An Atheist and a Saint

 

“You don’t believe in God?” I ask my girlfriend Liz.

It’s a legitimate question in Lynchburg, Virginia, a city whose population of Baptists is on par with Salt Lake City’s Mormons. Finding an atheist who is out around here is like spotting a yeti.

We approach the one traffic light on the way back to Liz’s apartment from the college where she teaches economics. It is dark out, almost ten at night. She’s hunched forward in the dull orange glow of the streetlight, hugging her coat closed. Without saying a definite yes to my question, she makes it clear. She turns her head down in the cold car as if laying it on a pillow, the bottom half of her face disappearing into shadow.

“Is that a problem?” she says.

“No,” I say. “Should it be?”

I begin to wonder why it is not. Though I left the Baptist faith of my childhood, I do still believe in God. What will it mean for our relationship that she does not?

We just came from a Richard Dawkins lecture at her college, which had been billed as a discussion of his book The God Delusion. Dawkins did not, however, spend the forty-minute talk arguing against belief in the supernatural, or some kind of divine reality. He had his rifle loaded for a single deity. Dawkins, a small, mild-looking man with a smooth British accent and ironic tone, stood at the lectern with a wry smirk and insulted Yahweh, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Old Testament. He ended his rollicking diatribe by calling God a “megalomaniacal meany.”

Of course, Dawkins knew he was only a few short miles from Fundamentalist Christian Liberty University, where all philosophy courses are apologetics classes. He also had to have seen the rows of Liberty students—whole classes complete with teachers—who are unmistakable around town in their unofficial uniform of J. Crew khakis and polo shirts. They took notes feverishly, flipped through books and Bibles, scrambled and shoved to line up at the microphone when he finally opened the floor for questions.

The Liberty students hit Dawkins with all the classic argument for the existence of God. They had a zeal and blustering pride typical of youth. Each kid appeared certain that Dawkins would cave before his or her argument, the old atheist would be publicly put to shame (or possibly even converted?) and the student would be the Young Champion of the hour. A seasoned professional, Dawkins slew these college kids one after the other, never flustered, never without a hint of a grin, never raising his voice.

For over an hour Liz and I watched students scramble up and down the aisles, flipping through their apologetics books, coached and goaded by their teachers. Eventually Dawkins stopped impugning the character of God and instead insulted the intelligence of anyone ignorant enough to associate with “that school on the other side of town.” The argument broke into little swirling eddies, none of them going anywhere. The undaunted kids were still lining up to get at him as we slipped out and made our way back to Liz’s apartment. Several times in the evening, I had noticed Liz nodding her agreement with Dawkins, and so I asked her about her unbelief.

I had just that week pulled the novel The Plague off my shelf and started reading it again. It had been twelve years since I’d last read it, and I was having a far different experience with the book this time around. At the time of the Dawkins lecture, this question was already in my mind: Why do I have such an affinity for Dr. Bernard Rieux, the protagonist of this novel? And why do I, a believer, feel such a sense of communion with the atheist writer Albert Camus?

 

In the early chapters of his phenomenology of religion God, Guilt, and Death, Merold Westphal writes of two basic human reactions to the idea of an Ultimate Other, however that is defined across religious traditions. These reactions he calls ambivalence and resentment. Though expressed in different ways, these are the reactions of believer and non-believer alike.

For the believer, according to Westphal, ambivalence begins with the awakening to the ontological poverty of the believing soul. The realization is expressed in phrases such as this one from a Baptist invitational hymn I sang countless times as a boy: “Thou art the potter, I am the clay.” From our earliest years in Sunday School we are taught to say, “He must increase, I must decrease,” a mantra which only brings our attitudes into plumb with the already-established reality of our nothingness before God. Stickers are popping up in car windows around town that say NOT I, BUT CHRIST—the website advertised below the message without intended irony was at first http://www.falwell.com, and has since changed to http://www.trbc.com. A perfect example of this very ambivalence.

I, the believing soul, am drawn to God, to the All, but at the same time I am repulsed because of what it means about the nature of my own existence: when faced with the Ultimate, non-contingent reality, I experience what Westphal calls a deficiency of being, a realization that my very existence is small and worthless by comparison. At the same time, God holds out to me the only chance at giving my small, weak existence any real meaning. Could I be anything but ambivalent? Like someone standing on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, Westphal writes, or a toddler standing before a huge dog, I am simultaneously drawn in and repelled. John Milton’s Paradise Lost, as has often been noted, is a good example of this kind of believer’s ambivalence. Milton, a Protestant who opposing King of England, could not help feeling sympathy for his rag-tag band of fallen angels as they stood in defiance of the Dictator of all creation—for whose ways Milton had ostensibly set out to write a defense.

Nonbelievers experience ambivalence as a longing for something beyond material existence: for love that is truly love and not simply evolutionary impulses designed to propagate the species; for life to make some kind of sense; for existence to have real meaning. It is what Camus in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” calls an “appetite for the absolute and for unity.” The absence of an Ultimate Other leaves a longing in the unbelieving soul—St. Augustine’s restless heart and Adrienne Rich’s lament about being an ice-fast rowboat gazing out at winter’s red light, with its own small gift for burning.

The ambivalence I’ve been talking about is rather self-centered. I don’t mean this in a negative way necessarily. I cannot not be at the center of my experience of the world, and therefore it is that experience which appears ultimate to me; I do however mature to realize that other individuals are at the center of their own experiences and, if I mature properly, I also realize that their experiences are no less important than my own.

This growing up does not make the ambivalence go away however. I suffer. I see loved ones suffer, and understand because I too have suffered, and I grieve for them. I learn to empathize with the suffering of complete strangers. At this point ambivalence shifts from its focus on the self in relation to God, to God in relation to humanity–the problem of evil and suffering. Particularly the suffering of children. The result is what Westphal calls resentment. This reaction is at the heart of the problem of evil, the reason many raised within a faith tradition turn to Atheism, and the central question of theodicy: If God is all-powerful, and all-good, then where does evil come from? At some point in her life the believer thinks, if I were God I would have created a world not marked by struggle and suffering, a world without blood and brutality. Surely God, being all-powerful, could have done better than this. It is a complaint about the way God is managing things: not only is someone other than me in charge of things, he appears to be royally fucking things up.

In The Plague, Camus’ protagonist Dr. Rieux echoes the bitter cry of Ivan Karamazov when he says, “until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.” The disease ravaging Oran is no respecter of persons, and it tortures and destroys innocent children along with everyone else. Dr. Rieux is not equivocal about his conclusion: “since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in him?”

As a youth, I heard more than one preacher quote Ivan Karamazov when he said if God is dead all things are possible, then point at the moral freefall of American culture as proof. Not only is this interpretation based on a questionable definition of morality, one focused almost entirely on sexual conduct and not on how you actually treat others (I had an African-American friend once lean over to me while we were listening to one such sermon and whisper, “Ask a black man how much worse things are.”), it is a total misunderstanding of Dostoevsky’s point. Camus understands that Ivan’s denial of God is far from a triumphal shout, because having a God who gives meaning and purpose to life is far more appealing than being able to misbehave without fear of punishment. Ivan is crying out that if God does not exist all manner of horrors are possible. Dr. Rieux looks around, sees that all manner of horrors are possible, and concludes that surely God must not exist.

Camus is known for his paradox of the Absurd, which is based on a dualism: we love and cherish life and existence, yet life and existence are marked by suffering, meaninglessness and ultimately death. It is absurd. The logical conclusion is nihilism and the only relevant question left is, according to Camus, why not just kill yourself and be done with it. Although Existentialism has gone out of fashion and become a sort of cultural joke, existentialists’ issues have not gone away.  The unbelieving side of resentment is simply the reasonable assumption that if there really is a good and loving and all-powerful God the world would not be as it undeniably is.

 

Liz works with the Lynchburg Neighborhood Development Foundation, an organization here in town whose work is among the poorest neighborhoods; at her job she champions service learning, teaching her students by taking them to work with community leaders in these neighborhoods on real economic problems. Her students must come face-to-face with the disenfranchised, know them as individuals, and treat them with dignity and respect.

In The Plague Dr. Rieux might choose meaninglessness, but he also refuses to follow it to Camus’ logical conclusion. He still behaves as if there were meaning to life. Throughout the plague he pushes himself to his physical limits combating the illness. He slaves with the devotion of Mother Theresa to alleviate suffering. He says that though he does not believe, he does feel he is on the right road in fighting against creation as he finds it and he believes we should “struggle with all our might against death.”

If you watch the man’s actions, it looks for all the world like a fitting answer to the bumper sticker: What Would Jesus Do? This. This is what he would do. But why? Why does Dr. Rieux persist in doing good when he honestly believes there’s no meaning to it? I think Miguel De Unamuno makes the distinction that answers this question. Psalms 53:1 says, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God…” Another phrase I heard countless times growing up. In his classic Tragic Sense of Life, Unamuno writes that it is a true statement, the fool hath denied God in his heart; but, he goes on to write that one who denies God in her head because of despair at not finding him is not who is being described in this passage of Scripture. For Unamuno, a righteous and good person can conclude in his head that there is no God and remain righteous. But it is the wicked and foolish one who concludes this in the heart.

This head-heart distinction goes down easily for a boy who grew up in the Baptist church hearing preachers talk about people missing heaven by eighteen inches—the distance from the head to the heart. What is astonishing here is the radical change of paradigm, the tectonic shift of categories.

To Evangelical Christians, a heart knowledge of God begins with an emotional response to a call, a moment of contrition in which Jesus is asked to enter one’s heart. What follows this conversion experience in the believing soul is a matter of debate (when I was in seminary it was called the Lordship Salvation controversy). In this tradition, it is the Atheist—the one who says in her head there is no God—who is the fool. Unamuno stands this interpretation on its head, and I think rightly so. A character in The Plague wonders aloud to Dr. Rieux if it is possible to be a saint without believing in God. Unamuno’s answer is an unequivocal yes.

What would Jesus himself say to this? Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night (John 3:1-21) and Jesus says to him, “Ye must be born again.”I know the story well. But going back to it, I notice the shift in Jesus’ own words from belief in him to actions: “For everyone that doeth evil hateth the light…But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought of God.”

I looked back over the rest of the red-lettered portions of the New Testament, to see what Jesus has to say. In Matthew 21, he gives the parable of the two sons. The one son says to his father, “Yes I will do as you ask,” then does not; the other son says to his father, “No, I will not,” but then goes and does as he is asked. Jesus is quite clear that the son who says the no and does the yes is the one who is truly righteous. In light of Unamuno’s words above, this parable could be seen as Jesus’ approval of a man like Dr. Bernard Rieux. What might make easy-living Evangelicals a little uncomfortable here is that once the dust settles on these new categories, if an Atheist is in, who might be left out?

This discomfort will not be alleviated by flipping forward to Matthew 25 and read what Jesus says about those who will be blessed and those who will be damned. Here he does not mention a conversion experience of any kind, or the keeping of rules. He doesn’t mention belief at all. He does speak in specific terms about blessing for those who have struggled against real, physical human suffering, and damnation for those who have not.

Liz considers all this talk of blessing and damnation so much poppycock, and so would Dr. Rieux; however, Camus has embodied in Rieux what he considers to be the only course one who longs for meaning yet sees none can take: hold out for meaning in the face of meaninglessness by sheer force of will. Act. Act and the action itself will create meaning. Not any act will suffice though. In his 1957 Nobel Banquet Speech, Camus’ call was to “fight openly against the instinct of death at work in our history.” But in an absurd world void of meaning, is it not just as much poppycock to call for action of any kind, much less one kind over another?

Here we return to the unbeliever’s side of ambivalence via the Stoics, who would rather cut off their feet than admit they need shoes. Camus refuses to take the Stoic’s way.  He has the integrity to admit that his heart longs for the Absolute, even while his head will not allow it. Even if his reason gives him no comfort, he still refuses to lop off his desire in order to make the denial of its object more convenient. His position is not so far removed from Unamuno’s “transcendental pessimism,” in which, after conceding that the evidence of reason is not enough in itself to justify belief, he concludes, “Let life be lived in such a way, with such dedication to goodness and the highest values that if, after all, it is annihilation which finally awaits us, that will be injustice.”

 

We awaken and discover ourselves dropped into existence in media res, and it is impossible to lift ourselves above the flow of history to get a universal perspective. Like it or not, we are contingent; we owe our existence to something other than ourselves. Whatever we believe that something to be, we feel ambivalent toward it.

Even though the concept of evil is debated, there is no disputing the existence of suffering. Our natural reaction to senseless suffering—the suffering of innocent children—is anguish and rage. Our options are clear. If we act, our actions create meaning. The way I see it, being contingent as we are—and therefore being incapable of creating anything ex nihilo—the meaning we create with our actions is in reality a reaching down and drawing on an Ultimate meaning, an Absolute. God. The ability to create meaning through moral action is what Nicolas Berdyaev calls the Freedom of the Spirit, and he says it is clear evidence that humanity bears the divine image.

More poppycock Liz would say. That doesn’t bother me. In a later discussion of the Dawkins lecture, she told me that she was put off by his comportment: he was smug, cocky, derisive of anyone who disagreed with his position. For example, when someone mentioned the fact that Antony Flew had backed off of his own Atheism, Dawkins said it was a pity; Flew was old and losing his faculties, but he “once had a fine mind.”

It’s impossible for me to say what Dawkins is like as a human being. He’d stepped up to preach his atheism in Lynchburg, Virginia. The fact that he preaches with evangelical zeal leads me to think his opinions are not simply a result of his disinterested study of the empirical evidence. I know that isn’t the case with Liz; she grew up being told by her Southern Baptist classmates on Georgia playgrounds that she and her entire family were going to burn in hell because they hadn’t asked Jesus into their hearts.

I think Rieux appeals to me so much because, whatever his stated belief, he is good. He acts as if there were meaning even if his reason tells him it isn’t true. Liz is good also, good and compassionate and fair. She lives her life according to a high moral code, and she is interested in justice, but not without mercy. These things I know about her. She doesn’t need a bracelet on her arm to remind her how Jesus would handle a situation; she has the moral compass in her heart.

When I asked her that night whether or not she believed in God, she finally said, “I don’t see enough evidence to justify belief.” Fair enough. I do see enough evidence to justify belief, and I am a believer. As much as my head might spin in disbelief, unbelief is simply not a living option. Yet the senseless suffering of innocents fills me with anguished questions for and about God. I struggle with the problem of evil–every honest apologist knows in his or her heart there is no final answer that can satisfactorily put this question to rest.

What do I do then? I strive to act with integrity, to live simply, taking only what I need and no more than my share. I endeavor to deal compassionately with others, trying to understand them as human beings with dreams and desires no less important than my own for their being different. I fight against injustice, suffering, and death wherever I find it.

This is Liz’s position as well. And this is why, driving back to her place after the Dawkins lecture, I was comfortable with her answer. While our heads disagree, our hearts are in perfect harmony. She stands on one side of the question of God, and I stand on the other, but we are looking in the same direction with a deep and human longing, a longing that rises from a shared place where sorrow and comfort mingle and flow regardless of belief. We are standing close together. In fact, we are so close we could easily lock arms.

 

“An Atheist and a Saint” was originally published in Rock & Sling.

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The View from the Center of the Universe

Eternity in Our Hearts

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

I watched a video on The Big Think website a few months ago about the center of the universe. According to the video there are two universes: one is the actual universe, which is infinite; the other is the observable universe, which exists in proportion to its observer. No one can say where the center of the actual universe is, or even if there is one. As for the observable universe, each observer stands in the center of her own.

When astronomy shattered the Earth-centered model of the universe, it came as a big shock. We aren’t the center? How can that be, if we’re the crown jewels of creation? What does that say about our place in the cosmos? It came as a further shock to realize that our sun was not the center of the universe either.

The more we gazed into space, the more astounded and disoriented we became as we realized how vast it is. We call it infinite; as far as we’re concerned it is.

Infinity is limitless space, time, or quantity; eternity on the other hand refers only to limitless time. When you blow away all limits though, it doesn’t matter anymore whether you’re talking about space, time, or quantity. I cannot think of boundless space outside of imagining how long you would travel trying to reach its edge. I cannot think of endless time without thinking of it happening somewhere.

Here’s an explanation of eternity I heard many years ago in Sunday school, and included in one of my stories called “Hush Little Baby”:

A bird lives on the moon. Every one thousand years this bird comes down to earth and pecks one sand grain from a rock the size of the Empire State Building. It gets one tiny grain and flies with it back to the moon. One thousand years later, it comes and gets another grain. And so on plucking one grain every thousand years. After that bird has moved the whole massive rock and rendered it a pile of sand on the moon, the time spent would still not be equal to one second of eternity.

Terms of time lose all meaning. So do terms of space. The bird could move a rock the size of the earth grain by grain and it would still not be long enough to register as a second of eternity.

Within this universe are numberless galaxies, and within those galaxies are myriad solar systems, countless stars. I once heard an NPR piece about the star Betelgeuse in the Orion constellation. It isn’t the biggest star out there, but for perspective, if Betelgeuse were nine feet in diameter, another star by comparison would be the size of a BB.

That star so dwarfed by Betelgeuse is our sun. The sun that could, according to Jonathan Keohane and Jim Lochner at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, hold the Earth inside it 1,000,000 times over.  And on our Earth, humanity covers, by most estimations, between one and three percent of its surface—a humanity of which we each constitute roughly one in seven billion.

We are infinitesimally small by astronomical standards, small as a single-celled parasite in a mosquito’s intestine, smaller even. We are not large enough to be called a quark in the universe; likewise, we do not exist long enough to be called a blip in the light years of time it takes to get around in space. What we know is miniscule; our observable universe is a small briny bubble in a vast dark sea.

But wait. This might be the most astonishing thing of all: We have eternity in our hearts. The word translated as eternity in Ecclesiastes is cosmos, or the entire universe. All of creation is in our hearts? What can that even mean? We cannot fathom it, cannot get our heads around it.

Russell Edson calls our heads “teetering bulbs of dread and desire.” The dread and desire are born from sensing the cosmos in our hearts, knowing this raging desire for the eternal, and also knowing all too well that our end is rushing toward us.

Miguel de Unamuno calls this realization the “tragic sense of life.” We long for immortality, to exist in eternity, and yet we gaze out at a universe that takes no notice of our tiny existence, and will take no more notice when we disappear from it.

Is it not tragic to think that we carry this raging desire for the eternal inside us only to drag it with us into nonexistence? And don’t we know it in our hearts? We fight to survive, we strive, we love our children, we want our lives not just to be, but to be about something. We dream of heaven, of life after this short earthly existence.

Tiny specks that we are, we are here and we are looking out—the condition of knowing, the act of observing, puts us each smack in the center of our own observable universe. That is no small thing. We cannot see far with our eyes for sure.

Our hearts however, our hearts’ desires go to the farthest reaches of the infinite universe, and from there burst on through into eternity.

Originally posted at “Good Letters,” August 21, 2013