenomenon. I don’t think one could find this out, it’s just a bogey; the impossibility of finding it out is very deep in moral philosophy. I don’t believe in God, but I think morality is fundamental to human life.

In other words, she is most afraid that Carel is right and Marcus is wrong. Yet she implies that perhaps it is truly impossible for a human being to believe that.

I agree. The option is always available to deny the existence of anything greater than us—it is a logically coherent position. It is also possible that the inherent human hope for goodness and justice is a firewall we create against the intrinsic evil and horror of reality. magdaBut I’m not buying it. Although I am very hesitant to say anything with certainty about God, I agree with Magda Trocme:

If there weren’t somewhere a source of hope, justice, truth, and love, we would not have rooted in us the hope of justice, truth, and love that we find in every religion and every degree of civilization. It’s that source that I call God.

Religionless Christianity

Now that the New Year is upon us, I’m anxiously awaiting word that my latest book, written during my 2015-16 sabbatical and under contract since last May, has successfully made it through the editing process at my publisher (it’s supposed to be coming my way for final revisions this month or next). It’s like waiting for a kid to be born.

WIrisorking on this book project during sabbatical put me back into direct conversation with a writer who over the past fifteen or so years has been as influential on my thinking and overall development as any other—Iris Murdoch.In preparation for the book I thought I was going to write during my previous sabbatical in spring 2009, I read all of her twenty-plus novels and her most important philosophical essays; over the past three months I have been reviewing well over a hundred pages of single-spaced notes I took as I wandered through her extensive body of work. Iris came into my life when I discovered that Simone Weil—a thinker so influential on my intellectual and spiritual development that Jeanne calls her my “mistress”—was similarly influential for Iris Murdoch. In her last completed work (she died in 1999 after several years of descent into the hell of Alzheimer’s), Murdoch asks a question that is arguably the central issue explored in both her fiction and her philosophical work—“What can we do now that there is no God?”

Writing in the decades after the Second World War, Murdoch assumes that human beings are required to grapple with a difficult world lacking the tools provided by traditional Christianity (or any other traditional religious framework). Yet she is by no means a happy atheist along the lines of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or Daniel Dennett.ddh Murdoch believes that the traditional conception of the divine, along with the various frameworks that have traditionally surrounded that conception, is meaningless, yet points out that while it is easy to say that there is no God, it is not so easy to believe it and to draw the consequences. Human beings are not the sorts of creatures that can simply fill the vacuum created by the absence of God with the closest thing available. We are incapable, by sheer force of will, of addressing the spiritual hunger and need that now-defunct frameworks and vocabularies were intended to address. There is something in the human heart that needs to believe in something greater than ourselves.

The search for the transcendent, for what is greater than ourselves, in Murdoch’s hands becomes a high-wire act with no safety net. She sets for herself the task of finding out what can be preserved of belief in the transcendent and in moral goodness without the trappings of religion that have supported such beliefs—a “Religionless Christianity” if you will. She preserves the notion of faith, but without guarantees—persons with such faith intuit something greater than themselves but refuse to embrace traditional descriptions of this something. Murdoch calls such a person a “mystical hero”:e and m

The man who has given up traditional religion but is still haunted by a sense of the reality and unity of some sort of spiritual world. . . . This hero is the new version of the man of faith, believing in goodness without religious guarantees, guilty, muddled, yet not without hope. This image consoles by showing us man as frail, godless, and yet possessed of genuine intuitions of an authoritative good.

Such a person, Murdoch believes, will exhibit many of the characteristics that traditionally religious people might aspire to.

Our life is an interconnected whole and a religious man would feel responsible for the quality of all his thoughts and experiences . . . This sort of–perpetual work–seems to me what religion is . . . It’s humility, and unselfishness–and setting yourself aside to make room for other things, and people.nones

I thought of Murdoch’s mystical hero not long ago when reading an article describing how more and more of the students enrolled at various divinity schools across the country are unaffiliated with any religious denomination. Such students are called “nones” (pronounced “nuns”), since they are the sorts of people who check “None” when asked about their religious affiliation on a survey.

Secular Students Turn to Divinity School

I think this is very cool, but something tells me that many people would stop reading after finding out early in the article that nones are predominantly found at places inclined toward theologically and politically liberal Protestantism like Harvard Divinity School and Chicago Theological Seminary. “Well of course,” the complaint might go. “Such places are bastions of secular humanism with words like ‘Divinity’ or ‘Theological’ on their letterhead for show.” Such concerns are not unique to the Protestant flavor of Christianity; cinoI have taught for the past twenty-one years at a Catholic college that, at least according to its current President, seeks to thread the needle between extreme conservative Catholic campuses and larger Catholic Universities (usually Jesuit) that many judge as CINO (Catholic in name only).

The game of “who is more faithful to the message” is usually zero sum, though, and leaves little room for phenomena such as the nones. What might an agnostic or even an atheist find attractive about divinity school? Several of the nones interviewed in the article provide clear answers. “I am attracted to the search for social justice and for spiritual meaning. And I recognize those things as the fruits of religious tradition,” one none said. “So it makes sense to go to a place where you can study religious tradition.” Another could have been channeling Iris Murdoch: “If you were simply looking for the skills, you might go to the Kennedy School of Government . . . and philosophy and liberal-arts fields have given up on the project of finding a moral language, an articulation of values. That language isn’t found in many places. And when you find it, it’s not easy to abstract it. You have to connect it to a tradition.” I am currently leading a discussion group at church using a text about knowing God written with millennials in mind; current research shows that one-third of millennials are nones. Where are such persons to find a spiritual home or community? If Iris Murdoch is right, the answer to that question will require great creativity and courage across the board, even in traditional places where such creative and courageous challenges to the status quo seem to strike at the very heart of what the place stands for.eckhart

I am not a none, but only because I believe that the Christian tradition is broad and resilient enough to accommodate outliers with the nerve to call themselves freelance Christians. And a “heads up” to the nones who are deliberately placing themselves in the atmosphere of divinity school—you never can tell what might happen. Meister Eckhart, a medieval Dominican monk who almost lost his life due to his out of the box theology, wrote that “God begets his Son in you whether you like it or not, whether you sleep or wake—still God is at work.” And more recently, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber reported that a person wrote her a worried email:

I think I’m having a crisis of faith . . . I think I believe in Jesus.

nadiaTo which Nadia replied:

I’m so sorry. But sometimes Jesus just hunts your ass down and there’s nothing you can do about it.

What Cuba Taught Me About My Faith

For many reasons, I have been interested in Cuba for the past dozen years or so. With Fidel Castro’s death a few days ago, all sorts of memories and thoughts have flooded back. The standard news coverage has been of the “Miami Cubans” dancing in the streets and celebrating, various political figures noting the passage of a repressive dictator, and speculation about how soon capitalist markets will start influencing Cuba’s socialist economy. My own experiences with Cuba brought me to very different attitudes about our neighbor 90 miles to the south, as I described in my article entitled “Shattering the Myths About Cuba,” included in one of my college’s publications in the Spring of 2004 . . .

The story is told that Augustine used to get annoyed at his students when, as he pointed toward something that he wished them to consider, they focused their attention on his finger instead. Anyone who is–or ever has been–a teacher will understand Augustine’s frustration. As a philosophy professor, I know that the most crucial, yet most difficult lesson to teach is the lesson of learning to “see beyond seeing,” of discovering what russellBertrand Russell called “the strangeness and wonder lying just below the surface even in the commonest things of daily life.” In its most practical applications, this lesson shows us that often what we believe we “know,” what seems most self-evident and obvious, is an opaque barrier that prevents us from being open to the possibility of better knowledge.

I traveled to Cuba last summer for a week-long visit as a member of a 12-person delegation of professionals, nine of them from Rhode Island. There were a number of interrelated goals for our visit, including visiting the Latin American Medical School in Havana (where a number of American students are studying at the invitation of President Fidel Castro, free of charge), learning firsthand about Latin American School Of Medical SciencesCuba’s admirable universal health care system, visiting a number of multicultural centers to learn about Cuba’s commitment to education and cultural development, and laying preliminary foundations for educational exchanges between Cuban and Rhode Island institutes of higher education.

The greatest impact of this trip on me, however, was that it shattered everything I “knew” about Cuba. This shattering has made it possible for me to reflect ever since my return on what the undermining of these “truths” might reveal concerning deeper human issues.

I was born in the 1950s, in the middle of the Cold War. One of my earliest memories from the nightly television news was the failed bay-of-pigsBay of Pigs invasion; I was 6 years old during the perilous days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. My attitudes concerning Cuba were fashioned during those early years and remained largely the same ever since. I did not claim to know much about Cuba, but there were several things that were clear and beyond question. Cuba is an enemy, aligned with everything our country despises–a likely terrorist state, a repressor of religious and secular freedoms, a violator of human rights, an embarrassing challenge to what is most near and dear to us, a mere 90 miles off our coast. Not that I, as an educated, independent thinking adult would ever consciously allow that I carried these largely unchallenged assumptions around with me; I’m not sure that I knew of my preconceptions until I visited Cuba. elian-gonzalezI never even thought about Cuba except when some event deemed newsworthy, such as the Elian Gonzalez case, brought the island to my attention.

When, before the delegation’s trip to Cuba, I was asked what my expectations of the visit were, I continually said that I had no expectations–I was going with an open mind, the classic case of the tabula rasa, the “blank slate” that John Locke claimed all human beings are born with. Little did I know just how much would have to be erased from my slate before I could truly see. I, for instance, thought that I “knew” there was very little, if any, religious freedom in Cuba. After all, Cuba is a Communist country whose official stance on religion, in the style of the former Soviet Union, is atheism, right? Imagine our surprise when we discovered that religious faith is not only alive in Cuba, it is flourishing.

On a bright and sunny Father’s Day morning, our delegation’s first full day in Cuba, we attended services at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Marianao, ebenezer-baptistone of the many economically impoverished neighborhoods in Havana. In a hot and stuffy auditorium packed with persons of all ages and colors, we observed the most active and vibrant church service that I, a lifelong churchgoer, have experienced in years. The worship was filled with contemporary liturgical dance, congregational singing and participation, and testimonials (including a touching tribute to fathers from a young girl around 12 years of age, read in Spanish and English, that brought tears to the eyes of many of the fathers present). After this, the pastor and one of his guest ministers from Colombia delivered brief talks about the need for men to overcome “machismo” and open their minds and hearts to the voices of women.

Uncovering false “truths”

Two days later, more “truths” about Cuba were proven false when our delegation had the opportunity to return to Ebenezer Baptist and its accompanying Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in order to meet withpastor-suarez Rev. Raul Suarez, the pastor of the church. When the Cuban Revolution succeeded in 1959, 90% of the pastors in Cuba fled for other countries, believing that religion and belief in God would no longer be tolerated. Rev. Suarez and a few others stayed, however, He explained, in his own words, “If Communism is the big bad wolf, we need to protect our sheep.” By staying, he realized immediately that the lives of the people in Cuba were being improved by the Castro government’s commitment to 100% literacy, to universal health care and education, to true socialist principles, and to equal access to and excellence in sports and the arts.

Rev. Suarez described for us how the Cuban Revolution caused him to rethink his faith and evolve from a conventional Southern Baptist minister to a proponent of liberation-theology“liberation theology,” from advocacy of spiritual wealth in the next world to a vision of radical social change in this world, and from silence to active leadership in the struggles against racism, poverty, and other societal ills. He described that he had been taught what Christians supposedly could not have (they could not smoke, dance, drink, etc.), but “no one taught us that poverty is a sin. That ignorance is a sin. That racism is a sin. That economic inequality is a sin. The Revolution taught us that.”

His church, once a largely white church in a predominantly black neighborhood, is now a powerful instrument for social change and improvement, dedicated to the betterment of human lives as they are lived in this world as well as to the tending of spiritual needs.

Church and State dialogue

So how do things stand between church and state in Cuba? Very differently than U.S. citizens are led to believe. Over the past 20 years, there has been a continuing dialogue between Cuban ministers of all faiths and the Cuban government. At the first of these meetings, the ministers told Fidel Castro that the official position of atheism was hurting the Cuban people and that Christianity is a religion meant to help the people, not to be enclosed within church walls. Castro said to the ministers: “You work in your churches and help them to understand us better, and I’ll work with my people and help them to understand you better. And my work will be more difficult than yours.”castro-and-pope

Incrementally, things changed so that by 1991, atheism was eliminated as a requirement for membership in the Communist party, all reference to Marxism/Leninism as the official philosophy of the Cuban government was eliminated from the constitution, Christians were allowed access to all professions, were granted full access to all means of communication to spread the good news of the Gospel, and were allowed to establish new congregations across the country. The congregations of all denominations in Cuba are continuing to grow rapidly to this day.

This is but one example of how the truth about Cuba turned out to be quite different than what I believed it to be. I could have written a similar article about the political process in Cuba, human rights violations in Cuba compared to such violations in this country, or how our “free” press in the United States regularly distorts the truth about what is occurring in Cuba.

As a philosopher, I find an important lesson beneath these different factual issues. As human beings, our frequent natural tendency is to assume that we know the truth about a given thing, then to selectively interpret the “facts” to fit our preconceived piece of knowledge. Whether in religion, politics, social structures, interpersonal relationships, or simply regular day-to-day existence, this is a tendency that must be actively and consciously resisted. bonhoefferThe truth, for human beings at least, does not come in bumper sticker-sized, “sound bite” form. To believe that it does leads to rigidity, absoluteness, and blindness to the evolving nature of our interaction with what is true. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the 20th-century German Protestant theologian murdered by the Nazis in the final days of World War II, wrote, “The responsible man has no principle at his disposal which possesses absolute validity and which ha has to put into effect fanatically, overcoming all the resistance which is offered to it.”

In a world of ideology presented as self-evident certainty, the following warning from Albert Camus is worth taking seriously: “On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything . . .”

Insufficient Evidence

russellBertrand Russell was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist and Nobel laureate. He was one of the most important and recognizable public figures in the English-speaking world during the first half of the twentieth century. He was also an avowed atheist. The story is told that at the end of one of his public lectures in which his atheism was on full display, a furious woman stood up during the question and answer period and asked, “And Lord Russell, what will you say when you stand in front of the throne of God on judgment day?” Russell replied, “I will say: ‘I’m terribly sorry, but you didn’t give us enough evidence.’”

I was reminded of this story when the author of an article I assigned in my ethics classes the other day included it at the beginning of his discussion of how people use evidence to support the different sorts of things we claim to be true. For instance, the author claimed, verifiable and objective evidence serves as the foundation for truth claims in the sciences, but in religious belief—no so much. Indeed, the author continued, religious belief is easy and available to everyone because evidence is not required—just faith (whatever that means). atheismThe author identifies himself as an atheist who is fascinated by the phenomenon of religious belief—his conclusions make me wonder if he has ever actually met a person of faith.

As I am working with fifty students in two sections of General Ethics through our current unit entitled “Does God have anything to do with ethics?’ I have found regularly that my junior and senior students—the majority of whom are products of Catholic primary and secondary education—are often no more informed about the relationship of evidence to faith than the atheist author of the article for this given day. A few weeks ago I provided them with my “go to” definition of faith: Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the hebrewsevidence of things not seen. Some were surprised to learn that this definition, which does not refer to either God or religion, is from the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament. Whatever else faith is, the author of Hebrews is claiming that evidence has something to do with it.

I decided, as I often do, to get at this tricky issue obliquely and through the back door. “How many of you have ever been to Japan?” I asked. No hands went up in either class section, including mine. “How many of you believe in the existence of Japan?” I asked next—all hands went up. “How does that work?” How do we come to believe in the existence and/or truth of something when we lack direct supporting evidence? Because clearly the preponderance of things that each of us believes to be true—thousands upon thousands of items of all sorts—are beliefs that lack direct empirical evidence to support them.“How many of you believe that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theater in 1865?” I aslincolnked next. All hands went up. “How many of you were there when it happened?” No hands went up—I assured them that even I was not old enough to have been an eye-witness. So once again we have an example of a claim that everyone believes to be true even though we lack “concrete evidence” (as my students like to call it) to support our belief. Or do we?

Upon being asked to list what sorts of evidence we do have to support our beliefs concerning the existence of Japan and what happened in Ford’s Theater in April of 1865, my students came up with several suggestions:

  • Testimony—The word of others, eyewitnesses when possible, counts as particularly strong indirect evidence. Even though I have not been to Japan, I know people who have visited there and have even met people from Japan. It is, of course, possible that all of these people are lying to me, but the more that the testimonies I gather are consistent with each other, the more likely it is that they are pointing toward something true. This doesn’t work, of course, when considering events where no eyewitnesses are available, such as what happened at Ford’s Theater, but fortunately the spoken word is not the only way in which we are able to gather relevant testimony.
  • Texts—Those who have not been to Japan have seen pictures of it and have read descriptions of it. These are indirect and second-hand, but become part of accumulating indirect evidence. Textual evidence for historical events for whom there are no longer any eyewitnesses is the bread-and-butter of the historian’s trade. goodwinThe great Doris Kearns Goodwin gave a talk on campus a couple of evenings ago—when she spoke of Abraham Lincoln, it never occurred to me to wonder if what she was saying was true. As she described the meticulous ways in which she gathered evidence for her book Team of Rivals from letters, diaries, newspapers, and other first-hand accounts from over a century-and-a-half ago, I was reminded of how the only evidence we have of the truth of anything occurring more than a hundred years ago requires both investigative strategies and an inherent trust in the results of such investigations.
  • Traditions—Often all we have to rely on to bolster various beliefs is what has been passed down from generation to generation as stories and traditions intended to capture the essence of an individual, a family, or a culture. We use such stories and traditions as evidence to support our best guesses concerning what might have happened; they form an important part of the foundation of belief that gets passed from generation to generation.

It was clear as the discussion proceeded that in some of the most important parts of our daily lives, both as we engage with the present and as we consider the past, our “certainties” are built on a foundation of uncertainty, a foundation that we eventually depend upon as if it were certain as our collection of indirect evidence reaches an imaginary tipping point.

We are now half-way through the semester and my students are familiar with my teaching strategies, so no one was surprised when I stepped back from the board where I had listed their examples of indirect evidence and asked, “How might these types of evidence work in another area of belief where we have a difficult time accessing direct evidence—belief in God?” As it turns out, the same sorts of indirect evidence that we use on a daily basis to bolster our belief in all kinds of things are available when we enter the arena of faith. sacred-textsSacred texts are used as sources of evidence of all sorts; regardless of whether a person considers such texts to be divinely inspired or not, they contain evidence of how people have engaged with issues of God and faith over the centuries. Such texts purportedly contain testimonial evidence to the existence and nature of God as the divine reportedly interacts with human beings, and interpretations of these testimonies become centerpieces of traditions that develop into religions.

We also have the same sort of indirect testimony concerning faith-related issues that my students used when identifying the sources of their belief in the existence of Japan even though none had ever been there. For instance, I know many people who report personal experiences that they believe can only be explained by an invasion of or intervention into their life by something greater than themselves. Often such reports can also be accounted for by explanations other than a direct encounter with God, but in such cases one must always consider both the reliability of the person giving the testimony and whether other similar reports have been given by other reliable sources. testimonyAnd as always, whether or not a person believes such reports is going to be a direct function of her or his predisposition to believe anything. How much evidence is enough? What sorts of testimony will I never believe, no matter who it comes from? To claim that evidence is ever free of all sorts of psychological and personality-driven biases is to ignore how we actually gather and use evidence in real time.

My answer to Bertrand Russell’s complaint that “you didn’t us give enough evidence” is that perhaps Lord Russell needed to consider what sort of evidence would have counted as “enough,” as well as what even counted as evidence for him at all. If his claim is that there is not enough “concrete evidence” to establish the existence of God, I might agree. But I would remind Russell that the vast majority of the many things that we believe to be true are not supported by such evidence either. When considering issues as important as faith, there is no need to change the rules of the evidence game—faith is, after all, “the evidence of things not seen.”

A Grownup Faith

If we’re grownups about faith, then why can’t we all get together and lament the fact that there is no God? Christian Wiman

Recently my ethics students and I have been discussing the dangers of moral certainty. For many of them, this has been a counterintuitive conversation, given that moral principles are commonly thought to be only as good as they can be proved to be universally applicable and unassailable. Why wouldn’t we want certainty in our moral beliefs? one might ask. Because, as several of the authors assigned for class discussion have noted, many of the worst atcritchleyrocities that human beings have done to each other over the course of human history have been done in the name of various claims to certainty. The Holocaust. The Crusades. Terrorism of all sorts.  In an article assigned for a recent class, Simon Critchley writes that “Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty. Insisting on certainty leads ineluctably to arrogance and dogma based on ignorance.”

Nowhere is certainty more problematic than in the life of faith. As poet Christian Wiman said in a recent interview,wiman

Doubt is so woven in with what I think of as faith that it can’t be separated. I am convinced that the same God that might call me to sing of God at one time might call me at another to sing of godlessness. Sometimes when I think of all of this energy that’s going on, all of these different people trying to find some way of naming and sharing their belief, I think it may be the case that God calls some people to unbelief in order that faith can take new forms.

If my own experiences and struggles with faith are at all typical, Wiman is on to something. There are times when I find it very difficult to tell the difference between faith in God and faith in a figment of my imagination. This is why, as I wrote last Friday, a person of faith can learn a lot from atheism.

Evangelical Atheism

This is not an unusual idea. For centuries, voices from within the camp of Christianity have called for something sounding very close to atheism. eckhartMeister Eckhart wrote that “We pray to God in order to be free of God,” from his prison cell Dietrich Bonhoeffer predicted that the future of faith would be found in a “Religionless Christianity,” and Simone Weil wrote that “the absence of God is the most marvelous testimony of perfect love.”

In each of these instances, the person of faith is asked to move beyond the traditional notion of God as something outside ourselves, a picture of the divine that for many has lost its meaning. I often find myself thinking, as I listen to various descriptions of God being thrown around in different venues, that “if that was what God amounted to, I would be an atheist.” This is where the passage from Christian Wiman quoted earlier comes in. The only way for faith to evolve and take new forms is for old models and paradigms to change. As Wiman writes in My Bright Abyss, “This is why every single expression of faith is provisional—because life carries us always forward to a place where the faith we’d fought so hard to articulate to ourselves must now be reformulated, and because faith in God is, finally, faith in change.”paradigm-shift

This can be very disconcerting, because old paradigms change only with great difficulty. When life gets even more challenging than usual, the person of faith is often tempted to fall back on “tried and true” methods of getting the divine’s attention. More prayer, more church attendance—but there comes a time when such methods are regularly met with deafening silence. This silence can lead either to a deepening crisis of faith or an entirely new faith altogether, a new faith that is infused with healthy doubt, and an openness to possibilities from sources that one never even considered as places where truth might reside. Wiman again:

To say that one must live in uncertainty doesn’t begin to get at the tenuous, precarious nature of faith. The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. We praise people for having strong faith, but strength is only one part of that physical metaphor: one also needs flexibility.

A grownup faith is one that is both strong enough to look for God in places that have traditionally been off-limits and honest enough to realize that certainty is the greatest threat to faith of all.

One of the traditionally strongest arguments from atheists against belief in God is particularly effective against a supposed God who lives outside the reach of human investigation, effectively immune from supporting evidence and critical argumentation. When non-theists mock disagreements among religious folks as simply being various competitions about whose imaginary friend is better, it is this sort of God whose existence is being questioned. immanenceAn evolving faith, however, tends to move from the “out there” model to the “right here” model when looking for the divine. If God’s immanence is at least as important as God’s transcendence, then we should expect to find glimmers and traces of the divine in the most mundane features of reality, although it takes a great deal of patience and imagination to perceive these traces. Persons of all faiths, in moments of doubt and uncertainty, can honestly share their faith experiences without the burden and bondage of doctrine and dogma, since in the trenches of faith, pristinely certain articles of faith tend to be irrelevant and meaningless. And atheists can join in the conversation, because trying to live a life of meaning and purpose without a safety net is a challenge for all of us, regardless of whether God is or is not a piece of the puzzle.evaporating-dew

Faith steals upon you like dew: some days you wake and it is there. And like dew, it gets burned off in the rising sun of anxieties, ambitions, distractions. Christian Wiman

Evangelical Atheism

A couple of weeks from now I’ll be starting a new unit in my General Ethics classes with fifty juniors and seniors: Does ethics have anything to do with God? pc-catholicOn a Catholic college campus, where a significant portion of the students are products of many years of parochial school education, this is a big issue. Religious folks have been known to argue that the only possible reliable foundation for moral absolutes is belief in God, implying either implicitly or explicitly that atheistic non-believers lack any reason to be moral. Yet my students know either intuitively or through personal experience that it is entirely possible for a dedicated atheist to be a highly moral person. How does that work?

I have been a person of faith, sometimes reluctantly, for my whole life—the very existence of this blog is due to my continuing commitment to grappling with issues of faith in writing. Yet I have always been fascinated by atheism. Four years ago, my second blog post ever used Simone Weil’s comment that “Atheism is a purification” as a jumping off point, imagining how a season of atheism might be a healthy exercise for a person of faith.

A Practicing Atheist

dennett

Daniel Dennett

Several years ago when I was chair of our philosophy department I was responsible for the two-semester capstone seminar required of all our senior majors. Each year during the summer I would send the rising senior majors a list of three or four possible topics to spend the fall semester working on—one year they chose “Philosophy of Religion,” not surprising since half of the eighteen seniors were Catholic seminarians (required by the diocese to major in philosophy in their undergraduate years). Some of the seniors, particularly the seminarians, were probably surprised to see texts from avowed atheists such as Sigmund Freud, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins on the semester syllabus, but as a new professor in the theology department commented at the time, such works are “good for them” (the seminarians) to grapple with. Atheists, after all, struggle with the same issues as theists—they just do it a bit differently.

Last Sunday’s early morning episode of “On Being” with Krista Tippett on our local NPR station was an hour-long discussion of these very issues. The show was a repeat of a 2012 interview with Alain de Botton. De Botton is trained as a philosopher, but is best known as a sort of Renaissance man whose popular books include The Consolations of Philosophy, How Proust Can Change Your Life, and Religion for Atheists. I knew I was going to enjoy the interview when it began with the following from de Botton: The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether it is true.

Alain de Botton and the School of Life

De Botton was raised in “a devoutly atheist family,” a Jewish family fully aware of the enormous suffering Jews had suffered historically and particularly in tdevout-atheisthe twentieth century, often in the name of religion. De Botton experienced in early adulthood what he described a “crisis of faithlessness,” during which he learned that there were a number of things tangentially associated with religion, including music, art, architecture, and moral guidance, that he found “incredibly interesting, fascinating, beautiful, [and] inspiring.” What’s an atheist to do?

De Botton’s story is a familiar one, regardless of one’s beliefs concerning God. While stories of people who were raised in a religious household and became atheists as adults, as well as of people raised as atheists who became religious believers as adults, are out there, the more common story is of those who are so shaped by their early years that they find it impossible, in spite of good reasons to do so, to radically change that framework as adults. De Botton occasionally implies that he wishes he could become a theist—but if there is something like a “religious gene,” he is lacking it. Knowing that the foundation of religious belief for many people is a feeling or experience, he notes that

I’ve not had this feeling . . . all I can report is that many of these bits of religion do impact me greatly. If I was different, I would be a believer, is all I can say. I can only speak from a non-believing position . . . I really don’t feel a belief in a divine being is something that rings bells with me. I’m happy to be in the atheist box, but it’s a much broader box than we might have allowed for.

The power of how one is raised cannot be overestimated. De Botton has no more natural access to what it is like to be a person of faith than I, raised in an all-encompassing religious atmosphere, can pretend to know what it would be like to frame important issues as an atheist would.

And yet, de Botton continues, atheists and persons of faith have much in common. Neither atheists nor theists are necessarily happy to hear this—each side is taught that the other is the enemy, a phenomenon encouraged by popular writers from the atheist camp such as Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris.new-atheists De Botton reports that he is occasionally accused in emails or print of having “betrayed atheism,” professing that “I didn’t know that’s what atheism was supposed to be about, being mean to religion . . . I think there’s an image of the fierce atheist who has faith in science and ridicules all religious moments and religious impulses. I couldn’t be further from that point of view.” Instead, he argues, religion has offered and continues to offer too much of importance to be rejected out of hand even if one is an atheist.reality-and-religion

An awful lot that seems to us intrinsically religious is not; it’s part of the treasury of mankind. These religions at their highest points, at their most complex and subtle moments are far too interesting to be abandoned merely to those who believe in them . . . I think a lot of what’s attractive in religion is that it puts us in a wider perspective both in time and in place because most of our lives are lived right up against the present moment . . . And suddenly, that brings a kind of calm to our inner lives because it’s nice to made to feel small against the backdrop of a vast universe.

Even if one sets arguments awrestlingbout the existence and nature of God as well as speculation about what happens after we die aside, religion has much to offer even to the most secular person. “Religion is this long tradition of deep thinking and wrestling with the complexity of the human condition as much as about the nature of God.” How then should we live? is a human question, not a religious question. We do not come into the world knowing how to navigate the minefield of human existence—de Botton is more than happy to poach on the ideas offered by religion, just as religions have “hoovered up” the best that the secular world has to offer since the beginning. De Botton’s “School of Life,” now situated in many cities across the globe, “picks up on the idea that we need guidance, that learning how to live is not something we just do spontaneously.” At this thoroughly secular school one will hear sermons, experience what feels all the world like liturgy, and even perhaps sing some hymns, all intended to be in service to human needs that are far deeper than what religion  one belongs to (if any).  As Krista Tippett says in the interview, “What I see you doing is carving out what has been traditionally, religiously called ‘sacred space’ in secular culture.”evangelical-atheism

Toward the end of the interview, Tippett also comments that “I do feel that another religious and particularly Christian impulse that you are taking up as an atheist is that of being evangelical, which is about spreading the good news that you’ve discovered.” The good news is that “there’s so much more in common between believers and nonbelievers than we’re sometimes encouraged to think. At the very last moment under the stars we may differ about what’s going on, but we can still have a very nice time together for a long, long part of this journey.” Just as many other supposedly incompatible binaries—Republican/Democrat, conservative/liberal, and more—atheists and religious folks need not be at permanent odds with each other. Each of us is human, sharing the same needs, hopes, and dreams that all human beings possess, no matter how we package them.

A Practicing Atheist

A couple of weeks ago, a Facebook acquaintance posted the following:

When I say I’m an atheist, what I’m saying is that my personal journey of education and introspection has brought me to that conclusion. It’s about me and my choices. If you take that as an insult, please realize that, although Christians in this country get preferential treatment, not everything is actually about you. I am not bothered by belief. I do not consider the existence of every church a personal insult. Please enjoy your privilege and stop making atheism about you.

My response: “From a progressive Christian, thank you.” Her post reminded me of something Simone Weil once wrote about atheism. I reflected on it in one of my earliest posts on this blog.

Simone Weil writes that “Atheism is a purification.” Not where I come from. No word or phrase was more mysterious or terror producing for a young Baptist boy than “atheist.” I certainly didn’t know any, nor did my parents, nor did anyone in my extended family, nor did anyone who attended our church. But none of us knew any serial killers, either. Apparently atheists were out there somewhere, running Hollywood, teaching in secular universities, and generally sticking their thumbs in the eye of what they denied the existence of. It wasn’t clear to me how an atheist could even stay alive. If God snuffed out Uzzah just for putting his hand on the Ark in the Old Testament, how did people who had the nerve to say “God doesn’t exist” manage to last? I came to suspect that atheists were mythical creatures like unicorns and Big Foot, until one day I heard my aunt Gloria, who had a very loud voice, whispering to my mother in the next room about the new high school science teacher. “He spends a lot of time teaching evolution; I’ll bet he’s a practicing atheist.”

Now that’s a very interesting concept—a “practicing atheist.” What exactly does that mean? Is that someone who is very serious about atheism, who has gone beyond the lazy “God doesn’t exist” verbal stage and is actually putting this stuff into action? Does one practice atheism as I practiced the piano as a child, in hopes of becoming a concert atheist? Is the “practicing atheist” an atheist in training, sort of a double- or triple-AAA newbie practicing and honing his atheist skills until he gets to the atheist big leagues? Does the “practicing atheist” try it out for a while to see how she likes it? I mean, I could be a “practicing” any number of things, like a practicing vegetarian. I could do it for a while, and even realize that it was good for me, but before long I’d just have to eat some meat. Given my general obsession with the “God question,” maybe practicing atheism for a while would be good for the health of my soul, just as vegetarianism would be good for my bodily well-being.

Practicing atheism would put an end to creating God in my own image. I have known many gods in my lifetime, and every one of them is either a projection of myself or of the person(s) who introduced me.

  • A now silent God who stopped communicating directly with human beings several centuries ago, once the dictation of the divine word in print was finished.
  • A God who invites into the inner sanctum only those who have a special “prayer language.”
  • A God who “is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance,” but who at the same time is so judgmental and exclusive that the vast majority of the billions of human beings who have ever lived will end up in hell.
  • An arbitrary God whose ire will be raised by the consumption of meat on Fridays during Lent, but who does not particularly care about pre-marital sex.
  • An exclusively masculine God.
  • A God who is more concerned with the length of male hair and female skirts than with the breadth and depth of one’s spiritual hunger and desire.
  • A God whose paramount concerns are one’s positions on sexual orientation, abortion, or universal health care.
  •  A God who micromanages every detail of reality at every moment, including tsunamis, birth defects, and oil spills.
  •  A God who is more honored by self-reliance than by compassion for those in need.

 And many more. As a practicing atheist I might still have anthropomorphic issues, but an anthropomorphic God would not be one of them.

Practicing atheism would be an effective antidote to any remaining obsession from my youth with what happens after physical death. We all sang songs about what a day of rejoicing it will be when we all get heaven. I don’t know any atheist hymns, so perhaps I should write one which draws my attention to now. As a child I thought that the only reason to become a Christian was to get an ironclad fire insurance policy from hell. We used to sing “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through; If heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do?” Maybe I should love this world that is my home, one that I only get to live in for a short while. This is the world I’ve been given.

Atheism would provide me with new tools to apply to the problem of suffering and evil. Once I stop wondering why God allows the innocent to suffer, the guilty not to suffer, earthquakes to obliterate thousands, and the world generally to operate contrary to my wishes, the landscape looks quite different. Suffering exists—so does evil. The practicing atheist cannot ask “Why doesn’t God do something about this?” and asks instead “What does this require of me?” A fresh look at my world without God-tinted lenses reveals that suffering and violence are inextricably tangled with beauty. The waves on the ocean are no less beautiful because we know that sometimes people are drowned in them. A practicing atheist recommends a certain Stoic embrace of reality, rather than a childish affirmation of the parts I like and an impotent resistance to those I don’t.

Atheism would make it much more difficult for me to seek false consolations for disappointments, difficulties, and perceived injustices. I am reminded, year after year, that a significant majority of my students, most of whom are parochial school educated, believe that consolation is the only real reason to believe in God. But consolation, although emotionally attractive, is almost always an attractive lie. If my only response to human pain, mine or someone else’s, is that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that shall be revealed in us,” then pretty soon I become incapable of even seeing much of the suffering around me. There are times when Albert Camus’ project in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” “to see if I can live without appeal,” has to be my project. What if this is all there is? What if the only responses available to suffering and pain are ours? What if I don’t get to pass the buck on to the divine?

“Atheism is a purification” is not a call to become an atheist. Rather, for me a serious season of practicing atheism would serve as a purgative, a process of spiritual cleansing, eliminating loose vocabulary, sloppy habits, and lazy certainties which dull my spiritual sensibilities. If my Christian faith means anything, it means God in the flesh, incarnated in all features of this difficult, troublesome, exhilarating and precious world that is a divine gift. Christianity will not be fully incarnated until it is joined with a respect and reverence for this world. Practicing atheism can help. As Simone Weil writes, “Let us love this country of here below. It is real; it offers resistance to love. It is this country that God has given us to love. He has willed that it should be difficult yet possible to love it.”