Around eighteen months ago I decided to do something fairly radical, by some standards. I had just finished reading The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Lesslie Newbigin (a deeply thoughtful book which awakened my faith in ways I did not realize lay dormant), while also studying worldview trends in America. I discovered that, according to some statistics, within the next decade it is projected that the US will be post-Christian, replaced by “the non-religious” (which is really more of a theological stance than a worldview) and Islam as the dominant worldviews. The combination of these two influences led me to make a decision. I chose to break out of my comfort zone, pop my little Christian bubble, and immerse myself in a theological culture not my own. For the next year, I spent much of my time building relationships among atheists, and learning from them.
I should point out that my goal in this was to learn about atheism from atheists, not to infiltrate the ‘atheist camp’ like some sort of Christian spy, waiting for my chance to strike with the Gospel. My focus was on cultivating relationships and learning. Ironically, I discovered myself in far more conversations about God and faith than I anticipated, but these arose naturally rather than being forced due to some secret agenda. While I must confess that there were those who could not see past their hatred of religion to be willing to connect with me, the truth is that the majority were more than happy to do so once they knew I wasn’t just looking for an angle. In fact, a few have even become very close friends. Throughout this process, I was surprised to discover that I was actually learning about myself, growing in my faith, and becoming a deeper Christian because of the challenging perspectives being offered. I felt that it would only be honest to share with you the top four lessons I learned from atheists.
- Ask the hard questions. So often, Christians find themselves frightened by those things we don’t understand. We hide from the difficult questions which may challenge our faith. The truth is, however, that these questions don’t go away; they simply simmer, buried in our psyche, chipping away at our capacity to trust in a God we so desperately long to love. The hard questions, when faced, actually force us to look for answers, force us to dig deeper, force us to cultivate a theological grounding which can only make us more intellectual honest and spiritually deep.
- It’s ok not to have all the answers. One of the things which surprised me about atheism is that, contrary to how we like to portray them in popular Christian circles, atheists do NOT claim to have all the answers. Often, they will claim that science is leading us in the direction for answers, but ‘I don’t know’ becomes the necessary foundation for ‘I will try to find out.’ As Christians, we do not need to feel backed in a corner if we suddenly don’t have answers to some theological complexity. Quite the contrary, admitting where we are lacking knowledge should provide us with the impetus to learn and to grow.
- Talk is cheap. As Christians, we love to proclaim how loving our God is, yet we far too often fail to display this love in our own actions. The popular face of Christianity is most often painted by those whose hateful rantings draw the media, or whose sex scandals draw the law. While most of us know that it is typically the vocal minority which shapes the public image of the silent majority, we need to ask ourselves the question: how are we actively living out the calling to love and serve the world?
- Love wins. Ghandi once said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” This sentiment finds its hold in the heart of many, many people. ‘Love’ has become a trite cliche, or even worse, a means to an end. Far too often, the Christian expression of love towards a non-Christian is little more than a lead-piece for an evangelistic agenda. To make love into a tool is to defile the core of our humanity. I am not suggesting that we surrender carrying the message of the hope we have found in Jesus, but I am suggesting that we learn to love genuinely. If we learn to love people because they are people, beautiful in all their complexity and splendor, then love regains its power. It is a universal principle that people are drawn to love; it is equally universal that love leaves us changed.
How about you? What lessons have you learned from those of different faiths?