The ‘Atheistic’ Character of Christianity

From Alastair’s Adversaria:

The target of much atheist protest is the god that secures all meaning and makes sense of the world, the religion that serves as a crutch and underwrites the social order, the faith that inures one to truth and reality and gives birth to dulling and enslaving illusion. This is the god in whom they don’t believe. They might be surprised to find that Christians stand alongside them in attacking this deity: we don’t believe in that god either.

Christian thought involves a radical challenge to the way that we naturally view and ‘use’ god. It strikes at the idea of the distant and transcendent absolute being, believing that God was revealed in human flesh, with all that that entails. Christians believe that God came in a regular human body and pooped, sweat, and ate, just like the rest of us. Christians overturn the deity that underwrites and secures the pyramidical hierarchy, teaching that God himself became a servant for our sakes.

Christian faith teaches that God gave himself to die a criminal’s death at the hand of man and that he was dead for a few days. We believe that God’s character was most fully revealed, not in the beauty and perfection of nature, or the stillness of the human heart, but in a mangled and bloodied body on a Roman cross. It is in this eclipse of all light, and even the knowledge of God’s presence, that God’s face is most powerfully disclosed: God makes himself known in this moment of hell. It is also ultimately by this means that God achieves his purposes in the world, not by mere detached fiat.

If God himself felt the deep absence of God (‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me…?’), such an experience is far from alien – indeed, it is completely proper – to Christ-ian faith. Only Christians have a Holy Saturday, the day when God himself lay dead in the tomb, the day when all lights are out. As Tomáš Halík observes in his superb Patience With God, a living with the silence of God is integral to Christian faith and piety, an experience that bears much in common with that of atheists, but that the distinguishing character of the Christian response to this silence is patience.

In other words, Christians believe in an upside-down God, who stands utterly opposed to the deity that human beings naturally believe – or don’t believe – in. In the protests of atheists against this supposed deity, Christians can recognize the voice of the biblical prophets railing against the idols and false gods of the surrounding nations. In the moral protests of atheists against the injustice of the world, and any attempt to palliate us to this by reassuring theodicies, Christians can recognize the voice of the psalmist, who is inspired by God to challenge and question God. In response to the atheists who complain of God’s absence, Christians speak of exactly the same the experience (the ‘dark night of the soul’), the difference being that for Christians this is something to be passed through with struggling patience. In response to those atheists who resist attempts to impose meaning upon suffering and death, Christians can highlight the example of Job’s resistance to his counsellors. In response to the atheists who speak of the opacity of the world, Christians can point to the book of Ecclesiastes.

If atheists question God, believers in YHWH have been doing it for millennia. Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of the Jewish nation, was given the name ‘Israel’ after wrestling with God. The Bible is filled with examples and patterns of wrestling with and questioning God, and demolishing the comforting idolatrous notions that people have about him.


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