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Posted by on Mar 27, 2014 | 5 comments

Two Voices Calling: Tradition and Atheism

There are two major intellectual motifs I encounter at seminaries and theological institutions: engaging more with the tradition and becoming an atheist. When faced with the cacophony of voices that represent theology’s history, students often find themselves down roads they never thought they’d travel. Sometimes the dissonance leads them to Catholicism or Orthodoxy, other times it leads them to sultry post-Christian philosophers writing on the topics of Being, beauty, and the Other. Thus, many young theologians and biblical scholars sit somewhere between committed faith and an orientation toward nothingness, peering at once into both. They hear a call from two  voices: one is an ancient tradition with liturgy, rituals, and a robust theology that demands both intellectual rigor and radical faith; the other is an atheism that finds despair a normal orientation toward the world, and yet, balanced with a sort of hopeful hopelessness grounded on beauty and love. These young scholars are a Janus, one face seeking a glimpse of the divine, the other peering into the void. Though distinctively different, there is a common thread.

tradition atheism

Janus: the Greek God who looks both back at the past and ahead toward the future.

There are various reasons why the Tradition is an increasingly important topic for young scholars, and a lot of ink has been spilled to find out why.[1] In my experience, there are a few main reasons for this growing concern: First, young Evangelicals have increasingly found their own denomination’s approach to the world wanting, and find in the Tradition a fuller way of approaching the Bible, worship, and their place as Christians in the Church’s long history. No one reads the Bible free of context. Not only are we unable to escape the context of our current culture and setting, but as a Christian, we cannot escape the long line of others that have handed us what Christianity is today. Tertulian, Athanasius, Nyssen, Augustine, and others have helped create the doctrines of our faith. Thus, many choose to read along with them. What is more, in the same way that doctrines and interpretations of the Bible have been passed down, so the canon of the Bible has as well. In a way, the Christian scriptures and doctrines have a heritage, and by aligning one’s self to that Heritage, they are, in a way, finding their way home.

Another reason young scholars are hungry for Tradition is mysticism. Mysticism provides an approach to theology centered on spiritual practices, self-reflection, and the experience of God. Apophotic theology was a common method, a way of negating qualities that we affirm about God to avoid idolatry and safely keep a distance between Creator and creation. These thinkers were concerned with being made holy through participation in God, which is why spiritual practices, such as meditation and prayer, were so fundamental to their lives and theological approaches. Though holiness is still a concern in contemporary Christianity, I know many who find the mystical Tradition refreshing because it offers a way of doing theology and enacting the Christian life that focuses less on any kind of intellectual apologetic, and more on an experience of God. The ritual of these practices, along with the sacraments, can provide a whole new way of experiencing the world. God is named and known, but God is also shrouded in mystery. Not only is this mysticism absent from their low-church denomination (and even many high-church mainline ones as well), but it is nearly impossible to interact with outside of the liturgies, sacraments, and rituals of the greater Tradition.

The atheism that seems to beckon so many students isn’t the one we often find in the media. In my opinion, Dawkins and his cohorts represent another side of fundamentalism and a worldview as assured in its position through foundationalist reasoning as the low-church denominations young scholars are often leaving. The atheism that young scholars find interesting totally deconstructs the myth of scientific progressivism. It is difficult to provide a simple definition that covers the breadth of important postmodern philosophers so many are drawn toward; Derrida, Heidegger, Sartre, Nietzsche, Levinas, and Camus all offer something unique. Camus, however, best exemplifies the ethos of the voices that these students are hearing.

In his brilliant philosophical work The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus lays out his concern promptly in the opening paragraph:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards[2]

Camus’s fundamental question is whether or not life is worth living, whether or not the world provides a logic that defends our existing. In a word, nihilism, is the concern. Is there inherent meaning in the world? Have we been duped? If there isn’t meaning, what then? If there is, where is it found? The ethos created by these philosophers is a call to search for truth, beauty, and meaning despite the possibility of the inherent nothingness of existence (or even the reality of that nothingness). Perhaps this is why so many people drawn to these paradigms love, art, poetry, or anything that exudes expression. In a way, there is a mystery behind everything that they’re not so much interested in grasping, but rather, interacting with.

And this is the common thread: both the Tradition and the atheism of postmodernity allow for mystery and an experience of phenomena that can’t be scientifically reduced. In their own way, they refute the Enlightenment’s belief in scientific and technological progress, while offering something anterior. The Tradition offers a return (or a resourcing) of approaches to God that take seriously beauty, art, and the authentic experience of the divine, while holding firm to the mystery that we don’t want to completely understand, but know in some ethereal way. Postmodern nihilism seeks a return as well. The authentic and original experience of being, of people, and of language. Nietzsche himself, after the death of “God” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, sits waiting for a paraousia, a return of God. Perhaps this is why the religious dimensions of Heidegger, Derrida, Levinas, and others have been so well studied.[3]

The faithlessness of the young theologian and Biblical scholars is interesting to me. I so often find myself reading these philosophers and romantically buying into their paradigms, finding a contorted beauty in their godlessness. And yet, when I participate in the liturgy and partake in the sacraments, I swoon just as romantically to the truths declared and the aesthetic experienced. But there is only so much correlation one can do between two opposing voices until something has to budge. Christianity cannot support nihilism or the God of the philosophers—it cannot only proclaim Christ alive. But it can so wonderfully support that anxious search for the hidden mystery beyond our grasp, all the while filling our soul with that beauty, music, and…whatever the existential “it” factor is. Joy?

[1] Return to Rome is an excellent source for the conversation. The theologies of people like James KA Smith and Hans Boersma also give insights to this evangelical-to-Rome turn. 

[3] A lot of brilliant work has been done here. For a great introduction to these themes, read Who is Afraid of Postmodernism and What Would Jesus Deconstruct? See Caputo’s Prayers and Tears of Jacque Derrida, Crowe’s Heidegger’s Religious Origins, or Westphal’s Levinas and Kierkegaard in Dialogue. This is just to name a few.

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Freedom is found in the mountains or on a bicycle- combining the two creates a holy sacrament. I love depressing music and beer as libation. It is my contention that theology is queen of the sciences.
  • This is a keen observation Lance. From my own experience in theological education, it seems to ring true. I have swung by turns in both directions that you have highlighted here. But I don’t think I would identify with either of them today. I think what is missing from your post is the acknowledgement that there is at least one other way with which I do find myself resonating with these days: a vibrant, liberal Protestantism.

    Despite all of the claims to its demise, I do find that progressive Protestantism has slowly started to rejuvenate some attenuated churches in mainline denominations with serious Christian piety as well as serious prophetic voice to both church and world. While it’s truly difficult for me to advocate a middle way, it seems to me that this is the place of tension that Christian theology has to hold were it ever to succeed. To my mind, a turn toward atheism could retain the latter call of prophecy but at the expense of the former life of devotion. Conversely, a head-first dive into tradition may preserve pious customs but most certainly at the price of any internal critique.

    It heartens me to see that liberal theologians are finally awakening from a long, long slumber in order to start the task of constructive theology anew. Daniel Ottati’s recent volume on “God the Creator” in his Theology for Liberal Protestants is one shining example. Gregory Walter’s Promise, Gift, and Postmodern Theology is another recent instance of good liberal theology.

    What do you think of the future prospects of a liberal Protestant media via?

    • LA Green

      I guess I’m not sure what “liberal theology” actually means anymore, so it’s difficult to answer. Do you mean dialectical? Barth, Bonhoeffer, Bultmann? Or do you mean people post Lindbeck and in the post-liberal theology school? Explain what this looks like to you.

      I suppose whatever constructive theology takes shape in the future, it seems that a continued concern for spiritual practices are going to take place. One doesn’t need to become Catholic to do this; Berry Harvey’s Bapto-Catholic thing is a perfect example. I think denominations will continue weaving in pieces of the tradition (that is, the liturgy, spiritual practices, sacraments). Whatever the theological milieu of the times will be, I have no idea, but it’ll look more traditionally mainline aesthetically.

  • Leighton Knapp

    This is a wonderful post. Lots of clarity here.

  • Alexander Arden

    I am wondering what you think of the Atheists return to tradition? I am particularly thinking of Derrida and his use of Augustine.

    • LA Green

      Good question. I think Derrida’s use of Augustine, Heidegger’s use of Luther, or whatever, is definitely the affirmation that theology has laid the groundwork for contemporary philosophical discourse… but it’s clear that the object of theological reflection has/had been abandoned and/or bracketed. I suppose it’s a ressourcement of sorts, but I’m not sure how much of it directly correlates to the younger scholar’s engagement with the Tradition. Perhaps both you and I have the same existential longings as Derrida? (but probably not Heidegger).