I tried to think of some parable or analogy that would best express the situation of religion in modern society. Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) in Either/Or and Harvey Cox (b. 1929) in The Secular City both point to the parable of a clown being mocked off stage after a failed attempt to warn the audience of a fire which erupted backstage. They dismiss the warning and proceed to laugh at the clown and his “misfortune.” And so, modernity, “the world will come to an end amid general applause from all the wits, who believe that it is a joke” (Oden 1978, 3).
The idea behind the parable suggests that the clown represents the contemporary theologian; strutting about in his makeup and clothes, no real danger or urgency behind what he is saying. Amidst the theologian’s “seriousness” and “urgency,” the public still knows better that he is all that he is – just a clown (Ratzinger 2000, 39-42). What makes this parable (and others like it) so significant is that it prompts us to ask ourselves not merely “Am I apart of the applauding audience?” but rather “What is the condition of man?”
What does it mean to be a man? What does man’s world consist of? What is man’s relation to other things (the universe, other people, etc.)? While these questions do not immediately prompt an irreligious person to spew a “religious answer” for them, they by all means demand an answer. In my experience, these are the sort of questions which the general public (Christians included!) disregard as needless exercises in abstract thought. However, at the same time, there are some who recognize the legitimacy of these questions, but only in the realm of “individual human lives, human creativity, human interactions, and human institutions” (Nagel 2010, 7).
Let’s flip the conversation a little bit and move on to disbelief in religion. Typically, whenever I personally encounter disbelief it’s expressed by someone in an irreverent or sarcastic tone, which I later will interject and ask what they meant by the claim (if, of course, the statement was directed towards me or I am otherwise involved in the conversation; I am not interested in being a dog that jumps on anti-religious remarks when I am not welcome). To my surprise, this takes place almost %100 of the time in my workplace – never anywhere else.
I make jokes quite often that restaurants (I myself have worked three restaurants in a three years time – I rather prefer working restaurants than retail or elsewhere) are perhaps the most godless places on earth because of the “down-time” chatter that takes place. What I noticed over time is that I was up against people and experiences that I was not prepared to address as a Christian at such and such time. The intellectual objections that were raised against my beliefs were never exactly the problem, but being burdened by these people’s situations was what caused the real problems for me. The lack of joylessness, the lack of passion and child-likeness, the pride and despair that I was more interested in addressing than the incorrect beliefs which these people held.
Now, what these people would often try to explain to me (implicitly, sometimes) is that they know better to invest time and belief in things which they were taught to believe growing up. Hence, they emphasize a religion which is directed toward personal spirituality rather than a dogmatic faith that points to right belief and right practice. Religion in their eyes is a spontaneous event which they take up at the moment of existential insight; not a spirituality that is based in realism (i.e., best accounts for the totality of one’s being in reality). The great teacher Abraham Heschel, speaking of Kierkegaard and faith, once wrote:
Kierkegaard expressed his repudiation of a smooth transition to new concepts through meditation, or of the arrival at new concepts by a progressive process of thought. Faith is attained, not by continuous and gradual approximations, but by a resolution of the will. (Heschel 2004, 185).
Understood in this light, the questions I mentioned before are not to be intended as meditations for the unbelieving mind in themselves. That is, like Heschel mentioned, to adopt these questions into one’s worldview and gradually, through various approximations, come to religion arm’s wide open. These questions are in a sense like sign posts, giving one the appropriate directions for “take off,” and which, if answered honestly and openly, will lead one to a “religious temperament” if not the Lord Himself.
However, atheism today takes these questions for granted. Like Socrates in ancient Greece, the people of Athens when upon further questioning of their most fundamental beliefs, they rebelled and reacted offensively against Socrates. When their ignorance began to surface – and not just ignorance of X and Y but ignorance of themselves – this would later come back and cost Socrates his life. The same could be said for Jesus, who instead of searching for the wisest of men was looking for “fishers of men,” (cf. Matt. 4:19) and also for an authentic religion that was oriented towards love; love towards God, oneself and ones neighbor.
A modern account of atheism may perhaps look to the famous philosophical triad: Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx (typically scholars will throw in Ludwig Feuerbach as a candidate for “important atheists”). Friedrich Nietzsche, who lived from 1844 to 1900, constructed a “passionate criticism” of Christianity which would live on and resurrect (somewhat superficially) in later mid 20th-century Protestant circles (see “Death of God” movement). Sigmund Freud’s critique of the “god concept” would surmount a psychological criticism for belief in God, and Marx’s society involves a conception of religion which views it as a hindrance (“opium”) for social revolution among the lower working class.
Later we come across an interesting, but highly influential literary group of atheists who express their skepticism and secularism in (more or less) their political activism as well as on the pages of their best literary works. Here I have in mind books like Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit, Albert Camus’ The Plague, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and so forth. For Camus, the greatest struggle for human existence is death. Otherwise better put, the fact of death shows man’s existence to be meaningless. Man must rebel against this “ultimate negation” by putting before himself a series of deliberate choices that constantly challenge his vain circumstances. We must be free, says Camus.
More contemporaneously, the so-called “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and others, pose a new radically-defensive position against religion. These atheists are unique in that they move to a new critique of religion never before precedented in religious thought: religion is not only delusional (Freud and Dawkins), but it is in fact socially harmful or “poisonous” (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris all affirm this).
But again, what do any of these men have to say about what it means to be a man? Plenty, to be sure. However, where these men differ from their religious counterparts is the realism I had mentioned earlier. That is to say, whatever critiques may be offered for adopting religious belief one must consider the totality of what it is they are rejecting. To remember, Christianity is realism.
The religious outlook combines truth and spirituality in a totally encompassing way. We are talking about the infinite hole that fills the hearts of men, the laboring and filling of this hole with one pleasure after another and never being satisfied. We do not only mean emotional or spiritual satisfaction but also a robust intellect satisfaction. “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom. 12:2).
I doubt very seriously, friend or reader, that your disbelief is the result of a series of humble reflections that treat the question of man’s nature seriously and honestly. An honest seeking of God will not leave one “floating along the ocean of nihilism” with the “salt water of doubt constantly entering the mouth.” God has told Moses, if you remember, “I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen” (Exodus 33:23). In this life we are only given glimpses of the Divine. Yet, the Apostle Paul has encouraged us with the Gospel of Jesus Christ: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).