I have written extensively about what I have described as a “two-storey universe.” In short, this is a description of how many modern Christians see the world. There is the first floor – the natural world which operates according to naturalist, “secular” rules, and the second floor – the world of God, heaven, hell, angels, etc. The spiritual crisis of much of modern man is the inherent disconnect in these two worlds. It is a belief construct whose history goes back some centuries but whose fruit has been a very different form of Christianity and a growing tide of unbelief. As I have written elsewhere, many Christians have serious doubts about whether anybody actually lives on the second floor.
One interesting component of this world-view is unbelief. When a Christian whose world-view is dominated by the two-storey universe ceases to believe – what he ceases to believe in is the second storey. There need be little change, if any, to the first-floor on which he perceives himself to live. He does not cease to believe in the God who is here, but in a God who is “out there.”
Of course, what remains in such a situation of unbelief, is an acceptance of a universe that is less than a full account of how things truly are. The first floor of a two-storey universe is not the same thing as the “one-storey universe” I have described: it is simply a house with the second floor blown off. It is in this sense that I have commented on Christian fundamentalism (one of the primarily proponents of the two-storey universe) and contemporary atheism being two-sides of the same coin. Their interminable arguments are a conversation that takes place in half a universe. One argues that there is a second floor while the other argues that the truncated, detached debacle of a first floor is all there is. However, they do not disagree about the fundamentals of the first floor. The daily world (and often the daily life) of a two-storey Christian is often as empty and secular as his atheist counterpart. He differs only in his anxiety to prove the existence of a second floor.
I believe it is important to go to the heart of these matters – to realize that when arguments take place between such inhabitants of the two-storey world – nothing authentic is taking place. Both positions are inheritors of a broken view of the world and neither will ever state the truth in a satisfactory manner.
It is interesting to me that there are atheists who do not belong to this category of “two-storey unbelievers.” Their lack of belief in God includes deep questions about the very character of the universe and the nature of human existence. As such, they share much in common with the Tradition of the Orthodox faith. Many converts to Orthodoxy must undergo something of an “atheist” stage in order to leave the mythology of the two-storey world and enter into the revelation of God as Christ has given to the Church. It is for this reason that in the services for the reception of converts there is included a formal renunciation of various errors. You cannot follow the “only truly existing God” while at the same time believing in a God who does not exist. We are to believe in but one God.
I recall the first year of my life as an Orthodox Christian. Having been an ordained clergyman for 18 years prior to that, it startled people when I said that the primary question for me in my first year of Orthodox life was the existence of God. People asked, “Did you not believe in God before?” The answer had to be “yes and no.” To embrace God as He is revealed to us in the Orthodox faith requires, as well, not believing a number of other things. That first year was a struggle.
On the other hand, the same year forced me to a far more existential level – even to the place of crisis. How to believe in a God who is “everywhere present and filling all things” is a very different way of life than to believe in a God who is “out there.” In an Orthodox life our faith in God also changes how we see everything else (or it should). Nothing remains the same. The creation is not “self-existent” (a hallmark of two-storey thought) but utterly dependent and contingent moment by moment on the good will and providence of God. “Heaven and earth are full of His glory.”
I have found it interesting in my ministry as an Orthodox priest and missionary to meet people who, upon learning of the Orthodox faith, have replied with joy, “I always thought something like that must be true.” There are many people, who though never having heard the Gospel presented in its proper fullness, have nevertheless refused to be content with something less. They are, for me, miracles of grace.
It is a commonplace to say that Orthodoxy is full of paradoxes. One of those is the paradox that many non-Orthodox Christians may have to leave their God in order to become Orthodox and that many atheists will have to learn not to believe in a different God before they can come to the Truth.
It is simply the case that in order to find our life we have to lose it.