The Atheism of Discipleship
Luther’s theology of the cross, it is sometimes asserted, opened the way to the atheism of the modern age. The cross as the symbol of the hiddenness of God in the midst of reality, confounding reason, always harbors the threat of God’s non-being; it is always possible that behind the hiddenness of God behind the cross is nothing; that the veil of the cross will eventually reveal nothingness. The suffering Christ crying out ‘My God, my God, why have You forsaken me’ is truly godforsaken. While Luther did not intend this, of course—for otherwise he would not speak of hiddenness but absence—the cross is always an ambiguous place in his theology. It is a place of paradox.
How can, one wants to ask, the very place where God reveals Godself, that is, Christ on the cross, be the place where the One most intimately related to God suffers in utter desolation? How can the moment that God is most near to humanity in God’s outpouring love in Christ, be the moment of which we say: God was not there. How can the absence be place of presence? What if it is all nothingness, illusion? What if we truly stare in a dark abyss from which one doesn’t emerge? Christ’s question was not answered; at least not on the cross. Heaven remained silent. For our purposes we can call this the atheism of the cross. Not in the sense that the conclusion must be drawn that God does not exist, but rather, that for all practical purposes, God’s existence is up for grabs in the here and the now. No comforting words are allowed, only the gut-wrenching cry of godforsakenness. Whoever interrupts this question with words of comfort and impending fulfillment, commits sacrilege.
In our second move we extend this notion of atheism, theo-absence, or the divine void. In the narrative of the confession of Peter (as recorded in the Gospel of Mark, Mk 8:22-38). His “Thou Art the Christ” is one of the highlights of the gospel. One of the few moments that the disciples seem to hit on the truth concerning Jesus’ identity. Much of Jesus’ entire ministry seems to be lost on them. They don’t get Jesus. It is as if even the truth of Jesus’ life is hidden from their eyes. And even in this sublime moment of clarity and focal attention on the heart of the matter, Peter and the disciples miss the point. That is the whole point of the narrative, of course.
Jesus proceeds to explain what “You are the Christ” truly means. It means that this Christ, this “Son of Humanity,” will have to suffer terribly to the point of death. Just when you think that the revelation of Jesus’ identity as the Christ should usher in a moment of glorious rapture—at least at this point in the gospel narrative—you are disappointed. Peter, of course, is rebuked. He wrongly assumes that his “christology from below” (based on the results of Jesus’ ministry being discussed by Jesus and the disciples) makes him an insightful person who was in a position to warn Jesus not to get too eager to suffer. But he is wrong. He doesn’t know what being “Christ” truly means, for it is hidden in the hiddenness of God. In Jesus’ “christology from above,” being Christ means to suffer, to be rejected by mankind and God alike, to hang suspended between heaven and earth, belonging neither here nor there. It means being the unanswered question “Why have you forsaken me?”
The disciples are not given a minute to ponder this extended revelation of the concept of Messiah. The soon-to-suffer-Messiah tells his followers that they too have to take up their cross—presumably to be crucified. To die is to find life! Followers of Jesus have to take up their cross and follow Christ! Follow where? Into the divine void of godforsakenness—not simply death. We are to lose our lives while relying on the faint promise that this is the way to gain it. But that will only be after death, after the darkness, after the unrelenting absence of God.
Let’s call this the atheism of discipleship. It is discipleship’s most overlooked aspect. We have a picture of discipleship in which the heroic individual follows Christ wherever he leads (if need be a heroic death), but always with a positivism of meaning and presence. It is the disciple who knows what happens, why it happens, and that she is not alone. But Christ leads his followers to where he was led himself: on the cross of paradox, an ambiguous fate, the agony of forsakenness. It is where God’s presence has turned into absence that a disciple of Christ should be willing to say: “This is my place; suspended between calling and promise I am abandoned and left alone. For all practical purposes, I live alone, abandoned by God. Whether I will survive or succumb is out of my reach. I cry out to the One who has left only an empty void of nothingness.”
The hiddenness of the cross must become the disciple’s existential experience. It is no longer something confounding human reason but the abyss of darkness into which no one wants to stare. It is to existentially be without God. This is not to say that this experience exhausts the notion of discipleship, but that there is no discipleship without it. For some this experience turns into the declaration that indeed there is no God. This is an atheism that closes the gap of ambiguity. It no longer wants to struggle and rejects the tension abandonment brings. But abandonment is only abandonment if there is one who abandons. And therefore we need an atheism of discipleship, or rather, an atheism that refuses to declare that God does not exist but nevertheless dares to say that God is absent: “God where are you, because you are not here!” For the sake of truth, for the sake of Christ.
It is not hard to connect this with Bonhoeffer’s call to the church to live in this world “as if God is not given,” even though Bonhoeffer’s concept is not identical to my argument. Bonhoeffer’s focus was on a world that was changing. The secular world that we have been inhabiting for decades already was one that he was on the threshold of. Bonhoeffer issues his call to live as if there is no God in the face of a society that was quickly outgrowing the traditional notion of God. The atheism of discipleship I advocate, however, embedded at the heart of the life of the follower of Christ, corresponds quite well with Bonhoeffer’s call. It is not so much a call away from God as it is a call to the reality of the absence of the living God. The secular world has need of such an approach and Christ has nothing else to offer.
Thus, we live in God’s absence as faithful followers of Christ in a godforsaken world that has equally forsaken God. Our cry to God is the cry of the atheism of discipleship. Our faithfulness to the calling of Christ is to experience life as if there is no God, while still crying out for him. We are the forsaken, the abandoned in the name of Christ for a world that utterly rejects but equally desperately needs God’s Christ.