Not too long ago I had an interesting conversation with a long lost friend who had become an atheist. As we reminisced long-forgotten memories we also had to talk about faith and unfaith. Both of us grew up in a fundamentalist faith community and it was during that time that we had met. We lost touch, but over the years, at different times and in different ways, both of us distanced ourselves from the faith we once belonged to. Unlike my friend, though, I decided not to become an atheist, though the option is always open to me as a genuine possibility.
Maniacal Masochistic Deity
My friend narrated how his becoming an atheist had been an absolutely necessary component to his mental survival. As he explained this, I remembered the rather extreme mentally abusive circumstances of his upbringing.
“So, atheism basically constituted liberation for you,” I suggested.
“Yes,” he nodded in agreement, “that’s basically it. In order to cast off the demons of the past, I had to get rid of god.”
We both grinned, knowing what this must sound like to the faith community we once belonged to.
“I still find it difficult to throw away the family bible that is still in my possession, though” he admitted. “And I wonder if that is still this fear of having to spend an eternity in consuming hellfire.”
I understood where he was at. My friend had to pass through the impassable door of non-faith into the freedom of no longer being haunted by the specter of eternal damnation. His decision for atheism was nothing short of salvation.
I genuinely believe that salvation is the proper nomenclature here. What helps, transforms, liberates, or saves us very much depends on the context we find ourselves in. If this context is a fear mongering faith that basically exploits people and forces them to conform to a random standard of behavior the violation of which is punishable by death, liberation will come in the form of its subversion. This subversion consists of a radical denial of the god who empowered that system and a flagrant disobedience of its suffocating ethics.
Passing Through the Door
I just as easily can give a Christian interpretation of my friend’s life, however. I could for instance say—and that is what I, in fact, do—that in the liberation of atheism, my friend found the freedom of God. That it takes the form of atheism is simply because the god my friend had learned to worship was a maniacal masochistic deity who desired nothing more than to put innocent children in hell. It is no wonder, then, that the form freedom takes is that of atheism. As a Christian, I believe God—if God is real—is present to such atheism, even when this is never acknowledged.
I would like to take this one step further though. Or rather, understanding atheism as salvation from my (admittedly way too liberal) Christian viewpoint, points to a deeper reality. Salvation is not so much an object. Neither does it consist of a definable set of tenets. It is precisely because such liberation cannot be defined and can take such a variety of forms, that we need to look elsewhere to identify that which constitutes salvation.
We don’t have to look far. It is the door that my friend had to walk through to the unknown in direct defiance of the damning god. That door hinges on the decision to let go, the willingness to let everything you have to be taken from you, the preparedness to lose all certainties that formed your previous world as meaningful, well-ordered, safe, and predictable. That is because that world was also a constriction frame of mind. Such a stifling relationship with the past can sometimes be a prison, if not, at times, a suffocating trap.
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The door I speak of has many names. Some call it deconstruction because if you take it all apart carefully reasoning your way from the top to bottom, you have pieced to reassemble something new. Some call that door a hell because the very thing that cuts you loose hurt like hell. Pain may come before healing, but at times you wonder if it’s all worth it. I personally like to call it subversion, because old paradigms are upended, a safe world is turned upside-down. Subversion is the art of taking something that is familiar to the old world and use it to change literally e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g! Just as my friend took his atheism (that position of godlessness in his old world) and redescribed it as salvation.
As a Christian, I go quite far in affirming the wildly open-ended-ness of what comes after. Yes, it is true that often people go through hardship and only end up in more trouble than they were before. What lies behind the door is not always good. I will not say that every deconstruction or subversion is always healthy. There is a risk and even danger involved. Indeed, it is at times experienced as hell! But I’m deeply convinced that a tree is proven by its fruit. The proof is in the pudding.
There was one person who called this door, this process, the leap of faith. In the leap of faith, one jumps into the unknown, uncertain of something or somebody will catch you. In the leap of faith, one has to let go of all the tools with which one was able to find one’s place in the world. The person who coined this term was Søren Kierkegaard. It is partly because of him that I dare to applaud my friend’s movement to atheism as a deeply Christian form of liberation.
Kierkegaard made it very clear that the only way to reach a higher form of existence is not by ascending the ladder of ethical behavior within the known constructs of the world that is. Such self-improvement often leads to ethical hubris, which in many ways is the very opposite of what ethical people try to achieve in their lives. Kierkegaard pointed to the moment of decision in which we let go of ourselves, our paradigms, and ethical ascendancy in order to abandon ourselves in the leap of faith.
Kierkegaard’s ideas have been very influential, not just among Christians, but especially among a philosophical movement called existentialism. The beauty of Kierkegaard’s thought is that, though his ideas are deeply Christian, they are at the same time applicable to both faith and unfaith. This is because wherever true transformation takes place and genuine truth and freedom emerge.
Some will wonder how such transformation, that usually doesn’t mention the name of Christ and is not aware of the guidance of a Holy Spirit, can still be called Christian, spiritual, or salvific. But isn’t it true, though, that if the Christian faith is truly true, that it, in fact, does address the human being in her existential context? Isn’t it truly true that the truth of the Gospel can only be truth if it corresponds to humanity’s humanity? Yes, subverting it, but also corresponding to it! The more it gets locked up in dogmatic structures and confessions that demand absolute allegiance, the more it becomes dated human hubris.
This is not to say that structures, paradigms, or diligent ethical efforts are useless. The opposites of construction and deconstruction, structure and subversion, ethical living and the leap of faith need to be kept in a sort of dualistic balance. However, if you look for salvation, go for the door and walk right through it. That is what Jesus teaching was all about.
In the end, all genuine transformation, deconstruction, and subversion—precisely through its break with the old—opens up to the voice from outside. Anything that requires us to let go of our self-sufficiency, makes us receptive to that which truly liberates.
It is not the content of what we believe but the passion with which we embrace it that counts. In that sense, atheism can be salvation.
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