Most of the atheists–or atheistically-leaning agnostics, who I’m just going to call atheists because it’s quicker–I have ever known (and I have indeed had some dearly beloved atheists in my real life in the past, and a couple currently reading this here blog) have quite detailed ideas about the God or gods they don’t/can’t/prefer not to believe in. I find this fact intriguing in its own right, but the other thing that has been fascinating me lately is that, at least among the atheists with whom I’ve spoken about this, their God that they don’t believe in is pretty similar across the board. At least as far as I know, none of these people know each other, so it’s not like they’ve gotten together and come up with a Doctrine on the Non-Existence of God. Together, anyway. I think there are some atheists out there who are pretty active theologians, and preach their particular theology, even though they might resent me for putting it that way.
Here’s something else. Most atheists I know object to God on multiple bases, but almost universally The Problem of Evil comes into play. What’s interesting to me is that, though God’s love is usually called into question in these discussions, in my experience His sovereignty never is.
We can, and probably should, discuss The Problem of Evil here at some point, and the existence of God in general, and we sort of by negation talked about God’s love last week. But what’s been exercising me lately is this whole idea that God is sovereign, and if He is, what exactly that means. I don’t think I’ll ever be a fan of Mr Pink, but that doesn’t mean that everything he says is wrong or untrue–and the bizarre thing is that the God my atheist friends describe sounds an awful lot like the one Pink talks about.
At some point in the last century, some pastor started saying to self-professed atheists, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in him either.” (I looked this up and saw it attributed to some guy named Forrest Church–who, ironically considering the people who quote him, was a Unitarian Universalist minister–but I don’t really know for sure.) Evangelicals picked it up, and would talk to each other smugly about inserting this quote into conversations they had on airplanes, say, with people who (possibly foolishly) confessed to them that they didn’t believe in God. (Probably–given personal experience, and to be fair to the Evangelicals, in most cases the “confession” was more of a rant. It’s hard not to be a little smug after you’ve had a go at shutting down one of those–particularly if you succeeded.)
I myself used to think that was quite a clever little rejoinder, and I suspect many Western Christians really no longer do believe in the God the atheists deny, but I’m starting to wonder if, at least to some extent, the God the atheists object to is the real God after all. I think there are Christian (“Christian”?) extremists who get all charged up by the wrath of God and I know others who (like Pink) become extremely dogmatic that God is sovereign over (read micromanages) everything–eg., not only does the Father know when the sparrow falls and how many hairs you have (or don’t have) on your head, but He specifically planned it. I think it’s possible to lose the full picture of God when His sovereignty is the only attribute you focus on, and I think atheistic caricatures of His wrath (“I can’t go into your church–lightning will strike it”) are absurdist and likewise unhelpful, but the fact is, the Bible does teach that God is sovereign, and also holy, and speaking for myself and also from observations of other Christians I know and love, I think the general tendency nowadays is to downplay God’s sovereignty.
Probably part of this comes from absorbing secular humanism–I think Judeo-Christianity actually is the reason humanism developed; before it (and around it), worldviews didn’t allow pride of place to humans–but God dignified humanity by taking it on himself in Jesus and providing a way for us to unite with Him. Secular humanism hangs onto the dignity but takes out God, but I think Christians can subtly accede to such a mindset and develop delusions of the grandeur of our own free will. (Our free will is another topic for another blogpost.) Another reason to downplay God’s sovereignty comes, I think, when we object to what He’s doing around us–or when someone else does. We feel like we have to stand up for God, and bizarrely, have decided that the best way to do this is to imply that He isn’t as directly involved in the world as whoever is accusing Him thinks He is. This “technique” doesn’t clear up anything, however. It just creates other problems.
I had an old friend drop into my office a couple of months ago, having just left the funeral of a 15-year-old boy, to tell me that things like the death of minors were the reason he “couldn’t believe.” (He must have gone nuts after Newtown, CT–but then, we all sort of did). I’m not very good at thinking on my feet, and also, in years past the two of us had had so many arguments about this sort of thing that I didn’t feel like I had anything else to say that he could hear, even though I felt extremely sad about the death of this boy and my friend’s struggle to cope with it. That, I guess, is my excuse for why I didn’t ask him what, in particular, his objection was: did He think God made that boy die, or was he upset that God didn’t stop it, or . . . ? Then another (Christian) friend of mine wrote a blogpost about some issues he was struggling over and in my comment, I said the following:
I’ve been thinking a lot of about the Mary/Martha/Lazarus story. I think that story well-illustrates that sometimes things happen outside of God’s true and original design and intention, and which break His heart (“Jesus wept . . . and crying out with a loud voice . . .”), but He doesn’t step in to stop them (He waited 4 days until the guy was really dead) even though He could have–because whether the specific event was part of His plan or not, He had a bigger, overarching plan which couldn’t, in this broken world, have happened without the sorrow, horror and despair happening first.
Does this make God complicit in our misery? I don’t know. Sometimes I think so. I just don’t think it’s ever outside of His love for us. I believe that God loves each of us individually and is personally involved in our individual stories, but I also believe that His love goes beyond those little stories and that He is writing a much bigger one than we’ll ever see in this lifetime, and that His love is much bigger than we’ll ever comprehend in this lifetime.
Sometimes the plotpoints, therefore, are going to get rather far beyond us, and that’s when we hit the pivot where we decide if this is going to tip us toward God or away from Him–if we’re going to hide in the house and miss the miracle (as Mary almost did), or say, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” and then in the next breath, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” As Martha did.
I understand the objection that says if God willfully allows such tragedy, what’s to trust? But I think the answer comes in the trusting–and that’s when we see that God loves us, mourns with us, has experienced tragedy like us, and is the only one who can make any good come out of it.
I’m not committing to a statement of faith here about God’s sovereignty and the extent to which it dictates everything that happens in the universe. I’m still trying to sort it out in my head. What I am saying is that maybe the atheists’ hunch that the God they can’t believe in has a little more involvement in the stuff we Christians try to acquit Him of, isn’t so far off. There are more words to say about how He can be a good God in light of this, and probably some of that has to do with that leap of trust I mentioned above, but for now I’m just considering that maybe Christians (and this is a generalisation–there are plenty of Christians who do this already all the time) need to think and pray a little more deeply about how to talk about God in a way that is truthful about who He really is, instead of just trying to get him off the hook because the implications are too much work to sort out, or are too uncomfortable.