Atheism For Lent

Lenten Reflections

In the past here at Priestly Goth, I’ve taken Lent to offer up my reflections on this time of fasting, penitence and Self-Reflection.  This Lent my writing is focused on worship liturgy and tradition (continuing reflections begun here and here) , and human sexuality .   However, I thought as we conclude the first full week of Lent that I would direct readers attention to past reflections with brief comment.

Why Fast?  and  Further Reflections on Fasting.  Wrote these two posts Last year because the Oratory of Jesus Christ Reconciler decided to share in the fast (as each was able) fasting using Eastern Orthodox Lenten fast guidelines. We are doing so again this year.  Fasting has been and still remains for me a bit of a puzzle.  It is a spiritual practice I take part in (or maybe better attempt ) to but I don’t do it well, and I don’t Intuit the fast.  Fasting makes most sense to me in the patterns of the Church year of having periods of fasting and periods of feasting and celebration.  These aren’t the only reasons to nor patterns of fasting, but when I’ve tried fasting  outside of these liturgical patterns I become way to focused on the not eating, then any intensified sense of prayer or other spiritual benefits.

A couple of years ago I engaged Peter Rollins on his Atheism for Lent program and explored  the “atheism” Rollins was offering for lent with ST. John of The Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul.  I found certain parallels, but also significant differences.  thinking about that conversation in relationship to some of what I’m currently thinking on: I don’t want to offer and develop some new approach based on some idea or practice from the history of the Christian Church of some Saint of the Church, nor do I want to simply take whole cloth some past practice or idea and attempt to adhere to it as if time hasn’t passed.  What I seek to do is see those who have gone before as companions on the Way and to see what is passed down in the Tradition of the Church as something to live into as a person of the 21st century.  As I see it these two approaches need no retrieval, or bringing things forward, rather it is bringing myself to the Church and seeing what springs up from taking what i know and experience and offering it to what has been given to me through the life giving blood of the Church and the Mind of Christ, and the inspiration of the Spirit.  I receive and offer, not take and mold.  In both approaches something new will emerge.  One forms a new kind of Christianity, in the other one discovers in the treasury the old and new together..

And lastly a Lenten sermon for the firs Sunday of Lent “Seeing the Lie Behind the Truth.

I hope you may find these Lenten thoughts of benefit and an aid to your Lenten journey and practice this year.

Presence, Absence and Belief in God

I’m continuing to expand on some comments I made at over at glassdimily, as requested by Jeremy John.  In the previous post, I compared Peter Rollins and St. John of the Cross.  I concluded that a difference between Rollins and St. John is that while both may call for a radical doubt of our conceptions or beliefs about God; for St John there is a more radical act, that of trust in what is beyond our conceptions of God.

In Micah Bales post (yes I haven’t moved on just yet.  I think there is a great deal to unpack and good reason to sit with the disagreement between Micah Bales and Peter Rollins)  he used a comparison that I both understand and question, between needing God and needing air to breath.  In the context of Atheism for Lent and Rollins’ work this seems like admitting he needs his belief in God to get along in the world, that with out his beliefs he’d be unable to function in the world.  This is how Rollins’ chose to read Micah’s statement in his response to Micah.  When I first read Micah’s piece I chose to read it differently.   I heard him articulating that God is like air in that we as organisms can’t exist without it. Analogically God (not our beliefs about God) can be likened to  air as God can be said to be that in which all that exists subsists and receives it’s being as gift.

One doesn’t have to grasp what air is (and even saying air is imprecise as what we actually need is oxygen) or even name what we need correctly for the relation between my being alive and “air” to simply be the case.  

I also recognized the romantic element that Rollins points – As we may speak about a significant other, or spouse or lover as one whom one needs like air.   Such a statement can romantically speaking either simply be untrue or co-dependent, but it also can be a hyperbolic expression of true and deep intertwining of two people in a deep love and trust.  Thus, I heard Micah’s words as an expression of depth and experience of God as ultimate concern (to use Tillich’s term as Rollins did) as that which simply is in which all things have their existence.  But also, recognize that such analogy suffers from the limits of all metaphorical speech, and if taken literally is then problematic even destructive.

I interpreted Micah in this way because, as i said over at glassdimly,  as far as I can remember I’ve never given much importance to my experiences or “beliefs” of God.  Feeling God’s presence or feeling God’s absence were of no particular significance for the possibility of God.  I have long, first intuitively and then more consciously, been aware of what I might project upon God.  But I have also had moments of encounter that were not simply an experience of beliefs I might hold about God.  At three and ten years of age I experienced seeing the world glowing, become translucent with a light that came from nowhere and everywhere accompanied by an overwhelming sense of love for all.  At ten the experience occurred while sitting at the edge of the camp fire at church camp, somewhat bored with the campfire program, looking up into the starry night.  At a great depth in myself, answering a question I had hardly articulated and would always wrestle with, a thought/voice/resonance said “It is true.”  When queried “what is true”, the resonance simply insisted “It is true.”

 It is relevant to note that while I was baptized as an infant, the denomination in which I was baptized and raised  also had those who were very concerned that children “say the prayer of salvation”, concerned that we children of the church have a moment of conversion (my parents and their friends didn’t have such a concern).  I never went forward for an altar call. I never went forward or raised my hand in Sunday school.  I disliked those Sunday School teachers who felt it was their duty to get us to say some silly prayer.  Yet, it wasn’t that I doubted there was a God, or that I was to be in relationship with God.  I didn’t find the prayer necessary for me to be in relationship with God.  I was baptized after all.

Baptism and the experiences of the un-created light at three and ten, were the only overt experiences of God I had as a child.  The cathedrals of Europe and the shrine of Lourdes I encountered when eight and nine resonated with me but it was only as an adult that I came to recognize their spiritual impact.  

For much of my life God’s absence has been a more enduring experience, that is if evident spiritual experiences of God’s presence and God speaking to one are signs of God’s presence.

“Belief” in God, as I was taught to believe, had little to do with these experiences or even discrete propositional statements, called beliefs.  Even something like the Apostles Creed was not interpreted to me as beliefs I was to hold, rather it was given to me as expressions of a trust in God, who was totally other (though I didn’t use that phrase until an adult in college).  Belief was trust, it was faith, that is entrusting oneself to an other.   This ‘belief’ did not guarantee outcomes.  My father lost a number of jobs, often due to his faith (that is the way he lived his life as a person of faith).   Dad believed all the same, not in spite of the evidence, because trusting in evidence would suggest that God was an object to be manipulated and controlled for our benefit.

I never found apologetic literature, like that of Josh McDowell’s “Evidence that Demands a Verdict”, convincing let alone as having anything to do with the faith I had, or raised to believe.  I saw such apologetic as a profound lack of faith.

Once in University I plunged into intellectual exploration with gusto, I read widely, was part of a philosophical theological and literary group called The Society, we read Marx, Nietzsche  Feuerbach, and I surprised a Religious Studies professor in a course on Christianity and Marxism with my familiarity with Hegel, and Marx and Feuerbach.  Around this same period,  I doubted my salvation, was convinced I was going to hell, found myself to be an atheist (though I never stopped going to church, so if Wittgenstein is correct and practice and belief are intimately connected then I sabotaged my atheism, but also if Wittgenstein is correct atheism is just another language game no more true or real than any other).  In the midst of this or at the culmination or throughout this time, a persistent image remained of my self represented by large stone bricks suspended in space slowly dissipating into the nothingness, and as they dispersed at the center the crucified Christ was there, and it was the gravity of the crucified one on the cross that kept the pieces of myself from dispersing into oblivion.

Doubt, faith, relationship, and the Crucified One all conspired together to keep me in relation with God.  A god who is as absent as present, a god I believe in as I believe in other persons I trust and entrust myself to, not in the sense of mere propositions that have nothing to do with the real relationship, mere abstractions of a person.  I entrust myself not to that which props me up, but that which knows me and is closer to me than I know or am to myself.  Therefore each Sunday I say ” I believe in God…” not as some intellectual assent but an act of trust and love.

I have doubted. I have questioned all the major doctrines and dogmas of orthodox Christian faith.  I have more often than not felt God’s absence than God’s presence.  Even now as a pastor, someone committed to leading and aiding people in the spiritual life and a life of faith, God’s presence is not a consistent experience nor an experience upon which I depend.  I have no certainty.

As I transitioned from seminary to pastoral ministry, I recognized that beliefs and life of faith, the spiritual life, was more than struggling with questions and maintaining a dubious attitude towards the propositions of the faith handed on to me.  I came to see the creeds, the doctrines of Trinity, resurrection, divinity of Christ, and virgin birth as invitations to radical trust and commitment  precisely because they were things I doubted and because I could not solve them without remainder.  I committed myself to a path, though nothing solved without remainder.  I’m not certain, but I trust myself to the one who is other than I and in whom and from whom I have myself as a gift.


St. John of the Cross and Peter Rollins

(Authors note: What follows is not expert opinion.  I’m reliant upon others acquaintance with both St. John of the Cross and Peter Rollins.  The connection between the Dark Night of the Soul and Atheism for Lent is not mine, but Jeremy John’s.  I’m mainly familiar w/ St John of the Cross from general religious Studies courses and a seminary course on the spiritual discipline of silence.  I’m mainly familiar with Rollins based on his Insurrection Tour a few years ago, I attended one of his stops in a pub in Chicago.  Since then I have read his blog on occasion and caught a number of his videos.  I haven’t read any of his books.  I then in this especially stand to be corrected. I speak at the request of a friend who values my insight and so I offer to him and to you my reader what I have.  And what I have is this moment of intersection, I pray it is helpful to some.)

My friend Jeremy John, asked me to write something in response to his piece on Peter Rollins’ “atheism for Lent” and the dark night of the soul.

On some level I feel unqualified to speak.  Since asked, the dispute between Micah Bales and Peter Rollins worked itself through various corners of the internet.  Jeremy’s post responded to Bales original critical post of Peter Rollins.

Billy Kangas wrote, a couple of years ago over at The Orant, a far better post on the Dark Night of the Soul and Lent, than I could write.  So, I will be using Kangas’ summary of St. John of The Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul, to engage Jeremy, Peter and Micah.

I’m not certain that Rollins’ Atheism for Lent is the Dark Night of the Soul though some of St John of The Cross’ approaches to faith and God have some similarity to what Rollins seems to be encouraging people to realize through “atheism for lent” and his emphasis on the role of doubt.

There are 4 aspects that  Kangas draws out in his summary of The Dark night of the Soul, that have some overlap with Rollins.  St John of the Cross calls us to let go of our Spiritual practices as the guarantor of our relationship to God. Related to this is that St. John of the Cross also tells us we aren’t to concern ourselves with doctrinal certainty.  (Yes, a saint beatified by the Roman Catholic Church does not give much credence to certainty – hmm… this might reveal a certain complexity we often don’t recognize in “religious” organisms.).  You could say that St. John of the Cross recognized that God isn’t our ideas about God.  We can get stuck in our ideas about God.  (This seems to be the main point of connection between the dark night of the soul and Rollins’ Atheism for Lent.), Lastly Kangas points out that St. John of the Cross reminds us that we can get stuck in what helped us know God in the past.  God and our relationship to God can’t be contained in merely repeating the same disciplines and practices without thought or reflection.

I’d argue that there is some overlap between St. John of the Cross’  Dark Night of the Soul and Rollins’ Atheism for Lent and his lifting up the way of doubt.  In this Rollins calls us to let go of past practices, to give up certainty, and let go of our God-ideas.    But as Kangas also points out this is not all there is to the Dark Night of the Soul.  St. John of the Cross wants us to encounter a God beyond, a God who guides us through the transformation of ourselves.  Part of this Transformation is the dark night. Encountering the true God beyond our ideas, our practices, our certainties  is a terrible thing.

I can see that for some Rollins’ works and Atheism for Lent might provoke a dark night of the soul, it might lead someone to the point of this deep encounter with what is beyond all our certainties, ideas, and spiritual practices, but I’m not sure that Rollins’ focus on our ideas and practices we mistakenly name as God can guide one through to genuine encounter in the darkness.

To put it another way, Rollins’ project around doubt and his Atheism for Lent, might just be the practices that we can’t depend upon for our encounter.  I wonder if there is a place for the radical trust that St. John of the Cross is really calling us to.  Rollins enjoins us to a Radical doubt, and on some level so does St. John of the Cross, but more importantly St John of the Cross calls us to a radical trust even when all falls away, even when we can’t even bear our selves, even when our very sense of self begins to dissolve.   St. John of the Cross calls us to something unflinching, a trust beyond our knowledge and certainties, but based upon the one who leads us into the darkness and the desert.  And that one who guides us can’t simply be another human being.  At most we as human beings may accompany one another in these moments of this radical transformation, called the dark night of the soul.