And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
(from the “Four Quartets” by T.S. Eliot)
I can call myself a Catholic Christian atheist. In the second half of the 1960s, I tried to be an atheist, not successfully. In the 1980s I learned that spirituality reigns in my life, that it trumps everything else and this explains my unbreakable ties to the religion I was born into. I can’t stop being Catholic, and I also can’t stop thinking about spiritual matters, which has led me to critically examine the beliefs of my childhood religion.
When I get together with past classmates (who remind me of my Catholic faith decades ago), I confess I’m bored if they want to tell me how many kids and grandkids they have, but I like hearing how they and their kids are opening doors of the mind. I want to know how people are evolving in ways that matter—wisdom and emotional/spiritual maturity.
My evolution has brought me the realization that Christians and atheists share common spiritual ground. Most atheists I know embrace humanism, a deep respect for the dignity and ability of humans. This connects well with the Christ symbol, the inner divinity or conscience in every person, the higher Self, the center of integrity.
I realize atheists chafe at the word “divine” because they associate this word with religion’s worship of outer gods. But I wonder how many can resonate with these words from Jungian psychologist Robert Johnson.
Christ is constantly being immaculately conceived and born, is confounding elders, teaching, being betrayed, being crucified, dying, resurrecting, and is making an ascension. All of these are occurring in every moment;They occur in atheists too. Atheists who suffer on the cross of condemnation for expressing their true beliefs. Of course, I do not include the rash and polarizing activities of some atheists who make headlines. I am thinking of atheist friends with whom I identify.
How am I an atheist? As a non-theist, I reject worship of a god as an object outside of my deepest human self. How am I a Christian? I embrace the Christ as a symbol of the inner guide nudging us toward ever greater spiritual transformation, of becoming ever more divine. I realize the symbol’s significance on a new, profound level. I arrive back where I started and “know the place for the first time.”
Is life more than what psychologists, sociologists, biologists, and chemists can define? Is there anything to hope for after we have returned to dust?Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest, raised these questions in one of his many books. Christians in the past assumed that the only alternative to such a hollow, futile existence is Christian belief.
Some Christians still live in that parochial world, but today we can’t avoid meeting diverse ways of being spiritual, and some of them are not even religious. The immensity of sky, the beauty of music, the answering Presence in meditative silence can transport us into sudden recognition of the More that is infinitely greater than the Christian image of God—a single humanlike individual or set of three individuals.
Religious parochialism parallels political parochialism.
In the May 12 issue of Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria writes that we are entering a post-American time, but “American parochialism” has difficulty adapting to a world in which “the United States does not seem to be leading the charge.” Our government now is reacting to third world initiatives, instead of driving economic, cultural, and political trends, as it had for decades. Zakaria sees “a seismic shift in power and attitudes.” The future is being shaped in distant lands by non-Americans.
Americans worry about anti-Americanism, wondering why they hate us. But, says Zakaria, “the world has shifted from anti-Americanism to post-Americanism.” We Americans need to get used to sharing the political stage, and we Christians need to get used to sharing the religious stage.
As the world shifts toward post-Americanism, our Western world shifts toward a post-Christian age. Anyone who doubts that should watch Oprah Winfrey. Increasingly, relationships with the Invisible transcend religious definitions of the past. This emerging spirituality is mistaken for atheism by the Christian right.
Many atheists are deep spiritual thinkers who react to dogmatic and literal Christian belief. They say they don’t believe in God, but it’s the same god I don’t believe in. Atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, however, have themselves become dogmatic fundamentalists, extremists who trash all things religious and even all things spiritual. Atheists and Christians alike have to move past the narrow definition of God that fundamentalist Christians defend and fundamentalist atheists deride.
In discussions about my book, I meet traditional believers who assume that, because I reject literal belief in the Christian myth, I reject God. Unable to transcend Christian parochialism, they conflate post-Christian faith with atheism.
To both religious and political parochialism, I say let’s move out of our comfortable and familiar boxes full of people like us. The shrinking globe demands that we cooperate with all. In the political world we need to let go of American hegemony and in the religious world we need to let go of the claim that we own Ultimate Truth. Let’s accept our humble place with others.
Am I an atheist?
If atheism is disbelieving in a deity, in a God who’s imagined to be a humanlike person, an individual, an external object, I’m an atheist. But if atheism is disbelieving in spiritual reality, I’m decidedly not an atheist.
One reason I couldn’t be an atheist is synchronicity, a phenomenon observed by Carl Jung. I can give a definition, but examples make it plainer. First the definition. Synchronicity is the simultaneous occurrence of events connected in non-physical ways, odd coincidences, remarkable connections that are scientifically inexplicable. They could be something trivial, as when a person from the past comes back into my life and a few hours before that I blurt out his name to people and wonder why.
Another synchronicity in my life occurred when I landed in ER a few months ago. It was exactly 2 years after my brother died, the priest in whose memory I dedicated God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky. More striking is the synchronicity in the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—within hours of each other on the day exactly 50 years after July 4, 1776.
Synchronicities fascinate me because they verify the existence of spiritual reality but have no connection with religion. And so they correct the assumptions of both atheists and the religious right. Ultimate reality defies description.
This Ultimate exists fully in every created being—therefore exists inside each of us—and also transcends us infinitely. The Transcendence is what I’ve called the More.
In Hinduism, this transcendent Divinity is called Brahman, and the inner or immanent divinity the Atman or Self. They correspond to God and Christ. Paradoxically, we can never completely, definitively grasp the Infinity inside us.
Atheism & holiness, January 21, 2008
I recommend an article in the St. Cloud Times for its quick listing of facts that refute literal belief in the Christian myth—“Others should delve into info about religion” by Jack Richter. (The 2008 text is no longer available.)
I especially like the latter portion because it illustrates a point I like to make—atheists become atheists out of spiritual conviction.
I’m sure this also applies to Christopher Hitchins, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, where I found these words by Joseph Conrad:
I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvelous to be ever fascinated by the mere supernatural which (take it any way you like) is but a manufactured article, the fabrication of minds insensitive to the intimate delicacies of our relation to the dead and to the living, in their countless multitudes; a desecration of our tenderest memories; an outrage on our dignity.This exemplifies what I call secular spirituality—recognizing Holy Power deep, deep within visible reality, within nature, within our relationships and activities.
Joseph Conrad states that the supernatural is manufactured, another way of saying that humans project the inner divinity onto outer objects, external deities described as supernatural—God created in man’s image.
But the manufactured gods DO hold holy power, as I try to explain in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky. I say “try” because this mystery is not fathomable and not explicable.
One more point. Christopher Hitchins has not moved past his fury at religion. He rages at all the stupidity, senselessness, and immorality generated by religion, oblivious to the beauty and goodness it generates in human relationships and activities. Religion mediates holiness--the Holy--to human consciousness.
But I see no beauty in the in-your-face religion dominating the news today.
Florian: Hmm. I would not recommend this article from the St. Cloud Times, Jeanette. Richter's quick listing of facts was done a bit too quickly and carelessly. You must have noticed some of the inaccuracies in his article.
I would strongly warn others not to take Richter's advice and read Lloyd Graham and Acharya S. Acharya S! I don't think anybody in academia takes her seriously.
Jeanette: Richter's facts are correct, as anybody in academia knows, Christian researchers included.
I know nothing about Acharya S. or Graham, and they don't matter because the facts are becoming well known. Gone are the days when information that debunks myths can be squelched.