You are stardust and to stardust you will return: Lent for atheists

Helix Nebula acquired with ESO’s VISTA telescope

Lent has been the most meaningful season of the year for me for the past 10 years and I don’t want to give it up. Ash Wednesday in particular. Twice on this day—morning and evening—I would place ashes on the foreheads of those who gathered, with the words, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

It was also the season of the year in which I would garner the harshest criticism from my co-religionists, earning me more than one visit to my supervisor’s office over the years. You see, Seventh-day Adventists don’t celebrate Ash Wednesday or Lent because it’s…dun dun dun…Catholic. By “Catholic” of course, they meant, based in evil human tradition. Unlike everything else in the Christian, uh…tradition, that has been handed down in Platonic form from the heavens. This accusation never moved me. Yes, people who we now think of as Catholics instituted the practice to help observant Christians reflect on their own contingency. What could be better in a religion obsessed with living forever?

This is the first time I’ve missed church in a nearly a year, and the realization is revealing. The reason I love Ash Wednesday so much—and the entire season of Lent, right up to, but not including, Easter Sunday—is that it is the most honest season of the church year.

“You are dust, and to dust you will return.” Yes! Anything else is just being greedy. We are stardust, to be exact, and we’re going right back to where we came from, to make room for other people to enjoy the remarkable wonder of living and loving. This is against the evangelical (and certainly the fundamentalist) denial of death. For evangelicals, the point is Easter; the part of the story where Jesus overcomes death and we all get to live happily ever after…forever. But Ash Wednesday does not deal in such cheap optimism. This party got started long before I arrived and it will carry on in my absence, more or less without missing a beat…or me.

Some of my church members felt this was all too morbid. I began to wonder if my love of this season simply revealed my deep existentialist streak. But I see this now not as pessimism but as a beautiful realism. The universe, and life on this planet in particular, is the transcendent reality. It is bigger than any one of us or group of us. It is outside of our control and we don’t deserve more than the one life we get. To carry on about eternity seems to me now just a blatant fear of dying (which we all experience, of course) covered over by religious promises.

No doubt many who were raised in a different religious tradition (Catholic, for example) will have a different relationship to these themes. Sadly, Lent is a season in which the church has loaded people full of an extra helping of guilt. Lent is about the forced denial of normal human desires. The burden of guilt that Christianity piles on people has done untold harm, especially when the message at the core is that you are a bad person that God can only love after an extreme makeover. At the same time, Western culture could stand to consider its over-consumption of the world’s resources; consider whether all modern conveniences are necessary or even good for human flourishing, let alone our own individual happiness.

In short, Ash Wednesday and the 40-day march of Lent is about self-examination, so I’d like to propose a secular lent, unrelated to gods or metaphysics, but devoted nonetheless, to our salvation. We are racing toward the precipice. Whether we’re considering the unsustainability of our lifestyle on planet earth or the wars waged over ideology or family feuds over political differences, we could all use a month or so every year where we give up something related to our pride and our destructive lifestyles for no other reason than to make life more pleasant for ourselves and those with whom we share the planet.

I’m sorry I can’t promise you’ll live forever. But together we can make this life more abundant for more people.

About Ryan Bell

For 19 years Ryan Bell was a pastor, most recently the senior pastor of the Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church. In March 2013 he resigned his position due to theological and practical differences. As an adjunct professor he has taught subjects ranging from intercultural communication to bioethics.
Currently he is a researcher, writer and speaker on the topic of religion and irreligion in America. In January 2014, Ryan began a yearlong journey exploring the limits of theism and the atheist landscape in the United States and blogs about that experience here at Year Without God.


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