Saturday, August 17, 2013

Christian Atheism?

At first glance, the term "Christian Atheism" seems like nonsense.  How could such a belief exist that is simultaneously "Christian" and yet atheist at the same time?

The first thing to realize is it has nothing to do with Craig Groeschel's book entitled The Christian Atheist: Believing in God But Living as if He Doesn't Exist, which is simply an evangelical work on challenging oneself to live the Christian life more fully.  No, Christian atheism itself is something far different.

Christian atheism is a relatively recent phenomenon, seen especially in the work of such theologians as Paul van Buren and Thomas J.J. Altizer.  To me, it is the logical dead-end of a little over a century of modernism and liberal theology that has all but stripped the message of Christianity of any meaning outside of personal feeling.  Essentially, it states that the God of Christianity either never was, or is in fact "dead"; that the modern age is incompatible with traditional orthodox Christian belief; and that Jesus Christ was little more than an exemplary moral teacher.

From what I have been able to tell, the roots of this kind of thought can be found, at least in seed form, in the Jefferson Bible for instance (wherein Thomas Jefferson mutilated the Gospels by omitting and cutting out all supernatural events, miracles, etc.).  The idea of Jesus as simply a moral teacher can be found also, for example, in the spiritual writings of Leo Tolstoy, and I have found that some of the seeds of Christian atheism can be found latent in the difficult writings of Paul Tillich, a prominent Protestant theologian of the 20th century. 

Like atheism, Christian atheism states that there is no God, but more than that, it states that God is in fact dead and completely irrelevant to the modern era in which we now live. But what is frightening is that the parallels between Christian atheism and modernistic liberal theology are incredibly similar - Jesus is "the Christ" only in the sense of being an exemplar, a great moral teacher, but still in the end, merely a man who reached the heights of what we are called to live out in our lives.  He is a teacher and little else.

Now compare this to how we often hear Jesus talked about today, both without and within the Church - often, His divinity is de-emphasized to the point wherein one would forget that Jesus is God if they did not know better.  Christian atheism simply takes the currents of thought in liberal theology and drags it to its logical conclusions:  if Christ was only an exemplary man who was mythologized by the early Christians into a "great, pre-existent heavenly being who became man"1 (Rudolf Bultmann), if He ever existed at all, then the whole message of the cross is null and void as we have understood it in the orthodox sense.  God is then said to not exist, or even more bizarrely so, to actually have died.  Hence, the message of Christianity, of Christ, needs to be looked at in a radically new way.  This is where the Christian atheists, who, it seems, take Nietzsche's famous words concerning the death of God quite literally, come in.

To its credit, however, I think that Christian atheism is a far more honest position to take than if one were to simply embrace some of the pseudo-Christian thought that is little more than vacuous and non-descript pantheism concerned with feeling.  As paradoxical as the term "Christian atheism" may be, at least it has the honesty to take a firm position outside of the bounds of Christian orthodoxy rather than much of the modernistic theology that seemingly can't decide where it stands at all, and yet still masquerades as being orthodox behind a wall of academic obscurities.  

One need only witness the words of such modernistic theologians as Edward Schillebeeckx, who declares that "in the man Jesus the revelation of the divine and the disclosure of true, good and really happy men and women... completely coincide in one and the same person."2  If one is only ever fed with the central driving forces behind modernistic thought, I honestly don't see how anyone could arrive at a much better position. 

This is why orthodox Christian teaching and belief is so important.  The Fathers were not concerned with "finding" the "historical Jesus" - the Apostles knew Him, the earliest Fathers knew the Apostles who knew Him, and so on from there - thus, the importance of Tradition, something often completely ignored by modern Christianity as though it never existed.  If we are detached from the living Tradition of the Church, if the only criteria used to investigate the faith of Christianity is deliberate skepticism, criticism, and a constant desire to make an ancient and timeless faith supposedly "relevant" to this one particular age, if all that the inexplicably well-known popular liberal theology of today can tell us is that Jesus was simply an exalted man who was very nice and showed us how to be nice to others, then no wonder such a thing as Christian atheism even exists.

1 - Jesus Christ and Mythology, I:2
2 - qtd. in Klaas Runia, The Present-Day Christological Debate, pg. 56

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