Christian Atheism

great_entranceThe title for this post sounds like an oxymoron, and, of course, it is. How can one be both an atheist and a Christian? Again, I am wanting to push the understanding of the one-versus-two-storey universe. In the history of religious thought, one of the closest versions to what I am describing as a “two-storey” world-view, is that espoused by classical Deism (the philosophy espoused by a number of the American founding fathers).

They had an almost pure, two-storey worldview. God, “the Deity,” had created the universe in the beginning, setting it in motion. He had done so in such a way that the world could be described as directed by His Providence, but not in any sense interfered with after its creation. Thomas Jefferson produced a New Testament, wholly in tune with this philosophy. He expunged all reference to miracle and kept only those things he considered to have a purpose in “moral teaching.” The creator had accomplished His work: it was up to us to conform ourselves to His purposes and morality – which were pretty indistinguishable from natural law. If you read the writings of the period it’s much more common to read Providence where a Christian might put God. Many modern evangelicals mistakenly read such statements as Christian.

Functionally, other than having some notion of an original Creator, Deists were practical atheists. The God Who created had completed His work. Ethics were as much a matter of scientific discovery as any other principle of physics. They believed in something they called “God” or “Providence”┬ábut only in a very divorced sense. It would be hard to distinguish their thought from that of an atheist except that they clung to an idea of God at least as the initiator of all things.

I have here introduced the notion of “practical atheism,” meaning by it, that although a person may espouse a belief in God, it is quite possible for that belief to be so removed from everyday life, that God’s non-existence would make little difference.

Surprisingly, I would place some forms of Christian fundamentalism within this category (as I have defined it). I recall a group affiliated with some particular Church of Christ, who regularly evangelized our apartment complex when I lived in Columbia, S.C. They were also a constant presence on the campus of the local university. They were absolute inerrantists on the subject of the Holy Scriptures. They were equally adamant that all miracles had ceased with the completion of the canon of the New Testament. Christians today only relate to God through the Bible.

Such a group can be called “Biblicists,” or something, but, in the terminology I am using here, I would describe them as “practical atheists.” Though they had great, even absolutist, faith in the Holy Scriptures, they had no relationship with a God who is living and active and directly involved in their world. Had their notion of a God died, and left somebody else in charge of His heaven, it would not have made much difference so long as the rules did not change.

I realize that this is strong criticism, but it is important for us to understand what is at stake. The more the secular world is exalted as secular, that is, having an existence somehow independent of God, the more we will live as practical atheists – perhaps practical atheists who pray (but for what do we pray?). I would also suggest that the more secular the world becomes for Christians, the more political Christians will become. We will necessarily resort to the same tools and weapons as those who do not believe.

Christianity that has purged the Church of the sacraments, and of the sacramental, have only ideas which can be substituted – the result being the eradication of God from the world in all ways other than theoretical. Of course, since much of modern Christianity functions on this ideological level rather than the level of the God-Who-is among-us, much of Christianity functions in a mode of practical atheism. The more ideological the faith, the more likely its proponents are to expouse what amounts to a practical atheism.

Orthodox Christianity, with its wealth of dogma and Tradition, could easily be translated into this model – and I have encountered it in such a form. But it is a falsification of Orthodoxy. Sacraments must not be quasi-magical moments in which a carefully defined grace is transmitted to us – they must, instead, threaten to swallow up the whole world. The medieval limitation of sacraments to the number 7 comes far too close to removing sacraments from the world itself. Orthodoxy seems to have declared that there are 7 sacraments solely as a response to Western Reform and Catholic arguments. In some sense, everything is a sacrament – the whole world is a sacrament.

However, if we only say that the whole world is a sacrament, soon nothing will be a sacrament. Thus the sacraments recognized as such by the Church, should serve not just for pointing to themselves, but also pointing to God and to everything around us. Holy Baptism should change all water. The Cross should change all trees, etc. But Baptism gives the definition: water does not define Baptism. Neither do trees define the Cross. Nor does man define Christ. Christ defines what it is to be human, etc.

The more truly sacramental becomes the Christian life, the more thoroughly grounded it is in the God-Who-is-among-us. Such a God is indeed, “everywhere present and filling all things.” Our options are between such a God – as proclaimed in the New Testament – or a God who need be no God at all for He is removed from us anyway.

At the Divine Liturgy, before approaching the Communion Cup, Orthodox Christians pray together:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ the Son of the living God who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first. I believe also that this is truly Thine own most pure Body, and that this is truly Thine own precious Blood. Therefore, I pray Thee: have mercy upon me and forgive my transgressions both voluntary and involuntary, of word and of deed, committed in knowledge or in ignorance. And make me worthy to partake without condemnation of Thy most pure Mysteries, for the remission of my sins, and unto life everlasting. Amen.

There is not a single hint of a distance between us and God. At this point, having prepared for communion, having confessed our sins, we stand at the very center of the universe, before the God Who Is, before the God with Whom Moses conversed on Mt. Sinai, and we receive His true Body and Blood.

Such realism of a first-storey character makes bold claims about the nature of the God whom we worship and how it is that we relate to Him. It’s removal from the “end of miracles” deism of some Biblicists could not be more complete.

There is a dialog that may take place between Christians and atheists. But there is, prior to that, an even more important dialog to be had, and that is with the practical atheism of Christians who have exiled God from the world around us. Such practical atheism is a severe distortion of the Christian faith and an extremely poor substitute for the real thing.

Richard John Neuhaus has written frequently of returning the Church to the public square. I think the problem is far deeper. In many cases we have to speak about returning God to the Church. In cases where practical atheism is the faith of a goup of “believers,” their presence in the public square makes no difference. Who cares?

But within the Orthodox faith, God cannot be exiled from our world no matter how men try. He has come among us, and not at our invitation. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He is already in the Public Square as the Crucified God who is reconciling the world to Himself, whether we like it or not. The opposite of practical atheism is to do the only thing the Christianity of the first-storey can do: keep His commandments and fall down and worship – for God is with us.