The Atheist's Truth
It is April of 1991. Easter week. I watched the evening news tonight, of the Kurds, thousands of them camped on a mountainside fleeing Saddam Hussien's murderous wrath. The camera slowly sweeps the mountainside taking in hundreds of them, sitting stone still, hollow eyed with hunger. I see women staring into some private distance holding small children now skin on bone. The women look hollow hearted as they watch the flesh of their flesh begin to stare into the blue skies, eyes transfixed on some invisible point. The women sit and they watch for the moment they will know there is nothing left behind those milky eyes.
I thought of the Sermon once preached on a similar mountainside probably to a multitude much like this one. Part of it says, "Behold the lilies of the field, not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these. Behold the sparrows of the air, they sow not nor do they reap, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren't you worth more than they?" And I wondered if the beauty of the wildflowers that dotted that Kurdish mountainside and the full-bellied birds that circled the desolate encampments were a comfort to those whose children were arrayed in thin rags that could not hold back the freezing night air that would steal their last breath. I wondered how an omnipotent, creative God who will array His grass with colors bright and give His birds the powers to survive a rocky and barren hillside could allow His children to starve and freeze to death on a mountainside strewn with His wildflowers. I wondered how He could hear the mountains exalt Him and shout His glories and praise and not listen to His children crying. I wondered if death by the murderous wrath of Hussein was any more grievous than death by the murderous absence of God and His unfulfilled promises.
That week I read an article about Madalyn O'Hair, the famous atheist, and a conference she held here during Easter week. She was asked by the reporter, "Do you have faith in yourself?" She said, "No, there is no such thing. I don't have any spirituality, I don't have any faith, I don't have any beliefs, I don't have anything else. I've got the hard, cold reality of living in a (very, very sick) world and culture." An Arizona State University student, Dawn Peters who has designs on becoming a spokesperson for atheists says in the same article, "I have a strong conviction that the things that need to be done, people need to get out and do to make a change in the world ... No God is going to come in and save us from ourselves. And that's the only thing we have to fear: ourselves."
I watched the television and I saw the cold, hard reality of a sick world. I saw the arrival of the benevolent airlifts of blankets and food. I saw the people scrambling for food being crushed to death by the pallets of donations that were being shoved from the back end of helicopters. In the end it was but a late and temporary respite against the evil on one small mountainside on one small piece of this rock we call Earth; Band-aids prescribed for a heart attack. I sat in our worship services that Sunday and grieved. I felt that week a closer fellowship with the atheist than with those who profess to know God. I knew the atheists' eyes were clear, I looked and saw what they saw, unadorned with the tinsel of theodicies and theories of some holy purpose for suffering and the death of innocents. I saw what Ms. O'Hair saw, unglossed by the humanist's rhetoric and idealisms of our capacities for benevolence and concern for our fellow humans. I truly believe Ms. O'Hair is more realistic than the young idealist Ms. Peters. I think after a few more years of seeing the limits of the benevolence and altruism of the human heart, and if she can be honest with herself, finds over the years the depths of selfishness and egotism to which she is capable of sinking, Ms. Peters may realize that too often human beings, even in all our altruism, barely hold back the night and often, too often, do not and cannot keep the darkness away. After four decades I may not agree with Ms. O'Hair's solutions to this world's sickness, but I find a brutal honesty, a withering Truth she speaks that Christians would be wise to listen to and to hear. It is the gospel she preaches, perhaps not complete, but truly half of it. She faithfully and accurately reports the human condition, the sickness of the world. She speaks truth about the depth of human depravities and what we have wreaked on this earth and on one another, both with and without God and in the name of God. And being faithful to half the Truth is, I think, being closer to Truth than believing half truths about the whole Truth.
There is a scant difference between Ms. O'Hair and myself. I think Christians, by arguing her rhetoric and philosophical conundrums (the fact she claims to believe nothing is in fact a belief, and so on) they miss what is underneath it all: a heart that has taken off the rose-tinted glasses and looked hard and long at the world and has been broken by it, or in her case perhaps beaten to callousness by it. They all miss the fact that Ms. O'Hair is preaching half the gospel. There is a scant difference between what Ms. O'Hair sees and tells us plainly and what Jesus Christ experienced. In the end the gospel gives us no illusions of human altruism and benevolent potential. The gospel tells us that no amount of love, human or divine, can keep evil people from killing the innocent and the good. It says when the Innocent dies the darkness comes and the earth trembles at the horrific depth of human evil. It also says bystanders will look on, perhaps appalled, and allow the brutality to be consummated. It says no matter how good or Godly a person is, when his time comes to die, no amount of pleading, no prayer, no accrued brownie points of good deeds or potential for doing good for the world will save him. And when sometimes we feel we need God the most, He is not there, He forsakes us. That is truth.
But this too is truth. Somehow, the gospel tells us, in the very storm of evil done to one Innocent on one small hill, and in the midst of the darkness and trembling earth, somewhere in a religious institution that kills in the name of God, the veil is torn and God becomes accessible once more. And on a Sunday morning on one small hillside, hope is given to all the world. This is the other half of the Truth, and the truth of this is as hard as the cold, hard world full of evil it died in and for. It had to be, and it is harder to face than the reality of this sick world. God has, in fact, come down to save us, Ms. Peters, Ms. O'Hair, because you know as well as I do that we need saving. Not from hunger, not from oppression and global warming or even things as ordinary as your alchoholic parent, Ms. Peters, but from ourselves. And if not from ourselves, at least from hopelessness, which is all we have if all we have is ourselves and each other to save us from ourselves.
Hope is what we are all after in the end and for our end. And we all have it: hope "in" some thing, hope "for" something, hope "that" someone will do something to change things, or even just change themselves. That hope is part of the human heart, the part that keeps it from being vanquished by evil, and it is why yours has not yet been overwhelmed absolutely. I admit sometimes it is all I can do to have faith that there is still hope. Sometimes it is all I can do to want to believe there is hope. But I believe the wanting is enough, and that in itself is hope enough to get me through the darkness. That is hope enough to get me to the light, and if I can just get to the Light perhaps I can see again clearly what brought the darkness on.
So this is my confession: I believe the gospel because after looking hard at the world and what I have done in it, I know we, and I, need saving, whatever that means. I believe the gospel because it gives hope; because I know, after looking hard at the world and what I have done in it, I have no hope if it is not true.
(New Times Weekly, "The Last Temptation of Madalyn O'Hair". Ward Harkavy, Vol. 22 No. 17 April 17, 1991. p.34-39)