Notes on a Scandal

7 02 2011

(READER ADVISORY: THE FOLLOWING IS A TRANSCRIPT OF A LECTURE I GAVE . IT IS VERY LONG. IMBIBE AT YOUR OWN DISCRETION.)

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I’m very much of two minds about our topic today. On the one hand, I think atheism is a conspicuously Eurocentric preoccupation that amounts to nothing more than an intellectual conceit of the upper-middle class and over-educated elite. Well, them and some underemployed, uneducated “free-thinking” libertarians. It has the close-minded rationalism of the Enlightenment written all over it and has become quite the cause célèbre of late. If I had any lingering doubts about that, they were confirmed with Ricky Gervais’ parting shot at the Golden Globes. All night long he’d trolled in the lowest form of humor ~ flippancy and mean-spirited sarcasm ~ and let’s be honest, it was funny as hell. But over the course of the evening I began to wonder if anything he was saying was really that funny or if I was just laughing out of a nervous habit that Americans have perfected. And then he ended the evening with this totally out-of-left-field, surprisingly disingenuous comment for someone who fashions himself a pretty hip cat. For no discernible reason, after he’d said goodbye and the crowd was milling about making leave-taking gestures, he said, “And I’d like to thank God for making me an atheist.” End of show, roll credits.

(Now look, I know that Mr. Gervais is an outspoken atheist. I’ve seen his stand-ups, read his piece in the WSJ in December, and heard him rant about faith and religious belief. But he doth protest too much, methinks. Don’t you?)

Back to the Golden Globes: I sat there staring at the screen completely flat-footed as I turned the tv off. It was almost like a junior-high prank, as if one of his old pre-pubescent buddies had dared him to make a God-joke that night, just to make sure he’d properly dissed not only everyone in the room but anyone outside of it; no corner of the cosmos left un-ridiculed. Whatever the case, that sealed it for me. Atheism had officially become fashionable.

So what do we believers in God do about this ? How do we respond? Is it even worth responding to? Clearly I think it is, as this is what I’ve spent the last year doing in this blog. The philosopher Edmund Husserl once wrote, “Anyone who seriously intends to become a philosopher must ‘once in his life’ withdraw into himself and attempt, within himself, to overthrow and build anew all the sciences that, up to then, he has been accepting.”

That, in a sense, is what I’ve tried to do this last year: seriously scrutinize my philosophy, my point of view, my religious beliefs (and this for the second time ~ the first time was in college). I’ve done so, often against my own better judgment, in order to try to see the truth for what it is. No one’s completely objective, of course, and I am no tabula rasa. But the proof is in the pudding, I suppose, and this last year, under the radar of all but a very few people ~ my family, namely ~ I spent some time in some pretty dark places; in moments of extreme clarity but also deep despair; in what I would call dark epiphanies, or what the church has called the Dark Night of the Soul. It hasn’t been pleasant. My faith is intact, to be sure, but it’s wizened up, or so I’d like to think. I can say this: I am less welcoming now than I ever have been of two things: 1) trite ‘theologisms’ and pat spiritual answers; and 2) trite ‘atheisms’ and snarky materialist rantings.

Atheism makes its most sense at the level of middle-management. From this perspective, in the chat room of a culture’s most cherished clichés, life renders many religious claims absurd. The inherent mediocrity of atheism inevitably gives rise to questions like: How can there be a God when there is so much suffering? How can you believe in something you cannot prove? Why would God choose only one path to Him? But dig a little deeper, just beneath their topsoil philosophy, and one is struck not at the impoverished nature of God but at the shallowness of his interlocutors: Why is suffering bad if there is no God? Since when did truth have to be proven to be true? Why would God choose multiple paths if one was sufficient?

The philosopher George Santayana once said, “To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.”

Atheists, as it turns out, are the prisoners of one idea: namely, that God does not exist, and they’re hopelessly in love (or at least appear to be ~ Nietzsche and Hume are rolling over in their graves) with this idea. Their foundationalism, in other words, is predicated on a negation, and every claim they make is a derivative of that negation. In this sense, atheism as an idea is inherently parasitic, and in its shadow, everything becomes transitory, relative, contrived. “Everything,” as Qohelet once wrote, “is vanity.”

For the believer, on the contrary, everything is predicated on the existence of a Mystery, which we call God, or Jesus, or at the very least, Life. And merely declaring, for example, the creed that “Jesus is Lord” does nothing to clear up that particular mystery. On the contrary, to engage a mystery, such as the nature of God, is (with all due respect to Sartre) to acknowledge its infinite inscrutability. It becomes more mysterious, not less, by attending to it. Physicists are not less but more beguiled by the cosmos precisely because they choose to examine it so closely ~ they are more fascinated and can’t help but be so, in spite of their self-proclaimed scientific objectivity, which, as Michael Polanyi, Albert Einstein, and others have convincingly shown, is a chimera.

But there are different kinds of mysteries (or so says Fred Buechner). There are those you can solve (or potentially solve), like a murder, or the variants of quantum phenomena. And there are those mysteries whose answer is itself a mystery; mysteries, in other words, that demand from us a certain awe because they refuse to play by the rules; they don’t acquiesce to our conditions. Is the universe infinite? How did it begin? How will it end? Does God intervene in the meantime? Is there a God? Is love transcendent? Can the Lakers win another three-peat?

In this sense, the Church has gone to great lengths to not only encourage atheism in the modern age, but in more sensitive souls, downright demand it. The Church? Yes, the Church, which has been guilty ~ many times ~ of gentrifying God, of cutting him down to size to make him respectable, reasonable; of making him just another experiment for scientific scrutiny. It turns out the old saying is right: God hasn’t created us in His image so much as we’ve created God in ours. This, in a nutshell, is the central argument of Ludwig Feuerbach, the acknowledged Father of atheism, in his book The Essence of Christianity: that God is simply a projection of our own fears and desires.

When the Enlightenment came into being and the scientific method began its historic ascent in the 16th century, the Church capitulated. We dumbed God down to reasonable size and then wondered why so many people weren’t taking him seriously anymore. But why should they? If God were a deity whose existence we could simply extrapolate from raw data, whose reality we could logically prove from the evidence around us, who we could understand, then he could very well be a figment of our collective imaginations; a rhetorical flip of the switch. And that’s precisely what he became for some people, who quite understandably became atheists. If things didn’t add up in this life ~ too much suffering, too many wars, too little evidence, then God didn’t add up, and the credulity of belief was strained to the breaking point.

For many, the most compelling argument against God’s existence is the lack of evidence ~ as it was for G.K. Chesterton’s close friend, G.B. Shaw. Indeed, how many of us haven’t felt at some point, Aw c’mon, God, you’re killing me here. Do something to prove you’re real. But think about it: in a strange and delicious irony, if we could finally prove God’s existence, then we would have finally proved that we had invented him, because if you can reach God through scientific reasoning, through some kind of mental logic, then you would have every reason to argue that we reasoned Him into existence. If we could prove God existed, in other words, it would prove he didn’t. And besides, the miracles of Jesus, not to mention his resurrection and transfiguration, failed to convince everyone. Even proof, turns out, is a fickle mistress.

Now there are religions that satisfy the criterion of reasonableness more than others, but Christianity is certainly not one of them. At the end of the day, in fact, it’s the least reasonable of all the world religions: Love your enemy. Turn the other cheek. Pick up your cross. God is three in One. Jesus was fully God and fully human. (Shame we don’t live up to these difficult truths as often as we should. There may not be as many atheists if we did.) Point is, if people were only going in for a reasonable alternative to the stark claims of atheism, Christianity would not be their first choice.

Which brings me back to the idea of atheists being prisoners of a single idea. This is how Chesterton puts it in his book Orthodoxy:

Take first the more obvious case of materialism. As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman’s argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out. Contemplate some able and sincere materialist, as, for instance, Mr. McCabe, and you will have exactly this unique sensation. He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world. Somehow his scheme, like the lucid scheme of the madman, seems unconscious of the alien energies and the large indifference of the earth; it is not thinking of the real things of the earth, of fighting peoples or proud mothers, of first love or fear upon the sea. The earth is so very large, and the cosmos so very small.

For we must remember that the materialist philosophy (whether true or not) is certainly much more limiting than any religion. In one sense, of course, all intelligent ideas are narrow. They cannot be broader than themselves. A Christian is only restricted in the same sense that an atheist is restricted. He cannot think Christianity false and continue to be a Christian; and the atheist cannot think atheism false and continue to be an atheist. But as it happens, there is a very special sense in which materialism has more restrictions than spiritualism. Mr. McCabe thinks me a slave because I am not allowed to believe in determinism. I think Mr. McCabe a slave because he is not allowed to believe in fairies. But if we examine the two vetoes we shall see that his is really much more of a pure veto than mine. The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle.

The Christian admits that the universe is manifold and even miscellaneous, just as a sane man knows that he is complex. The sane man knows that he has a touch of the beast, a touch of the devil, a touch of the saint, a touch of the citizen. Nay, the really sane man knows that he has a touch of the madman. But the materialist’s world is quite simple and solid, just as the madman is quite sure he is sane. The materialist is sure that history has been simply and solely a chain of causation, just as the interesting person before mentioned is quite sure that he is simply and solely a chicken. Materialists and madmen never have doubts.

I’d like to say that I share some doubts with my atheist friends, but I can’t for the simple fact that they don’t have any.

And may I add, that’s the trouble with atheists: they’re over-committed. Do you know what you call an atheist with doubts? An agnostic, since an atheist with doubts is, by definition, not an atheist. Do you know what you call a theist with doubts? A believer, since we only insist on going by faith, not absolute certainty. And what about a believer with serious and continuing doubts? A saint. Faith and doubt, of course, coincide. You can’t have one without the other. Atheists have only certainty, and in this sense, they’re most closely aligned to a fundamentalist religious believer, those who know rather than simply believe, that God is real; who confuse conviction with certainty, assurance with insurance. Read some of Sam Harris’s latest screeds and you will see exactly what I mean. Richard Dawkins? Christopher Hitchens? These guys aren’t atheists, they’re anti-theists. They do not pretend to be objective in their assessment of religious belief or religious institutions. On the contrary, they come armed to the teeth with an agenda, which makes their screeds all the more… well, obvious. I heartily recommend Marilynne Robinson’s winsome and incisive review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, found here: http://solutions.synearth.net/2006/10/20/ as proof of this phenomenon. Anger often leads to sloppy scholarship.

Now, mind you, much of these New Atheist’s critique of the Church’s checkered history is correct. After all, the Church has no shortage of sinners. They’re typically called members, and if the world was populated with sinners like us, it would be, well, a lot like what it is. But the fact remains: these New Atheists are actually Antitheists, and these Antitheists are the antithesis not only of the common believer, but of the honest skeptic. Why? Because we believers, like we skeptics—have our doubts.

And so, on good days, I have faith with some lingering doubts, but more often than not these days, I have doubts with some lingering faith. And it’s a persistent faith that lingers; a tenacious faith. And it doesn’t linger because the idea of an afterlife appeals to me. Just ask my parents or my wife. The abiding fear I’ve had since I was a boy of two or three was the concept of eternity. It literally takes my breath away in a bad way; it frightens me to the point that I can’t think about it for more than a few seconds. I’d rather that when we died, we stayed dead. My belief in God, then, oddly enough, does not sustain in me a hope for the afterlife so much as it gives this present life meaning and purpose. The absence of God does not frighten me because of its implications for my death, but because of its implications for this life. So my lingering faith isn’t the need to have after-life insurance. It’s just that life means so little, so impoverishly little, without God. Macbeth (aka Shakespeare) was right. The atheist’s creed is this and nothing more:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing

Is it? Really? Is that all our lives amount to in the end? If so, I’d rather not know, to be perfectly frank. Macbeth’s lines are the creed of a madman.

At the end of the day, God’s existence will never be proven or disproven. Reductio ad absurdum. We’re left only with evidence, evidence that points in both directions, and as Kierkegaard made beautifully and disturbingly clear, either direction ends in the absurd: either the absurdity of atheism, which is nihilism and hell, or the absurdity of belief, which is redemption and heaven. The direction you end up taking depends a lot on what you’re looking for. I believe that if you’re engaged in an honest search for truth, you will find it, in ancient creeds and broken people, in the unlikeliest of places and at the most inconvenient times. It will be there, and when you find it, it will set you free from the tyranny of any single idea. It will set you free to embrace life, that is, mystery, in all its manifest forms, with all its attendant doubts and uncertainties, its beauty and terror. And if you search a little more, you will find that mystery, I believe, on a cross, where beauty and terror finally converge in a person; in Jesus Christ, who is God incarnate.

Absurd. Precisely.

I end with this short passage from Somerset Maugham’s “The Moon and Sixpence,” his fictionalized account of the life of the artist Paul Gauguin, because it has always held for me the closest sense of what a true and deep faith in God must feel like. I only catch glimpses of it, but at least I’m afforded them. May it be so for all of us:

I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place. Accident has cast them amid certain surroundings, but they have always a nostalgia for a home they know not. They are strangers in their birthplace, and the leafy lanes they have known from childhood… remain but a place of passage. They may spend their whole lives aliens among their kindred and remain aloof among the only scenes they have ever known. Perhaps it is this sense of strangeness that sends men far and wide in the search for something permanent, to which they may attach themselves… Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth. Here at last he finds [his] rest.

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