For people who don’t believe that there is a god, atheists have a lot to say about the subject. One of the latest arguments offered by “Godless in Dixie” also rates as one of the more narcissistic defenses I’ve heard offered for atheism: Jesus didn’t “return his calls.”
It would be easy to poke gaping holes in this argument (which GiD counts as one of the more important reasons he is an atheist). One could simply start with the “me-ocentric” universe in which he lives. The logic that things only exist or have importance if they “speak to me” is an astoundingly narrow way to read the world around you. Measured in those terms, there is no god, nor is there any other, larger, overarching reality that could rightly claim our attention. The notion that for something to be of significance necessarily touches me is also precisely the kind of narrow perspective that education is meant to address.
The fact that this kind of argument gets any traction at all can be traced to simple self-absorption — which sells in our culture and which GiD’s column pretty much admits drives his reflections. It can also be traced to the frustrated outlook of post-modernists who, fed up with the effort to make sense of the world around them, are now content with smaller worlds of meaning: work that is meaningful to me, relationships that are meaningful to me, work that is meaningful to me, and gods – if you can find one – who is meaningful to me.
If that’s your metric, maybe what you are looking for is not God, but a bellhop.
For that very reason, GiD’s argument isn’t all that interesting to me. What I am more concerned about is what we have done with the Christian narrative to make this kind of complaint remotely plausible.
The answer, it seems to me, is blindingly obvious and so widespread that it is all but completely missed: We have sold off the larger Christian narrative, which has as its center, the person and work of God, and we have exchanged it, instead, for a narrative that has immediate, obvious utility to you and me.
Need to be saved? Jesus will take your call.
Need to have your car fixed? Jesus will take your call.Need a nice home? Jesus will take your call.
Need to have your psyche mended? Jesus will take your call.
Need someone to underwrite your politics or your economics (left or right)? Jesus will take your call.
The problem, in short, is that the church – right and left – has been so anxious to explain the relevance of the Gospel, that it has made the mistake of putting people at the center of the narrative. That’s neither how the biblical narrative reads, nor is it the way that the richer, more substantive retellings of that story read.
The case for what I call a theo-centric reading of the Christian story demands a far lengthier defense (which is a part of my own larger writing projects these days), but it suffices to note here that the biblical canon itself begins in Genesis with the words, “In the beginning, God…” and ends in the Book of Revelation with a vision of the resurrected and glorified Christ. Humanity, its purpose, and its fortunes are thread through that narrative, to be sure, but our lives are measured against our availability to God, not the availability of God to us.
That larger, theo-centric reading of the Gospel is “out there.” You see it in the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, whose works are filled with compassion and pathos for the human condition, without being absorbed by it – who see the work of God as one that embraces us, but is finally larger than us. But we don’t hear it often enough from the church’s pulpits and it’s notably absent from a lot of what writers are offering. Until that changes, we are going to hear a lot of arguments like the one GiD offers and we are going to be plagued with a church that finds some small piece of things of interest, but misses most of its own message.
One of the memorable moments in the Judaeo-Christian tradition when that point of view first dominated was in the story of a guy named Job, who was pretty frustrated that God wasn’t taking his calls either. And the opening salvo in God’s response was:
“Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?”
There will always people who complain that God isn’t taking their calls. Let’s not help obscure the truth by wrapping the Gospel around ourselves.