A formula for atheism

Oct 12, 2018 by

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A few years ago the pastor of an evangelical-fundamentalist church with whom I’m acquainted announced on the Sunday after Easter that he had become an atheist. He told his stunned congregation that he had been an atheist for a year and a half and that all attempts to revive his faith had failed. So on the Sunday after Easter he publicly left Christianity and moved on with his life — a life with no more Easters.

A few days after his bombshell resignation I met with this now erstwhile pastor. As I listened to his story, it quickly became apparent that he had not so much lost his faith in Christianity as he had lost his credulity for fundamentalism. But sadly he had been formed in a tradition where Christianity and fundamentalism were so tightly bound together that he could not make a distinction between them. For this fundamentalist pastor, if the Bible wasn’t literally, historically, and scientifically factual in a biblicist-empiricist sense, then Christianity was a falsity he had to reject. When his fundamentalist house of cards collapsed, it took his Christian faith down with it. In one remarkable leap of faith, a fundamentalist became a newly minted atheist. I did my best to explain to him that he had made the modern mistake of confusing historic Christian faith with early-20th-century fundamentalism, but by now the damage was done and it appears his faith has suffered a fatal blow.

This story I’ve briefly related is true, but it’s also a postmodern parable. By misinterpreting the Enlightenment and the corresponding rise of empiricism as an existential threat to Christian faith, many frightened Christians sequestered themselves in panic rooms of certitude. Unfortunately, this kind of darkness breeds monsters. Most doubts — like all monsters — are not that scary in the daylight. Most Christians can deal with inevitable doubts as long as there is room for doubt. But when a system is enforced that leaves no room for doubt, benign uncertainties can mutate into faith-destroying monsters. When doubts are locked away in a closet of secrecy they can grow into formidable ogres.

As a pastor I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen fear-based Christian parents place their children in fundamentalist Christian schools for the sole purpose of shielding little Johnny from the “lies of secular science,” only to see Johnny become an atheist before he’s out of high school. When you force Johnny to choose between fundamentalist certitude and peer-reviewed science, Johnny may not always be persuaded by pseudo-apologetics from fundamentalist answer-men like Ken Ham. I’ve seen it happen.

I’ve seen too many Christians lose battles they never needed to fight. Like Don Quixote they imagine harmless windmills as threatening giants, fight a needless battle, only to have the windmill-imagined-as-giant win. The culture wars have created these kind of quixotic crusades — and sometimes the tragic outcome is pastors announcing their atheism on the Sunday after Easter.

These days I have a simple mission statement: To help make Christianity possible for my grandchildren and their generation. I want my seven grandchildren (all under the age of eight) to be able to celebrate Easter for a lifetime. So if my grandchildren are to be able to embrace Easter with any kind of authentic faith when they’re adults, I cannot afford to ignore their inevitable doubts or try to strong-arm them into unquestioning certitude. In our secular age that is a formula for atheism. Instead I will do my best to nurture my grandchildren in the rich soil of historic Christian faith — a faith that in its healthiest forms has always been comfortable with mystery and nuance, metaphor and allegory, candid questions and honest doubt. Because in the end Christianity has suffered more casualties from faux faith than honest doubt.

In seeking to pass on Christian faith to my grandchildren I am more interested in presenting them a beautiful mystery than a collection of iron-clad certitudes. If Jesus is presented as beautiful and mysterious as we find him in the Gospels, I’m willing to trust in that beauty to win hearts. I’ve heard it said that no one ever became a Christian because they lost an argument. I suspect that’s true. I also suspect far more people than we imagine have become converts to Christianity for the simple reason they were charmed by the beauty of Christ. I would much rather ground Christian faith on the beauty of Christ than on biblical literalism. Biblical literalism can be debunked by a college freshman, but the beauty of Christ can withstand every attack Nietzsche can muster. If I’m hedging my bets on the survival of Christian faith as we hurdle into a secular age, it’s because the King of Hearts is still so beautiful. I’m willing to bet my grandchildren’s faith on the beauty of Christ.

And in my mission to help make Christianity possible for the generations that follow, I have a trusted and gifted ally in Austin Fischer. His book Faith in the Shadows is the kind of book that can give faith the space to flourish — not by beating back doubt through dogmatic argument, but by taking the terror out of doubt by exposing it to the sunlight of honest reflection. Fischer’s book bears the subtitle Finding Christ in the Midst of Doubt. I like that. When we succumb to the dualism of Christ versus Doubt locked in a battle to the death we are taking an unnecessary risk. It’s enough to find the beauty of Christ in the dark night of doubt. I have sufficient faith to believe I don’t have to dispel every doubt with a clever argument; it’s enough to allow the beauty of Christ to shine in the midst of doubt.

Fischer writes with a wonderful combination of keen intellect and unflinching honesty. He hits all the necessary topics from fundamentalism to theodicy, while drawing upon our best Christian thinkers, from Fyodor Dostoevsky to David Bentley Hart. But what Fischer does best is invite the reader into his own struggles with doubt, showing how he has been able to find Christ even in the midst of doubt. Ultimately, the hero of Fischer’s book is not the brilliant Christian apologists (though we appreciate their fruitful labors), but the beauty of Christ’s love that is the only credible answer to interrogations of doubt. As Fischer says, “Faith is not the absence of doubt. Faith is the presence of love.” My only regret about Faith in the Shadows is that it wasn’t written in time to be read by a Missouri pastor struggling all alone with growing doubts. If he had, perhaps his faith could have survived to celebrate another Easter.

Brian Zahnd is lead pastor of Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Mo., and blogs at brianzahnd.com. This is his foreword for Faith in the Shadows: Finding Christ in the Midst of Doubt by Austin Fisher.


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