Archive for the ‘atheism’ Category

Another Wall Street Journal Article on Belief in the Modern World

August 6, 2007

This article also recently appeared in the WSJ. It is an interesting take on Christianity in Europe, where, we are constantly told, it is almost completely dead. Perhaps the obituaries are premature. Comments are off for this article.

An Interesting Read on the “New New Atheism”

August 6, 2007

David Berkowitz, columnist for the Wall Street Journal, has an interesting article on the “New New Atheism” worth a read for any who have been following discussions on belief and atheism here on Glory to God for All Things. Comments are off for this article.

Revisiting the Problem of Goodness

July 30, 2007

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I first wrote and published this reflection back in May. It seemed relevant to recent discussions. I have added an additional reflection at the end that I think is worthwhile. I hope you find this useful. 

From my first class in Philosophy 101 in college, the so-called “Problem of Evil” has been tossed up as the “clincher” in arguments against the existence of God. How can a good God allow innocent people to suffer? The most devastating case ever made on the subject was in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Ivan Karamazov, in the chapter entitled “Rebellion,” which is the chapter preceding the famous “Grand Inquisitor,” makes the details of his argument known. He is at an inn with his religious brother, Alyosha. A brief summary would be to say the suffering of innocent children is not worth anything good that God might do.

It’s a very strong argument – so strong, in fact – that Dostoevsky, a Christian believer, feared he had made the case too strong and did not succeed in refuting it in the novel. I disagree with his gloomy assessment.

My argument is somewhat the opposite. It is the problem of Good. Why with the world as dysfunctional as it is do we encounter transcendant goodness in the lives of some people? No one on the basis of nature and nurture can really answer it. Given the world and its headlines, why are not all people largely stockaded in their homes, armed to the teeth?

Why does a stranger volunteer to donate bone marrow to another perfect stranger? The procedure invovles pain.

Why does Mother Teresa gather up over 40,000 dying children from the streets of Calcutta in her lifetime and treat them with love and dignity – when everyone around her is just walking past the problem? Or why does one man lay down his life for others in the death camps of the Nazi’s like the Catholic priest, St. Maximillian Kolbe?

In July 1941, a man from Kolbe’s bunker had vanished, prompting SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch, the Lagerführer (i.e., the camp commander), to pick 10 men from the same bunker to be starved to death in Block 11 (notorious for torture), in order to deter further escape attempts. (The man who had disappeared was later found drowned in the camp latrine). One of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, lamenting his family, and Kolbe volunteered to take his place.

After three weeks of dehydration and starvation, only four of the ten men were still alive, including Kolbe. During the time in the cell, he led the men in songs and prayer. The cells were needed, and Kolbe and the other three were executed with an injection of carbolic acid in the left arm.

St. Maria Skobtsove demonstrated similar kindness in the Nazi camps after being arrested for her help with Jews. She died in prison.

And the litany of such actions grows. I do not find it hard to explain Hitler’s evil. He and the men like him were products of their time, their environment, perhaps with demonic inspiration thrown in. Hitler ordered the Berlin Philharmonic to play pieces from the Goetterdamerueng [the Twilight of the Gods] while the Russian troops entered Berlin. He existed in the most educated and enlightened country in the Europe in its day.

The serial killers, even of children, are fairly explainable. I saw an interview with Jeffrey Dahlmer before his death in prison. He sounded quite normal except for his habit of killing and eating people.

But where does transcendant goodness come from? Are some people born with a goodness gene? I do not think so. Their unanimous declaration is that they are imitating Christ without whose Divine aid none of their good works would be possible. They want no credit for their work. Mother Teresa gave away the money from her Nobel Prize.

How is it that someone forgives their enemies?

Such goodness in the world is easily outnumbered by the acts of evil, petty and otherwise. And yet these manifestations of Goodness continue.

Outside the Christian tradition, the work of Gandhi comes to mind. Though most people do not know that his ideas of non-violence were formed during a correspondence early in his life with the Christian, Leo Tolstoy. I would not deny that Divine Grace was at work in his actions.

And finally, why does there arise a teacher of goodness in the first century A.D., proclaiming that we should love our enemies and do good to those who hate us? Why does he tell us to sell what we have and distribute it to the poor. Why does he say and do what he does while the very religious authorities of his own nation sought to kill him. Why does he forgive all while enduring the pain of crucifixion?

I am not a good man. I want to be a good man. I believe that such good men exist and that it is possible to become one. I believe this because the One who was crucified said that He was God and that because He was God those who love Him could do even greater works than He.

As for the problem of Goodness – I want to become part of the problem.

Addendum:

First I will state that the mystery of goodness is a mystery. I believe all goodness comes from God – for so I have learned the universe – but having said that is not the same thing as saying that I fully understand it in any form. The Scriptures are clear that “[God] maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). Unbelievers are capable of good as well as unbelievers. If this were not so we could sort one another out with ease. But it’s simply not the case.

So why do we believe in God? This is where the reasons begin to go all over the map – though there needs to be a common core. That core is to be found in Christ Himself. Belief in God cannot finally be belief in an idea or a principle or even the nature of the universe for He is none of those things. The heart of our encounter with God is that He has made Himself known to us as person – indeed as persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A modern Western should not assume that he knows the meaning of those words, for the Church certainly means by them something quite different than common English usage. For the moment I will let it suffice to say that to know God as person means we can only know Him in freedom (both on our part and on His) and we can only know Him in an act of love (both on our part and on His). It is these latter realities that makes arguments about the existence, non-existence of God only marginally useful. God who is not a principle or an idea cannot thus be proven as though He were. In preserving our freedom He is also not necessarily obvious. He is readily knowable but not knowable of necessity. It is quite possible to look at the universe and come to a conclusion that there is no God.

I have always marveled at this latter point – sometimes wondering why it is not other than it is. And yet I am convinced that it is in the very humility of God that things are as they are. It would have been quite possible to have walked by the cross of Christ and assumed there was just one more Jew dying on a cross. The Gospels are a witness of faith, not a newspaper.

And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name (Jn. 20:30-31).

So what are we left with? We are left with God. Nothing will substitute for Him – not argument or reason – not miracle or magic. And we who know Him should want nothing more. Our lives should be and become a living witness to the Life of God. If they are not, then why should anyone listen to us? As for others, they will come to faith as mysteriously as we did. Whoever heard of a single means by which people came to Christ other than the single means of grace? The last time I checked the Spirit blows where it wills and you can’t tell where it comes from or where it goes.

Thus we believe and we pray and we lean more deeply into Christ and God adds to the Church daily such as should be saved. And we, following the lives of the saints, should pray for everyone as if they were already further in the Kingdom of God than we.

Why We Don’t Believe In God

July 28, 2007

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A note: This article has been described by someone on a blog reference site as a description of why atheists don’t believe in God. Apparently they haven’t read the article. Throughout I use the pronoun “we” because I am not talking about non-believers, per se, but about both believers and unbelievers. I have not spared myself in the use of “we.” I think all of us have common issues. If you think otherwise, fine. But do not report me as having said what I have not said. Happy reading.    – Fatherstephen

I offer this strange title as something of third in my series on belief in God. I do not mean here to offer reasons non-Christians may offer as their own reasons for non-belief in God. Frankly, I think most people don’t know why they don’t believe in God, and as an Orthodox Christian, I would assume that all discussions with those who do not believe in God, and a majority of discussions with those who claim to believe in God, would be be discussions that are rife with delusion, at least at some level. Thus my first reason why we cannot believe in God.

1. We do not believe in God because we are under delusion. We do not see the world as it truly is. We do not see ourselves as we truly are. Most importantly we do not see God as He truly is.

The Scriptures tell us: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). For this reason Orthodox Christians turn to the writings of the Fathers and the living treasures of the Tradition of the Church – the living legacy of those who have seen God. Our hardness of heart makes our own knowledge poor and frequently deluded. We need to hear and learn from the knowledge of others.

2. We do not believe in God because we have substituted false definitions for the true revelation of God.

Thus many Christians who speak about God, are speaking of the God of syllogisms, a God of rational construction, not the true and living God. This is an easy option that does not require the ascesis and struggle of those who know God in purity of heart.

3. We do not believe in God because we hate our enemies and are consumed with anger about the world.

My understanding of 1 John 4:7-8 would make it clear that we only know God to the extent that we love our enemies. Admittedly, this sets the bar very high for knowledge of God. But anything less is deluded on some level. This point also carries with it the assumption that knowing God involves certain activities on our part. I cannot (apart from some marvelous divine intervention) come to know God as I sit on my sofa, channel surfing, and emitting various opinions about the state of the world.

4. We do not believe in God because such belief would cost too much.

I never know how to judge this in the life of another. I can only speak from personal experience. In this case there are points and times in my life that I find it more convenient not to know God but to talk about God, to discuss religious questions. This is my refusal to move beyond the armchair and to enter into the sufferings of Christ, particularly as they are made known in the least of His brethren. Love is very expensive. If we cannot know God without love, we frequently choose not to afford it.

5. We do not believe in God because of pain and misconception.

I mean to state this in the most merciful manner possible. There are many who do not know God because their lives have been so emerged in pain and delusion (not self chosen) that the very mention of God is painful. These are fequently the victims of those who falsely claim to know God. By the same token, in God’s mercy, their very rejection of the false God that has been offered to them, is an act of grace, enabled by the true God. Such persons are far closer to the Kingdom of God than those who have inflicted their false religious views on them.

It is doubtless possible for me to expand this posting. Perhaps I will at a later date. For the present, it is all that I have within me.

Why I Believe in God – Part 2

July 27, 2007

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In my earlier posting I wrote primarily about my personal journey as a Christian and why I am a believer rather than an atheist. In the course of my life I do not think atheism would have ever been a possible way to live – the questions of my life and heart would have been either silenced or bludgeoned into non-existence.

But there are other aspects worth writing about. One has to do with the reductionism of atheist thought. To view the world in a purely materialist fashion makes sense in a secular protestant mindset (I have written on this a defined my terms in a previous post). It is possible to see the world as existing in discreet, concrete terms – as self-existing. The problem is that it leaves so much of human experience unaccounted for, and undervalued.

Theories of knowledge, for instance, in a world of discreet materialism, are fairly straightforward, though boring. Materialist explanations of non-materialist experiences always border on silliness to me. It’s like reducing love to a chemical expression. If you like movies (though the rating is not what I would normally recommend) the independent film, Dopamine, has an artful explanation of love versus mere chemical reaction. What do we do with the encounter with Beauty? Materialist explanations not only sound contrived but manage to turn the experience of beauty into something of ugliness. This is why I earlier charged that atheism has produced no worthy art: it’s ugly and boring.

The very experience of Beauty has a way of drawing us beyond ourselves and towards the Transcendent. The number of conversions of which I am aware that involve an experience of Beauty extend far beyond those famous cases such as Dostoevsky and Bulgakov. One of the most profound I have heard came from the priest, Fr. Anthony Tregubov, an excellent iconographer, and late secretary and later priest to Alexander Solzhnetisyn (when he lived in Vermont).

I was reading earlier today in the theology of Fr. Pavel Florensky. His theology is deeply intertwined in the question of aesthetics and epistemology (Beauty and the Theory of Knowledge). I frequently think that if someone has had a true encounter with Beauty and can come away with a simple materialist explanation, they have either purposely diminished the experience, or have dismissed it in a way that protects them from the demands that Beauty would make.

I am sure that a materialist could respond to questions of Beauty that they are simply responses based on how we are “hard-wired.” If such an explanation is sufficient then Beauty has become as prosaic as digestion. There are experiences of Beauty that bring you to a complete stop – that render us powerless and speechless. We can be completely ravished by Beauty and find ourselves reduced to willing servitude.

On the other hand, to have lived life in this world and never to have experienced any Beauty of such power, is to have lived a poor life. The greater the saint, the more easily they are overwhelmed by such beauty – to the extent that every glance at this created world is itself a glimpse of God. No materialist account of human life has a place for such experience – at least not a place that has not rendered the experience as again as banal as digestion (though I venture that the saint even marvels at digestion).

When I was a child in second grade, my teacher was an artist. For whatever reason, she focused her attention on about three students in her class and gave us special attention (this is all probably illegal today). One thing she did for us was to take us on a private visit to the County Museum of Art (a deeply modest event compared to its existence today where it houses the largest Wyeth Collection in the nation). But we were children of the margin – not farm families nor city folk. My father was an auto mechanic, my mother a seamstress. The others were the child of a hog salesman and the manager of a trailer park. She took us to see art. Not the chalk drawings she dazzled us with on her blackboard in the classroom, nor our own feeble efforts in clay and finger-painting – but true art, wonderful, colorful and beyond anything we had known. Unlike pictures in a book it was the product of a human hand.

I remember aching with the experience. I wanted to be an artist (I never became one – seeming to lack the talent). But I have a daughter who draws with an absolute delight and intends on becoming an artist. She has no idea how I rejoice in her work and pray that she be transformed by the encounter with Beauty.

There is a vast human conversation – even a conversation I can have with a Buddhist or Hindu for that matter, despite the difficulties – that are simply foreign to the materialist account of reality. As a believer I also belong to the human race and the whole of its experience. I can at least take part in the conversation. Materialism and its concomitant brother, atheism, seem to have exempted themselves from the largest part of the human conversation.

Dostoevsky is quoted as saying, “God will save the world through Beauty.” He never quite said it that way – but the saying stands as true (I believe). I do not doubt that every assault on Beauty, every attempt to reduce it to less, to a mere process of the brain, and has diminished humanity and the eons of its encounter with this wondrous experience.

Why Do I Believe in God?

July 26, 2007

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I am always interested in the posts that come to my site from self-professed atheists. They tend to live in a world far-removed from the one I inhabit (surrounded as I am with religious services and the whole culture of the Church). I never satisfy the questions posed (which usually demand rationalist answers, that, though they can be given, are not my particular strength). But I am interested in why someone does not believe in God – though my deepest suspicion is that the God they do not believe in has almost nothing to do with the God that I believe in – that is – I probably don’t believe in their God either.

But why do I believe in God? This is a question that has several answers – partly because my faith in God has gone through a number of permutations. I was born in a Southern Baptist family that was not pious nor active in the local Church. My older brother (5 years my senior) was a strong influence. During good weather, he and I would walk down the railroad tracks near our house (no trains on Sunday) to the local Baptist Church. I was Baptized there at age 7.

My earliest memories of a consciousness of God go back to those journeys down the railroad tracks. My brother believed in God. My Sunday School teachers believed in God – and always spoke in very kind terms about God. If we “stayed for preaching” the pastor would tend to yell a lot and talk about hell, but in my world, adults were always yelling about something and I paid little attention.

Instead, there was the kindness of a Sunday School teacher, the steadfastness of my older brother (who is still at the top of my hero list), and interestingly, the witness of icons. I know its strange to speak of icons in a Baptist Church, but my Sunday School room, like many others, had wonderful pictures (probably published by Broadman Press) of Jesus the Good Shepherd and Jesus and the Children. I add to that Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (here I join my witness to that of Dostoevsky and Fr. Sergei Bulgakov who wrote of the profound effect of this painting in their lives – Fr. Sergei credited his adult conversion back to the faith to an encounter with this painting in Dresden). My Sistine Madonna was simply a picture in the front of my Bible, given to me by my mother’s Sunday School class when I was born. Thus I cannot remember a time that Mary was absent from my relationship with Christ.

I began to doubt the faith – or at least the faith as I was hearing it – between the ages of 10 and 13. No age can be more idealistic. And my idealism was being shattered left and right by the hypocrisy of adults and the growing realization that there were problems within my world. Not the least of which was the problem of racial hatred in the South. I was born in 1953 – thus at age ten and beyond the television was filled with images of the racial strife in my native South. I recall my brother leaving a service in protest when he was age 18 (I was 13 and thus his dependent protege). A guest preacher was invited that Sunday and took the occasion to preach against the racial integration of Furman University (a local Baptist college which later became my alma mater). My brother interrupted the sermon and shouted to the preacher, “You’re crazy as hell!” after which we left in protest. Thus my first protest was because I needed a ride home.

I floundered for several years. My brother was off in college. I read and listened. I never felt attracted to atheism – it seemed empty and shallow to me and full of despair. I had an almost innate sense of a transcendence in this world. I was no stranger to suffering or evil. At age ten, I lost one aunt to the devastations of an incurable disease, another to the insanity of a random murder. Grief, and the insanity of evil were among the most real experiences of my young life. The same year one of my closest cousins was diagnosed with the onset of childhood Rheumatoid Arthritis. I have written elsewhere of that relationship and the eventual witness of her life. But at the time it was simply one more example of the reality of suffering and the randomness of its victims.

At age 15, I made another Christian profession, perhaps more consciously mystical than my childhood profession. My older brother introduced me to Anglicanism. This, of course, was in the days before liturgical renewal struck the Episcopal Church. The rhythms of the old prayerbook and the beauty of its traditional services, along with the Victorian splendor of an old Southern Church made a deep impression on me. A sense of the presence of God – not one that I could articulate – but one that I could cry out to – were palpably real to me. It was in that setting that my first sense of a vocation to priesthood was formed.

Belief in God, if it is to survive, almost never survives without tremendous testing. I endured college along with its freshman philosophy and even the shallow slogans of agnosticism and youthful atheism. I wondered and I doubted. I went to seminary (Episcopal) straight from college and found little solace there. Some professors believed. Others were openly Arian (denying the divinity of Christ). Others represented such a mix of faith, pseudo-science, and nonsense that they were less than helpful.

Upon graduation I was ordained and took up the struggle of being responsible for the spiritual lives of others. I made mistakes. I took wrong turns. I took right turns (and left ones, too). I watched the birth of my children, and the death of friends. I watched the Church to which I belonged live its life subject to a corrupt bureaucracy and to the Spirit of the Age.

I occasionally struggled to fight back.

In the end of all that, I struggled to come to grips with the Orthodox faith. And coming to grips with the Orthodox faith was, in all reality, coming to grips with belief in God. As a Protestant you may believe in God, but what that means is under constant revision and construction. The Orthodox Faith, on the other hand, professes faith in a God who has made Himself known, and the reality of that is larger and clearer than the confines of one’s own life. This God you can either embrace or reject – but do little else with. Years of reading, praying, thinking, conversation, visiting, etc., all led me to understand that if Christianity was true then it was true in its Orthodox form. Everything else was a deviation.

And thus in 1998 my family and I were received into the Orthodox faith, at first certain that financial ruin was to be our lot. Probably for the first time in my life I was staking everything practical on the reality of the existence of God. I was frightened. But at every turn, my fear was overcome with the faithfulness of the God to whom I had sworn an oath. He sustained us and protected us. The decision we made was so final that had it resulted in ruin and death I think I would not have wavered.

Why do I believe in God? There is no rational argument or syllogism that comforts my heart. No argument from philosophers has anything to say to the death of an aunt, or random murder. It has nothing to say to the pain of childhood disease. But from my earliest childhood I knew a kindness and a goodness that seemed to shine in my life and heart despite everything around me. Had I abandoned that kindness I do not think I would be alive today.

I believe in God because, I think, He believed in me and sustained me (and has sustained me) through the whole of my life. I believe in God because when I pray, I do not hear an empty echo of my own voice, but a resonance with a Goodness that I see everywhere around me. I believe in God because I have witnessed the death of hundreds of believing Christians. It is a great mystery to stand by the bed of the dying and I have seen people die well, despite pain and deprivation. I have heard the prayer from lips that bless God for His goodness even as they breathe their last.

I believe in God because I can think of almost nothing beautiful that has been begotten by atheism. It produces bad art, bad novels, and empty cultures. Were it not for believers, atheists would have almost nothing to discuss. Even in their science, they live off the fruits of believers. I do not know of an attractive atheist leader, despite the many unattractive Christians whom I know all too well.

I believe in God because He is real, true, beautiful, good, compassionate, kind and then more than I can say. Atheism can offer me nothing (precisely). I do not believe in nothing.

The Problem of Goodness

May 10, 2007

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From my first class in Philosophy 101 in college, the so-called “Problem of Evil” has been tossed up as the “clincher” in arguments against the existence of God. How can a good God allow innocent people to suffer? The most devastating case ever made on the subject was in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Ivan Karamazov, in the chapter entitled “Rebellion,” which is the chapter preceding the famous “Grand Inquisitor,” makes the details of his argument known. He is at an inn with his religious brother, Alyosha. A brief summary would be to say the suffering of innocent children is not worth anything good that God might do.

It’s a very strong argument – so strong, in fact – that Dostoevsky, a Christian believer, feared he had made the case too strong and did not succeed in refuting it in the novel. I disagree with his gloomy assessment.

My argument is somewhat the opposite. It is the problem of Good. Why with the world as dysfunctional as it is do we encounter transcendant goodness in the lives of some people? No one on the basis of nature and nurture can really answer it. Given the world and its headlines, why are not all people largely stockaded in their homes, armed to the teeth?

Why does a stranger volunteer to donate bone marrow to another perfect stranger? The procedure invovles pain.

Why does Mother Teresa gather up over 40,000 dying children from the streets of Calcutta in her lifetime and treat them with love and dignity – when everyone around her is just walking past the problem? Or why does one man lay down his life for others in the death camps of the Nazi’s like the Catholic priest, St. Maximillian Kolbe?

In July 1941, a man from Kolbe’s bunker had vanished, prompting SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch, the Lagerführer (i.e., the camp commander), to pick 10 men from the same bunker to be starved to death in Block 11 (notorious for torture), in order to deter further escape attempts. (The man who had disappeared was later found drowned in the camp latrine). One of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, lamenting his family, and Kolbe volunteered to take his place.

After three weeks of dehydration and starvation, only four of the ten men were still alive, including Kolbe. During the time in the cell, he led the men in songs and prayer. The cells were needed, and Kolbe and the other three were executed with an injection of carbolic acid in the left arm.

St. Maria Skobtsove demonstrated similar kindness in the Nazi camps after being arrested for her help with Jews. She died in prison.

And the litany of such actions grows. I do not find it hard to explain Hitler’s evil. He and the men like him were products of their time, their environment, perhaps with demonic inspiration thrown in. Hitler ordered the Berlin Philharmonic to play pieces from the Goetterdamerueng [the Twilight of the Gods] while the Russian troops entered Berlin. He existed in the most educated and enlightened country in the Europe in its day.

The serial killers, even of children, are fairly explainable. I saw an interview with Jeffrey Dahlmer before his death in prison. He sounded quite normal except for his habit of killing and eating people.

But where does transcendant goodness come from? Are some people born with a goodness gene? I do not think so. Their unanimous declaration is that they are imitating Christ without whose Divine aid none of their good works would be possible. They want no credit for their work. Mother Teresa gave away the money from her Nobel Prize.

How is it that someone forgives their enemies?

Such goodness in the world is easily outnumbered by the acts of evil, petty and otherwise. And yet these manifestations of Goodness continue.

Outside the Christian tradition, the work of Gandhi comes to mind. Though most people do not know that his ideas of non-violence were formed during a correspondence early in his life with the Christian, Leo Tolstoy. I would not deny that Divine Grace was at work in his actions.

And finally, why does there arise a teacher of goodness in the first century A.D., proclaiming that we should love our enemies and do good to those who hate us? Why does he tell us to sell what we have and distribute it to the poor. Why does he say and do what he does while the very religious authorities of his own nation sought to kill him. Why does he forgive all while enduring the pain of crucifixion?

I am not a good man. I want to be a good man. I believe that such good men exist and that it is possible to become one. I believe this because the One who was crucified said that He was God and that because He was God those who love Him could do even greater works than He.

As for the problem of Goodness – I want to become part of the problem.

The Despair of Unbelief

May 9, 2007

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I am gradually learning things that I have not known before – or only suspected. Posting occasionally as I have on the subject of atheism, and receiving occasional reponses from atheists, is an education in itself. There is atheism as I imagine it to be (I suppose what it would look like were I one) and there is atheism as it has historically expressed itself (in such writers as Nietsche or Sartre) and there is what I would dub “neo-atheism” if only because it seems to differ from its predecessors.

The major difference is this – there is a classic despair in early continental atheism and something of a search for a meaning that would replace the overarching themes of Christianity. And there’s the phenomenon as I am seeing it, particularly among younger people today. If I had to describe what I’ve been reading (and I’ve been surfing around a bit to test my theories) it would be an atheism that has jettisoned despair, or, rather, a way of human living in which hope (in a transcendent sense) is not a major issue. Thus it is not a “living large” but learning to “live small.”

I encounter elements of Buddhism (some forms of Buddhism are strictly agnostic or atheist in belief), elements of an existentialism, and primarily a defining of life in terms which do not require what atheism cannot supply.

Despair, if given its proper meaning, simply means “to have no hope.” For some this is also synonymous with depression and the like. But for others, it simply means something that is not part of their lifestyle. Hope is shrunk to more immediate concerns, metaphysics having been jettisoned.

Doubtless, the hypocrisy and failures of Christianity have done nothing to turn aside such an epiphenomenon. Indeed, they have probably contributed to its creation. The broad array of Christian denominationalism (how do you choose?), coupled with a growing crass materialism masked as Christianity (the heresy of the prosperity gospel that clogs the airwaves) almost beg young people to bow out. “No thanks,” might be the kind refusal of those surveying the Christian scene.

From the perspective of Orthodox Christianity none of this should come as a surprise. Defective Christianity is not the antidote to non-belief. Nor is Orthodox Christianity when it is practiced in a defective form. Thus Christ asks the question, “…when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8b).

Always a primary question for those who profess the Orthodox faith is “am I living the Faith?” In my efforts to do mission, I have stressed that the only way to do mission is to first be sure that there is actually a living Orthodox Church to which we may bring people. And so we pray, we fast, we give alms, we beg God of His mercy to give us the grace needed to become what we cannot become without Him.

Apparently, the despair that I project and expect of an atheist is not a given – or more to the point – it is a gift. To see the world without God and perceive its meaninglessness – and to perceive the tragedy of such – is a gracious gift of perceiving the truth. Modern Orthodox writers who have spoken about despair or even standing at the edge of the abyss (despair, hell, etc.) in order to pray for the whole world (this is an image that occurs in both Fr. Sophrony’s writings as well as in the life of St. Silouan) are not speaking of a place that we reach naturally, but that we reach supernaturally (that is by grace).

That gracious despair can also be accompanied (paradoxical though it may be) with great joy. Orthodoxy is full of references to “Joyful Sorrow.” And it is here that my experience of the world goes somewhere that atheism cannot take you. The encounter of the lives of the saints – where those who seem to be the most awake are also those believe the most deeply. I am overwhelmed with the goodness of a Mother Theresa – or a St. Seraphim of Sarov – and I do not see this goodness among those who do not believe. How do you stand in the slums of Calcutta and serve with joy the poorest of the poor without belief in God? Romanticism can only carry you so far – it cannot fill a lifetime.

And it is this encounter with a Goodness that is unexplainable apart from God that shatters despair (or reveals it). I know the sorrows of this world, I’ve seen plenty of death and the darkness of the human heart. This holds no mystery to me. But it’s the goodness that cannot be accounted for with no reference beyond the world as we know it that staggers me. How do we explain St. Seraphim, or St. Xenia of Petersburg, or St. Matrona of Moscow, St. Nectarios of Aegina (only to begin the list)? All of which is merely a prelude to the great question, “How do we explain Christ?”

The gospels are too rich, the New Testament too layered in nuance and multivalency to be but the fiction of a few. There is an event which occasioned their writing and which occasioned an irruption of goodness and mercy unknown at any prior time on earth. That same goodness, transcendent in aspect, continues to erupt. It is not necessarily evidenced on a daily basis in every parish church – though there is more there than many people know – but these irruptions (as I choose to call them) point beyond themselves and beneath themselves to what cannot be contained, cannot be accounted for within the closed universe.

Towards the ending of history, rays appear on the summits of the Church; hardly discernible at first, they belong to the Day without Ending, the Day of the Age to come. – Fr. Pavel Florensky

These are the saints and martyrs, ‘of whom the world was not worthy.’ They tell me that despair – even the honest despair that refuses to look away from the suffering of this world – is not the final word. There is indeed a hope beyond the despair – a hope that took flesh and walked among us, and continues to illumine us if we care to see.

“Do You Know Jesus?”

May 7, 2007

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I have written in numerous posts about various aspects of conversion to the Orthodox Christian faith. Oftentimes there is an unspoken agreement between myself as writer and those who read in which we assume that we understand each other – that when I say “conversion” we all know what I mean.

On reflection there are several very distinct kinds of conversions – though each has a relationship to the other.

There is a conversion that simply refers to leaving a Christian Church that is not Orthodox and being received into the Orthodox Church. Essentially, the questions that surround this conversion are ecclesiological – largely concerned with the Church, its nature and its history. It may very well be the case that the whole story of such a conversion includes coming to understand Christ or certain doctrines concerning Him in a new way. Part of the formal process of receiving the non-Orthodox into the Church may include the specific renunciations of certain heresies. It is certainly a matter of asking, “What is the truth,” but the range of that question may be somewhat narrowly defined.

There is also a conversion that would apply to any reader that I might have – whether Orthodox or not – and that is the question of our on-going conversion in relation to the Truth of Christ Himself. I am certain that should my life continue beyond this moment – I want it to go deeper into Christ than I am at this moment. I want it to be freer of sin than I am at this moment. I want to know God and be united with Him far more fully than I am at this moment. That conversion, by God’s mercy, should not stop until we stop. As one of the desert fathers said, “Prayer is struggle to a man’s dying breath.”

And then there is the larger question (or it seems larger to me somehow) of conversion to belief in Christ for someone who does not profess to be a Christian. This, it seems to me, is a very large question – one that has captured my heart repeatedly over the years.

I grew up in a city that was very well acquainted with American Christian fundamentalism (of the modern, Protestant variety). It is the home of Bob Jones University, which generally makes Liberty University (Jerry Falwell’s creation) seem like a bastion of liberalism. I can recall frequently seeing pamphlets attacking Billy Graham (for his ecumenism) during my childhood. Street preaching was alive and well, though for some reason it seems to have declined in recent years. As a teenager in the late 60’s, wearing long hair, I was a walking target for street evangelists. Somehow I have never considered St. Paul’s admonition in I Corinthians (11:14) to be a great introduction for an evangelist. My long hair was probably as much a political statement as anything – and the street preacher’s recitation of Corinthians was equally political. He should have just called me a communist and gotten it over with…

I was much more impressed by the first “Jesus freak” I met. I was working in what was popularly known as a “head shop” (merchandising for hippies) when this guy from the West coast came in. I don’t think the term “Jesus freak” had been coined as yet by the media but that’s what he was. His question to me, after looking around at some of the merchandise was, “Do you know Jesus?”

Somehow the question did not seem like an insult. (“If you were to die tonight do you know where you’d go?” – that was a common leading question and always seemed to presume that I was going to hell). My response to this visitor to the shop was, “Yes, I do.” And then we had a friendly Christian conversation – not very churchy – just friendly.

As years have gone by, the question seems to me to have stood up as genuine and important. “Do you know Jesus?”

The other questions that I grew up with, I have come to understand, were largely driven by a legal metaphor and were largely trying establish a relationship with God on that basis. Thus, asking for your legal standing with God seemed entirely proper.

The other question, that of knowing Jesus, presumes a more “mystical” basis, if I can use the term for a few moments. It presumes relationship, but does not necessarily carry any legal baggage. The metaphor can be that of knowing in a more participatory sense – which is far more at home in the language and theology of Orthodox Christianity.

Of course, asking someone if they know Jesus, and telling someone how they can know Jesus, particularly in the manner in which the word to know is used in the Gospel of John, for instance, are two very different things. My experience over the years has been that there is never a simple formula for how you can know Jesus. It is not at all the same thing as an experiential version of the Four Spiritual Laws. As I think of my own story and those of many others that I have known, the answer to the question of how can be very varied.

And yet there are common elements – elements which have a grounding in the gospels themselves. One such grounding that quickly comes to mind is Christ’s statement: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32). Most often the end of that statement is quoted out of context. The entire statement makes knowledge of the truth contingent upon “continuing in my word.” Later in the same gospel Christ says much the same thing: “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (John 14:21). The “continue in his word” is the same as “keep my commandments.”

Matthew the Poor, the contemporary Egyptian monk, made the point in one of his books that taking a single commandment and keeping it with all the heart would take you into the kingdom of God. It sounds true to me. Thus if someone is seeking to know Christ a place to begin might include several things: prayer (seek, ask, knock), reading the gospels (they are a “verbal icon” of Christ), and keeping His commandments. If someone is in a quandary as to which of the commandments – obvious places to start are to “remember the poor” or to “forgive an enemy.” “Do good to those who dispitefully use you,” etc. Prayer and almsgiving are almost always paired in Scripture and in the writings of the Fathers.

One of the difficulties of reason and almost any mental activity is that taken alone they almost always become circular. I liken them to a “dog chasing his tail.” Every argument for something can be countered with an argument against. Every thought can be followed by another or derailed by yet another. It is the action that accompanies the thought, the reason, the prayer, that tend to nail things down and bring an impetus to our words. Thus it is that Christ tells us to keep His commandments if we are to know Him.

In my late teen years – post high school and pre-college, I chose to go to work rather than be a student. It was a detour that lasted two years. For a good portion of that time I lived with another Christian friend and then with a lot of Christian friends. What happened began with myself and my friend. After prayers one day, we decided that we should keep Christ’s commandment to give things away and follow Him. In all the zeal of youth we took the commandment as literally as we could manage. I think we each kept one change of clothes. The rest of what we had (which I have to admit wasn’t much) we gave away. As the months went by we continued to practice this commandment and eventually ended up living in a communal fashion with about 20 or so other Christians. Things changed – we were under no vows. A time came and I entered college and moved out. But the experience of prayer, coupled with action was deeply beneficial. There were things that became a part of me then that have never left me. Indeed, it was this same Christian friend with whom I began that effort who first gave me a book about Orthodox Christianity, Vladimir Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. It is not the book I recommend as a first read for others – but it planted a seed that never left me and eventually bore fruit (25 years later).

“Do you know Jesus?” It is still a very good question – and the answer can be pressed as far as the heart will bear.

Nothing from Nothing Leaves Nothing

May 5, 2007

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One of the intellectual problems encountered by atheism, though not one that is frequently mentioned, is its tendency to reductionism. If the universe is closed, then ultimately the story of things is much less complex than they might otherwise be and far more predictable. Indeed, the atheist account of reality is frequently boring. I am reminded of Carl Sagan’s now famous description of the stars: “Billions and billions” (no one else could do as much with the letter “b” as Carl). The sadness of his account was that bigness somehow was made to substitute for the wonder of everything. In the end, finite is still just finite.

Most recently, one of the new champions of atheism (and they are getting a bit bolder these days), Daniel Dennett, has offered a book: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. It is devastatingly reviewed in last January’s First Things by David Hart, an Orthodox lay theologian. Hart is among the more deft of contemporary writers with an insight into both theology and contemporary culture that is masterful, to say the least. I only hope that if I ever write a book, and it were reviewed by Hart, that it would be a book he liked. When he dismantles something, it is pretty much done for.

Dennett’s thesis is to put forward the idea that religion is merely a natural phenomenon that evolved like everything else. Hart deconstructs Dennett’s thesis as thoroughly as I could imagine. I offer a short quote:

Unfortunately, all evolutionary stories about culture suffer from certain inherent problems. Evolutionary biology is a science that investigates chains of physical causation and the development of organic life, and these are all it can investigate with any certainty. The moment its principles are extended into areas to which they are not properly applicable, it begins to cross the line from the scientific to the speculative. This is fine, perhaps, so long as one is conscious from the first that one is proceeding in stochastic fashion and by analogy, and that one’s conclusions will always be unable to command anyone’s assent. When, though, those principles are translated into a universal account of things that are not in any definable way biological or physically causal, they have been absorbed into a kind of impressionistic mythology, or perhaps into a kind of metaphysics, one whose guiding premises are entirely unverifiable.

In fact, the presupposition that all social phenomena must have an evolutionary basis and that it is legitimate to attempt to explain every phenomenon solely in terms of the benefit it may confer (the “cui bono? question,” as Dennett likes to say) is of only suppositious validity. Immensely complex cultural realities like art, religion, and morality have no genomic sequences to unfold, exhibit no concatenations of material causes and effects, and offer nothing for the scrupulous researcher to quantify or dissect.

Hart is a masterful writer, occasionally dense to the reader – but always worth spending the time to follow the paths he makes. The entire article may be read here. I heartily (no pun intended) recommend it.