Friday, 1 February 2013

What if a friend does not believe in God anymore?

Question: What if a friend of yours came to you and said that he does not believe in God anymore? My reply?

I would tell him that it's alright to disbelieve in God because maybe God himself does not even believe in the god His creation believes Him to be. Imprudently, I imagine God looking at the mirror and say, "That's not who I am?"

It used to be that we are created in His image. But now, since the world has morphed into a complicated behemoth, the God as we know in the Bible has taken on a new anthropomorphic spin. Apparently, and quite appallingly, God has undergone a makeover by his creation. Alas, the Maker's image has become the image maker.

At the risk of oversimplifying, here's what I mean. The evangelicals believe in a god who rewards big if they believe in Him big. The charismatics believe in a god who dispenses with miracles the same way a spigot dispenses with oil. The catholics believe that god has endowed  their pope with the power to stand as an intermediary, interceding between humanity and divinity, bestowing and endorsing, parading and blessing, as an ecumenical head.

An ascetic believes in a god who is pleased with poverty and hermitage. A deist believes in a god who has taken a long long holiday (a la Chan Brothers). A pantheist believes in a god who is everywhere and everything. An agnostic doesn’t think much about god because there’s not much for him to think about in the first place. And an atheist believes that god is probably a figment of one's imagination. 

I recall Nietzsche once allegorically pronounced, "God is dead." If so, from a hypothetical point of view, it is because we, theists and atheists alike, have "beaten him to death by endless redefinition." (so wrote David Hazony, author of the book, The Ten Commandments).

So, let me repeat the irony, instead of admitting we are created in His image, we have created Him in our image. I think up to today, many are still unsure about the answer to Jesus' question: "Who do you say I am?"

But I believe, even for an atheist, it is not a categorical denial of His existence but it is one of degree. Dawkins once admitted that the possibility of his existence is so highly unlikely that one may as well accept there's no god. 

But then, even for an intellectual giant like him, it would be polemical cul-de-sac for him to admit that this world came about ex nihilo. And mind you, this is actually both sides' common ground. Because, while a theist attributes all to God, an atheist attributes all to science. So, in the end, it's the same difference with one deferring to a supernatural being and the other to a supernatural theory. Both came up short on empirical proof.

But science, so argue the atheist, may say this, "at least we don't take things at face value. We test it. We search for answers. We falsify it. We are prepared to accept that we may be wrong."

Well, aren't the atheist forgetting that neither does the theist take things at face value? Although a theist accepts the basic premise that this world was created by an intelligence beyond this world (science ascribes it to natural laws),  he is trying his darnest best to juggle a number of theological balls in the air. These balls are a great challenge to his faith just as solving the mystery of the universe is to science.

For example, there's the question of suffering, of Calvary, of Christ Incarnate, of love and miracles, of human evil, and of life and death. These thorns in his side beg for answers and an honest theist is, like a scientist, still finding and searching for them. Quite frankly, this search may take him a lifetime, and any theist worth his salt would not cavalierly say, "oh, i just take all that at face value."

He is in fact willing to sit an atheist down and have a tête-à-tête with him. He is prepared to concede some grounds. He is also prepared to defend others. And his ignorance is not masqueraded in the cloak of arrogance or mythical wand-waving.

Now then, looking at it in this light, don't the atheist and the theist have more in common between them than the petty differences that threaten to separate them?

So, deep inside, I think our quest to find or deny God is to me a quest to want to believe that He exists. Maybe not in the way other religions have, in their evangelistic zeal, compelled us to believe. But somehow, in a way that only we can experience the supernatural in our own terms and time.

So, by extension, while an unbeliever may die denying the supernatural, he will not die a full-fledged atheist. This is just what I think. And I think it so because there is always a lingering doubt in his mind, even a smidgen, that he can't be all too sure after all.

Now, going back to the scenario above, I will avoid engaging the questioner in a heated debate if I detect his intransigence, because I am tired of defending God the way an atheist expects me to defend Him, that is, by mental persuasion.

I personally believe that a true conversion is a journey for the heart to make and not the mind. And the longest journey one can take in this life is one from the head to the heart. Moreover, you can't change a life with words alone. A life can only be changed by another life.

So, if I go to heaven one day and confront God on his apparent hidden-ness, I cannot speculate what He will tell me because of my limited human understanding. But at least, this is one thing I believe God will say:-

"Son, if you want to know me, really know me, you can find me in the life of my son. Because in the same way that my son did not live in vain, he did not die in vain either." 

Maybe, just maybe, there's something about that life that the atheist has, in his preoccupation to deny him, overlooked. In other words, maybe his journey from the head to the heart ended even before it started. Cheers.


  1. Erudite as usual, Mike. In fact, I'm saving your name in my phone as 'Erudite Mike'.

    My only 'disagreement', for lack of a better word, is as you describe, 'in degree and not in kind'. I agree with the tenor of the post, and think it makes good sense. The point I am about to disagree on is one and the same which I think is one of the most haunting and salient points made - so, if you can ignore the paradox of my both applauding and questioning your sentiment for a moment, indulge me.

    You mentioned that 'God has undergone a makeover by his creation', before detailing a laundry list of how various (mostly Christian) traditions have sought to define, redefine and (I think this is your point) caricature God. God is now the toothy, buck-toothed, big-eared, wide-eyed cartoonish figure whose features we like best we accentuate. You mentioned the risk of oversimplifying, and I think you're right on the money there, because I fear that your list does play into that risk. We come from a similar church tradition, I think, and I can understand why you would think this way. In fact, I often do. But to do so is quite reductionist- not to mention a little bit revisionist and cheeky. Evangelicals believe in a God who rewards big if they believe in him big? I don't know many Evangelicals who would fall into that category, as certain as I am that they would probably never describe their faith as such. Catholics defining their belief on the centrality of the Pope? For some, maybe, but at best that is a reading of strands of Roman Catholicism. You have made tremendous moves to uphold the space the atheist deserves to state his claim, but I think here you could have shown the same amount of grace to evangelicals, catholics etc. that you so clearly possess and is so intrinsic to your nature.

    I completely agree with you that one denomination's definition of God should not be the QED of who God really is. But the Christian tradition, that body that is borne out of the Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection, that narrative that stretches from Genesis to Revelation and beyond, that call to a cruciform discipleship founded in the witness of scripture to God in Christ - these are the values and benefits of identifying with the Christian tradition - in their various forms. God will not be defined anywhere approaching 100% accuracy by anyone, but yet 'anyone who has seen' Jesus has 'seen the Father (John 14:9)', for 'in Christ the fullness of the Deity dwells in bodily form.'(Col 2:9) Yes, God is by definition the one who cannot be defined (here comes that paradox again), but 'he is not far from each one of us' (Acts 17:27). So while I concur that the picture of God that we hold might not be recognizable by God as his own picture, that doesn't mean that we haven't been given the tools with which to try. I belabor this point only because the last five paragraphs were so stunningly on point, elegantly written, and carefully constructed that I would recommend them for any catechism class on how to behave gracefully in the world.

    In the end, I suppose I am writing because I am convinced that to neglect the world and retreat into a sectarian ecclesiology is to neglect the goodness of God's creation and, more importantly, the goodness of God that extends to all creation. Yet, despite our frustration with some aspects of our local churches, to neglect the church is to dismiss God's preferred/chosen way of ministering in the world. And while it is natural to come away jaded with institutional ecclesial structures (and especially leaders) after all we've gone through (both as individuals and as a family), this messed-up Bride is still God's...

    Having said all that, and I apologize for the lengthy comment, I return to the thought I began this with: you have written a wonderful piece that deserves to be read and reflected on. So I hope you don't mind me commenting!

  2. Thanks bro for your comments. You are right in a way that I have planted my feet too comfortably (or deeply) in the atheist's shoes as it clearly shows in my taking liberal potshots at the evangelicals. I seek their pardon. But I was just letting out some steam in the same way we sometimes do as a result of being all too "jaded with institutional ecclesial structures (and especially leaders)". And as you so winsomely put it, in an earnest attempt to steer the "wayward" back to the "way-forward", in this impish phrase, "this messed-up Bride is still God's." That point I will eventually and most humbly concede; but not without some occasional petulance on my part, of course (or else, mike won't be "mic" right?)

    Mmm..."messed-up Bride"...that gives me a metaphorical picture of a hard-to-please bride, nitpicking at her seams, hyperventilating with her tailor, complaining about the wedding decor, demanding impeccable services, attention and menu choices, and wanting nothing less than perfection on that life-defining day...let's hope the Bridegroom "matches" up to her, that is, perfection for "perfection". See, see...old habits die hard. Petulance personified!

    Anyhow, back to the subject. And finally, your "tools" to capture the definitional apotheosis of the Divine is vintage theological wine which I will be drinking from and be in the high spirits for days to come.

    So, indulge you I shall. But more fittingly, such indulgence so called by you brings to my unvarnished table a great feast of learning, knowledge and sublimity that I can only say in return with indebtedness, "Bro, the pleasure is truly, most unmistakably, mine." Cheers.

  3. You have a way of conceding a point that makes the person who 'objected' i.e. in this case - me - wonder what I was 'contesting' in the first place. As usual, you write with grace, humility and no small amount of sagacity. We are most definitely on the same page, and I share the deep pleasure of learning together with you; if I were honest, most of the time, because of (rather than together with) you. :D

    Looking forward to future posts. Keep 'em coming bro!