By No Means a Knockdown Proof, But....(reprint of a Newsletter article, October 2020)
For some time, I have wanted to talk about atheism—and to talk about it for the sake of our souls and spirits. Now, there are many forms of atheism. And these many forms make many claims, but all of them deny the reality of God, or deny the knowability of God, or the reasonableness of believing in God, or all three. They are anti-God, anti-theist. So we call them a-theist, a being the Greek prefix meaning not or without. As amoral means not moral or without morals, so atheist means no God or without God. Whether or not we know the etymology of the word, most everyone could list some of the claims that atheists make. “There is insufficient evidence for God.” “Science has disproven God.” “Religion is man-made.” “Christianity is a myth.” “Miracles don’t happen.” “Suffering disproves the idea of God, or the idea of a good God anyhow.”
It’s In The Air
Even if we never read a book about atheism, we hear these kinds of things. The claims of atheism get inside our heads, so to speak, and trouble us. We know what it’s like when things ‘get inside our heads’ and trouble us. A nagging worry about some practical matter can keep us from focusing on our work. (Did I close the garage door this morning?) Or, we bring the cares of home to the office, or the cares of office to the home, and we end up being, mentally, in two places at once. Just as one tennis player get inside the head of his opponent by means of distracting mannerisms, and knocks his opponent off his game, so, too, can atheism knock us off our game.
Atheism can nag at us, or even lead us to a double-minded life, believing and not believing, letting two different word-views shape our lives. The claims of atheism can corrode our confidence and joy in believing. We second-guess ourselves. We may think, “I am living in the past, a bygone age.” “Maybe I have sacrificed my reason for a comforting illusion.” “Am I too tender-minded, sentimental, easily duped--not tough-minded enough?” “Is there some deficit in my psychological make-up that has led me to believe in God?”
It’s not just the explicit assertions of atheists that impacts us. Our host culture organizes itself and promotes values that often say belief in God is irrelevant, not credible, immature, just not true, or all of these things. Our culture seeps into our psyche. And it creates, let’s say, scratches on the hard-drive of our minds.
Cleaning Up Our Hard Drives
Can we rub out some of those scratches? Can we think more clearly and thus enjoy life in the gospel more fully? I think so. What follows does not intend to persuade atheists. Nor, to offer a knock-down proof of a Christianity. No, this offering is meant for the already believing Christian, as I said, so that we might live out our faith more confidently and joyfully. Mental health through theological reflection, let’s say.
Our first topic? Miracles. No kidding. Why not start big? Now, Christianity claims that there was a grand miracle in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, that his coming to be was itself a miracle—called the Incarnation—and that he himself also performed miracles in his earthly ministry. This might be called the classic form of Christianity. This version does not reduce the faith to a solely ethical understanding of Christianity which (following Thomas Jefferson) takes scissors to the miraculous bits of Scripture and cuts them out!
Instead, patiently thinking about the possibility of miracles, the Christian might take this view: “Because I believe in God, as the creator of the world, I believe that a God powerful enough to create the world would be able to interact with His creation as He chooses, including ways that are miraculous to us.” People who take this view, and I am one of them, understand that there are many, many ways that people may come to believe in God. Some have a religious experience, an epiphany or life-changing encounter, a dramatic conversion. Others may come to believe in God after a long study of philosophy or by comparing different worldviews and decided that the a view of the world with a creator seems to do most justice to the whole of reality. Some may be persuaded that a creator God exists by the beauty or regularity of the world. Others may be moved to believe in God by the moral dimensions of reality or by the testimony of exemplary lives which count as evidence of God’s work. Some come to belief by reading the Bible. Some by taking Jesus to be trustworthy and, therefore, trusting all he said. I have not mentioned all possible roads to or reasons for faith—and, probably, people who stay in the faith based may be sustained by more than one of these, or other, factors.
It Is Still Faith
Whatever moves people to believe in God, it still is a matter of faith. But because we have a basic belief in God, with several reinforcing bases for believing, we do not have to say that miracles themselves lead to belief, nor do we have to defend them as provable. Our claim might be put this way: the more one believes in a Creator, the greater likelihood that miracles are a real possibility. The Christian can, if you will, relax a bit, and not think belief in God hinges on particular miracles. Of course, the Christian could put pressure onto the atheist—or the position called atheism—and ask whether atheism can be so sure that there are not good reason to believe in God. And, can the atheist be so sure they have disproved or discredited the reality of God?
Of course, the possibility that miracles can occur doesn’t mean miracles happen often, or happen in every life. After all, God may let creation and the so-called laws of nature do most of the work. And when miracles happen they may only happen to serve, for instance, a clear purpose. The miracles of Jesus, some note, always do good things—the hungry multitudes are fed, epileptics are healed, so too are the blind, lame and dumb. And they are signs of his unique identity. This is why they were so abundant in his life, and not so ordinary in our lives.
I’ll dig deeper into this in some other forum. Maybe when the Adult Forum resumes. But here are two experiences which may or may not be considered miraculous, but which I take to be unique interactions by God. One happened when I received a transatlantic phone call from my wife. She mentioned to me a problem a distant relative was having. Earlier that very morning in my prayers this very relative had come to mind, a relative I had no real reason to think of. Not a relative we would mention, say, in the course of a year. Not a troubled relative, not a relative ever in trouble. But earlier that day I felt troubled on his behalf, and I began to pray for him. A dark cloud had come over my psyche. Later, on the phone call, I found out about his troubles. How do you explain this? Maybe not a miracle, perhaps. But God moved me, I think, to pray. And this kind of thing has happened oftener since then.
Another example of possible divine interaction, closer to what we think of as a miracle, is the story of a young child born deaf. The expert doctors told the child’s parents that she would never really hear. Hearing aids would, at best, give her five percent of her hearing. She eventually got ninety-five percent of her hearing. The parents had prayed, the church had prayed, I prayed over her and anointed her, and something seemingly out of the ordinary happened.
A Widening View
I mention these episodes not to convince the atheist but, again, to help the believer. What might come into view is the way that God really is involved in our world, not least through our thoughts and the stirrings of our souls, and maybe on occasion in noticeably extraordinary ways. For most us, our Christian life is mostly about growing in personal virtues, being made more like Christ, doing our duties cheerfully unto the Lord, growing in the fruit of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. This is as it should be.
But the point is that we do not have to think that we are without a decent defense against atheism. We do not have to think we have sacrificed our reason in believing in a Maker of heaven and earth. There has been a lot of serious thought about these matters. I hope to make some of it accessible in the days ahead so we can take in more of the sweet air of wonder and trust than the stale air of disbelief.