Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Year Without Meaning

Former Pastor Ryan Bell spent last year on a journey towards atheism.  His blog Year Without God documents his pushing of the limits of theism and viewing the landscape of atheism to see where it might all lead. Now the year has ended he is an atheist, although he is agnostic in the sense that he cannot know with absolute certainty that there is no God.

What encourages me about Ryan's story is how it highlight's those who are willing to push and challenge their belief system in search for deconstruction and reconstruction. It is not necessarily a search for truth per se (although it can often be), but to discover 'strange new worlds'.  The push of the boundary of our belief systems, the desire to hear unfamiliar voices and the existential struggle within are all a wonderful opportunity for discovery and liberation.

What frustrates me though is how Ryan has somehow completely reversed his belief yet stuck with the same system. 

It is like flipping a coin and deciding to believe in heads or tails when what is needed it a removal of the coin.

What do I mean by this?

Ryan found the whole belief system he was in becoming increasingly untenable in light of his own theological and existential challenges. His journey to atheism is a result of these struggles and the ongoing conversation he has been having with many different people. The problem lies in that Ryan has reduced it all to meaning; what provides meaning? Why are we here? etc etc.

I absolutely believe this to be an important question, one that deserves continued energy and time, but if our faith, atheism or otherwise is reduced to this philosophical question then we all too easily slip into lazy, pseudo versions of events.

An example of this is in Ryan's latest blog post where he says,

'Perhaps there is an intelligence that had a hand in creating our universe. As yet we have no evidence of that and, as Michael Shermer points out in his “Last Law,” any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence would be indistinguishable from God.'

This kind of comment is inadequate because everything that is being said here says nothing about the God of orthodox Christian faith, the God who does not exist in the same way created stuff exists. Christian history and theology has a depth that has long gone past these kind of comments, and yet through the sheer laziness and popularity of the so called 'New atheists' these kind of statements seem to re-emerge. Too often a concept of belief and right living is determined by its empirical evidence as though this is the benchmark for what we should adopt as truth. Yet how do you measure consciousness? Love? How do you measure the God who 'is not' the way that we 'are'?

Christian faith was not established upon 'meaning' but upon a Person. And not a Person who gives 'meaning', but a Person who simply calls us to follow Him. Without doubt in that following we may discover meaning - we also may not - the goal rather, the telos, is relationship with God, with each other.

Even here though, in this word 'meaning' we have a problem because it is usually applied to some sense of 'lack' within us. So we search for ways to deal with this 'lack' to provide 'meaning'. Jesus did not come to deal with some kind of 'lack', rather he came to deal with what is already here! He came to do a removal of sin and death uncovering the life and love and image of God.

Nietzsche said, 'And those who were dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.'  Too much of our belief systems are simply different sides of the same coin, whereas we need insanity, those who can hear the music of the apophatic tradition, of uncertainty, those who are willing to cast off the shackles of nostalgic, sentimental, capitalistic belief structures, searching for life and belief beyond.

This is why Jesus is so misunderstood and why the early Christians were called 'atheists', because everything everyone understood about God and the world was being radically transformed. The coin with Caesar's head needs to be thrown away so that what we believe is not dictated to us by power, violence, lack or meaning, but by love, grace, forgiveness and relationship.

I wish Ryan grace and peace in his continued journey, I just hope he is willing to push beyond the system of belief he is in. Perhaps he needs to try a year without meaning.

There is a very real place for doubt, atheism and uncertainty, especially within communities of faith. I'll pick this up tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

Ryan has had a single year to begin to figure stuff out, Christianity has had over two thousand years and it is still divided on the basics!
Give the bloke a break he may be of the "New Atheism" but he is also a very new atheist I am sure as he progresses his language will change.

Joe Haward said...

Undoubtedly his language and beliefs will develop and change, but I'm just not convinced by where he is at right now in terms of the system of belief he is operating in. The last year has not been in isolation, he's had many years of Christian ministry and study, so it surprises me to read some of his views. I simply thought his atheism would've been a little more sophisticated than it currently is. But you're right, it will most likely develop.

Nicola Wood said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nicola Wood said...

Having decided his old version of Christ didn't work because of what he'd learnt during the year, it's shame he didn't have another look at God. God, rather than the trappings. I'm not the Christian I was after I went forward at Billy Graham now. And the Christian I am now isn't the one I will be. But God is still there, unchanging.

There is still much to explore and I wish him luck!

Joe Haward said...

Yeah, I agree Nicola. Will be interesting to see how his journey develops over time.

Hadn't realised you had a blog! Will check it out. :)