Unless you’ve spent the post-9/11 years in a bunker, you’ve doubtless heard the vitriol lobbed across the tables of social media and YouTube between the New Atheists and Christians.
From the anti-religious Flying Spaghetti Monster, to the pie-in-the-sky deity flambéing non-Christians in the afterlife, I’m not sure either side is winning the fight of postmodern “cafeteria faith.” Thankfully, not all atheists and Christians are this obnoxious.
I co-host an ongoing six-week forum of open dialogue exploring the Christian faith. Because of its title, “Live and Let Think,” the group attracts many intellectuals who consider themselves among the dis-churched, including some atheists. As I carefully listen to my atheist friends’ respectful objections to God and faith, I find myself — a mainline Christian and seminary student — often agreeing with their critiques.
Why? Because the popular version of Christianity to which most of them have been exposed has, too often, been void of good news, missing the Gospel entirely. And the atheists are calling our bluff.
I welcome the atheist critique in that I believe it performs a prophetic service to our generation of Christians: dismantling our idols, revealing what God is not, demanding an altar befitting a God worthy of our intellect and affections.
Rather than dismissing Jesus, most of the atheists I know admit they find Jesus surprisingly compelling. But when it comes to God, they are caught scratching their heads, battling popular caricatures: the genie working wonders at our whims; the puppeteer pulling strings from the clouds; an emotionally volatile being bent on punishing the ungodly; an abusive father who kills his son to square up a cosmic debt to which he — the all-powerful — is impotently subject.
As I catalog these impoverished notions of God, proffered by many well-meaning and sincere Christians, I’m thankful for my atheist friends’ objections. Reasoning Christians, up and down the centuries — from Athanasius to Aquinas, Paul the Apostle to Paul Tillich — reject this God, too.
Pre-eminent New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, once a chaplain at Oxford University, records this telling exchange with a young atheist:
“Don’t expect to see a lot of me,” the student told Wright. “I don’t believe in God.”
Wright aptly inquired what this young man meant by “God,” and upon listening, responded, “I can assure you, I don’t believe in that God, either.”
If you are a person of faith or no faith at all, I hope you too will seek out respectful dialogue with people who directly challenge your beliefs and assumptions, and gain their friendships. It is precisely in the process of elimination — the crumbling of caricatures and counterfeit gods — that the soul clears way for illumination, which is always good news.
Wendy Connelly, one of The Star’s Faith Walk writers, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.