I am gradually learning things that I have not known before – or only suspected. Posting occasionally as I have on the subject of atheism, and receiving occasional reponses from atheists, is an education in itself. There is atheism as I imagine it to be (I suppose what it would look like were I one) and there is atheism as it has historically expressed itself (in such writers as Nietsche or Sartre) and there is what I would dub “neo-atheism” if only because it seems to differ from its predecessors.
The major difference is this – there is a classic despair in early continental atheism and something of a search for a meaning that would replace the overarching themes of Christianity. And there’s the phenomenon as I am seeing it, particularly among younger people today. If I had to describe what I’ve been reading (and I’ve been surfing around a bit to test my theories) it would be an atheism that has jettisoned despair, or, rather, a way of human living in which hope (in a transcendent sense) is not a major issue. Thus it is not a “living large” but learning to “live small.”
I encounter elements of Buddhism (some forms of Buddhism are strictly agnostic or atheist in belief), elements of an existentialism, and primarily a defining of life in terms which do not require what atheism cannot supply.
Despair, if given its proper meaning, simply means “to have no hope.” For some this is also synonymous with depression and the like. But for others, it simply means something that is not part of their lifestyle. Hope is shrunk to more immediate concerns, metaphysics having been jettisoned.
Doubtless, the hypocrisy and failures of Christianity have done nothing to turn aside such an epiphenomenon. Indeed, they have probably contributed to its creation. The broad array of Christian denominationalism (how do you choose?), coupled with a growing crass materialism masked as Christianity (the heresy of the prosperity gospel that clogs the airwaves) almost beg young people to bow out. “No thanks,” might be the kind refusal of those surveying the Christian scene.
From the perspective of Orthodox Christianity none of this should come as a surprise. Defective Christianity is not the antidote to non-belief. Nor is Orthodox Christianity when it is practiced in a defective form. Thus Christ asks the question, “…when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8b).
Always a primary question for those who profess the Orthodox faith is “am I living the Faith?” In my efforts to do mission, I have stressed that the only way to do mission is to first be sure that there is actually a living Orthodox Church to which we may bring people. And so we pray, we fast, we give alms, we beg God of His mercy to give us the grace needed to become what we cannot become without Him.
Apparently, the despair that I project and expect of an atheist is not a given – or more to the point – it is a gift. To see the world without God and perceive its meaninglessness – and to perceive the tragedy of such – is a gracious gift of perceiving the truth. Modern Orthodox writers who have spoken about despair or even standing at the edge of the abyss (despair, hell, etc.) in order to pray for the whole world (this is an image that occurs in both Fr. Sophrony’s writings as well as in the life of St. Silouan) are not speaking of a place that we reach naturally, but that we reach supernaturally (that is by grace).
That gracious despair can also be accompanied (paradoxical though it may be) with great joy. Orthodoxy is full of references to “Joyful Sorrow.” And it is here that my experience of the world goes somewhere that atheism cannot take you. The encounter of the lives of the saints – where those who seem to be the most awake are also those believe the most deeply. I am overwhelmed with the goodness of a Mother Theresa – or a St. Seraphim of Sarov – and I do not see this goodness among those who do not believe. How do you stand in the slums of Calcutta and serve with joy the poorest of the poor without belief in God? Romanticism can only carry you so far – it cannot fill a lifetime.
And it is this encounter with a Goodness that is unexplainable apart from God that shatters despair (or reveals it). I know the sorrows of this world, I’ve seen plenty of death and the darkness of the human heart. This holds no mystery to me. But it’s the goodness that cannot be accounted for with no reference beyond the world as we know it that staggers me. How do we explain St. Seraphim, or St. Xenia of Petersburg, or St. Matrona of Moscow, St. Nectarios of Aegina (only to begin the list)? All of which is merely a prelude to the great question, “How do we explain Christ?”
The gospels are too rich, the New Testament too layered in nuance and multivalency to be but the fiction of a few. There is an event which occasioned their writing and which occasioned an irruption of goodness and mercy unknown at any prior time on earth. That same goodness, transcendent in aspect, continues to erupt. It is not necessarily evidenced on a daily basis in every parish church – though there is more there than many people know – but these irruptions (as I choose to call them) point beyond themselves and beneath themselves to what cannot be contained, cannot be accounted for within the closed universe.
Towards the ending of history, rays appear on the summits of the Church; hardly discernible at first, they belong to the Day without Ending, the Day of the Age to come. – Fr. Pavel Florensky
These are the saints and martyrs, ‘of whom the world was not worthy.’ They tell me that despair – even the honest despair that refuses to look away from the suffering of this world – is not the final word. There is indeed a hope beyond the despair – a hope that took flesh and walked among us, and continues to illumine us if we care to see.