Good Without — and Without — God

These are the comments Stacy made while on a panel discussion with Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard.

I am a Christian.  I love Jesus.  He is, as they say, my Lord and Savior.  However, I don’t know what I’d do without the atheists in my life. At my last call, in a smallish city, my two non-church friends, an atheist and a Wiccan, kept me sane and gave me a sense of perspective. Even more, my sister-in-law, Shana, who, like Greg,  is Jewish by heritage and atheist by choice, is one of the most grounded, ethical, loving and sane people I know. When we brought my mother home to die, Shana kept us going, doing all that was required to keep my mother comfortable in that horrible and holy time. So it sort of surprises me that there’s a need for a book that explains that one could be good without God (although I know better).

Being an atheist requires a certain kind of courage, a courage that I admire. It is a daunting thing to say that I – and not some divine being – am responsible for my choices, my ethics, my values. John Haught wrote an article that came out in the Christian Century earlier this year on the Dawkins / Hitchins / Harris type of atheism and, while I didn’t buy the entire thrust of his argument, this stuck in my head:

. . . You will have to . . . realize that true freedom in the absence of God means that you are the creator of the values you live by. . . . [T]his will be an intolerable burden from which most people will seek an escape[.] Are you ready to allow simple logic to lead you to the real truth about the death of God? Before settling into a truly atheistic worldview you will have to experience the Nietzschean madman’s sensation of straying through “infinite nothingness.” You will be required to summon up an unprecedented degree of courage . . . *

If one takes this commitment seriously, it seems to me that it is as profound, challenging and life-altering a process as any other spiritual journey. And to do it in community, as I understand Greg to be proposing, is not only enriching, but essential.

Being a theist requires a different kind of courage, not opposed to that of nontheists, simply different. In my tradition, we’ve been reading from the book of Job over the past couple of weeks. It is a disturbing and frustrating book, telling the story of a God who inflicts suffering on an innocent to prove a point (and to make himself look good). In the end, the only answer is, essentially, “I am God and you’re not.” Job, who all along has maintained his innocence, receives his stuff back (although any parent would take issue with the idea that children can be replaced) and is essentially scolded (although not blamed) by God. Now, in the wrestling with this text I’ve done over the past two weeks, I’ve come to have a sense that there is a deep – and perhaps helpful – truth in this strange bit of Scripture, but that’s a story for another day.

The fact is, that those of us who claim, not only that there is a God, but that the existence of that God matters in our lives, must step out each day knowing that the world is a very unsafe place and that innocents suffer scandalously and pointlessly. We even have a word for it – theodicy – and the answer to the question—if God is love, if God matters, if God is good, then why do the innocent suffer? – is at best that it is a mystery.  If we are paying attention, we step out every day, not into the wide open, challenging and terrifying space that I imagine atheists inhabit, one which requires building something completely on our own. Instead people like me who love and attend to a personal God, go each day into a world-wide and life-long game of hide-and-seek, in which our Beloved sometimes appears to us as radiant and overwhelming as anyone could wish – in the natural world, in the face of a friend or enemy, in the quiet of the soul, in triumphs of justice and acts of mercy, in art or music – but often masked or hiding – frightening, confusing, maddening, contrary, absent.

But in the end, I can’t be who I am without that search for my Beloved. I have my doubts, but I have the need, like Jacob, perhaps, to wrestle with this presence, this force, this awareness, this foundation, this frustration, this strength, this irritation, this voice.

Religion – or not – is the story we tell ourselves about who we are and what we mean.  Some of us populate that story with certain kinds of supernatural characters and events, others will not.  Ultimately, it is about engaging the world with integrity, a satisfying and terrifying process, but one which both atheist and theist alike can embrace.

*John F. Haught, “Amateur atheistsWhy the new atheism isn’t serious,” The Christian Century, February 26, 2009.

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