Showing posts with label atheism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label atheism. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

To my deconverted friend – A guest post by Collin Pae Cornell

[Ed. note: Collin Pae Cornell writes the always interesting blog Kaleidobible, as well as semi-regular guest posts here at DET.]


The story of your faith – and non-faith – is, of course, uniquely your own.

Yet some parts of your experience are widely shared. You were raised in the American South. Christianity, in all of its predictable Southern dimensions – hokey roadside signage, Sunday finery, hollering preachers, a buttery layer of civil religion – was, to you as to many, as familiar as family. You along with thousands of other evangelical children across the country – like me – opted to attend a Christian undergraduate. And as with many of us, much of your life after graduation has consisted, in one way or another, of making sense out of that decision and its legacy.

Other chapters of your life are less common. That you along with numerous high-school friends and acquaintances would simultaneously have renounced various addictions and “made a personal decision of faith” is surprising, unlikely. Some of your story is just thoroughly you. You were always fascinated by the workings of things. By the human body and mind. You thrilled at the anatomy classes you took in college, dreamt of the medical profession. You devoured neuroscience and majored in psychology. By the movement of stars, such that you became an avid amateur astronomer. You are an explorer and a scientist.

I’m not sure to what extent others would recognize themselves in your story of deconversion. There are many roads to that very gradual and very personal choice. I have friends who have left Christianity because they found it inhospitable to persons of their (minority) sexual orientation. I have friends who have left Christianity because real humans punctured the caricatures they had inherited – a sincerely believing, normal Muslim friend could not remain for them an unsaved and dangerous Other – and upset their coordinates for the world. I have friends who have left Christianity because it simply no longer compelled them; God and salvation and all the rest melted away into abstraction.

Your decision to leave arose out of a prolonged sense of suffocation. The Christianity you knew set taut boundaries for what was thinkable to a faithful person. Our undergraduate did not teach us how to open-endedly entertain questions, but how to answer them orthodoxly; how to face the world as a foe to be feared and outsmarted rather than as a resource to be listened to and learned from. This meant that your own person became a site of conflict. The fascinated explorer and the beleaguered orthodox believer competed for mastery, seesawed through several unsustainable truces. Wonder and curiosity motivated the explorer. Duty and fear – familiarity and friendship – motivated the believer.

The existence of God stands close to the core of the orthodox universe you strove to uphold. But as you explored, God became progressively less and less necessary. You were awed at the Big Bang, you were impressed by the elegance of evolutionary science, you saw the sensibility in psychoanalytic explanations of religion. Neither cosmology nor human origins nor even the phenomena of religion itself needed God anymore. God was superfluous for comprehending the workings of things.[1] So your belief in God hung only by the thread of obligation. You had to believe in God to stay Christian. But belief in God only retarded – cloyed – the joy of discovery. Eventually, understandably, the aliveness you felt in learning must outweigh and displace dutiful theism.

Deconverting was making peace for you. It left you clean, clear, free to engage the world with a wonderful sense of unbounded possibility. I told you honestly that I am happy for you in that. I, too, am an explorer. I, too, hate the kind of faith that makes people turn away from what is beautiful and compelling, for fear that it will taint them. I want you to get that out of your system.

But I am a Christian; and what does sadden me is that Jesus had to get pulled down too, sucked into the ruin of your theism.

Maybe that sounds odd. The idea that devotion to Jesus could survive the decomposition of God. As a matter of fact, I have found in my wanderings many a place where poignancy for Jesus subsists apart from subscription to his all-powerful sponsor. And sometimes the appreciation expressed in such quarters is the more perceptive, because unencumbered by a thousand years’ intellection reconciling an executed criminal with the creator and guarantor of cosmic order. I feel a kinship with those who recognize the disturbing allure of this crucified innocent – even if they should fail to connect him to almighty God. Because for me, Jesus is more ultimate. I take it that this is what it means to say “Jesus is Lord”: not that the contents of “Lord” (regnant, strong) fill up what “Jesus” means, but that the contents of “Jesus” (servile, weak) reshape what “Lord” entails.

If this is a true insight, then the path of your exploring that led away from God could just as well have taken you towards Golgotha. You realized, with sadness, that God is dispensable, and eventually dismissed him wholesale. But what if God had determined to be just that? Dispensable. Dismissible. Indeed laughable, to all passers-by outside the gates of Jerusalem.

In that case, your acknowledgement of God’s superfluity need not have been a concession to the scientific worldview, but a “genuinely theological discovery.”[2] The God whom you once called on to explain cosmology, human origins, or religion was a God of power: a God who acts effectually to accomplish his design. In other words, a Lord. To be sure, a more successful executor than the lords we know from human government or business, but nonetheless, cut from the same cloth. This God may be loving, but that quality is additional to his sheer potency.

By contrast, the Lord of the cross is not effectual, but weak, even to death. Loving is no addendum to his mission; it is its heart. He does not compensate for gaps in weak human knowledge with divine strength, but poses God’s helplessness to all human wisdom. Far from being necessary for understanding the workings of the world, he hangs – gratuitous.

I wish that this, the gratuity of God, might have been a start for you, even as it must be an end.



[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “God as a working hypothesis in morals, politics, or science, has been surmounted and abolished; and the same thing has happened in philosophy and religion…for the sake of intellectual honesty, that working hypothesis should be dropped, or as far as possible, eliminated” (Letters and Papers from Prison [S.C.M. Press edition, Great Britain: Fontana Books, 1953], 164). See also Richard Bube, “Man Come of Age: Bonhoeffer’s Response to the God-of-the-Gaps,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 14.4 (1971), 203-220.

[2] Eberhard Jüngel. God as the Mystery of the World: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One in the Dispute Between Theism and Atheism. Trans. Darrell Guder (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1983 [German orig. Gott als Geheimnis der Welt, pub. 1977]), 22, 23.

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Friday, January 24, 2014

Is God Dead? - Paul M. van Buren’s “Austin Dogmatics”

An important book appeared in 2012. It comprised the late 1950s lecture cycle of one of Karl Barth’s most promising students, Paul M. van Buren. “Barthians” these days don’t have too much time for van Buren, and this for a handful of reasons:

(1) After his dissertation under Barth on Calvin’s doctrine of reconciliation (Christ In Our Place, I highly recommend it), van Buren worked as a pastor and seminary professor. This pushed his interests toward the problem of communicating the gospel in the contemporary world. These concerns lead him to publish The Secular Meaning of the Gospel, which Barth did not care for. There was something of a falling-out.

(2) In large part because of Secular Meaning, van Buren was labeled as one of the “Death of God” theologians. This further alienated him from Barth and “Barthians.”

(3) In his later career, van Buren worked intensively on the relationship between Christianity and contemporary Judaism. Until more recently this was not a topic that tended to excite “Barthians.”

All of this is to say that van Buren is due for some reconsideration, and the publication of his Austin Dogmatics lays the groundwork for that reconsideration. These lectures go some way in helping to explain how one gets from Christ In Our Place to Secular Meaning. Perhaps if they had been published in the time-period that they originated some of the misunderstanding of his work could have been avoided.

In any case, Ellen Charry – who edited this volume, van Buren having given the lectures to her – and others work to undermine the notion that van Buren was a “Death of God” theologian. But I’ll leave the full(er) argument to them. For the time being, I’ll leave you with two block-quotes from van Buren himself on the issue.

Paul M. van Buren, The Austin Dogmatics: 1957–1958, (Cascade, 2012), 358.
The “God is Dead Movement” is an invention of imaginative journalists seeking sensational slogans. It certainly is not a phrase I am given to using myself, its meaning being exceedingly ambiguous. My own work has been focused in recent years, not on the old question of the existence of God, but on the far older question of man’s puzzling language about God. By exploring various ways of taking this language, I am seeking and testing interpretations of religious faith that would not be wholly incompatible with the understandings of life that are characteristic of the age in which we live. That this complex and constructive work has been interpreted by poorly informed journalists as simple and negative is a matter I regret but over which I have been able to exercise no control. When the sensationalists have tired of this game and turned to other matters, the deep and important questions of human faith and life will remain. Until that day, it is a time for a sense of humor and patience on the part of those who care about the human spirit.
And, on being called a “God is dead theologian,” . . .
Well, the expression is logically absurd. It is a contradiction in terms, strictly to say that God is dead. One might argue that there never has been a god; or one might say that the way in which Christian theology has spoken of God is such as to lead one to suspect it does not refer to anything; or one might say that the way Christian theology has talked about God has been misunderstood by those who think it refers to something. In any case, that about which theology has spoken doesn’t fall into a category in which being dead and alive seems to apply.
Van Buren’s lectures are an engaging run through basic systematic theology from a Barthian-Episcopalian angle. They are worth the price of admission to encounter that interesting combination alone! I’ll be doing more posts on this volume, and I heartily recommend it to you.

Update: It has come to my attention that the sarcasm in my reference to "Barthians" (scare-quotes intended) in this post may not have been sufficiently obvious. It is necessary to note for the record that folks like Gollwitzr, Klappert, Marquardt, and Weinrich were very interested in - for instance - the relationship of Christianity and Judaism. There is a strand of theology done downstream from Barth that English-language Barth-reception has been a bit soft on, that van Buren was (perhaps) closer to, which (perhaps) played a part in van Buren's marginalization. Thankfully, this lacuna in English-language Barth-reception will be addressed in part at the next Princeton Barth conference, which is on Barth and the Jews.

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Gollwitzer on Christianity, Atheism, and the Existence of God

Once more onto the Gollwitzer band-wagon, shall we?

Gollwitzer is perhaps best known for being on the receiving end of Jüngel’s attention in God’s Being is in Becoming. Well, I went back and read the book from Gollwitzer that Jüngel criticizes there and found some interesting tidbits. You’ll have to wait for a further discussion, but here is one passage that I found interesting to tide you over. Given that so many folk in North America these days are interested in changes in religious demographics, and in trying to convince people that God exists (usually as a cornerstone for social conservatism in politics), I think Gollwitzer here offers a fresh and compelling take on the relation of Christianity and atheism.

Helmut Gollwitzer, The Existence of God as Confessed by Faith (Westminster, 1965), 244–45. As usual, bold is mind.
The seriousness of the contradiction between the Christian and the atheist does not lie in the fact that the atheist is a worse man than the Christian—the contrary is just as often to be seen.[*] The ‘unchristianness’ of Christians is at all events a worse thing than the immorality of athetists (Matt. 5.3ff), and the assertion than morality would perish without religion is an apologetic argument which would be better dropped. . . . Nor does the seriousness lie in the fact that the atheist, if he persists in his atheism to his last breath, will be damned; that is an anticipation of the divine judgment which is as frequent as it is premature, and against which Christians ought to find a warning in Jesus’ saying that the first can be last and the last first. The seriousness of the contradiction consists rather in the fact that where the Christian expresses relief, thanks and praise, but where he also trembles and fears, there the atheist sees cause neither for joy nor for fear. The contradiction is serious, because it means self-exclusion from the fulfilment of life in faith. To that extent it can well be said that the atheist misjudges not only God, but actually misjudges man—this, however, does not mean that he misjudges the proper anthropology, but that he misjudges himself as the man who should in fact long ago have been taking part in this fulfilment of life. For the call, ‘God is’—it is, as we have seen, a call of promise that awakens joy and fear, and not a static indicative—calls us to fulfilment of life.
*Ed. note: So shockingly true today…

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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Is Atheism Evil? Karl Barth on Truly Dangerous Atheism

Is atheism evil? Is atheism good or bad? Ask the average self-described “Christian” on the street in North America and you’ll get a decisively negative answer. But it is a bad question, a misleading one. For there is not only one form of atheism, and most of them tend not to be straightforwardly “good” or “bad.” In the below quote, Barth addresses three types of atheism. The first two types were much more prevalent in his day than in ours, although in recent years we’ve seen a particularly loud form of the second type emerge (here is one news clipping that comes to mind). Barth does not believe that these two types are particularly worrisome. In fact, he speaks not only of their weaknesses but also of their strengths. Rather, it is the third type that is “the real enemy.” And in discussing this third type Barth indicts your average North American “Christian” who—as a body—seems absolutely incapable of recognizing this critical point. 

Karl Barth, Fragments Grave and Gay, 46–47. Bold is mine.
Addressing myself particularly to ‘Christian’-minded readers of this essay, I should like to add the following in regard to the phenomenon and problem of ‘atheism’. There exists in the East at the present time, connected politically of course with dialectical materialism, a rather fiery form of atheism . . . that opposes the Church, religion in general, and thus also what is taken to be the Christian faith, in a more or less militant and aggressive fashion. . . . [There is also an] older, Western, cold type of atheism that is essentially defensive. The universal validity it claims for the negation of faith is based on the alleged sole validity of the scientific and technological method of thought, but in practice it merely claims the liberty to express that claim and . . . freely to renounce the Church and Christian faith in the name of an intellectual elite, ‘looking forward to a time when this renunciation will have become general’. Both types of atheism have their special pathos, their special strengths and weaknesses. I should like to say this about them. Atheism is not abominable, because evil, dangerous or pernicious, in either of these forms, even in the Eastern form which is now so greatly feared and therefore so bitterly denounced by the honest[*] Swiss. The atheism that is the real enemy is the ‘Christianity’ that professes faith in God very much as a matter of course, perhaps with great emphasis, and perhaps with righteous indignation at atheism wild or mild, while in its practical thinking and behavior it carries on exactly as if there were no God. It professes its belief in him, lauds and praises him, while in practice he is the last of the things it thinks about, takes seriously, fears or loves. . . . God is spoken of, but what is meant is an idol that one treats as one sees fit. Who can acquit himself of this third form of atheism? Let all who believe themselves to be Christians consider this: that in this third form atheism is a really evil thing. But this is the form in which it prospers in Christian families, homes (including ministers’ homes), groups, associations, institutions, [political] parties and newspapers. This is the form of atheism that is fertile soil for the growth first of the mild, then of the wild, first of the Western and then of the Eastern type, and from which both continually draw their strength. The atheists of the other kind live on the fact that we are not better Christians.

[*] Do I detect a hint of sarcasm? 

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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Christopher Hitchens on “Atheism”

Christopher Hitchens (ed.), The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever (Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press, 2007), xx-xxi.
There is an argument within the community of those who reject…this fantasy about the utility of the word “atheist.” For one thing, it is a pure negative: a statement of mere unbelief or disbelief. Dr. Jonathan Miller, for example, a distinguished physician and theater and opera director, is uneasy with the term for this reason: “I do not have,” he once told me, “a special word for saying that I do not believe in the tooth fairy or in Santa Claus. I presume that my intelligent friends do not suppose that I believe such things.” True enough—but we do not have to emerge from a past when tooth fairies and Father Christmas (both rather recent inventions) held sway. The fans of the tooth fairy do not bang on your door and try to convert you. They do not insist that their pseudo-science be taught in schools. They do not condemn believers in rival tooth fairies to death and damnation. They do not say that all morality comes from tooth fairy ceremonies, and that without the tooth fairy there would be fornication in the streets and the abolition of private property. They do not say that the tooth fairy made the world, and that all of us must therefore bow the knee to the Big Brother tooth fairy. They do not say that the tooth fairy will order you to kill your sister if she is seen in public with a man who is not her brother.

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