I am indebted to Joe (not his real name), who describes himself as an atheist (he likes to say he’s channeling Christopher Hitchens). Joe isn’t a member of the congregation but has attended a number of times. Although he appreciates our welcoming people of all beliefs and no beliefs and has actively participated in discussion groups, he’s still seeking that place where he feels ‘at home.’ Not having grown up in any religious tradition, he has no base from which to begin or against which to rebel. He’s also very scientific-minded, and wants proof for the claims of mystical experiences. “How do you know it’s not something you’re creating in your own brain,” he often asks.
Joe and I have coffee occasionally, and I am so grateful for our conversations because he keeps me on my theological toes. To most of his questions, I have to answer, “I don’t know” – a hard place for a pastor to be. But the thing is, he’s asking the right questions. And he’s asking the same questions that many people who are members of churches are asking (at least to themselves).
Atheists are interesting people, and they’re certainly not all alike. The fundamentalists among them are just as rabid as ours when it comes to their unbelief system. What bothers me most is that what they oppose in Christianity is not the Christianity that I adhere to. I think I read this in Marcus Borg somewhere, that his response to someone saying they don’t believe in God is, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” And when they respond with a description of an angry, punitive deity, his reply is, “Well, I don’t believe in that God either.”
The God I don’t believe in is the God of theism. I’d describe myself more as a panentheist, which to a fundamentalist Christian might look like atheism. You see, the terms are becoming irrelevant. Joe and I are on more common ground than one might think. I do wish for him a truly mystical experience. I know he’d still question its source, but I still wish it for him. It would make great conversation over our lattes.
I’ve been given a gift in having someone like Joe, who was brave enough to come through the doors for a while. I pray for him to find a place to be ‘at home’ in his seeking, a community where he can feel safe enough to push the boundaries of atheism, theism, panentheism, and all the rest. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy his company and his questions -and the coffee.