13 August 2010

Is God Dead?

“God is Dead” – Nietzsche

“Nietzsche is Dead” – God

...or so bumper-sticker theology goes (nearly as famous as “To Do is To Be” – Plato; “To Be is To Do” – Aristotle; “Do Be Do Be Do” – Sinatra).

Do any of you remember this TIME Magazine cover? Or to rephrase, have any of you ever seen it? Currently, it’s the most famous TIME cover published, dated 8 August, 1966. Naturally, I don’t remember it, but I do remember seeing it as a point of discussion when I was younger… and it disturbed me; the idea that GOD could be… DEAD.

I now understand that it was a philosophical question and not a literal one, but that provides little more comfort than my initial misinterpreted misstep… culturally speaking.

This return to blogging addresses the rise in the so-called ‘New Atheism’ movement. Why? Because I live and minister in a (so-called) secular society, and I find myself engaging in passionate, civil discourse with a growing number of atheists. (I know… things ain’t what they used to be, huh?)

Attempting to understand what many of it’s own prominent members find difficult to quantitatively define, has been an important step in reaching common ground with my atheist friends, toward fostering healthy productive discussion about life, God, meaning, and the universe.

Again… why? A common Christian sentiment today is, “If we just start acting more like Jesus then people will want what we have.” I’m sorry, but what the (expletive deleted) does that mean? I certainly won’t argue that if we, as the people of God, began engaging culture with the truth and grace that Jesus personified, then yes, some people might want to know more about this God we follow… but it might also get us (expletive deleted) killed! Am I prepared for that? Are you? The authentic answers to those two questions carry with them an inherent weight of significance far greater than any ethereal, ambiguous call to ‘be Jesus’ to our neighbours.

Freud said that we have battled Nature to advance Western Civilization. A theological perspective on that might be that we’ve battled God for the sake of (western culture’s) progress; or more relevant to the people of God, for our place amidst the progress of western culture. However, that’s the topic for a future entry.

So, back to the ‘why’ question; Starting in 2004, a rash of bestselling ‘pop-atheism’ books (Sam Harris’ The End of Faith; Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion; Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon; and Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) launched an ongoing public debate over faith versus reason, with Harris, Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens being dubbed ‘The Four Horsemen of Atheism.’

Public debates as such are certainly not new in recent times, and the media has definitely emphasized the ugliest side(s) of this debate, but while atheism, as an intellectual concern, has been a time-honored aspect of philosophy, it has never been generally popular (as Socrates learned when he was put on trial for impiety).

It should be noted that as recently as 1985 one of the most common dictionary definitions of “atheism” was “immoral.” At that time, disbelievers in a supreme deity tended to be identified with the Soviet Union as ‘godless commies,’ or with so-called ‘village atheists’, caricatures of petulance who reveled in offending the sensibilities of religious believers.

But there appears to be a resurgence of interest in atheism – both as a philosophical theory and as a life-commitment; disbelief has come out of the closet, so to speak. Faith in the Holy Spirit’s transformational power notwithstanding, I’ve discovered that listening patiently, and responding with grace and respect dispels the debate and paves the way for discussion… which I wholeheartedly believe, is paramount in challenging disbelief and skepticism.

If the Old Atheism was met by believers with resentment and dismissal, the way forward with the New Atheism is a patient willingness to LISTEN to its fundamental claims and try to understand why they are so embraced by those who uphold them. ‘Being Jesus,’ is becoming harder and harder to quantify in secular, western culture, and if we’re to reach our friends who don’t share our faith, it begins with our recognition of the significant backlash against religious fundamentalism, and as such, we must engage New Atheism with a new approach to it as a philosophical paradigm.

If the question is asked today, “Is God Still Dead?,” the overwhelming majority of the secular world would most likely be in the affirmative. This reality precedes a ‘being Jesus’ approach and necessitates civil discourse getting back to the relevance of ‘atonement’ for a society that no longer even considers it necessary.

I’m certainly not challenging the precept, ‘actions speak louder than words’; I still believe in preaching the gospel, using words when necessary. I’m simply saying that in some cases, our expression of the gospel may begin with a willingness to listen to beliefs and convictions contrary to our own, with an authentic desire to understand, so that we may be invited into and participate in ongoing discussions about faith, reason, grace, atonement and eternity.

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