Skip to comments.Christian Atheism
Posted on 06/28/2008 9:38:51 AM PDT by annalex
The 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” but 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.
One should not be foolish with his charity, and certainly it begins with the family. I acknowledged that. Personally, my net worth is below zero with the mortgage crisis and wage stagnation, so is cobble my shoes as best I can just to feed the kids.
This is what goes without saying; this is in the “I’ve observed all that since my youth” part.
Luther’s error was to stop there and tell the cobbler that he is done his work of discipleship by cobbling shoes (and, presumably, keeping the Christian faith on some level). This is complete disregarding of this episode, which speaks to the issue directly and from the mouth of Christ. The way Protestantism wiggles out of this scripture is not convincing: Christ, the theory goes, read the mind of the rich man, and demonstrated to him that there is nothing he can do to earn salvation. So, I ask, He just sent someone He loved to hell? The Evangelists who recorded that exchange mislead us all? When Jesus spoke the same thing to the Apostles in verses 29-30 of Mark 10, He was giving them, and through them, us, the advice we should not follow?
This is jamming the square peg of the Enlightenment’s Economic Man into the square hole of the Gospel.
This is just my synopsis. There are professing Christians who limit God to their own misunderstandings. They limit the “God with us” idea with a “God up there” kind of faith.
IMO, this is those same people who can’t see the saints as alive with God and also with us. Because they can’t understand the mystery, it must not exist. Because they can’t understand the Transubstantiation, it cannot exist.
Biblical inerrantists are atheists. And higher critical "theistic evolutionists" are the true mystics of our day! [/sarcasm]
You said: God works miracles through providence, not through icons, bleeding statues or priests is the Protestant point of view, I would say.
Your statement shows part of the problem I see with protestant beliefs. They always put limits on what God can and cant do. Such a being is therefore limited vice infinite. Ultimately they put themselves in the place of God to decide what he can or cant do.
Hoo-boy. G-d works miracles through relics and icons and statues but He couldn't have possibly created the world in six days 5768 year ago because science has "proven" otherwise.
Some people apparently believe that the age of miracles began at the closing of the scriptural canon.
That someone wouldn’t be me.
Then I ask your forgiveness. My experience has taught me that the vast majority of Catholics and Orthodox who inveigh against "modernism," "rationalism," and "practical atheism" seem to be militant evolutionists and higher critics who sound like they came right out of Union Theological Seminary.
Actually, I agree that Protestantism is mistaken in its concept of "two kingdoms," but it must be remembered that this idea had its origins not with Luther but with J*sus, in his "render unto Caesar" advice. I am also one of the few FReepers who doesn't hypocritically demand that moslems adopt the false western concept of separation of religion and state.
However, many Catholic/Orthodox chr*stians insist on identifying Biblical inerrancy with rationalism and modernity (the Orthodox are especially bad at this) and enjoy confusing Protestants by calling them modernists and rationalists even as they (the Catholics/Orthodox) defend evolution, higher criticism, and every other modern abomination that has come down the pike. In fact, from what some Catholics/Orthodox say, you'd think that chr*stians had always believed in evolution and that the Bible was mythology (in which case Darwin would have never had to have written his book to begin with).
Forgive me, but I can't help observe that there is an element of intentional cruelty in taunting Biblical inerrantists for their alleged "modernism."
You confuse biblical inerrancy with Sola Scriptura. The former is not discussed in any shape at all in the article. You’d be the first to make a connection, but so far I don’t see you making it.
The poin there is two-storey universe vs. single-storey universe. You seem to agree that Protestantism enhanced this error, but you also trace it to Jesus himself. Indeed, Jesus taught in many ways that maxim, that the Christians are in the world but not of the world. The remark to render onto Caesar his taxes is in line with the advice to have an economic life modeled after the birds, and generally not to worry much about things political and economic. That is most emphatically not a two-storey universe: see the discourse with the rich man in 58, and possibly the rest of the discussion with Paved Paradise.
Excuse me, but I find that it is Catholics who don't seem to be able to tell the two apart and who seem to think that in order to be loyal to the magisterium they are required to believe that the Bible is full of mistakes.
The vast majority of your Catholic co-religionists, and of Eastern Orthodox, here at FR is highly modernistic and derives a particular glee from claiming that Biblical inerrancy is a modern, false, rationalist doctrine created by "nineteenth century positivism." You have been agreeing with these people all through this thread, so forgive me if I assumed you shared this notion (if not, kolokotronis will be happy to explain to you that prior to the Protestant Reformation, "everybody" knew the Bible was full of myths and errors. In fact, seeing as how Catholics and Orthodox had "always believed in evolution," I wonder why Darwin felt compelled to publish his book to begin with.
And the original article, which you posted, criticized the CoC for its Biblical inerrancy and then linked this inerrancy to "practical atheism." Forgive me if my temper is short, but you surely did not read the article you posted. I hesitate to name the alternative.
I think you are making some big assumptions. The scripture does not give us enough information here to assume EXACTLY what Christ’s intent was. I think like many stories, it was to illustrate a point about how lame we are when we think we’ve done so much for God, yet we do not lay down our life and give our all to Him as he has done for us.
The first words of your first sentence, “One should not be foolish with his charity” is exactly my point. I honestly do not believe God expects all of us to give up our life and live as an aesthete and give our lives to a cloister or monastery. In fact, he has told us it is good to marry. Not everyone is cut out for that life.
I’m not sure what point you are making any more, but I’m sorry you are not in the best financial straights. Regardless, as you well know, even in your struggles you are rich by the world’s standards, as we all mostly are in this country and that often makes me feel guilty (unlike some of the heretical rantings one hears on TBN and elsewhere, I don’t believe it is God’s will that everyone be rich).
Had to comment. Just because they don’t believe in transubstantiation does not mean they don’t understand it. In fact, that is why they don’t believe in it.
Kolokotronis can correct me, but both Orthodox and Catholic believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. What we don't believe in is the necessity of reading the account of creation as pointing to 6 x 24 hour creation, man made of literal mud, etc.
Th article is not really about your hobby-horse. In brief, the Church teaches dogmatically that the universe was created by God from nothing, that Adam and Eve are single parents of all men ensouled by God, that they were created immortal, and that's about it. The Church also teaches that literary interpretation is applied first, and it can be discarded only under evidence of that not being the inspired writer's intent. The Church has not condemned the view of God-directed evolution as a possible mechanism of creation.
Well, we can easily conclude what it wasn't: it was not His intent to mislead into hell the Rich Man, the Apostles, the Evangelists, and all of us.
Indeed, married life is a vocation on par with monastic life and ministry, but that, as well, should be lived with total and absolute submission to the Divine will: "follow Me".
“(if not, kolokotronis will be happy to explain to you that prior to the Protestant Reformation, “everybody” knew the Bible was full of myths and errors. In fact, seeing as how Catholics and Orthodox had “always believed in evolution,” I wonder why Darwin felt compelled to publish his book to begin with.”
I’m sorry but as usual, ZC, I haven’t a clue what you are talking about. Are you making this up as you go along or is there a book some place where you read this stuff?
“Yes, the author did use the word “inerrantist”, but the thrust of his argument is the error of a distant God to Whom we relate solely through the Bible, rather than primarily through the living Church and her sacraments.”
Which is, of course, a thoroughly Orthodox position.
“Kolokotronis can correct me, but both Orthodox and Catholic believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. What we don’t believe in is the necessity of reading the account of creation as pointing to 6 x 24 hour creation, man made of literal mud, etc.”
Precisely...we don’t believe that bats are birds either and in fact there is absolutely no need that we do.
Okay. But that isn’t what you were saying before. You implied that if we do not completely give away all of our riches as the young “righteous” man was told to do that we would have a similar fate. Besides, I don’t think Jesus meant the guy was going to hell, just making the point that the man wasn’t as righteous as he claimed.
What other point do you think was being made by this verse?
I might have to read your post later since I’m going to sign off for the night - just got on here to see what was goin’ on.
Happy 4th and God bless you and yours for a safe holiday.
No law is made there to give all the stuff away, but one should be ready to do so, and actually do it when charity commands it, cheerfully.
Happy Independence Day. God Bless.
I rest my case.
I was not going to comment on your utterly predictable response without comment until I came upon this childish and smarmy little slur on the Holy Torah, based evidently on the classification of the "`atallef along with birds in Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 11:19).
You know, for a sophisticated intellectual you are remarkably naive. The word "bird" appears nowhere in the Torah (neither does "bat" for that matter) because the Torah is not in English. The animals listed in the verse specified are called by the Torah `of (`ayin-vav-peh), not "birds" (the Hebrew for which is tzipporah). `Of is a verbal root meaning "to fly;" as a matter of fact the very next two verses refer to locusts as sheretz ha`of ("creeping things among flying things"). So I suppose you're saying that you are not required to believe that bats fly. Bully for you. I am unaware that the Torah claims that bats have feathers.
So you have stumbled badly in your claim that the Torah says that bats are birds and therefore its facticity need not be accepted. But I wonder . . . do you have this same skeptical attitude with your "new testament?" Do you believe in all those miracles, each of which were a scientific impossibility? On what grounds do you subject the Holy Torah to scientific critique if you become "as little children" before the supernaturalistic claims of the "new testament?" It is really a form of theological anti-Semitism, of course, though I know you will deny this.
Once again you (as annalex accused me of doing) confuse inerrancy with sola scriptura and make evolution and higher criticism a mark of Catholicism/Orthodoxy on the assumption that anyone who rejects both simply must be a Protestant of some kind. I know that the Orthodox are fond of repeating the mantra "chr*stianity is not an ideology that can be deduced from a text," as if I ever said that it was. They seem to confuse "adducing an ideology" from the Bible from the mere acceptance that everything that it asserted happened did in fact happen.
Finally, I can only wonder at your confidence and surety when you and your fellows say that "we" (implying all Catholics and Orthodox) believe or reject so-and-so. So you're saying that every single solitary illiterate peasant on Crete or in Guatemala is an evolutionist and higher critic? Is this really what you are saying? Because words mean things, and you never say that "some" Catholics/Orthodox or "most" Catholic/Orthodox or even "the vast majority" of Catholic/Orthodox believe or reject so-and-so. You are absolutely sure you have the authority and read every single solitary creationist or rejecter of "higher criticism" out of your churches as "closet Protestants" or at least as possessors of an "adulterated" Catholicism/Orthodoxy. Perhaps ever such "adulterated" Catholic or Orthodox should either automatically repent and accept evolution or else join some heretical creationist sect more suited to people whose intellects are not as vast as those of Catholics and Orthodox.
“So you’re saying that every single solitary illiterate peasant on Crete or in Guatemala is an evolutionist and higher critic? Is this really what you are saying? Because words mean things, and you never say that “some” Catholics/Orthodox or “most” Catholic/Orthodox or even “the vast majority” of Catholic/Orthodox believe or reject so-and-so. You are absolutely sure you have the authority and read every single solitary creationist or rejecter of “higher criticism” out of your churches as “closet Protestants” or at least as possessors of an “adulterated” Catholicism/Orthodoxy.”
BTW, I couldn’t care less what the Torah says. The OT of The Church is the Septuagint and that, ZC, was written in Greek.