Sunday, February 6, 2011
The Agnostic Who Became An Atheist
by Peter Rollins
There was once a world-renowned philosopher who, from an early age, set himself the task of proving once and for all the nonexistence of God. Of course, such a task was immense, for the various arguments for and against the existence of God had done battle over the ages without either being able to claim victory.
He was, however, a genius without equal, and he possessed a singular vision that drove him to work each day and long into every night in order to understand the intricacies of every debate, every discussion, and ever significant work on the subject.
The philosopher’s project began to earn him respect among his fellow professors when, as a young man, he published the first volume of what would turn out to be a finely honed, painstakingly researched, encyclopedic masterpiece on the subject of God. The first volume of this work argued persuasively that the various ideas of God that had been expressed throughout antiquity were philosophically incoherent and logically flawed. As each new volume appeared, he offered, time and again, devastating critiques of the theological ideas that had been propagated through different periods of history. In his early forties, he completed the last volume, which brought him up to the present day.
However the completion of this work did not satisfy him. He still had not found a convincing argument that would demonstrate once and for all the nonexistence of God. For all he had shown was that all the notions of God up to that time had been problematic.
So he spent another sixteen years researching arguments and interrogating them with a highly nuanced, logical analysis. But by now he was in his late fifties and had slowly begun to despair of ever completing his life project.
Then, late one evening while he was locked away in his study, bent wearily over his old oak desk, surrounded by a vast sea of books, he felt a deep stillness descend upon the room. As he sat there motionless, everything around him seemed to radiate an inexpressible light and warmth. Then, Deep in his heart he heard the voice of God address him:
“Dear friend, the task you have set yourself is a futile one. I have watched all these years as you poured your being into this endless task. Yet, you fail to understand that your project can be brought to completion only with my help. Your dedication and single-mindedness have not gone unnoticed, and they have won my respect. As a result, I will tell you a sacred secret meant only for a few. . . .Dear friend, I do not exist.”
Then, all of a sudden, everything appeared as it was before, and the philosopher was left sitting at his desk with a deep smile breaking across his face. He put his pen away and left his study, never to return. Instead, in gratitude to God for helping him complete his lifelong project, he dedicated his remaining years to serving the poor.
Think of it like this. When someone says “I believe in God,” the next question or a good question to ask is “Which god do you believe in?” As Rollins would say and as we all know, theism refers to a belief in God and atheism is a rejection of this belief. But just as you can ask the theist “What God do you believe in?” you can also ask the atheist “What God do you not believe in?” This is because traditional atheism is specific; it is limited to attacks of specific notions and conceptions of God.
Therefore one form of atheism may attack a specific understanding of God but have nothing to say about another concept of God. Traditional atheism, in such concrete forms, isn’t just limited because there are so many varied concepts of God, today, but also because there are an infinite number of possible conceptions of God yet to be dreamed.
The philosopher in this short story sets out, then, to achieve an infinitely large task--to establish once and for all the non-existence of God. But to do this he must reject every known and possible concept of God. It is not until God steps in, that the philosopher is able to achieve a true universal atheism, one that can reject every possible description of God . . .in advance. Why? God transcends every possible concept and cannot be approached as an object or a thing at all.
But who is the one who points this out? It is God who says God doesn’t exist. This type of universal atheism runs strongly through the Judeo-Christian tradition (whether or not you have seen it in the mainstream forms, on TV, and other visible forms) especially in Biblical form. Approaching God as an object that can be grasped and known runs contrary to the Biblical God (or the growing understanding of God found through the arc of the Bible). This is because that God is above all names, above all labels, above all concepts. He is “received but never conceived.” Instead of understanding God like an object, a possible analogy is found in light. Light is not what we “see” directly in some sense. Light is what enables us to see transforming our experience allowing us the experience of sight. God is similar; God is not directly experienced (yikes people might get upset with me) but the name we give to the transformation of experience, to a whole new way of experience. You don’t experience birth; rather, birth opens you up to a whole new world of experiences. That is how God is.
So what my atheist friends and I were never told is that every description of God falls short, even descriptions we find in good books. With every description falling so inadequately short of God, we are led to a universal atheism. We only do justice to the reality of God by laying claim to the fact that no concept of God does justice.
Therefore religious believers can affirm a radical form of atheism in a true sense while still holding on to the reality of God. Are we questioning the importance of good forms of theism? No, rather we are saying that we never let these incomplete, provisional concepts of God stand as absolute authority (we often do this with incomplete expressions of God in the Bible, even if good expressions). A true understanding of the reality of God welcomes the rejection of incomplete descriptions of God and continues searching for less partial, less incomplete descriptions of God, never giving these newer, better incomplete descriptions of God final or absolute authority. You see this through the Bible and Torah as people’s understanding of God is improved and torn down and recreated through the Bible as we move closer to the person of Christ two thousand years ago.
So in the last answer to my “What do I want” questions, when my friend pitted atheism against theism, I want make sure that we understand that a universal atheism runs strongly in the Judeo-Christian tradition. We’re not just a tradition of priests (people serving under God) but prophets (people who speak out against God). You see this in Jeremiah, Amos, even Jesus, himself. . .
My good friend says she’s an atheist, and I think that means we have a lot in common especially if she’s rejecting the visible forms of religion she sees in the world today. I’m constantly in the minority in D.C. in my sub-circles when my policy and science policy friends find out I’m a Christian. The people they make fun of are often conservatives, people who depreciate science, and Christians--Christians who protest at funerals of victims of homosexual hate crimes, Christians who fight against the teaching of evolution in school, Christians who blame the people of Haiti for the earthquake that befell them (because God is mad), Christians who value life when it deals to abortion but do not fight for life as strongly when it relates to poverty or the global burden of disease or the application of the death penalty. Trust me, some Christians are atheist, too. There is more to say about atheism and what it means within the Judeo-Christian tradition, but perhaps I can talk more about it if you ask me to in a future update.
What I’m reminded of is the decline of the Christian church in North America. I’ll spare you the statistics, but it’s been noticed by priests, lay-people, youth pastors, even missionaries. In fact, I almost expect people who grew up in the church to leave it when the go off to college (university) or later. I expect people who grew up without God to stay as far away from him as possible. I’m often surprised at people like myself who grew up with God and yet, somehow, stayed with God. Why? Because both non-Christians and Christians have become increasingly disturbed by what they have seen embraced by prominent mainstream visible Christianity in North America--wars of choice, being anti-big government as if big is bad but being ok with big military and big business, embrace of growth over environmental conservation and preservation, focus on criminalization of abortion (without working on issues that decrease the need for abortion) but not working to fight for life in issues of the death penalty or poverty or disease especially when it disproportionately targets the poor, etc.
Brian McLaren talks about a great awakening, he calls it a new revolution in Christian understanding, thought, and action that is occurring today. I don’t think it’s as monumental as he describes; when I go to the book store the Christian books still mostly comprise books by authors who are not in this emerging understanding of God. Still, McLaren is right. It’s growing, almost like a mustard plant. There are many names of people and churches and groups around the world who are trying to search for something new, embrace something bigger than the concepts we’ve formerly understood and mystically dance with the divine in a new way. There are more authors and more people coming out to say “I’ve always had these questions” or “I’ve always thought that, but I could never find anyone to talk to or with whom to discuss.”
Brian has a new book called “A New Kind of Christianity.” I like this book because Christianity (what does that mean exactly?) is less about doctrines than it is about questions to me. So when I find a group of people or a faith community that embrace people and allow them to ask questions, even questions that remain unanswered still, I’m excited. I’m energized. I need questions. I need to continually strip down and reclothe myself in better understanding. I’m thankful to those around me who have helped me to do that, who allow me to be angry with God, and who show me that God is bigger than my questions and is not offended by them even though religious people around me are (I’m one of them).
Here are the 10 questions
1. What is the overarching story line of the Bible?
The usual answer to this involves the story that man of us Christians were taught to recount when talking to a non-Christian about Christianity. It involves Adam and Eve and the Fall. Over the years there have been minor tweaks here and there to this narrative but nothing major. But there have been parts of it that have been hard to understand and explain (for many this is ok because they want to worship a God they don’t understand). McLaren talks a bit about how some of the difficult concepts might be from men than directly the Bible or even the understanding of Jesus.
2. How should the Bible be understood?
This deals with the question of how the Bible is viewed. Is it a constitution providing an unquestioning legal framework of how to live. Is it a guidebook telling how we live our lives? I had a friend say this to me last Sunday at church. I reacted and said it’s so much more. I said the Bible was a story a history of a story of a people and how, through time, they have learned and unlearned, struggled and fought with God, questioned and loved God, turned away and hated God. Yes, through it we can learn things about our story and lives, but it is not a rule book and if you reduce it to that you’ve missed the main point of it. Regardless the answer to how you view the Bible depends on your answer to the previous question. This is very important because people often interpret and use the Bible for backup of their position. How do you properly interpret it? Is the Old Testament more important, less, or equally important than the New Testament?
3. Is God violent?
This is related to the narrative question. In the traditional narrative God is viewed as a either justice-seeking or vengeful or punishing or angry or hateful, etc. And this is seen in many Biblical stories. Are we viewing this correctly or is God different? How does this fit with Jesus? The answers to these questions depend on the previous two questions.
4. Who is Jesus and why is He important?
This is very important. Was he God or was he not? Beyond that, was he here to provide salvation to go to Heaven, or is it something more? What did Jesus say himself?
5. What is the Gospel?
What is the gospel? And what does it mean? What is the good news? Is the gospel related to salvation in the future, promising a spot in Heaven or something more? When people in the New Testament heard words like “saved” did it mean the same thing it means to Western Christians today?
6. What do we do about the Church?
How was the church understood when it started? Is it understood the same way? What is its purpose and function in the world? Is it there to help its members or non-members? Is its job to convert people to a new belief?
7. Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it?
Our sexuality is a mess. We have a problem not only with a battle between many churches and homosexuals but also with teaching children to deal with sexuality healthily. Teenage pregnancies (and even abortions) are rampant. Is there a way to deal with human sexuality that is closer to the heart of God than how we’ve done it? Are we missing something? Is this all of what the Bible and Christianity has to offer?
8. Can we find a better way of viewing the future?
Is the normal linear view of time and the future correct? Are we waiting and awaiting something in the future which dictates that the world will continue to worsen and de-motivates and discourages us? What exactly is supposed to happen in the future? And why isn’t Jesus here, now?
9. How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?
This is a tough one. People of other religions (or no religion) have traditionally had a tough time with Christians because of its claims of exclusivity and the fact of a belief that everyone except Christians is going to Hell. Of course this relates to previous questions. But the real question here is how do we interact and treat and deal with people of other faiths. It hasn’t always gone well in the history of Christianity and we want to do it better.
10. What do we do now? (How do we translate our quest into action?)