02 December, 2005

Purifying one's faith through atheism

Fresh from questioning the conventional wisdom on Christianity's attitude toward the body, Millinerd is now suggesting that Christian theology, far from being inflexible, accepts whatever arguments from philosophy may be true, including arguments from atheism and agnosticism.

Of course, we don't have to look at this only in the realm of philosophy and theology, but in the realm of experience as well. Atheism tempted me once, and in my humble opinion, that struggle made me a better Christian. It was St. Bernadette who helped me work my way out of it; this is why her picture lies at top left of this weblog.

Fast forward ten years. I had entered seminary, then dropped out in a mass of confusion that resembled my state of mind when I considered atheism. Returning to graduate school, I began to encounter many, many more atheists and agnostics than I had before. They were aggressive and loud; some had strong arguments. If I hadn't had the seminary education — that combination of prayer and study — I'm not sure my faith would have survived this encounter with anti-theism. Hence St. Dominic's picture, as he advised his order to build their spirituality on a combination of study and to prayer.

In one conversation from that period, an atheist insisted repeatedly: God is an imaginary being who lives in the sky. I don't believe in imaginary beings; thus, I am an atheist.

I don't believe in imaginary beings, either, yet I'm not an atheist. After all, to a believer, God isn't an imaginary being. The question of how exactly we define God is a very interesting question that, even more interestingly, isn't usually addressed before people start debating the existence of God.

Perhaps as a mathematician I'm rather sensitive to this, but it's ridiculous to try to talk about whether something exists unless you have first come to an agreement on what the thing is. One can listen to debates about the existence of God and realize that one person is rejecting one thing, while the other is affirming something else entirely; there's no debate at all. Indeed, many atheists and agnostics reject God because they attribute to him qualities that I would also reject. Conversely, I have been in conversations with atheists and agnostics who admit that they do believe in God as I understand him, but they don't think that's what most people mean by God, so they persist in atheism. So whenever I have heard an atheist explain his disbelief, I have asked myself what impurity there is in my own faith that I can purify by listening to the atheist.

Another atheist told me that she was sexually abused by her uncle. She grew up in a religious family, and she prayed every night for years that God would make the uncle stop coming. Yet the uncle kept coming, until she finally gave up faith in God. How, she asked, could a good and loving God have ignored the sincere prayer of a child, allowing her suffering to continue?

This is a difficult question, which requires a serious answer, and atheism has a much more serious answer than some Christians provide. A large number of Christians would seriously assert that God was punishing the girl for her sinfulness. I disagree. It's true that some people bring their suffering upon themselves by their sinfulness; I have done so myself sometimes. Nevertheless, I don't consider that a serious answer to the second atheist. If the only choice were between believers in such a God and the atheists, then I would take up cause with the atheists.

Fortunately, that is not the only choice. I did not spend enough time in theology that I can explain it with words, nor do I have such a clear memory that I can say who explains this, and where. However, as Christians we must first contemplate that we nailed our God to a tree, and mocked him while he hung there. Any attempt to answer that woman's question must begin by contemplating Jesus hanging on the cross; God loves humanity so much that he embraces our suffering.

Can anyone remind me what I'm thinking of?

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