I met another atheist last week.
I like atheists. They're usually so honest.
This one, well, I've known him for a long time but only last week did I learn he was an atheist. It happened, as it so often does, while drinking good wine under the stars, satiated by generous platters of fire-grilled meat. We had a good conversation trying to explain our polarised positions.
My friend is not one of those “new atheists” – those Dawkins-types who have turned atheism into a religion of militant evangelism – I call such people faux-atheists, faux-skeptics. No, my friend was someone I would call an honest atheist; one who has looked at the facts despite what he might find. And I hope I did not come across as a faux-Christian – like those who have never questioned their faith and live in fear of admitting doubt.
Naturally I think he is completely wrong, and he thinks I'm unbelievably wrong, yet we're still friends. Our debate was not a battle to win, nor was it out of that all-too-common fear of being shown up as wrong. We are equally passionate about our respective positions, but our passion is rooted in a belief that we think our conclusion is the better one to live by, a better one to understand our existence, closer to truth.
However, our meat-and-wine-conversation rekindled a thought I have long pondered: why is it so hard for atheists to grasp what Christianity really means to me? Why do I struggle to convey the reality I know? One reason, I suggest, is that we talk about the wrong things.
Christianity comes in so many external expressions; we have the intistualionalized cultural Christianity, the indoctrinated fundementalist un-intellectual unreasoned Christianity, the mystical-spiritualized introspective and meditative practice, the closely related ritualistic religion, the stand-up-and-dance-to-rock-music performance type of Christianity, the legalistic and rule-bound forms, and many, many others.
These are the external faces of Christianity – the ones the media tend to report on, the ones our pre-conceived notions tend to concoct. This diversity of expression is not itself a problem - it would be surprising if it did not exist. People differ, so expression differs; its ok as long they are all infused by the same unseen commonality. Sadly, for many people of the “faith” these expressions are all too often an empty shell of habitual behavior that serves as a comfort blanket for an unsettled existence.
I should point out at this stage that, if you are someone who is unconvinced, its important to recognize that Christianity is a religion unlike any other, despite what popular opinion suggests (truth was never a democracy). Syncretism seems to work well among all faiths except for Christianity. There is a unique distinctive core that is utterly incompatible with all other religions. For it is the one religion where God says “NOTHING you do in your own power can bring you into relationship with me.” You cannot climb the mountain, your works are useless in that regard, for God says he is the enabler of personal relationship, and he proactively desires an intimate relationship – he is the hound of heaven.
But to return to my point: why is it so hard for atheists (or non-Christians) to really grasp the essence of Christianity? I've been trying to think of metaphors; it's seems to me that describing Christianity is like trying to describe hanggliding to someone who has never flown, or scuba diving to someone who can't swim, or the pleasures of sex to a virgin, or how having children transforms a parent, or what it's like to have one's parents die. The full comprehension cannot be communicated in words alone and is only attained through experience. Until you've had the experience, you simply can't fully grasp the reality.
So I came up with this metaphor. My wife is like God.
Now before you jump to conclusions, let me explain that a bit more. I think my wife is amazing, truly, but she is human! But I'd be the first to admit she's … lets say, a bit unconventional. She is not a fashion fanatic (far from it), and her dress style is “delightfully interesting”. She keeps bees and chickens. She walks the streets with the poorest of the poor. She makes soap. And so, while I think she is really amazing, and that you would be a better person for knowing her, I am also aware that when I introduce “conventional” people to her I wonder if they find her a bit alien.
So, much as I might try, any description of her can never, ever let you really understand what it is like to know her. Until you spend time with her all you can know is some second-hand and limited account. You can certainly build up a mental picture of her, but it will be distorted, biased, and probably misconstrued.
All of us experience this. For example, I work with colleages and hear of their spouses (spice?), but it is always a mind-stretching event when I eventually meet them, for then the person becomes orders of magnitude more real to me.
That's why trying to explain Christianty is so hard – without the relational experience it seems bizarre, alien, odd, even though fully rational. Like trying to explain my mariage without you ever meeting my wife. Marriage is not defined by the law, nor by the behavior patterns and rituals that all couples have. The unique expressions of my marriage are only an outworking of, a consequence of, my personal relationship; rational but odd.
And so in the end all debates with atheists come to this. All I can do is try to communicate the nature of the God-person behind my faith-practice, to let you understand how the relationship frames my life in the same way my marriage frames my life, only it does so in a much bigger way. To some people my explanations may be scary, irrelevant, idiotic, or perhaps weirdly attractive. On a human level we also see other people as scary or irrelevant or attractive or whatever, and our responsibility is to then know the person and adjust our perceptions accordingly. The difference between knowing other people and knowing God is that in this world people do not define our reality. Yet, if there is a God, then he completely defines our reality whether we acknowledge it or not.
This is the difference, a relationship with a God would be so utterly alien to us, so completely bigger and beyond us, that the best we could hope for is to live in a realization of experience, to comprehend what we can within the limits of our finiteness. Sort of like living with gravity – its a known mystery grounded in evidence.
So whether you find the idea of God scary or irrelevant or attractive, if the evidence suggests the possibility of God, then to be honest with ourselves we need to continually revisit the possibility of relationship with God. We need to put aside the oddities of the expressed practice that we see around us, and look instead at what's behind it all. Likewise for those who do already accept the God-relationship, we also need to repeatedly reexamine ourselves to discard falsehood, and to close in on truth.
For this is the reality; by definition a God cannot be definitively explained, cannot be fully understood, and can only be experienced within finite understanding, in the same way I experience gravity or know my wife (neither of which I fully understand). Yet unlike gravity but quite like my wife (I hope), in Christianity the essence is that the person behind the mystery desires to know me.
Of courses there are complications. In dealing with a God there's always that thorny little problem that perfect love must necessarily go hand-in-hand with perfect justice (its just as well my that wife's love for me is not perfect, else I'd be in real trouble). But that's a very simple (yet tough) problem to deal with, so don't worry about it for now.