A Devout Atheist & Suffering

I just attended a forum with guest speaker Vanessa Zoltan, the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, where she spoke about her “devout atheism”. The forum was jam-packed with Christian seminarians interested in hearing and learning from someone who was willing to come talk openly about her Atheism, what it means, and what it does not mean.

Students at Gordon-Conwell during the forum
Students at Gordon-Conwell during the forum “Devout Atheists: A Closer Look at the Non-Religious Experience”

Vanessa’s story was fascinating, and I’ll mention one thing that struck me before moving onto the most moving point.

The first thing of interest was her position towards “the Sacred”. Vanessa has a well-developed sense of how humans can take things and treat them as “sacred”, and how we then learn from them just by taking that posture. As opposed to a Christian’s assumption that the reason that, say, the Bible inspires them and challenges them is that God is working in them or through it, Vanessa sees this possibility inherent in any sufficiently complex piece of writing, and stemming more from the human potential for these things which only needs the instigator. In her own experience, she took the book Jane Eyre and for months treated it as a sacred text, learning and growing into a better person through it. I find it fascinating that this term “the sacred”, which is now used rampantly among Christians, is so flexible and broad that an atheist can apply it to her own experiences. It reminded me of the analysis that Allan Bloom made of the term in The Closing of the American Mind and how its’ roots are solidly in Nietzche and the atheistic German school of philosophy. In this culture, despite the reduction of our attentions to only value 140 character quips, we talk too much,  in language whose meaning we do not explore, and thus, we talk about we know not what.

The second thing that struck me was her emphasis on suffering. Vanessa was raised Jewish and growing up she literally did not know one-single elderly person who was not a Holocaust survivor. For her, belief in God was absolutely impossible in the face of what her grandparents and all of their friends suffered. She relayed how she visited Jewish Temple still, but how the prayer “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord” was offensive to her, not because of what it said, but because this was often the prayer that the Jews would make right before they were gassed to death. As she put it during our Q & A “Either God was not looking, or there is no God.”

This moved me profoundly because my own theology has undergone dramatic shifts which sometimes, it seems to me, only atheists, or those who do not believe in God, seem to grasp fully. Most of those shifts revolve around suffering.

In the “Classical” tradition of theology, which most Catholics and Protestants have inherited, God’s “essence” or “being” does not suffer. Suffering, it is assumed, means that one is not in control, because if one could avoid suffering, why wouldn’t they? Thus, it is impossible for God, who is the most powerful being, to be impacted and suffer from anything that happens in his created order. Obviously, this seems to fly in the face of the revelation of God in Christ, but theology has its’ ways (and I appreciate them, even though I disagree with most). In addition, the Classical statements of the divine attributes, which imply that God foreknows (Arminian) or “foreordains (Calvinist) all things which will occur, ever, implies this fact:

“Either this is best possible world, or God deliberately created a world with more evil in it that was absolutely necessary”.

I’ll argue for that point in my next post, but assuming that is true, we can easily see how it flies offensively in the face of anyone who not only has suffered, but who empathically suffers. This is more than just suffering yourself. If you find yourself deeply affected by the suffering of others, as I suspect Vanessa has, it is not only your own experience which you must find a worldview to explain, but the suffering of your friends, of people who have been murdered and never found, violated and never consoled, people whom you have never met, but are able to mourn for at the thought of these disturbing realities. What Vanessa’s talk helped me realize was this:

While many branches of the Christian tradition are not yet ready to even touch the inherited understandings of God as immutable, impassible, and atemporal, there is a whole world of hungry lost souls waiting to hear that, possibly, God did not create the world with depression, suicide and rape as just a necessary part of what some would call “his incomprehensibly deep and beautiful design”; that, perhaps, God is not just “outside” of the universe, in his timeless, spaceless, impassible, moment-less “perfection”; but rather, as I think is clearly revealed by Jesus Christ on the cross, that He has fully entered our suffering, and is calling us to step into His kingdom as He finishes the war on death, suffering, and all that causes the Vanessa’s of the world to turn their face from Him. This invitation, and the image of God we’re given through Christ, is what I live for.

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