by Stephen Bullivant
Filed under Atheism, Jesus
In the Bible, Psalms 14 and 53 both open with the statement: “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’” Whatever this may tell us about unbelief in ancient Hebrew society, today it is not only, or predominantly, fools who are saying this. And they do not restrict their utterances to their hearts alone.
Especially in the United States and Europe—the historic heart of “Christendom”—there are large (and growing) numbers of intelligent, educated, reasonable people who reject Christianity and the God it proclaims. Many of these find Christian belief to be literally incredible—not just false, but ridiculously and grotesquely so. Some of these are high-profile public figures: scientists, philosophers, journalists, novelists, politicians, bloggers, and stand-up comedians. But most of them are just normal folks. They are colleagues, friends, relatives, and even, at least sometimes, a little bit of ourselves. Crucially, we ought not to forget that, particularly in the United States, these non-fools have likely been (and will ever remain) sealed by baptism; the Catholics among them will have been catechized, confirmed, and given first Communion as “true witnesses of Christ,” as the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” describes them (LG, 11).
These hard facts, especially when combined with rising levels of those “non-affiliated” with religion (most of whom are not, or at least not yet, actual atheists), present the Church with even harder questions. For the most part, despite the Second Vatican Council’s prescient observation in the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”—“atheism may be numbered among the most serious matters of our time and merits more careful attention”—they are questions we have scarcely begun to formulate, let alone answer. Doing so is one of the most urgent tasks that Catholics face today.
Of course, there are myriad reasons (philosophical, psychological, social, cultural, moral) why a person might become skeptical toward the truth-claims of Christianity. Here I'll focus on just one. Somewhat perversely, this is a fundamental feature of the Christian message, yet one that atheists often grasp more intuitively than we do. Basically, the non-fools have realized something essential that we Catholics have been trying to forget.
Let’s face it: The God of Christianity is an extraordinarily odd kind of being (if one can call God a kind of “being” at all). And the followers of this God subscribe to—or say they do—a list of seemingly ludicrous claims.
It is one thing to affirm a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving, who created and sustains “all things visible and invisible.” That is in itself a fairly striking and radical claim—in its time, one that was revolutionary in human history and that the infant Christianity imbibed at the breast of Judaism. Yet it is quite another thing to claim that this God—or worse, one of three persons of this one God—took flesh, resulting in someone both fully God and fully human.
Consider, for example, Christianity’s most instantly recognizable (and thereby most easily ignorable) symbols: the baby Jesus and the crucifix. The first symbol proclaims that this God-man spent a significant amount of time doing things like suffering from colic and cradle cap, screaming in the night for no discernible reason, and weeing incontinently over his sleep-deprived (human) parents. Tears, tantrums and teething are thus the works of the one true God, just as surely as are “the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them” (Acts 4:24).
The second symbol affirms that the God-man was tortured and murdered, subjected not even to some grandiosely superlative mode of suffering and death, as might befit a king, but to the tawdrily mundane form of execution to which the Roman Empire treated countless slaves, pirates and enemies of the state (a fact that in itself raises an interesting question about the kind of God we are dealing with).
It is perhaps fair to say that most believers do not quite realize the outrageous character of these most basic and taken-for-granted hallmarks of Christianity. (Is there not something at least a little strange about hanging around one’s neck a miniature corpse nailed to a tiny cross?) Irrespective of whether they are true or not, these are surely among the wildest and most monstrous claims ever proposed in human history. And if they are true, then they are, or ought to be, the most profound and world-inverting facts about life and the universe. Yet somehow, in the course of nearly 2,000 years, these claims have become so familiar, so tamed and domesticated, as to seem hardly worthy of comment, let alone wonder or puzzlement, among the great majority of those who profess them.
Foolishness to the Gentiles
Such was not, however, the case for those to whom the good news of Jesus Christ was first proposed. As Paul famously put it: “We proclaim Christ and him crucified, a stumbling-block to the Jews and foolishness to the gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23). For the Jews, of course, the claim that the Messiah had come but had been crucified was blasphemously scandalous (skandalon being the Greek word for “stumbling-block”). And they were, it should be said, impeccably non-foolish in thinking so: No one was expecting a crucified-and-raised Messiah (hence, for example, Peter’s “satanic” rebuke to Jesus in Matthew 16:22 and the disappointment of those trudging along the road to Emmaus concerning him whom they “had hoped...would be the one to redeem Israel” in Luke 24).
For the gentiles, meanwhile—the non-Jews—the entire proclamation was manifest folly. The very idea that the king of the Jews—indeed, of the whole world—would hail not merely from a backwater of the Empire (Judea), but from a backwater of that backwater (Galilee), would arrive on donkeyback leading a motley assemblage of peasants and fishermen, and would be arrested and crucified as a common criminal before miraculously coming back to life a few days later as the savior of the universe—surely these were the ravings, as the pagan philosopher Celsus put it, of “women, slaves, and little children.”
But for those who have been brought up with this narrative and with the idea of a God who was truly a human being—however imperfectly or infrequently expressed or reflected upon—it is very hard indeed to be genuinely confronted with the Christian proclamation in all of its (apparently) scandalous foolishness. Whether one believes it all or not, it is very easy to nod along half-heartedly (a diaper-clad creator? Fine; a god who gets murdered? Sure; a carpenter who saves the universe? Whatever) as though these are the most boringly obvious facts one has ever heard. And it has to be said that all too often Christian preaching and apologetics simply reinforce this view.
By presenting “Christ and him crucified” as something platitudinous and uncontroversial—something to which all right-minded, non-obtuse people should naturally and non-problematically assent—we risk conditioning not just others, but ourselves, against ever taking this outlandish proposition truly seriously. It is an unusual person who would turn his or her life around for the sake of something platitudinous or commonsensical. And yet it is precisely such a turnaround (metanoia), or repentance, that Jesus thinks is required in order to “believe in the good news” (Mk 1:15).
In The Crucified God, Jürgen Moltmann remarks that the true import of Good Friday:
“is often better recognized by non-Christians and atheists than by religious Christians, because it astonishes and offends them. They see the profane horror and godlessness of the Cross because they do not believe the religious interpretations which have given a meaning to the senselessness of this death.”
In this light, consider these remarks taken from two of the New Atheists, that no doubt reflect the views of a wider group of non-fools. Richard Dawkins writes in The God Delusion:
“I have described the atonement...as vicious, sado-masochistic and repellent. We should also dismiss it as barking mad, but for its ubiquitous familiarity which has dulled our objectivity.”
And Sam Harris, in Letter to a Christian Nation, writes:
“Christianity amounts to the claim that we must love and be loved by a God who approves of the scapegoating, torture, and murder of one man—his son, incidentally—in compensation for the misbehavior and thought-crimes of all others.”
Now, as fair descriptions of the theology of the cross, these statements leave much to be desired. But as impressionist reflections on the kind of thing that the crucifixion is—a monstrous affront to, and interruption of, the normal workings of the world (“God’s foolishness,” as Paul puts it)—they are arguably onto something vital to which Christians have inured themselves. While wonderment and incredulity are not quite the same thing, an unbeliever may yet hear strains overlooked by those with ears grown “dull of hearing” (Mt 13:15).
Re-encountering the Gospel
Dawkins is correct that the problem lies with “ubiquitous familiarity”—not because it undermines our objectivity but rather because it limits our capacity to be shocked and astonished, and thus excited and challenged. It is one thing to believe that Christianity is true. It is quite another to feel amazement that it not only is true, but even could be so, and to (re)build one’s life around it. Many Catholics seem to focus on convincing people only of the former. Perhaps that is one reason why so many Catholics, having been raised and educated in the faith, are so easily able to drift away from it (often without really noticing they are doing so).
But for the growing number of people brought up outside of Christianity, or who have already drifted sufficiently far from it, the possibilities of encountering the Gospel in all its mind-bending splendor are more promising. A context in which the Christian Gospel can be received as scandalous foolery is, as the early church amply demonstrates, equally one in which it can be greeted with surprise as “all that is good and right and true” (Eph 5:9). Viewed in this light, Scripture’s cryptic preference for being hot or cold, as opposed to lukewarm, makes much more sense (Rv 3:15-16).
Naturally, in emphasizing the radical, paradoxical nature of the Christian proclamation, there is a danger of retreating into fideistic obscurity. This, too, is gravely to be avoided: Augustine and Aquinas both caution against (unnecessarily) giving rise to irrisio infidelium, or “the mockery of unbelievers.” My point is not that Christianity is actually foolish, or false or ridiculous—on the contrary! But rather that like so many profoundly true things, it should probably strike us as such on a first and cursory hearing. Compare, for example, the wonders of the universe revealed to us by modern physics: that everything in the universe was once packed into an infinitesimally small space; that the vast majority of a solid object is actually empty space; that there are perhaps a hundred billion galaxies in the universe, each with maybe a hundred billion solar systems and so forth. Popular science writers are adept at carefully explaining how and why all these things are true and the solid reasons we have for believing them. But they also revel in the scandalously foolish appearance of these claims, knowing full well that this is what excites and enthralls their readers.
The earliest Christians were no strangers to such strategies. The second-century apologist St. Melito of Sardis speaks of Christ as “treading upon the earth, yet filling heaven...standing before Pilate, and at the same time sitting with his Father; he was nailed upon the tree, and yet was the Lord of all things.” And as Augustine famously wrote in one of his Christmas homilies: “The maker of man was made man, that the ruler of the stars might suck at the breast; the fountain, thirst...strength, be made weak; health, be wounded; life, die.”
“A stumbling-block to the Jews and foolishness to the gentiles” this may be, but better that than a platitude to the “non-affiliated” and boredom to the baptized.
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