On today’s Tuesday Tea-ology, the subject of atheism.
…a postscript to my ruminations a few days ago on the celebrities singing John Lennon’s “Imagine”, and the song’s message of despair.
In that earlier post, I noted in passing the hypocrisy of super-wealthy celebrities singing a song that contains the line “imagine no possessions”. Upon further reflection, I think that dissonance reflects one of the basic fallacies of the song and its misunderstanding of naturalistic, materialistic ideology.
For the song suggests that embracing a naturalistic and materialistic ideology—rejecting religion, with its metaphysical notions of heaven and hell, of transcendent morality and judgment and eternal hope—thus “living for today”, will help us break down the barriers and “live as one”. This is, ostensibly, the future that those promoting this ideology dream of.
Now, let us assume that the celebrities singing this song hold to such a naturalistic and materialistic ideology—they are atheists, who believe that this world is all we get, and intend to live for today. This may not be true; I’m not very knowledgeable about celebrity news, and for all I know Gal Gadot et al may claim to believe in God; but the public testimony of this song is that they don’t, so let us suppose that to be the case. Ostensibly, they are “living for today”, they dream this dream.
But they are not sharing their possessions. Oh, I don’t doubt they give to charitable causes; but they keep vast amounts of personal wealth for themselves. They make no effort to “live as one” with the people of the world. Apparently “a brotherhood of man” is not their dream, after all?
Why should it be? This is not a simple matter of hypocrisy—singing the song is, but living a lavish lifestyle isn’t. Naturalistic materialism provides no moral impetus. “Living for today” is perfectly consistent with living selfishly. Transcendent morality and eschatological hope, on the other hand provide a profound foundation for charity.
Of course, many Christians fail to live out the faith, sometimes infamously; because our sanctification is incomplete, we are all hypocrites to a greater or lesser extent. Still, we should see clearly, and here is the key difference: selfishness and greed are hypocrisy in Christians, but are perfectly consistent with an atheistic worldview.
Therefore, if in fact selfishness and greed are bad, then atheism is wrong. If there is good, there must be God.
Blaise Pascal, in his uncompleted notes known as the Pensees (“Thoughts”), mulled over the relationship of reason to our understanding of truth.
“Submission and use of reason; that is what makes true Christianity” (83).
There is such a thing as a reasoned faith. And, despite protests that some atheists might make, that is what the Christian tradition offers.
Faith does not jettison reason. The truth that is communicated to us by revelation is sensible and usually comprehensible–if sometimes, especially in the doctrine of God, it may only be understood analogically. To believe is not the opposite of to think.
But reason does not eliminate the need for faith. There are truths beyond any real human comprehension, which can only be grasped by faith and understood by analogy. There are mysteries to reality. And reason itself supports the idea that this great cosmos, let alone its Maker, should be beyond the scope of our intellects.
“If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural. If we offend the principles of reason our religion will be absurd and ridiculous” (83).
The truth is neither mundane nor absurd. These are the extremes to which people are pushed when they reject the truth. Atheism is mundane to the point of utter nihilism. Paganism is absurd. But the reasoned faith of Christianity is both intelligible and supernaturally significant.
Yet there are reasons for the escape into rationalism or irrationality. The reasoned faith of Christianity shines the harsh light of conviction onto our lives of darkness; it confronts us with the high drama of reality when we would rather be befuddled by entertaining triviality; it summons us to take up our cross. In short, the road of faithful reason calls for courage.
But the reward is infinite bliss.
Quotes from Pascal’s Pensees taken from the Penguin Classics edition (London & New York: Penguin, 1966), translated A.J. Krailsheimer.
While all of us who minister do so only by the grace of God, and I am keenly aware of my unworthiness for this high and holy calling, I think some of the minimal qualifications of pastoral ministry are rather intuitive–such as believing in God.
The United Church of Canada has decided, apparently, that theism is not strictly necessary for pastors. No doubt it is still desirable in the eyes of that denomination’s discerning leadership that their pastors believe in God; but it is not a deal-breaker. That is the inescapable message of the news that the denomination has decided Rev. Gretta Vosper, an avowed atheist, will continue to pastor West Hill United Church, in Toronto.
The article linked above, from the liberal Religion News Service, is enlightening. It begins, “Gretta Vosper is surprised to still be a minister.” I’d imagine quite a lot of people share her surprise. It’s a rather puzzling thing, until you follow the (il)logic.
How does the United Church of Canada justify this decision? Why would a Christian denomination allow an atheist to shepherd a church? The key is inclusivity. The denominational leaders found themselves wrestling with the tension between two of their “core values”: “our faith in God” and “our commitment to being an open and inclusive church.”
So, by “inclusive” they mean not simply that they welcome different groups of people, but that they welcome people with a variety of doctrines (or lack thereof) into the clergy. Aha. That would create a conflict with your cherished belief in the existence of God. The leaders of the United Church of Canada have found themselves in the embarrassing situation of wanting to affirm x and not-x at the same time. I suppose the implication of their solution is that they will accept either x or not-x (please choose one); which is to say that the United Church of Canada believes nothing at all, or at least not with any real conviction.
How does a denomination get to such a pitiful place? Quite obviously they have let themselves be swept along by the winds of western cultural trends and ideologies; the zeitgeist, rather than the Holy Ghost, has been filling their sails. But it’s more specific than that.
The atheist pastor herself offers what may be the key. In this she does a valuable service to orthodox Christianity, if we will heed it. From the article:
Vosper was willing to go through with the hearing even if the ruling went against her. She said she is fit for ministry in the church.
She said she believes what she was taught in seminary.
“Everything I teach is consistent with the theological training I received,” the 60-year-old said. “I was taught the Bible was a human construction, and there is much wisdom in many texts, both ancient and contemporary.”
During her studies, Vosper said she learned that the Bible isn’t the only source of spiritual or moral authority.
“If the Bible is not the authoritative word of God for all time,” she says, “why does it take such a central position in the United Church?”
Well, I think she has put her finger right on the problem. The rot took hold of their seminaries, particularly a rotten doctrine of Scripture, a loss of the orthodox doctrine that the Bible is uniquely inspired, completely true, and utterly authoritative. Her seminary professors passed down to her a faith uprooted and blighted, and at whatever point in her journey it followed the logical course and became no faith at all.
But Vosper can perhaps take some comfort that the Bible does not enjoy nearly so central a place in the United Church as she feared. If that were the case, they might have put more weight on the fact that the Bible starts with the words, “In the beginning, God…” (Gen. 1:1).
We have here a wake-up call for faithful Christians in the United Church of Canada–it might be time for an exit plan; a cautionary tale for the orthodox–guard your institutions, because what’s taught in seminary doesn’t stay in seminary; a warning for theological moderates who want to see more doctrinal inclusivity in your denominations–you might find yourselves inclusive’d all the way to atheism.
The good news is that this disease is easily preventable. There’s a ready antidote to this poison. There’s an extremely popular book that could be studied in seminaries to promote deep and widespread theism among the ministerial students. “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17, NASB).