Sunday, January 27, 2013

2013.01.27 Atheist/Faitheist/Theist

Recently I heard a talk, sponsored by the Massachusetts Bible Society, by Chris Stedman, the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and the author of Faitheist: How An Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious.

I braved windy frigid weather to go hear an avowed atheist!?  I remember once 20 or more years ago I began a talk for a Connecticut parish group with “I’m an atheist.”  People shifted in their seats. I quickly followed up with my reasons, which still hold true. I am an a-theist, because I do not put faith in the God, still promoted by many religions and individuals, who is imaged as partial, selective, power-happy, supportive of violence, exclusively defined, and altogether conditional with divine love. Add to those descriptors, infallibly masculinized—by image and pronouns.    

That’s my a-theist platform. It’s why I went to hear Chris Stedman. He is part of a group of newly organized Boston atheists. They don’t believe in God at all, but rather in the strength and salvific power of human compassion generously shared. I also believe in that but, since genuine empathic compassion is relatively rare, when I see it freely given for no reason, I tend to think it expresses Divinity; it does feel supernatural.  God is in that kind of love.

At the talk I was filled up with words ending with -ist, the suffix that identifies a practitioner of some -ism or other.

I confess to a slight bias against -ist and -ism words, although I am a feminIST devoted to the core values of FeminISM.  The trouble with -isms is that whatever goes before the -ism usually holds all the power and can become a dominant and possibly domineering perspective.  I hear  this lopsided braying the left.

Chris Stedman is both atheist and humanist, but he is not an -ist/-ism type.  In fact he is open to conversation in a compassionate context among and within all religious and irreligious or anti-religious perspectives. In short, I found him a man of integrity who identifies as a committed atheist without a conversionary agenda. He is committed to a life of service and has faith in human potential.

He told his story, coming from a non-religious, secular home, to meeting an open-minded pastor, to conversion to evangelical Christianity, to intellectual religious studies, to atheism.  

Chris’s book title, Faitheist, is engagingly, invitingly ambiguous. When I asked him about the God he didn’t believe in, he responded that he wasn’t comfortable with the supernatural aspect of God. He asked. “Why must people use God to describe love, justice, and reconciliation?” God language does not feel authentic to him.  I don’t think we are far apart. Further conversation would be nice. 

I came away with warm feelings and hope that all voices will be heard and respected as we join together to make this world a better place, whether we speak of that as serving God or not. The Rev. Anne Robertson, MassBible Executive Director, expressed this in prayer: “Whether we look to a God that transcends human knowing or whether we find our salvation in the depth of human compassion, it is love that binds us—love that feeds us.”

We will be know by our acts—but also by our words.

I pose some questions for reflection: Who is the God you don’t believe in?  What is your own image of Divinity? What words do you use to speak about your faith?