I read an interesting column today in The New York Times, The Blessings of Atheism, by Susan Jacoby, author of the upcoming book The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, and several other books and articles. Her main point seems to be that atheists aren’t burdened with the question of why God lets bad things happen.
Instead, “[T]he atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world — whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws — without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next,” she writes.
And she argues that atheists need to be more willing and assertive to expound their own — and she actually calls it — belief: “We must speak up as atheists in order to take responsibility for whatever it is humans are responsible for — including violence in our streets and schools. We need to demonstrate that atheism is rooted in empathy as well as intellect. And although atheism is not a religion, we need community-based outreach programs so that our activists will be as recognizable to their neighbors as the clergy.”
Hmm, atheist evangelism?
It was an interesting juxtaposition to today’s appointed scripture from of my year-long trek through the Bible, which includes the first parts of Abraham’s story, up until the birth of Ishmael and the circumcision of “Abraham and his son Ishmael … and all the men of his house, slaves born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner…” (Gen 17;26-27).
Abraham’s story is a familiar one to almost anyone who has had any exposure to the Bible. He leaves home just because God calls him, moves about the countryside, spends time in Egypt where he gets on the wrong side of the Pharaoh, but ends up a wealthy man.
Perhaps the most important verse in the entire saga (to me, anyway) is Gen. 15:6: “And he [Abram, his name hadn’t been changed yet] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (The Revised English Bible translates it as: “Abram put his faith in the Lord, who reckoned it to him as righeousness.” The Common English Bible is slightly different: “Abram trusted the Lord, and the Lord recognized Abram’s high moral character.”)
Abram/Abraham didn’t ask questions — at least none that made it into Genesis, although I bet he did — he just acted and responded. Oh yes, and he argued with God, and he asked God for descendants. But he trusted/had faith in/believed the Lord.
(It’s not that I’m against asking questions. I ask them all the time, and I have doubts all the time. But the questions are always trying to get to the answer of what God is calling me to do — and yes even understanding why. But in the end, it’s not about the questions, but about the actions.)
It seems to me that’s what Jacoby misses in this whole “faith” thing. She seems to think the purpose of faith is to explain things and to offer comfort, when to me, the purpose of faith is to respond to God’s call. Maybe it’s because, at the very least, I have universalist tendencies, perhaps even more than tendencies. OK, I guess I am: you see, I think Susan Jacoby is a child of God, is called by God, is even saved by God and is destined for eternal life. Even if she doesn’t.
It’s all throughout the Bible, if you pay attention. It’s buried deeply in some verses, but in others it slaps you in the face.
The New Testament reading also carries this message:
“Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.'” (Luke 5:5).
When he saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” (Luke 5:20)
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46)
“But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.” (Luke 6:49)
And there is no better summation than Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Faith is not about God answering human needs. It is about humans responding to God’s call.
Grace and peace.