As Catholics we hear quite a bit about the love of God. We are reminded…
Wrestling with God
I’ve always been surprised by what I call “evangelical atheists.” By the very nature of being Christians, we’re called to spread the Good News, and we do so in order to save souls and help others live a more fulfilling life.
But why would someone who truly believes that there is no God feel compelled to spread the bad news to everyone? The more clever evangelical atheists will quote Scripture: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Of course, when Christ spoke those words to the Pharisees in John 8, he wasn’t referring to some abstract truth and a modern conception of freedom as liberation from social and cultural restraints. He meant that, if the Pharisees followed him, they would know the Truth — Christ himself — and be set free from their sins.
There are many things that I know, or at least I think that I know, that I rarely feel compelled to share with others, much less with everyone I meet. I don’t need to tell most people that the sky is blue and the grass is green, that water is wet and fire burns. But I do need to tell those things on occasion to children who haven’t yet learned them, and so, for the longest time, I assumed that most evangelical atheists simply regarded themselves as the adults in a roomful of childlike Christians.
But that can’t explain the anger and ferocity with which evangelical atheists spread their bad news. When we see a child about to burn himself, or a toddler stumbling unsteadily toward the edge of a pool, we’ll yell “Stop!” as we try to prevent her from harming herself. But even if our voice is harsh and our face red, we react that way out of fear. We’re not angry at the innocent who doesn’t know any better; our fear, in fact, stems from love.
Not so with the evangelical atheist, who seems at worst angry at his Christian friends and relatives for being so stupid, and at best … well, that’s where things get interesting.
Last week (as I write), I attended the October meeting of the Cosmopolitan Club of Huntington, Indiana, a discussion club that has been in existence even longer than Our Sunday Visitor. The paper, presented by Tom Mills, was titled “In the Beginning, Man Created God.” Tom did an admirable job compiling and delivering every atheist argument under the sun (and proving along the way that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes knew, there’s nothing new there). Sitting around the campfire, even some of the men who had known Tom for years began to think that they had been wrong in believing him to be a Christian.
After Tom delivered his paper and John Niederman, the president of Pathfinder Services, delivered a solidly Christian response, each of us took turns replying to Tom. Only after we were all finished did Tom reveal that nothing has changed: He is still a Christian (of a Calvinist stripe).
And then Tom told a story that opened my eyes about an evangelical atheist with whom he has discussed God frequently over lunch for several years (and from whom Tom had first heard many of the arguments he set forth in his paper). This gentleman had once been a Christian, active in his church and Bible study, but over time he had lost his faith. He eventually worked up the courage to tell the men in his small group that he was an atheist.
Their reaction was to push him away — and, worse yet, not to pursue him. That, Tom said, was what hurts this man the most, even years later: Christians who refused to share the Good News.
Whence does the anger and ferocity of the evangelical atheist arise? In some cases, at least, it comes from a soul wrestling with God, like Jacob on the banks of the Jabbok. And perhaps all that soul really needs (even if he doesn’t necessarily recognize it himself) is a Christian who cares enough about him to listen — and to respond.
Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.