In Leo Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina, Levin and Vronsky share a deep but often tense friendship. They despise the likes, dislikes, and various life choices the other has made. Each has gone his own way regarding living conditions, social status, and worldview. Tolstoy describes the friendship as one only possible with friends from childhood.
Reading this passage on the DC metro several summers ago, I immediately thought of my own old friendships. Several of them date back to before high school. I recall summers spent in one friend’s basement watching really bad Adult Swim shows on the Cartoon Network; or going to the local, all-night diner, eating subpar food and watching drunks arrive to sober up before going home. We would debate music, movies, politics, religion, philosophy—really anything and everything we could think to argue.
The intervening years brought increasingly diverging dress, political views, music tastes, hobbies, and moral outlook. To increase the divides, we are now spread across the state of Ohio and, in my case, across the country. In spite of these changes, the bonds between us endure. We still speak with some regularity; we still go out of our way to meet when in the same city. The meetings often become what they were back in high school—debates over anything and everything sprinkled with the storytelling that revives the best (and sometimes worst) of times past. Like Tolstoy’s novel, our friendship contains elements so deep, so secure that while we would likely never become friends were we to meet today, it is even harder to imagine losing such friendship after all this time.
Yet one important divergence between us has not been mentioned. In the last few years two of my friends have become avowed atheists.
The difficulties surrounding this change have been legion. Zealous new converts, their conversations have been consumed with proofs against God’s existence and assaults upon organized religion. In addition, their brand of atheism owes much to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, the so-called “New Atheists.” Coming from this polemical lineage, their atheism is not one of sad doubt but intense surety. They do not bewail the death of God in their minds but rejoice, all-the-while heaping up attacks upon the God of Scripture that are nothing short of base, often very lewd blasphemy. These actions have strained our friendship probably more than they realize. The gulf between God and themselves has created distance between us.
I further struggle with the eternity of our discussions. Though I believe God is sovereign over salvation, that does not preclude the intensely held hope that He will soften even the hardest heart among my friends. I desire that we be united in Christ as we have been united in friendship.
With these personal experiences I have been driven again and again to the question: what does it look like to love your atheist friend? Not in the abstract; not in the form of some cloudy, benevolent feeling; but loving in real actions that take place in real circumstances. The following ideas form the core of what I have tried, though certainly not always succeeded, to do.
First, I try to show my friends that our friendship is not conditional. They are not my friends because they meet a certain check-list of dos and don’ts. After all, what check-list would we meet for each other, considering our vast differences? I hope that in some way such actions will show them that the essence of Christianity is a relationship, one built not on performance but on eternal faithfulness. The Christianity they attack is nothing like this but a sad tale of self-righteous self-salvation through adhering to rules and degrading those who do not.
Second, I have tried to engage them respectfully on their arguments. Too often they have had family and friends reject them outright as moral horrors because of their lack of belief, persons who then are either unable or unwilling to discuss the merits or weaknesses of their arguments. Such actions have only fueled their belief that religious persons believe blindly and irrationally, that my friends are the enlightened ones who have shed monkish ignorance and bravely stared at the heavens as they are—empty.
Yet while engaging them on this intellectual level, I have tried to remind them that they are human beings, not floating brains. Their atheism comes from the full human spring of the social, emotional, and intellectual just as my Christianity flows from these personal streams.
Third, I have tried to stay friends and not become merely debating partners. Sometimes Christians can turn friendships into one long , explicit evangelistic endeavor. While in one sense we must always be showing others the love of Christ, that does not mean we must always discuss Scriptural proofs. Relationships out of which the Gospel can be seen as well as heard seems the best way.
Fourth and finally, I have tried to be honest with them and with myself. I have tried to own up to wrongs I have done and do so in a manner that truly looks to costly grace and not either legalism or libertinism. Such actions have caused renewed vigor on my part to fight sin and temptation, study God’s Word, and fellowship with other believers for both love, counsel, and correction. God has used this situation to further His work in me.
In the end, I do not know how God will work out this situation. Will my friends come to a redemptive knowledge of Christ or be forever separated from Him and from fellowship with me? Only God knows for only God is sovereign. I pray, though, for faithfulness and patience, much more than I have yet shown, that these friendships may not end but grow in the manner God would have them. Perhaps by His grace, our childhood friendship would realize the greatest commonality—union with Christ.