"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, December 17, 2007

Advent discipline: the right atheism

It has often been observed, in various words, that heresy is just truth distorted. If one is formed by the truth, one sees that things could hardly be otherwise. In fact, the same seems to go for the very process of being formed by the truth. Atheism is often just spiritual growth stuck at the death of the seed: having come to disbelieve in a God who does not exist, some atheists are too disappointed to hear and submit to the One who does. It's as if the Christmas spirit cannot pass through Good Friday to be reborn in the Easter. But if we do pass through and submit, we are formed into disciples who can persevere to the end. Advent is a good time to meditate on that theme, so that we may adopt a Christmas spirit that will live.

We are equipped for the meditation by the most welcome occasion of a post from the Pontificator, Fr. Al Kimel, entitled Disbelieving the Predestinarian God. As he indicates, one of the most common killers of faith and joy in the West has been the notion of absolute predestination: the notion that God "has eternally decreed, before prevision of irrevocable rejection of divine love and forgiveness, the eternal salvation of some and the eternal reprobation of the rest." In such a God, Fr. Kimel passionately disbelieves. Of course he is right to do so. Such a monstrous idol is not the God of the Gospels, of the "good news." To be atheistic about that "God" is a sign of spiritual health. And there are many other "Gods" whom atheists are right to disbelieve in. For example, there is the "God" who rewards "the saved" and punishes "the reprobate" just because the former have, on the whole, done a better job of obeying "the rules" than the latter. A lot of people who recoil from absolute predestinationism seem to believe in such a God—perhaps because he is not arbitrary like the predestinarian, but more closely matches our natural ideas about justice. But that God does not exist either. For "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God"; what saves us, if and when we are saved, is faith in the One whose offer of eternal life is in no way based on whatever puny merits we might think are our own. What is entailed by that kind of faith is made clear in both the Letter of James and the Letter to the Romans, which must be balanced in tension. Having encountered many atheistic arguments and reviewed my own journey of faith, I could multiply examples of a God not to believe in. The God who truly exists is subtler than any of the idols.

As we approach Christmas, it is especially important to be clear about the character of the real God, who is neither arbitrary nor bound by our conceptions of justice. Let us begin by quoting Fr. Kimel's quotation from Hans Urs von Balthasar:

Love alone is credible; nothing else can be believed, and nothing else ought to be believed. This is the achievement, the “work” of faith: to recognize this absolute prius, which nothing else can surpass; to believe that there is such a thing as love, absolute love, and that there is nothing higher or greater than it; to believe against all the evidence of experience (”credere contra fidem” like “sperare contra spem“), against every “rational” concept of God, which things of him in terms of impassibility or, at best, totally pure goodness, but not in terms of this inconceivable and senseless act of love.

Now that is much, much closer to the truth than the idols. The truth it gets at is to be embraced and celebrated more than any other truth: at the heart of reality is a great Love into which we, and with us all else, are destined to be drawn. The dance of such love is forever, world without end, Amen. Nonetheless, von Balthasar's words too can be used to fashion an idol: a God who, as Love itself, has nothing to do with reason. I have found it vital to stress that belief in such a Love is supra-rational, not irrational. It transcends reason without negating reason, and thus invites the well-intentioned atheist to reconsider. How?

There need be no dichotomy between "totally pure goodness" and the God who, according to the Apostle John, is Love. It is of course quite possible to think of such goodness as a sterile perfection sublimely indifferent to our failures, our sufferings, our despair of ever being quite "right." With respect to deity, that kind of goodness is Aristotle's Prime Mover: "self-thinking thought" that moves all else only as a model for imitation. As a depiction of God, the Prime Mover is only a sliver of the truth; to think of it simply as the truth is to fashion an idol. The Enlightenment deists posited a God like that, their main theological difference with Aristotle being over the precise nature of the remote causality such a deity was believed to exercise. Openly or covertly disappointed by life as it is, some intelligent people see no alternative to belief in such a God. They admit that the world's existence calls for and has an explanation beyond the world; but if they see real love at work in the world, it is only the sort for which there are (or could be) perfectly good natural, this-worldly explanations. They find no evidence that what accounts for the world's existence is a sublime and infinite Love which destines us to something radically beyond what evolution has bequeathed. They are closed to the miraculous: not only to the reality of individual miracles, but to the Great Miracle of the world's existence itself. Theirs is not the God of Christmas either. He too is an idol, about which atheism is justifiable if not altogether justified. Such is the god not only of some philosophers, but also of many people who would rather not admit it to young children at Christmas.

In order to see evidence for the Great Miracle, one must somehow recognize that the Love of which von Balthasar speaks is neither arbitrary nor necessitated. It is indeed gratuitous: it cannot be predicted on the basis of the so-called "laws of nature," which prima facie do not reveal it at all. It does not originate in Nature at all. But it makes a certain sort of sense. It is what I called, in my doctoral thesis, "positively mysterious." For Absolute Goodness is not sterile: it is personal and it is free, for those qualities are greater goods than any mere mechanism or abstraction. Thus, the goodness of God is at once what the medieval doctors called "self-diffusive" and yet not pre-determined in its manifestations. God did not have to create at all; given that he creates this world, he did not have to create this world rather than any other he might have created; given that he creates rational creatures, he did not have to destine them to be "divinized," to share forever in his very life. But if the Gospel is true, he has done all that out of the same Love that constitutes him. He has revealed himself as a community of persons who love one another so radically, so infinitely, that they together constitute one God, and thus are each the same God. That is what Absolute Goodness is. It makes sense for such a God to create the world and to unite it with Himself in and through us. But such a God could not have been necessitated by nature to act ad extra, beyond Himself. If he had been, he would not be personal, would not be free, would not even be sovereign. So, at the heart of reality is a Love which makes sense on its own terms and is even complete in those terms, so that it did not have to be manifest at all ad extra. What makes the Great Miracle a miracle—an ever-astonishing, never-ending story of which we are all a part and in which we can all find bliss—is that it didn't have to be at all. What makes it intelligible is that, given who and what its Author is, it makes sense that he would write it. Both poles must be affirmed: the radical contingency of what God has wrought, and its radical intelligibility.

Indeed, the very "impassibility" of the God who does that is what reassures us that the effects of the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of the divine person who became and is a man cannot be negated, that the Kingdom of Love is "an everlasting kingdom." As we prepare to adore anew the Christ Child, who is that Kingdom's first visible manifestation for the world, let us remember that God's vulnerability, his willingness to submit for a time not only to his creation but to the worst we can do to him, is our true strength. Let us remember what Victor Hugo, echoing St. Paul, reminded us of: "Love is the foolishness of men and the wisdom of God." Such is the God who is not an idol. About any other God, atheism is a salutary discipline.
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