Saturday 3 June 2006

Thank God for atheists

Kim Fabricius thanks God for atheists—and, as usual, Kim is right on the money. A couple of years ago I saw a public debate between an atheist and a famous Christian apologist, and I found that at every point of the debate I identified myself wholly with the atheist.

The Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch has suggested that “only an atheist can be a good Christian”; and, in conversation with Bloch, Jürgen Moltmann once reversed this remark by saying: “Only a Christian can be a good atheist.” Moltmann was exactly right. As Christians, we should be atheists for the sake of the gospel, thoroughgoing atheists who say No to the God of “theism” precisely in order to say Yes to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.


byron smith said...

It was largely Nietzsche who helped me rediscover the God and Father of Jesus Christ. Let's keep chasing away the shadows of deist and theistic 'gods'.

byron smith said...

Hey Ben, which WLC debate did you see? Was it in Sydney in 2002? Town hall?

Chris Tilling said...

What a thought provoking post!
I know how you feel in regard to the debate you mentioned - I too truly identified with the athiest, which had me a tad worried. But put it as you and Kim do in your posts, and things sound more positive. I read something rececently in Moltmann along these lines. Something for me to take away and think about for the weekend!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ben, for the reference, and Byron and Chris for the comments.

I am currently finishing an outstanding piece of literary/cultural/theological criticism, Ralph C. Wood's Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South (2004).
O'Connor too had no time for intellectually dishonest and self-serving Christianity, or for vapid US civil religon - she refers to "the vaporization of religion in Ameica" (which she dates to Emerson's refusal to celebrate Communion in 1832). And O'Connor prefers hardcore Confederate fundamentalism to post-enlightenment liberalism anytime, because "it is easier to cool down zealots than to warm up corpses" (Hugh T. Kerr).

O,Connor equally despised what I would call "nominal atheism", the flipside of nominal Christianity -both lack passion and excess - but she admired serious and prinicpled atheists like Nietzsche and Camus - and the northern modernist H. L. Mencken.

You can see the narration of O'Connor's thought in a short story like "A Good Man Is Hard to Find", in the encounter between the ex-fundamenatlist Misfit and the cod-pious Grandmother whom he kills in cold blood. Wood comments: "If the Grandmother's final state is ambiguous, the Misfit's is not. He is a confessed nihilist who, unlike her, has wrestled hard with the God of the gospel. His unbelief is as thoughtful as her piety is unreflective." And when the Grandmother finally makes a genuine gesture to the Misfit, which he resists, prompting her murder, O'Connor later explained in a letter: "Grace is never received warmly. Always a recoil." That's exactly what your protest atheists see that thoughtless believers don't. They enter the sanctuary, get a real feel of the place, but finally find that they are unable to kneel.

By the way, the Catholic O'Connor was immensely theologically literate, well read not only in Roman theology, but in the likes of Buber, Tillich and Niebuhr. Thomas Aquinas, however, was her main man - she used to read him for twenty minutes every night before going to bed. But - the best for last! - O'Connor had tremendous esteem for Karl Barth. She heavily marked her edition of Evangelical Theology, the lectures Barth gave on his only visit to the States. She wrote: "I distrust folks who have ugly things to say about Karl Barth. I like old Barth. He throws the furniture around." Brilliant!

Ben Myers said...

Hi Byron -- yes, it was the Sydney 2002 debates. I wasn't actually there in person -- I just saw them on video (including the Town Hall debate). Were you there?

David W. Congdon said...

May I recommend again Jüngel's masterpiece, God as the Mystery of the World: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One in the Dispute Between Theism and Atheism? This is the only serious work of theology that develops an "atheistic Christianity" -- the death of the god of theism (Nietzsche) for the sake of the Crucified God in Jesus Christ.

Anonymous said...

Exquisite post, Ben!

Drew said...

at every point of the debate I identified myself wholly with the atheist.

Frequently agrees with my experience...

Is there something about the structure of such a debate that disables a proper Christian apologetic?

(I would suggest yes.)

What kind of debate would avoid such a disabling? A round table?

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