Thursday, September 13, 2012

Elizabeth Johnson (and Karl Rahner) on the Value of Atheism for Christians

Last December, I posted here a few remarks about the death of Christopher Hitchens in which I stated, 

I am interested in atheism, perhaps primarily as a defensible response to the misrepresentation of authentic religious values by adherents of many religious traditions.  I have long thought that Catholic theologian Karl Rahner is exactly right when he argues that, given the demonic face of "God" some people encounter through organized religion, they have a moral obligation, in fact, to reject "God."  
And their critique of the demonic, twisted images of God offered to the world by some believers deserves attention by anyone concerned to uphold authentic religiosity.  It does so because that atheistic critique often serves moral values that ought to be part and parcel of theologies of God in the religious traditions under critique, but which have been obscured by actual notions of the divine held by many believers within those traditions.

And as I read Elizabeth Johnson's Quest for the Living God (NY: Continuum, 2008), I find the following illuminating passage in which she, too, discusses Rahner's views about this topic: 

In this wintry season, church statements about God are ordinarily too naive and too superficial to help believers, let alone convince unbelievers.  In a sense the onslaught of atheism might perform a service, prodding faith to purify notions of God that, while they may be traditional, are woefully deficient to the point of being idolatrous.  Is God dead?  If we mean the God imagined as a part of the cosmos, one existence among others though infinitely bigger, the great individual who defines himself over against others and functions as a competitor to human beings, then yes, the God of modern theism is dead.  But as Rahner appreciated, atheism sets a condition for faith that in response must reach far deeper for its truth: "the struggle against atheism is foremost and of necessity a struggle against the inadequacy of our own theism" (p. 30).

As an interpreter of Rahner, one who can voice his abstruse insights in language that makes sense at the popular level without debasing those insights, Johnson is incomparable.  It's no mean feat to take work written on the empyrean planes of thought and bring it down to the world in which most of us live and think, without bastardizing the work you're presenting clearly to minds not trained in the vocabulary of the empyrean realm.

And this, too, strikes me as I read Johnson's summary of Rahner on the value of atheism: as she observes (with Rahner), in the wintry season in which Catholics now live, church statements about God are ordinarily too naive and too superficial to help believers.  We're in a situation now in which we Catholics often actively hope for our bishops not to open their mouths again.

We know full well what they intend to say when they do open their mouths about most topics, and we know that whatever they say will almost certainly present a problem for us as Catholics trying to live the gospel according to the lights of Catholic tradition in the world today.  Conversely, we know when they're never going to open their mouths at all, though it's imperative that they do so if they expect their claims about God to make sense to the world--e.g., to speak out about the cruel bullying of gay youth in the U.S., which contributes to suicide; or to speak as a body about the need for Rome to address the deplorable situation in Kansas City, in which a sitting bishop has now been convicted of criminal failure to report a pedophile reporting to him.  And in which he's still sitting!

As Johnson says, in such a world (and in such a church) the critics of the bogus, lame, tradition-defying notions of the divine often peddled to us precisely by our religious leaders perform an invaluable service.  They help shatter the idols that keep too many of us crippled in our relationship to God and other people.

When that shattering can't and won't take place with the very people offering us those idols--our religious leaders--because they lack the theological depth of someone like a nun they're condemning for daring to write about God, it has to come from somewhere.  Atheism prods us to purify our notions about God, to make them more adequate to our rich tradition, as Rahner rightly insisted . . . . 

The graphic is Frederick Catherwood's lithograph of the broken idol at Copan from his book Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America Chiapas and Yucatan (London, 1844), from the website of the Beinecke Library at Yale University.

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