Thursday, 16 September 2010

Tomáš Halík: atheism and patience

The T&T Clark blog mentions that Czech theologian Tomáš Halík has been awarded the prestigious Romano Guardini Prize. Halík is a Catholic thinker steeped in Nietzsche; he sees modernity's criticism of Christianity as an indispensable resource, and as the context within which contemporary faith has to be articulated.

As you will have noticed, there is currently a whole industry of books responding to Dawkins and the new atheists – including some real gems (e.g. Terry Eagleton, David Bentley Hart), but also much that is merely boring and reactionary. I was stunned to discover that even Marilynne Robinson's book, in spite of all the rave reviews (and in spite of my huge admiration for everything else she has written), was dull and uninspired. (Actually, it raises another question: why did Robinson feel the need to write this book, when her novel Gilead had already proved the existence of God?)

In contrast, I think Tomáš Halík has produced one of the best and most beautiful responses to the new atheism, in his recent book Patience with God (Doubleday 2009). His argument is that the real difference between faith and atheism is patience. Atheists are not wrong, only impatient. They want to resolve doubt instead of enduring it. Their insistence that the natural world doesn't point to God (or to any necessary meaning) is correct. Their experience of God's absence is a truthful experience, shared also by believers. Faith is not a denial of all this: it is a patient endurance of the ambiguity of the world and the experience of God's absence. Faith is patience with God. Or as Adel Bestavros puts it (in the book's epigraph): patience with others is love, patience with self is hope, patience with God is faith.

In contrast to the overblown rhetoric of so many Christian apologists – with their drastic naivety about the ambivalence of the natural world and the intractable difficulties of believing – Halík's account strikes me as a sensitive and realistic articulation of the difference faith makes. The best thing about his book – again, in contrast to the usual apologetics – is that it's actually a Christian response to atheism. Surely anything a Christian says to an atheist ought to arise not from an invincible commitment to being right, but from an understanding of the kindness of God, an awareness that there is room in God's family even for those who doubt – those for whom the word "God" cannot easily be deciphered from the dark hieroglyphics of the world.

36 Comments:

Robert Minto said...

Good post and I'm intrigued to discover Halik for myself: But. Can I just say, w/r/t Marilynne Robinson's book, that it's not really ultimately about proving the existence of God---rather Dawkins & Co. are used as examples of a larger and different phenomenon---and that phenomenon isn't atheism, per se.

jonathan said...

Having just come from an engaging conversation with a self-proclaimed atheist, I'm immediately drawn to Halik's articulation of faith. I'll often defer to Kierkegaard and Derrida for this sort of emphasis on patience (or "undecidability"). Not only is this a very Christian way of putting it; (as you've mentioned) it's also very accommodating to those without a theological background, even those who are simply interested in why a someone would commit themselves to a life in Christ.

The Charismanglican said...

What a great review. I'm adding it to my list of "books to read" right now.

Jason Goroncy said...

Thanks for drawing attention to Halík's book Ben. I read it when it first appeared. I wish I remembered to use it recently when I was doing some teaching on issues of 'theodicy'. Perhaps next time. It's certainly a much more satisfying treatment on the subject than is DB Hart's The Doors of the Sea which was most disappointing.

bruce hamill said...

The real D B Hart response to the New Atheists is not The Doors of the Sea but The Atheist Delusion.

kim fabricius said...

Yes, the choice drug of atheists is speed.

Bob Covolo said...

I think Jason's contrast between DBH's apologetic and Halik's is well taken...especially given the Atheist Delusion's fighting (dare I say condescending) spirit. While the Atheist Delusion left me laughing and feeling triumphant (with too many great quotes to count), I couldn't imagine it as something I would actually give as a vehicle to faith.

Adrian Woods said...

"when her novel Gilead had already proved the existence of God" Presumably you are using 'proved' here in some rhetorically metaphorical way, correct?

"Faith is not a denial of all this: it is a patient endurance of the ambiguity of the world and the experience of God's absence." I think this is well said. As long as, at some point we move past the experience of God's absence. As in the following sentence which seems to suggest emphatically that God is not completely absent.

"but from an understanding of the kindness of God" Oddly enough, David Hart, in his book on Atheism, does not strike me as one who is cultivating this kind of kindness.

rootedradical said...

@Jason Goroncy - out of curiosity, what did you find disappointing about "Doors of the Sea"?

Scott F said...

If he is not careful, Halik is going to give Christians some sort of reputation!

Jason Goroncy said...

Of course, and that book, dear Bruce, is wonderful.

Donald said...

This is interesting theology (and phenomenology), and from a Catholic! I think that the reference to ambiguity, and by inference to an existential outlook may well be a crucial aspect of Halik's project. Patience also can refer to our capacity to be open to existential issues/questions that may never be resolved to a (presumedly analytic) philosopher's satisfaction, and, also, to a long view of culture, history, and the vagaries of human self-awareness. There are first-rate philosophers who will say "I am not a Naturalist", and who worship God. Halik appears to be offering both a historical and experiential context for their position.
DWLindeman

inchrist-emerson said...

Both atheists and Christians share the same experience?

Christians 'experience' the absence of God.

Atheists experience NO God.

The cleavage between those two experiences is actually an infinite gulf.

Student said...

It's impossible for me to know if another person or group of people does or doesn't "experience" God. For more, read "The Varieties of Religious Experience" by Wm. James.

I say atheists DO experience God; for He's everywhere, in DNA, electrons, nature, electricity, books, universe, weather, art, music, thinking feeling....cosmic glue, quantum forces, spirit. Yes, atheists have spirit too, are spiritual beings, as are we all.

Joe Haward said...

Fascinating comments following this post.
My twin brother is an atheist whereas I am a Christian. I've found that sharing with him about how God meets with us through his creation is helping him see God in new ways.
Pop over to my blog and see.
www.evangelistchanging.blogspot.com

Ben said...

"Faith is patience with God."

awesome. awesome. awesome.

inchrist-emerson said...

Ughhh, I never thought I'd encounter such explicit natural theology at F&T. This is pure pietism.

Mr. Halik's inadvertent degradation of the Word of God to a common, neutralized "experience" does no justice to the intrinsic nature of atheism, nor does it do justice to the Christian faith (which is finally all a theologian should be concerned about).

Gorazd Andrejč said...

I know Halik through Cambridge Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations, and until recently I haven't really seen the value of his religious phenomenology and theology to the wider debate on faith and culture.

What you wrote here about patience in the face of God's existence and "goodness of doubt" reminds me very much of Tillich. I also have Halik's Patience with God on my reading list as a result of your review.

Student said...

Theology isn't only for the "Christian faith." And devout so-called vegans and vegetarians eat meat and dairy products that are mixed in with their cheese, bread, noodles all day long, whether they intend to or not. It's difficult to be a pure vegetarian, or pious atheist.

As for "Patience with God" what a grand idea! For some reason I won't analyze just yet, reminds me of "if you see Buddha on the road kill him."

jridenour said...

I find this whole idea that believers have patience and atheists don't to be naive. Although I can appreciate the refusal to engage in outright polemics, I can't help but wonder if this is another underhanded apologetic move.

In this analysis, believers are patient, complex, and mature people who can hold out hope in the face of suffering. Whereas atheists are simple-minded, impatient, immature people who lack the strength to stay patient with God . Atheists are black and white thinkers who can't live with doubt. What if atheists have in fact been patient with God and come out of the experience not believing? If the difference between believers and atheists is merely patience isn't it being assumed that if one endures through the doubt then faith surely result? What about the person who holds out hope in midst of doubt and never comes to have faith? That would seem to suggest that one no longer can have this idea of "patience" to help distinguish between believers and atheists.

I just think this is another attempt for believers to congratulate themselves for being more patient and able to tolerate ambiguity as opposed to the simplistic, impatient atheist.

Highanddry said...

I'm sympathetic to jridenour's position. There is something about Halik's 'patience' that smacks of condescension, but I can't quite place it.

I don't know a single atheist who would not feel a little heat rising under their collar at the suggestion that their atheistic conclusions where merely the product of impatience.

While I do feel like I live in doubt as a faithful man, there are many Christians (at least) who proclaim wholeheartedly that faith is certainty not doubt. Certainty in things not seen yes, but not certainty in things doubted. The notion would be anathema to many.

What Halik seems to be suggesting is a more nuanced understanding of faith that takes doubt seriously. I am reminded of Thomas Merton:

"Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt. On the contrary, the deep, inexpressible certitude of the contemplative experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many questions in the depths of the heart like wounds that cannot stop bleeding. For every gain in deep certitude there is a corresponding growth of superficial ‘doubt.’ This doubt is by no means opposed to genuine faith, but it mercilessly examines and questions the spurious ‘faith’ of everyday life, the human faith which is nothing but the passive acceptance of conventional opinion."

I know many scientist who would say the same is true of scientific inquiry as it seeks to uncover the truth behind our assumptions.

Anonymous said...

Are there any other of Halik's works available in English?

kevshaw said...

Why should impatience be construed as negative? 'Patience' is just a way of putting things, it doesn't carry that much freight on its own either way.

The faithful should be patient with God, not complacent, and that means they need some amount of impatience, too. See the psalm: O you my help, come quickly to my aid.

Perhaps for some atheists the experience of God's absence is sharper than for some Christians. They've had to bear with more, thus they are in practice more patient. More faithful.

The kind of atheist I admire is the one who denies God's presence. I can't see the merit in an atheism that denies both God's presence and God's absence, i.e. it's not a problem either way. When atheism wrestles with the question of God and the 'death of God' sincerely, it is faithful along the lines of Bonhoeffer's non-religious Christianity.

Just some thoughts.

dbarber said...

Echoing (i think) jridenour and kevshaw: there is a real question here about the relation between the temporal and the ontological. To construe patience as the proper practice of the believer is to deny the excess of temporality (over being) that is at least one tendency of patience. Perhaps patience involves the divestment of any ability to believe that the being upon which one waits is there. Perhaps the patient must suffer the loss of ontological security, and thus lose the very ability to set her/himself at odds with the atheist. In other words, one could imagine the insistence that God exists as a kind of impatience, an unwillingness to wait into a time that would extend beyond the time of presence.

drspainhour said...

You're right: a Christian response to atheism is seemingly absent in contemporary apologetics, especially by those who treat the Bible as a textbook of cosmology, biology, and history (in the modern sense of the word).

I'll look forward to reading this book. It will be nice to get a non-Western Christian perspective on faith and atheism. Thanks for the post.

Chris said...

Tom Frame's "Losing My Religion" is an excellent addition to this kind of reflection.

pk said...

never heard of him but sounds like an interesting guy...
his theme of patience is also there in barth, with his eschatological realism...
isn't that really 'the' theological problem? waiting for the coming Lord?
pk

Chris said...

"My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"...hmmmm....

kim fabricius said...

Pk, on your point, Nigel Biggar has a book on Barth's ethics with the distinctive title The Hastening That Waits (1993).

Anonymous said...

"In contrast to the overblown rhetoric of so many Christian apologists – with their drastic naivety about the ambivalence of the natural world and the intractable difficulties of believing"

You mean, like, Thomas Aquinas? Or Saint Paul? You know, Romans 1:20 and all. Drastic naivety? You'll be telling us you don't believe in Miracles next.

Anonymous said...

"I'll look forward to reading this book. It will be nice to get a non-Western Christian perspective on faith and atheism. Thanks for the post."

drspainhour, I hate to have to tell you this but the Czech Republic is in the West, and Monsignor Halik is a member of the Roman Catholic church's Pontifical Council for Dialogue with Non-Believers. Maybe we could get Kim Fabricius to read him?

Andrew said...

my feeling for a while now has been that Christians undersell the doctrine of the fall - this IS the world without God. Unless there's a resurrection. We waste energy trying to believe God is involved in ways he's deprecated in favour of his followers.

cejsk said...

I am Halik's student from Prague and I am very delighted that I discovered great review on one of the best book which he has written. It is pity that there is not english translation of his sermons. He is great preacher. Each sunday hundreds students (christians as well as atheists) are coming to listen his preaching.

If you would like to read some shorter english text by Halik, there is link: http://www.halik.cz/ja/essays.php

I do not agree with Halik many times (I have read all his books, I have done seminars and exams with him) but he is great thinker and really good interpret of the phenomenon of atheism.

Crtopher said...

I haven't read the book but if you are correct that the summary of his argument is that "atheist are not wrong, only impatient...they want to resolve doubt instead of enduring it" then I'm unlikely to.

I would say in fact it is believers who want doubt resolved, and they do this by having faith that god is the answer to the unexplained and unexplainable phenomona they experience. The atheist rather would simply admit, whilst waiting patiently, that the answers are unavailable. Nothing is added to the process of finding those answers by making stuff up.

If faith is "a patient endurance of the ambiguity of the world and the experience of God's absence" then it really is only hope or wishful thinking. If faith is just about enduring a lack of answers until the answers become apparent (presumably at which point faith is no longer needed) or you die, then it is simply sensible reservation of judgement. What need then to invent god while you're waiting around?

Highanddry said...

Interestingly, I asked a young atheist here at the university I minister in what he thought about the idea of atheistic 'impatience'. His response was telling. He said that the whole idea of patience is of the wrong category for it to have any meaning for him. He doesn't experience his search for understanding as impatience and the suggestion didn't draw his ire merely his ambivalence.

I wonder whether this is indicative. Is the whole notion of patience/impatience predicated on our relationship with God? If the world is simply there for our discovery, is it fair or appropriate to talk about patience at all?

I have been reading Halik's essays and he has a lot of very good things to say but I'm not sure 'atheism as impatience' is as helpful as it first appears.

Dexter Da Dog said...

"Atheists are not wrong, only impatient"... impatient for what? We all endure doubt whether we believe in god or not. Adopting a faith based answer in my opinion is just as "impatient" as seeking answers through science... in fact it's even MORE impatient because to me it demonstrates laziness as well; laziness by adopting a quick answer without taking the time or effort to seek and understand the vast amount of evolutionary evidence that already exists.

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