How Atheism Can Help Christians Avoid False Idols

I am convinced that atheists -- at least the ones I have read and the ones I know -- are working largely with conceptual idols when it comes to their rejection of God. They are not rejecting God; they are rejecting ideas.
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Last week in these pages, ink was spilled about a new campaign started by a group of enterprising college students. Dubbed "We Are Atheism," the campaign encourages those who are atheists to just come on out and say so. There is significant societal pressure to not come out, of course, but the atheists' momentum has picked up and I think the forces of both history and the Internet are with them.

Don't get me wrong; I don't think atheism is a convincing position. In particular I find its most recent manifestation to be naive, overly optimistic, and poorly-matched to life as I know it. But people ought to be able to say what they think is true. I know many who have been damaged by religion; I also know many who simply are not religious. These folks should be free to speak frankly without fear of being cast into the outer darkness.

But there is another reason that I wish the best the campaign, one grounded in my own Christian faith: Atheists do us religious types a service by reminding us that "God" is, as a concept, a non-starter.

In particular, and to put it theologically, atheists are hard at work cleansing our temple of idols. We should thank them.

Theologian Jean-Luc Marion, in his book "God without Being," addresses idols. An idol, for Marion, is that which consigns the divine to the measure of the human gaze. It is not mysterious or unknown or evasive. The idol "never deserves to be denounced as illusory since, by definition [that is, by the word's etymology], it is seen. It even consists only in the fact that it can be seen, that one cannot but see it. The idol presents itself in order that representation, and hence knowledge, can seize hold of it." Here, the term gaze refers not only to the physical eye but to the eye of the intellect; therefore idols can be conceptual as well as physical: "When a philosophical thought expresses a concept of what it then names 'God,' this concept functions exactly as an idol."

He also notes that evidences or proofs (for God's reality) are not distinct from denials, for they both depend on the conceptual idol: "God." He writes, "Proof [of God] uses positively what conceptual atheism uses negatively. In both cases, human discourse determines God. The opposition of the determinations, the one demonstrating, the other denying, does not distinguish them so much as their common presupposition identifies them: that human [subjectivity] might, conceptually, reach God. The idol works universally, as much for negation as for proof. Only on the basis of a concept will 'God' be, equally, refuted or proved, hence also considered a conceptual idol, homogeneous with the conceptual terrain in general."

So the God-concept is idolatrous. Where does that leave us Christians? It leaves us at the exact center of our faith, which is not primarily conceptual, but incarnational.

A story may clarify the distinction. Several years ago, on the first day of one of my introductory astronomy courses, I mentioned a modest fact: Under a dark and transparent atmosphere, with an unobstructed horizon and keen vision, one can see at most about 3000 stars. And if we could remove our home planet from under our feet we could see perhaps 6000.

I began to introduce the constellations but was brought up by a look of near-trauma that had fallen upon a student's face -- I'll call him Greg -- two rows back. He was scarcely breathing. I actually stopped the lecture, such was his appearance. I asked him if he was okay and he began to grin. Sheepishly he explained himself: "It's just that you said that there are stars under my feet, and I had never really thought of it like that before. Wow!"

The student in question was very smart. He must have been about 20-years-old. Could he have possibly missed something so obvious?

It is unlikely. I suspect something more interesting happened that day. Greg had known the concept for years: The spherical Earth is surrounded on all sides by stars. But until that day this was merely a concept for him, a kind of husk encasing a bit of green actuality.

But while he was sitting in class that day, minding his own business, the husk fell away and reality was recovered. The stricken look on his face suggested that the stars far beneath his seat became tangible to him in that instant, that the words up and down lost all content. In that short span of time the absolute became relative and the strangeness of the world was recovered in all its simplicity.

What had for years been conceptual became incarnational; that is, it became profoundly present in a way that Greg himself got involved. He was no longer playing with an idea; he himself was being played by reality. The incarnational contains the conceptual, but the conceptual does not contain the incarnational.

God is incarnational and not conceptual. That's what we Christians say. But in truth we prefer God as a concept, because then we're in charge. It's not easy to let go of the steering wheel, because then we have stop talking and thinking and be a certain way and do certain things. We Christians call God "good" and "loving" and "wise." Which is fine, but insofar as these remain mere concepts, we are idolaters. Insofar as these concepts are incarnated in our actions and attitudes, however, we are being true to our calling.

I am convinced that atheists -- at least the ones I have read and the ones I know -- are working largely with conceptual idols when it comes to their rejection of God. They are not rejecting God; they are rejecting ideas. What is more, they are rejecting idols of Christians' making: a God who deals in rewards and punishments, a God who created the world in six days about 6,000 years ago, a God who shames their sexual desire and shuts down their intellect, imagination, and curiosity. It is easy for Christians to lament the fact that that atheists never seem to go after real theology, but we can hardly criticize them for not looking beyond our own idols.

It's a good thing for atheists to clear out our conceptual idols. We surely don't need them. Such idols are precisely what Christians also must reject. This does not mean a loss of the divine. On the contrary, without a little deconstruction the divine remains gray, flat, and thoroughly boring.

Atheists, rightly understood, are doing nothing less than prying the husk of our misunderstanding from the brilliant, living actuality of the divine. They're helping us recover God. It's hard work and we've been putting it off for a long time. We should just let them do it.

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