+ You have to admit. I’m probably one of the few priests you know who mentions atheism in my sermons. And mentions it not in a negative way. I know. It’s unusual.
But, I really find it frustrating when I hear Christians disparage atheists. I always say that we, as the Church, have to accept the fact that we have probably produced more atheists by our not-so-wonderful behavior, our self-righteousness, our hypocrisy than anything else. The Church has done a good job of driving people way, of nudging others toward atheism.
As for me personally, as you know, I actually read a lot of atheist theology. OK. Maybe those words “atheist theology” sound somewhat oxymoronic, but you get what I’m saying… And I have read most of it. From Richard Dawkins to Sam Harris (who are probably the most famous of the best selling atheists of recent years), from Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre to H.L. Mencken and Madelyn Murray O’Hare, the notorious founder of American Atheists—I think I’ve read them all.
I enjoy reading atheist theology because it’s often, surprisingly enough, quite insightful. It challenges me. It helps me develop a critical eye about the Church, about theology in general and about my own personal faith in particular. And none of us should live in a vacuum, certainly not priests. It’s good for all of us to step outside our comfort zone and explore other areas.
What disturbs me about atheist theology isn’t its anger, its rebellion, its single-mindedness about how wrong religion is. What disturbs me about atheism is how simple it is—how beautifully uncomplicated it is. And I think in many ways it would be so easy for me to be an atheist.
Let’s face it—it’s just so easy to not see God anywhere. It’s easy to look up into the sky and say, I see no God. It’s easy to believe that science has the only answers and that everything is provable and rational. (And just to be clear, I am fully 100% pro-science, by the way)
Atheism in a very uncomplicated way to look at life. And I don’t mean that to sound condescending. For atheists, there are no ghosts, no demons, no angels. There are no hidden secrets. There are no frightening unanswered questions about existence. No one is watching us, looking over us, observing us. There’s no all-seeing, all knowing “Eye in the sky” for them.
For atheists, there are no surprises awaiting them when they shed this mortal coil and head into the darkness of death. There is no hell, and no heaven. There’s no unending existence following death. As the poet Tory Dent (1958-2005) wrote in her poem “Immigrant in my own life” as she was dying of AIDS:
“At least when I was dying, I knew where I was going:
Into atheistic air and dirt, into the Atlantic Ocean…”
I get that. I almost—ALMOST—envy that. And when I hear any of my many atheist friends state their disbelief in the white-bearded male god who sits on a throne in heaven, I realize: if that is what they don’t believe in, then…I guess I’m also an atheist.
In fact, any God that I can observe by looking at the sky, or into the cosmos is definitely a God in which I don’t believe. I don’t want a God so easily provable, so easily observed and examined and quantified and…materially real. I don’t believe in a God that is so made in our image. I don’t believe in a God that is simply a projection of our own image and self. Who would want that God? We might as well go back and start worshipping the pantheon of pagan gods our ancestors worshipped. We might as well start worshipping trees and rocks again.
It’s actually so easy to say there’s no God. It is easy to say that we live in some random existence—without purpose or meaning. And I guess that’s why I’m kind of envious of atheists. That’s why I jokingly say: “there but for the grace of the God in which they don’t believe go I.”
For us, however, as Christians, it isn’t as easy. Being a Christian is actually quite hard. I hate to break that news to you. Believing is actually hard.
Yes, we do believe in the existence of God. And by doing so, we are essentially taking the word of a pre-scientific (dare we say “primitive”) group of people who lived at least two thousand years ago. We are now in the season of Easter—a season in which we celebrate and live into the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus. But even that is based on some incredible evidence. We are believing what a group of pre-Enlightenment, Pre-rational, superstitious Jewish people from what was considered at the time to be a backwater country are telling us they saw.
But we believe because we know, in our hearts, that this is somehow true. We know these things really did happen and that because they did, life is different—life is better, despite everything that happens. We believe these things in true faith.
We didn’t see Jesus while he was alive and walking about. We didn’t see him after he rose from the tomb. We don’t get the opportunities that Thomas had in this morning’s Gospel.
Doubting Thomas, as we’ve come to know him, refused to believe that Jesus was resurrected until he had put his fingers in the wounds of Jesus. It wasn’t enough that Jesus actually appeared to him in the flesh—how many of us would only jump at that chance? For Thomas, Jesus stood there before him, in the flesh—wounds and all. And only when he had placed his finger in the wounds, would he believe.
It’s interesting to see and it’s interesting to hear this story of Doubting Thomas. But, the fact is, for the rest of us, we don’t get it so easy. Jesus is probably not going to appear before us—in the flesh. At least, not on this side of the Veil—not while we are still alive. And if he does, you need to have a little talk with your priest! We are not going to have the opportunity to touch the wounds of Jesus, as Thomas did.
Let’s face it, to believe without seeing, is not easy. It takes work and discipline. A strong relationship with God—this invisible being we might sense, we might feel emotionally or spiritually, but we can’t pin-point—takes work—just as any other relationship in our life takes work. It takes discipline. It takes concentrated effort.
Being a Christian does not just involve being good and ethical all the time. Atheists do that too. The atheists I know are all are ethical, upright, good people too. Atheists are committed the same ideals most of us are committed to here this morning. And they are sometimes even better at it all than I am sometimes, I’ll admit
But, being a Christian doesn’t mean just being ethical and “good.” (Though we should all still be ethical and “good”) Being a Christian means living one’s faith life fully and completely as a Christian. It means being a reflection of God’s love, God’s Presence, God’s joy and goodness in the world. It means that we might not touch the wounds of Jesus as Thomas did, but we do touch the wounds of Jesus when we reach out in love to help those who need our love.
As St. Augustine said, “Being a Christian means being an Alleluia from head to toe.”
Remember when I preached last Sunday about Alleluia meaning “Praise God?” We should be a walking, talking, living praise of God. Praise of God should be in our very core, our very marrow. Even if the God whose praise we are embodying is a mystery of us. Even if the God we embody is not seen. By embodying God, by being a Alleluia from head to toe, we embody that God and make God real in this world. And by being an Alleluia from head to toe, we must be an Alleluia to others too.
“Blessed are those who believe but don’t see,” Jesus says this morning.
We are those blessed ones. We are the ones Jesus is speaking of in this morning’s Gospel. Blessed are you all. You believe, but don’t see. We are the ones who, despite what our rational mind might tell us at times, we still have faith. We, in the face of doubt and fear, can still say, with all conviction, “Alleluia!”
We can’t objectively make sense of it. Sometimes all we can do is live and experience the joy of this resurrection and somehow, like sunlight shining in us and sinking deep into us, we simply bask in its glory. Seen or unseen, we know God is there. And our faith is not based on seeing God here in front of us in the flesh or proving the existence of God, or finding scientific proof for the Resurrection. Because we actually have known God, right here, right now. God has been embodied in us. We know God through love—love of God and love of one another. Blessed are we who believe but don’t see now. The Kingdom of Heaven is truly ours.