Why I Am Not An Atheist 3 – Societal Structure

Posted: May 30th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Why I Am Not An Atheist 3 – Societal Structure

I have heard and read nominally Christian critiques of atheism that reach conclusions that state or imply that individual atheists have no moral basis for their ethical frameworks. The implication seems to be that atheists are essentially amoral.

Such arguments are ridiculous and do nothing but expose those who make them as fools. On an individual basis in our society, atheists are certainly no less moral and ethical than the anyone else and may be more compassionate and giving. That’s absolutely true of most of the atheists I know personally and I anticipate that it’s true as a group. Outright atheism remains a system of belief (or “non-belief” as the case may be) embraced by a relatively small percentage of our population. As such, it mostly remains an individual expression of belief. And when it comes to moral and ethical beliefs and behavior, I would generally expect smaller groups immersed (and dispersed) within our society to be more or less in line with the larger culture.

That is, after all, how culture functions. It shapes the things we believe “instinctively” are right and wrong. While any of us may focus on and examine a piece of that larger culture and may even react against it or otherwise alter it for ourselves, most of it remains assumed and unexamined. Culture can, of course, be changed, but it’s not something that’s easy to do. Culture has tremendous societal inertia.

A lot of Christians miss that point. The way Christians as a group care for everyone, not just people like themselves, even remaining in plagued cities when they had the means to leave, were actions of note in their ancient context specifically because they ran counter to the dominant culture. As acts of compassion and themes of self-sacrifice became more the cultural norm, they became less exceptional across the board among all groups.

In my mind, though, it remains an open question whether or not atheism is capable of creating or sustaining a society that enculturates the very values many modern atheists would also embrace. It is clear that while atheism itself is nothing new (though the modern strands of atheism flowing from positivism and other philosophical approaches have some new elements), no society has ever been built on atheistic principles.

There have been attempts of course. The ancient Epicureans promoted a system that while not explicitly denying the existence of the gods, placed them far away from humanity, uninterested and uninvolved in our existence. The Communist revolution in Russia (and extending to the Warsaw Pact countries) was explicitly atheistic and through totalitarian oppression attempt to stamp out and subvert a thousand years of Christian culture. They destroyed churches and monasteries, outlawed much Christian teaching and activity, imprisoned, tortured, and killed many for their Christian beliefs, established competing militant atheistic societies, and a host of similar activities that continued for decades. Their efforts ultimately failed, but the brutal totalitarianism with which they attempted to replace the existing Christian culture is not a societal model most people, including most atheists, would embrace.

I do think about these things. I have read Neitzsche and I find him quite compelling. Our interactions do tend to reduce to the will to power and the strong man. We see that overtly in failed states. We imagine it in our dystopian literature. We saw it acted out in the USSR and in other totalitarian states. And I’ve seen nothing in atheism that subverts the strong man the way Christ does. Many of the things we all tend to value as Western ideals were inextricably shaped and formed through the influence of Christianity. Some of the Western societies have become broadly and implicitly atheistic in recent decades. It will be interesting to see if they are able to maintain across future generations the cultural inheritance they have received, in large part, from Christianity.

While I find Neitzsche compelling, I do not want to embrace reality as he describes it. I do not wish to live in a world dominated by the will to power and the strong man. Such cultures inevitably become oppressive and totalitarian. I’ve explored many alternatives and explicitly ignored Christianity for as long as I could, but eventually I looked at its story.

Christ faced a great and often brutal empire in Rome. Neitzsche would have had no problem finding the strong man in ancient Rome. It was a power feared by all, including its own citizens. Challenges to that power and failure in duty to it were met quickly and harshly. The Pax Romana was often real, but it was peace flowing from beneath an iron heel. Christ faced the empire and its violence on entirely different terms and eventually subverted the empire.

Of course, that’s not to say that an explicitly atheistic culture could not produce or at least maintain something similar to our modern Western societies — at least in terms of values and ethical frameworks. I just haven’t seen any evidence that would lead me to believe that’s the case. I have not seen an atheistic subversion of Neitzsche. So even if you subtracted my personal experience from the equation, I would still hesitate to embrace atheism.

 


Moral Blindness

Posted: March 21st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Moral Blindness

This past weekend I was reading a column in a publication. I thought about naming the publication and the author and perhaps looking for an online version of the column to link, but I decided that would not be helpful. I don’t know anything about the author and don’t wish my thoughts to be taken as personally directed at him. I think the thoughts I’ll explore in this post could sometimes apply to all of us, myself included. And by not naming the source, I’ll also avoid the sort of preconceived gut reaction many people have to various organizations and institutions.

With that said, it was a column discussing how people can reach a point of moral blindness. The first step on that path, according to the author, was a perspective of false moral equivalence, where we perceive acts of differing moral failures as qualitatively equal. And it was in that portion of his column that something caught my eye. His illustration of a false moral equivalence was treating flying planes into buildings as equally evil as, and I quote, the “humiliating treatment of Moslem prisoners by American soldiers.”

Excuse me? Isn’t that a euphemism for torture?

That one statement cast the entire column in a surreal light. Basically the author was lecturing his readers about moral blindness while exposing one of his own massive areas of moral blindness.  (Or more realistically, he was writing to an audience of mostly like minds about the moral blindness of those ‘others‘.) It was such a perfect illustration of the speck and log problem Jesus described I was blown away. Yes, I’m sure I have many such areas in my own life. I believe we all do. But we truly can’t see our logs blinding us even as we point out the specks in the eyes of others.

For the record, I personally find the institutional (or even individual, for that matter) use of torture morally equivalent to terrorist acts of destruction and murder. They are both evil. Moreover, when Christians employ or defend either, we betray the one we supposedly call Lord. Yes, there are greater and lesser evils and sometimes the only option left open to our will is which evil we will choose. But evil is still evil. And neither torture nor initiating acts of violence are ever necessary. They can never, thus, be the lesser evil.

Sadly, I’m probably one of the few who read that column who didn’t nod along in agreement and outrage as I read. I’m almost certainly one of the few jarred by the phrase I quoted above. And I have no prescription for a remedy to the situation. We need to pray. We need to focus on our sins and weep for them. And we need to love.

But that’s what we’ve always needed to do. The problem, as I see it, is that most of the time we don’t.


Jesus Creed 14 – A Society of Mustard Seeds

Posted: September 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jesus Creed 14 – A Society of Mustard Seeds

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The reading for this chapter is: Matthew 13:31-32.

Jesus thinks paradoxes best explain the kingdom.

Is there any better way to capture Jesus’ parables? What are they if not paradoxes? And the particular parable under discussion in this chapter is even more the paradox than many. N.T. Wright has noted that Jesus did things and when questions or challenges were posed him as a result, sometimes he refused to answer and other times he told a story that forced his listeners to work out the meaning of his actions themselves.

But instead of defining ‘kingdom’ as paradise, Jesus defines it with a paradox. If you want to see what the kingdom is like, look at a mustard seed. This surprises everyone because it asks everyone to think of ‘kingdom’ in a new way. We should look at what they were already thinking — and be honest enough to admit that what they were thinking is what we are thinking — before we look at what Jesus means by a mustard seed.

When we think ‘KINGDOM’, do we really think mustard seed? That’s not the impression I get, whatever people say. The following expresses it well.

Why does a mustard seed attract comparison to the kingdom of God? Because for Jesus the kingdom is about the ordinariness of loving God and loving others. The kingdom is as common as sparrows, as earthy as backyard bushes, as routine as breakfast coffee, and as normal as aging. He hallows the ordinary act of love, making it extraordinary. Instead of finding it in the majestic, Jesus sees God’s kingdom in the mundane. The kingdom of God is the transforming presence of God in ordinary humans who live out the Jesus Creed.

Jesus inaugurates the Kingdom of God, but it doesn’t look like any sort of kingdom that people expected. Paul saw that Kingdom growing and spreading and the word he most commonly used to describe it was ecclesia, a word that did not have a strictly or even primarily religious meaning before it was adopted by Christians. (At least, that seems to be the general consensus.) We translate it Church, of course, in English.

The mustard-seed paradox of Jesus surprises in many ways. The first surprise is that Jesus finds the presence of his kingdom at work in the most unlikely of persons. … Time and time again Jesus chooses odd people to follow him, and then he holds them up as examples of what the kingdom is all about.

As one of those unlikely persons, I certainly empathize with this. Think about it. Don’t you see it again and again in the gospels?

Our natural tendency is to search for the perfect, for the powerful, for the pure, and so prepare for paradise. But Jesus’ kingdom is about tiny mustard seeds, not big coconuts; it is about the ordinary act of loving God and loving others with a sacred love that transforms.

Love God. Love others. The two cannot be separated. And it’s work and requires discipline and a willingness to change. Moreover, we have to love others even though they disappoint us and hurt us. But if we say we love God and hate our brother, we are liars. John said that, though I’ve noticed we don’t much like to read what he says.

Jesus’ Parable of the Mustard Seed tells us that the mustard seed, though small when it is planted, becomes a large bush. It grows. So also the kingdom of Jesus: it spreads like seeds, one at a time, from person to person.

And I suppose that captures the essence of my discomfort with “programs” of evangelism. I see that they ‘work’ with some people, whatever that means. At the same time, I see how thoroughly I could have decimated any of them if someone had naively attempted to convert me using one of them. It wasn’t any ‘program‘ that reached me. There were a number of individuals over time who acted out of love toward me. Over time that softened my dismissal and rejection of Christianity. I doubt anything else could have ever reached me.

In the world of Jesus, there are only two ways the kingdom can be established: either wait patiently and peacefully for God’s time or force the rule of God with violence.

That’s certainly a true observation. Which did Jesus choose? Can there be any doubt at all? What does that say about us?

Jesus has a thing for paradox. The thing is that it works.


Resurrection!

Posted: April 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

It’s easy to be cynical.

I’ve been there in my life. In many ways, when deconstruction — finding and revealing the ideas and forces operating behind the facades — is part and parcel of your ongoing perception of reality, it’s hard to be anything else.

greed and violence and abuse they are not right
and they cannot last
they belong to death and death does not belong

Death does not belong. That is the message and the hope of resurrection. What we do, every act of compassion and beauty, will last. It’s not wasted. It’s not ephemeral. Love and life are the fabric and substance of reality.

you didn’t see that coming, did you?

Resurrection was a shocking surprise. It’s still shocking today! They didn’t see it coming and we don’t see it coming. Resurrection turns everything you thought you knew about reality on its head.

This is Rob Bell at his finest. Watch it more than once. The full text of his narration is also on his site as are options like an mp3 download.