In sympathy with the faithless and unbelieving

For November 2011 “Messenger”

Last month in this space I wrote of faith in God, drawing upon some insights of theologian Nicholas Lash in his criticism of the brand of atheism touted by Richard Dawkins.

Now let's talk a bit about atheism and agnosticism. In so doing, let’s avoid the kind of brittle defensiveness that sometimes characterizes the speech of Christians in this regard. I see this currently manifested in reactions against the loss of the institutional power of Christianity in our time.

In a moment of serendipity, a parishioner recommended to me this week a book entitled Patience with God by the Czech priest Tomáŝ Halík. It is a wonderfully wise appreciation of the struggle of many people to believe, and a mature Christian appreciation that this struggle comes out of the common experience of the hiddenness of God which – if we are honest – is the experience of many characters in Scripture. After all, it is Moses who is told in no uncertain terms that he can only see the backside of God.

Halík, who studied for ordination and served as a priest underground during the years of communism and official atheism in his country, has no little experience with atheism and doubt and unbelief, and he has a loving and brotherly attitude toward those who refrain from full commitment to belief. He provides what I consider a helpful taxonomy of atheism.

“Frivolous atheism” he identifies as “a ‘forgetting about God’ that immediately crams the space vacated with substitute idols of every kind.”

“Haughty atheism” is his description for the kind “for which ‘God must not exist’ lest He eclipse the immensity of the human ego that seeks to take control of the deity’s throne….”

“Liberating atheism” is his term for the kind which has “finally gotten rid of its imaginary god, its own projection, which terrorized it for years.”

There is also, he says, “a sad and painful atheism: ‘I would like to believe, but there is so much bitterness within me because of my own suffering and the world’s pain that I am unable to.’”

This loss of faith he goes on to describe as ‘the death of faith on the cross of our world, the hour when the individual is plunged into inner and outer darkness, ‘far from all suns.’ Halík sees the Gospel story intersecting with this predicament at the point of Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” He quotes G.K. Chesterton to illustrate his meaning:

Let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.

Halík is charting in this book a faithful and yet sympathetic response to the struggle of many people to believe. Using as inspiration the story of Jesus’ meeting up with Zaccheus, he demonstrates that Jesus reached out to those on the fringes of belief with special sympathy, while reproving the false certainties of the religious leaders of his time. The book is rich in reflection that helps Christian leaders recognize the danger of “too-facile belief” while at the same time addressing what he considers to be the shortcoming of atheism, which he sees as a lack of patience with God.

I am concerned about the secularization of our post-Christian age, particularly as it leaves us floundering as a culture for a common narrative to bind us together in solidarity with each other for the sake of the health and welfare of humanity and of God’s creation.

At the same time, I am unsympathetic to forms of Christian triumphalism which react defensively and with bitterness to expressions of disbelief in our time. I can’t escape the feeling when I encounter such expressions that “they protest too much.” A real relationship with God is not easy, and the lives of biblical people and of the saints show us that. If people are going to be drawn to God as we know God in Jesus Christ, they’ll be drawn by any sign that we joy in God; that we experience God as light in our darkness and as strength for compassionate and loving and truth-telling action in the world. You know, like people were drawn to Jesus.

Faith, some say, is a crutch. We believers - some say - are too infantile to accept the world on its own terms. I beg to differ, and I have little sympathy with the kind of facile atheism which uses this line of attack. These atheists have not done their homework, for if they did they would realize that the likes of Mother Theresa have experienced loss of faith even while remaining in love with God. In his book Halik has an appreciation of Thérèse of Lisieux, who confessed to a loss of faith, even as she remained in love with God.

I do share with Halík sympathy with the kind of “sad and painful” atheism of those who perceive that God often seems hidden, and who wish to believe. He maintains that these are our brothers and sisters, and I agree wholeheartedly.

I suggest that these brothers and sisters see my faith as more like the image which Halík gives us; the image of faith as a “pilgrim’s staff” which accompanies us on our journey through life up to the threshold of the life to come. Faith is not just about me, but about hope for the world God made and which God gives us daily. I want to believe that all things are held in God’s hands and that God is working in and through our struggle and confusion to accomplish God’s purposes. If that’s infantile, so be it. But I don’t think it is, if I am willing to risk something for this faith. If I’m to profess faith in God, that risk is a necessary corollary, including the risk of painful periods of a lack of faith during which I must simply continue to love the mystery of God.