Recently Tony Jones publically challenged me to give up my “atheism” for Lent. You can hear the interview where this happens at Homebrewed Christianity and read Tony’s challenge directly from his website.
The whole thing has generated some amusing responses on both facebook and twitter and seems to have sparked quite a bit of broader interest with a record number of downloads for the interview.
In light of all this some questions that people have had include “is Peter really an atheist” and “has he given it up for lent”.
In order to approach an answer I should begin by saying that the term “atheism” is not as monolithic and straightforward as the popular debate would portray it. This is not a subject that I want to delve into in this post, but it is worth mentioning that the atheism of Nietzsche is very different from, say, that found in Dawkins. Instead I want to outline my own position very briefly, which might be more accurately described as incarnational a/theism.
By “Incarnational a/theism” I am referring, not to an intellectual disavowal of God, but to the felt experience of God’s absence; an experience that must be distinguished from the idea of a mere absence of experience. To understand the difference take a moment to think about the difference between the absence that exists before you meet someone you later come to love and the absence you experience once they are gone. In both cases the person is absent, but the first is a mere absence of experience while the second is an experience of absence (there is a third experience which relates to the experience of a person being absence when they are present).
More than being the felt experience of Gods absence the phrase “incarnational a/theism” also refers to the idea that this traumatic experience brings us into the very heart of what it means to affirm God’s presence (hence the use of the dash). This is then the type of “atheism” I affirm as central to the Christian event.
This leads us then to the second question. A question that can be stated more widely and precisely in this way: can a Christian give up incarnational a/theism for lent? Immediately one is faced with the problem that Lent itself is the time leading up to Easter: the very point in the Christian calendar when we witness this incarnational a/theism coming into being (through Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection). If the Crucifixion and Resurrection open up incarnational a/theism through the loss of all ground (Crucifixion) and the embrace of existence in the aftermath of this event (Resurrection) then the re-embrace of theism would be a retrograde step. One that would take us away from this profoundly liberating, life affirming and transformative event.
However, this type of incarnational a/theism does not in any way prevent one from experiencing a profound sense of wonder at the universe, nor does it stop one believing that there is some source to everything around us. Indeed, to speak personally for a moment, of late I have been confronted with a set of unprecedented circumstances and bizarre experiences that have left me profoundly open once more to the mystery of life and the sense that there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy. So while I argue that the event of incarnational a/atheism is central to our experience of becoming more human I do not see this as robbing us of a profound sense of mystery that we will often want to respond to with prayer, praise and worship. In short this means that, while I cannot accept Tony’s challenge as it stands, I can promise that this Lenten time is among the most meaningful and mystical periods in my life. One which has short circuited my beliefs, brought me to silence, and invited me to try once more to simply be.