atheism for lent, day three: suspicion and faith
The reading for DAY THREE: a selection from Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Emeritus Merold Westphal’s book Suspicion and Faith.
In this work, Westphal coins the concept and the phrase “Atheism for Lent,” which Peter Rollins uses for this Lenten practice. Westphal posits that “Atheism for Lent” fulfills the deepest purpose of Lent: aiding “the victory of the Spirit over the flesh, the religious over the secular.” Lent seeks to move the participant from penance to penitence to repentance. Kinda like this:
- Penance (an outward act) and its acts aren’t an end in themselves. Abstaining from something (foods, pleasures, entertainments, etc.) ain’t gonna get you anything if it doesn’t lead you into
- penitence (an inward feeling), which happens on the core emotional level: a deep sorrow for “sin” (let’s just use that word for now because it’s convenient and try not to be too attached to or revolted by it). Furthermore, as “faith without works is dead,” so is this deep sorrow meaningless without
- repentance. In the biblical usage, this word means “turning around.” Basically, if you repent, you’re back at actually doing something — you’re doing a “180” and walking in a different direction from where you were headed before. This is change observable. We’ve come back to an outward act that demonstrates a sort of resurrection. A death to one life and and arising into a new one.
Here’s the kicker, though.
Westphal insists that the “works of the flesh” (I know there’s a lot of scripture–wordage going on here, and because I’m pressed for time, I’m submitting to the convenience. Hit me up in the comments and let’s talk through some definitions and varying shades of understanding about this stuff. Works, flesh, sin, blah blah Christian jargon emergency blah. Let’s work through it.)
Anyway, Westphal insists that the “works of the flesh,” the stuff for which we must needs do Lenten penance, includes our piety, our religious opinions, our religious practices. We must repent of our works. We must repent of our faith.
Not only that, but this penance–>penitence–>repentance isn’t something we can confine to one season per year. It shouldn’t be an event isolated from the rest of our living. It should be an event with dimensions of depth that characterizes our entire lives continually.
So yikes and yeah, what we’re saying here is that Atheism for Lent is, in its ideal and pure form, A/Theism for Life.
Westphal goes into Martin Luther’s and Karl Barth’s assertions that we humans pick and choose those works and acts of worship that we ourselves like. We pick the ones that conform to our ethics, our morality, our paradigm. Luther calls this superstition and idolatry. Barth calls it creating “an illusory God in our own image.”
As a personal aside, I’m reminded of my my work-in-progress, Watchful Dragons: Return of the Pelegrin. I have my heroine, Gillian, questioning and doubting the religious structure of the world she’s in. Her antagonist, Pyratia, challenges her:
Pyratia: I wouldn’t want to live in a world where the Deity does not exist. Even if it’s only in my imagination.
Gillian: You just want a safe deity, one you can control.
The “illusory God” we can relate to is a God that gives us confidence and security. Not to mention power.
The ends do not justify the means.
Barth says: “The cry of revolt against such a god is nearer the truth than is the sophistry with which men attempt to justify him.”
Westphal points out Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud, who all heavily critiqued the “convenient God” of the Christendom they lived in. The atheism of these three is closer to “God” than are the religions that claim “Him,” because this trio refuses to accept the reality of a God that just happens to be exactly what we humans want God to be. And here we’re back at the “Regional Atheisms” that Rollins mentioned on DAY ONE.
How do I feel about all this?
I have never believed in the “Santa Claus” iteration of God. Until the last year or so, I have never in my life articulated it like this, but I have always felt the resonant truth in this: that I *am* an atheist in that I always revolt against any church or religion that reduces the Absolute Ultimate (whatever that is) to a tool for getting that we want and having some unassailable Divine Sanction of our methods for getting it.
Taking these thoughts and holding them in front of my nose and peering at them through a magnifying glass, I feel wholly comfortable in this a/theist space. I feel comfortable in the uncomfortable gap.
A/theism refuses to give Self over to God in exchange for blessings, be they temporal or eternal. A/theism does not see God as a dealer or a tradesman who bargains. There is no contract or compact or covenant here.
God isn’t a vending machine.
You don’t put in
- a “worship service” that comprises the “5 Acts of Worship”
- any other form of “doing the right thing”
and get eternal life out.
You don’t commit your life to God and get a temporal or eternal reward for it. This is nothing more than love of Self disguised in layers of makeup, prostheses, and costumes, and then paraded around as “Love for God.”
I feel angry. I feel vindication. I feel loss. I feel resonance.
I feel raveled and unraveling.