Recently I have suggested that Christians need first to listen to atheists (before critiquing them) in order to see what we hold in common and to see atheists more as God sees them. Now I want to take that a step further:
Listening to atheism’s critiques can help Christians better follow Christ.
Nope, I mean it. Literally.
Nor is this some nifty footwork born of Reformed theology. In other words, I am not suggesting that atheists are some “canonized group” that God has destined to live and die as God’s adversaries, to test and refine the character of us “true believers.”
No. I firmly believe that God loves all humanity equally and desires that all—all—humans come into right relationship with God.
Instead, the issue is deeper and more complex. The issue is that the church is not what it should be because it has adopted postures that wrongly collapse tensions necessary to right Christian living into rigidified hierarchies. Further, because these same hierarchies are presented as articles of faithfulness within the church, the church is effectively blinded to the problem. In such cases I believe that it takes critically informed outsiders to awaken the church to these unbalances.
So what are these postures?
First, the theological tension between the Holy Spirit’s assistance of believers and the unavoidable effects of sin1 is often collapsed. The upshot is that many Christians over-emphasize the Spirit’s benefits to the point that it all but obscures the fact that we remain finite humans apt to turn our backs on God (often by deceiving ourselves about how–and how much– we embrace the very practices and beliefs that we claim to disavow).
Once this first tension is collapsed into a hierarchy it becomes all too easy similarly to rigidify confidence over humility, such as in situations where Christians engage with non-Christians, particularly hostile non-Christians or atheists. Typically these Christians preemptively (and to their detriment) disparage the insights of non-Christians regarding Christian practice, belief, and Scripture because they “know more (and better)” than the non-Christians.
Second, the interpretive (or hermeneutical) tension between biblical truth and lived experience in knowing God (and to live the Christian life) is often collapsed. The upshot is that many Christians over-emphasize biblical truth to the point that it obscures how love (as central to God’s character) and Christian living both find their fullest expression in committed engagement, not mere examination.
Once this second tension is collapsed it becomes all too easy again to rigidify (attachment to Biblical) truth over love (of neighbour) in situations where such Christians engage with fellow Christians who read the Bible differently. Typically these Christians disregard the insights of their fellows, such as Liberation Theologians,2 but in doing so they fail to love they neighbour as themselves by failing to respect his or her ideas and texts as their own.
So what does this all mean?
In both cases it means that the church is no longer what it should be. On the one hand, setting confidence over humility encourages exclusion of other views such that Christians risk falling “into a situation of interpretive arrogance, . . . thinking our words are God’s word.” (Reading in Communion, 110, italics mine). On the other hand, setting textual explanation over lived understanding (and valuing [biblical] truth over love [of neighbor]) is reductionistic, with the consequence that Christian communities risk being “at best introspective and at worst sectarian.” (Reading, 110).
So what should be done? Instead of dispute, we need dialogue.
For Christians, dialogue begins by believing that if all truth is God’s truth then we need not fear truth, wherever it may be found. Dialogue also involves loving the other by listening to them—engaging with their perspectives not by “trying to discover the weakness in what is said, but in bringing out its real strength.” (p Truth & Method, 367).
Dialogue as loving one’s neighbour does not imply uncritical acceptance of another’s conclusions, but rather means prioritizing listening to critique by perceiving their appraisals of Christian practice and belief as “gifts” which may allow Christians to see themselves more truthfully.3