Friday, July 31, 2009

A Theology for Atheists--Introduction

Labeling oneself in contradistinction to something else creates a peculiar kind of link: opposition. It is not true, then, that an atheist will not care about theology. She has tied her self-description to the view that she does not believe that the subject has an object. Presumably that position is important to her. Accordingly, it just might be important if someone takes the time to point out that the matter has not been properly understood. But this is not to be an attempt to convert atheists to theism. Rather, this theology for atheists takes up a more modest goal of creating a better understanding of what is being denied.

That said, the paradoxical fact is that a theology for atheists ought to be of even greater interest to theists. For no realistic theist can doubt that among the ranks of atheists are many well informed, sincere, and intelligent persons. Consequently, by engaging those persons who challenge their beliefs most radically, theists are given a prime opportunity to probe the object of their belief more fully. Surely a healthy faith will engage worthy challenges, not avoid them. By realizing the goal of creating a better understanding of what atheists deny--when theism is properly understood--the possibility of having a productive dialog is increased.

That said, the following statement just might unite theists and atheists in a common skepticism. When properly understood, something atheists do believe in--evolution viewed through the lens of philosophical naturalism--leads to a dilemma that the grand sweep of the biblical narrative both addresses and resolves.

It is a big claim. But to the atheist I make this point. Religion obviously occupies a central place in human history. Isn't it reasonable to explore whether there is an equally central reason in the evolutionary narrative for that unarguable fact? And to the theist I make this point: Unless you are a fundamentalist you need to frame your faith along side your understanding of evolution. If faith is to claim the central place in the lives of the faithful, and it must to be faith,1 doesn't that call out for an understanding of evolution that supports that claim? Fortunately, a candidate to produce that understanding for both the theist and atheist is not difficult to find, at least after one gets over the strangeness of the thought that evolution might actually help theists and atheists alike understand the point of faith better.

The followng words from St. Augustine almost shout the hypothesis that connects evolution to a better understanding of theology. "So my two wills, one old, one new...were in conflict, and they wasted my soul by their discord."2 A very short explanation suffices to make the connection.

With humanity evolution must be said to have taken a giant stride forward, from an animal that mostly expands to fill a niche in its natural environment to one that mostly modifies its environment to suit itself. If the world was a place where creatures mostly adapt to their environment, it became a place where the dominant species actively and knowingly adapts the environment to its will. To adopt theological language, the creatures began doing a lot of creating.

That view places us squarely in the opening biblical narrative, where the Creator makes humanity in the divine image: creatures made in the image of the Creator, presmably, will create. With the evolutionary narrative informing the biblical, it becomes clear that the Bible's starting point is pretty much the same as the most salient point about human beings from the evolutionary perspective: If evolution tells the tales of the survival of the fittest, for the first time an animal is going about the business of creating its fit, and is intelligent and self-aware enough to contemplate the consequences of its actions.

But as soon as that is said, we are reminded of Augustine's words, because only such a being can be expected to have "two wills": the will of the creature it is evolving out of and the will of the creature it is evolving into; "one old, one new" and "in conflict." The Genesis mythos portrays this precisely.

1. Paul Tillich's Dynamics of Faith argues this persuasively.
2. The Confessions of St. Augustine (Book 8, Chapter 5), tr. Rex Warner, (Mentor-Omega. New York, 1963) p. 168.

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