Q: What might happen if Christians first dialogued with atheists about our points of agreement, rather than disputed our disagreements?
From the average Christian, stunned silence. Or questions like: What would be the point of that?
The point, actually, would be learning something. And not simply something trivial about “those poor atheists” en route to witnessing to them, but something deeply true (and perhaps even essential) about ourselves as Christians.
More stunned silence, I wager. But consider this:
Where the Bible indicates that Christians (and all people) “know in part”1 it is calling for Christians to hold confidence and humility in flexible and variable tension. Thus “knowing in part” implies that all truth is God’s truth (and not ours, as Christians)2 and therefore that Christians should welcome truth wherever it is found (even, as Augustine notes, within “the teachings of the pagans”3).
Hence the need for “tension”: maintaining suppleness regarding how much confidence versus how much humility we apply in any given situation, with the practical upshot that we cultivate the flexibility to adjust this proportion based on new contexts and new information.
In the most general sense, the result of maintaining this tension (and not assuming that we know all that we need to know about atheists) is that we hold off our criticism long enough to listen. And in listening we find some shocking similarities. For example, we learn that even the most ardent atheists are concerned about the same things we Christians are.
So where Bertrand Russell vouches that “‘the good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge’ ” (of which he claims love is the greater)4, a discussion with such outsiders to Christianity embraces considerations (like love and truth) with which Christians may competently and enthusiastically engage. Moreover, when we attain Bertrand Russell’s goals we are actually faced with “the problem of good:” having to account for and express wonder at truth, and at the reality of being loved and in love.
Next, where Christians can acknowledge that the atheist’s demand for proof of God’s existence amounts to a common need to “taste and see” God’s goodness (“common” because such experiences of God not only strengthen but create faith), Christians learn not to subordinate experience and sense perceptions to theology.5
So rather than disputing atheists with Scripture Christians can agree, in our post-Shoah world, that God’s love must “show up” in opposition to evil. Thus instead of disdaining the human need to validate–and the created ability to perceive–goodness in our lived experience, Christians can foster dialogues about what counts as goodness in the ‘here and now’.
Last, given that “no one is born a Christian”6 and that God approaches humanity in creative and surprising ways, Christian must not insist that atheists “think like them” before these outsiders can understand or love aright.
Rather, productively dialoging with outsiders requires Christians to recognize their own conversions (i.e., the situations and understandings that enabled new experiences of God’s truth and love for them) as the gold standard that underwrites their arguments and validates their theological viewpoints. Thus defending our Christian convictions requires not theological but personal explanation (which in turn contain theological, philosophical, psychological, historical elements and so forth).
This personal content is not superfluous but is intrinsically necessary as that which renders our philosophical arguments and theological viewpoints plausible and enticing to those outside of Christianity.
So by listening to atheists Christians first understand that they have misjudged how much we share in common with them. Second, the conversations arising from an awareness of shared interests are less disputes fueled by our need to defend God’s truth (and to present biblical truth claims) as dialogues explaining our experiences of God’s truth and love (as our personal, embodied examples of biblical truth values).
When we first dialogue with them, Atheists then become people that need to be understood and loved rather than enemies that need to be contradicted, defeated, or converted. In other words, we are able to treat them as God sees them: tremendously valuable and worthy of respect… just like us.
- 1 Cor 13:12 NRSV. ↩
- “Christians should understand that truth, wherever they may find it, belongs to their Lord” St Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, p 144; II, 18 (28) ↩
- “Some true things are to be found among the teachings of the pagans about worshiping only the one God.” De Doctrina Christiana, Ibid., p 160; 40 (60) ↩
- “He has no hesitation in pronouncing love to be the more important of these two attributes.” Bertrand Russell, What I Believe, in James Sellers, The Outsider and the Word of God: A Study in Christian Communication, 15 ↩
- Stated differently, Christians learn not to subordinate creation to salvation but to regard both equally and maintain them in productive tension with each other. ↩
- Tertullian ↩