Atheism, Peace and Joy
The Second Sunday of the Year. Is 3:3b-10,19; Ps 40:2,4,7-8,8-9,10; 1 Co 6:13c-15a,17-20; Jn 1:35-42
As you may be aware, the British Humanist Association has recently sponsored an advertisement on buses in England. The slogan is, “There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Apparently the Advertising Standards Authority required the word 'probably' to be inserted on the basis that claims in any advertisement have to be substantiated, and it is widely recognized that one cannot, of course, prove the non-existence of God. Nevertheless, the underlying message remains clear: the organizers wish us to believe that there is no God, and on that basis to 'stop worrying and enjoy life'. In other words, if God does not exist, the British Humanist Association claims that we should experience both peace and joy.
Now there are certain curious features of this claim, the first being the lesson of history. History teaches, oddly enough, that in anti-theist or officially atheist countries, such as the Soviet Union, Communist China under Mao Tse Tung, Albania, Cambodia under Pol Pot and North Korea, the experience of a life excluding God was and, in some cases, still is rather deficient in both peace and joy. Indeed, taking the long term perspective, these countries that were so hostile to the idea of a transcendent God will probably be best remembered for their spectacular achievements in causing the misery and death of very large numbers of people. But besides this contentious claim that an atheist life is one of greater peace and joy, the advertisement also implies that God is a kind of neutral, passive object of our deliberations on His existence. Yet God, at least according to the history of Judaism and Christianity, is rather active regarding the issue of His existence. He has this odd tendency to keep revealing Himself, albeit in gentle and humble ways.
Today's readings contain famous examples of this gentle and humble revelation of God in Scripture. In the First Reading, the boy Samuel hears a voice during the night, “Samuel! Samuel!” Notice how God calls a person by name. Similarly, today's Gospel is full of the names of those being called by Jesus Christ: John, Andrew and Simon. In the case of Simon, Jesus even gives him a new name, Cephas or Peter. Names are important because they designate persons. Instead of relating to human beings as a sort of collective, as under Communism, or as de-personalized objects, as in many modern day industries, laboratories and clinics, a personal God humbles Himself to relate to us as particular persons, by name, and ultimately as friends. Christianity, of course, claims that God has gone even further for the sake of friendship with us. Jesus Christ, true God and true man, was born and suffered a sacrificial death on a cross for His friends, to enable them to be with Him forever in heaven.
Now a God who loves us first, who is prepared to die for the sake of eternal friendship with us, is, one would think, good news. So why does the British Humanist Association claim that the non-existence of God is a cause for peace and joy? I think that the real issue is not an intellectual one regarding God's existence; the issue is really about 'the desires of the heart'. In the supposed absence of God, the world offers various substitutes for peace and joy. Advertisers, for example, brazenly offer the benefits of eternal life in all kinds of fashions and passing things. Drugs offer pleasure without purpose or meaning. Fornication, the subject of a strong warning in today's second reading, offers a kind of facsimile of the intimacy of marriage, but without commitment or purpose. Such things do not really bring peace and joy, but ultimately a kind of wretchedness and emptiness. But being corrupted and enslaved by these things, the human heart cannot perceive that there is something better. In this mode, God is experienced as something frightening, someone who brings false peace and false joy to an end. As the apostle John says, “men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:19) It seems that British Humanist Association considers this fear to be our normal stance towards God.
How, then, can we accept God in joy rather than fleeing from Him in fear? Christian history teaches us that success in holiness, success in reaching heaven, is not a matter of personal strength. What is crucial to holiness is surrender to the loving will of God. So our prayer each day should be the prayer of the boy Samuel, when he heard the voice of God speak to him in the darkness, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”
Father Andrew Pinsent, St. Pancras Church, Lewes, 18th January 2009
© Fr Andrew Pinsent. Academic Web Site.