Dear hitherto unknown friend,
I have been invited into conversation with you by Kile Jones of the “Interview an Atheist at Church” project. My hope is that you would write a response that I could publish on my blog and we could carry on a dialogue of sorts for my readers to witness. I want to confess first of all that I’m completely unsure of how to proceed in this conversation. What I typically say to atheists is that I probably don’t believe in the god that you don’t believe in either, which I realize is probably pretty patronizing. I don’t want to be patronizing and I don’t want to presume that my words can convince you to convert to my faith, though admittedly I’m wired to have the agenda of evangelism somewhere in my head in most conversations I have with non-Christians.
One of my favorite atheists is Slavoj Zizek. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him, but Zizek makes the provocative, paradoxical claim in his recently published behemoth of a book Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism that the most faithful way to be a Christian is actually to be an atheist. In his reading of the New Testament in the light of “death of God” theology, the cross represents the death of the idea of a transcendent god. Subsequent to the cross, for Zizek, the Holy Spirit becomes the collective “spirit” of the faithful community rather than a transcendent being outside of that community. I’m not sure how one reads Christianity on its own terms and comes to this conclusion, but never mind that.
For Zizek, the problem with theism is the assumption that there is a “big Other” in the sky who is watching everything and will take care of everything. He gives the example of a woman who was sexually assaulted in broad daylight in a major city while a crowd of people went about their business around her, presumably because it was the big Other’s job to take care of it. The greatest crisis the big Other poses for humanity is the illusion that we live in a stable world that God will never allow us to destroy. To Zizek, the only way we can avoid the impending ecological catastrophe is to abandon the big Other myth and recognize that we must take responsibility into our own hands.
I’ve wrestled a lot with Zizek’s challenge. I’m not sure I could live without a big Other even if I were convinced that there were no transcendent source of the universe’s being. Part of how I am able to be a productive, compassionate human being is because of a sense that somebody holds my life in his hands in some kind of way. I’ve had seasons in my life when I was reduced to nothing by debilitating mental illness. If I had no means of narrating that as part of somebody’s “plan” for my life, I’m not sure that I could have climbed back to dignity.
The greatest concern I have with abandoning the big Other is that there seems to be nothing more pernicious in our culture than the American virtue of self-reliance, which seems like the natural product of thinking I am on my own and there’s no creator watching and shaping me with love. Self-reliance causes people to be stingy, judgmental, jealous, and impatient with the shortcomings of others. It’s what has created a society in the recent hyper-libertarian Reagan era in which there is no concept of the common good.
[UPDATE: 1) What I mean by “self-reliance” is not taking responsibility for yourself, but the delusion that whatever success you have is entirely to your credit (as opposed to luck, God’s blessing, others helping you, etc). 2) I did not mean to insinuate that atheism makes people have this attitude but rather that I wouldn’t know how to address it ethically if I were an atheist.]The irony of course is that more of my fellow evangelical Christians exemplify this attitude than the average population. I’ve often said that Jesus needs to save the world from us more than we need to be saved from the world.
In any case, I believe that becoming a compassionate person requires my liberation from the need to justify myself. As long as the purpose of everything I do is continually to prove myself right, then even the good I do will lack good-naturedness. Within my Christian paradigm, Jesus’ cross is the means by which I stop having to prove myself right with my actions and become someone who lives under God’s mercy and shows mercy to others. I’m able to have integrity because my wrongness doesn’t delegitimize me. What causes me to consider the Christian church a uniquely powerful form of human community (in the rare cases when we actually do church right) is that its core is the radical vulnerability of people who don’t need to hide anything.
When Christians really do worship a crucified God (as opposed to the much more popular sadistic emperor God who poured out His wrath onto His Son), then we become the social space in which the crucified of our society are given dignity by a God without dignity who calls His people to abandon their social respectability and embrace the imaginative living that results from being unplugged from the world’s hidden scripts.
In any case, even if God weren’t in the picture, it would still seem dishonest to consider myself to be the foundation of all my gifts and accomplishments. I have had dozens of teachers and mentors in my life and thousands of influences large and small that have all made me who I am. Perhaps “God” is shorthand for the movement of these influences throughout a society that make our existence always something that comes from beyond us. That’s probably what Hegel and Zizek would both say.
I’m actually on my way to a funeral as I write this, the mother of my wife’s sister-in-law. I really do believe that somehow I will see her again. It gets ludicrous of course when I start to think about the implications of bodily resurrection given the surface area of the Earth and what the aggregate global population would be if all the dead people were alive. And of course the way that death has always been an integral part of bodily life; many creatures can’t live without the death of other creatures. Immortality and physicality seem to be constitutively oxymoronic terms. But I cling to the hope of resurrection anyway. Maybe that’s my big Other pacifier that enables me to cope. I don’t know, but I’ve had powerful spiritual encounters that will not let me reduce it all to a helpful delusion.
I hope that I’ve written something you can respond to. I realize that I didn’t pose particular questions. I guess my question would be whether you see the problem of the human condition similarly or differently than I do, and accordingly how you deal with the issues I’ve named in a framework that doesn’t involve God. I look forward to learning from you. Be blessed by whatever or whomever you consider to be a blessing.