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Giving up God for Lent

Katharine Sarah Moody

We crucified Jesus of Nazareth with criminals, and together we mocked him, calling him Christ, King of the Jews, Friend of Elijah, Son of God. At noon, a thick darkness descended and we could hardly see his face up there, veiled in blood and black. But at three o'clock we heard him cry a loud lament. 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' And then he breathed his last. As if his body were its own, the whole earth echoed his expulsion of air; the ground trembled terribly, rocks split and burst forward, and bodies buried recent and long shifted in their tombs so that in the days to come many would say that they had seen the dead arise. But I think I also heard him say, 'It is finished'.

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In an upper room, under a converted railway arch, a group of people assemble amidst the shadows cast by the light of candles. This, our Good Friday 'Forsaken by God' service, marks the end of our 'Atheism for Lent' course. Through the liturgy we have created, we are fixing our minds on an often neglected aspect of the Lenten narrative: on the cross, in Christ's cry of forsakenness, God experiences the absence of God.

As we approach the festival of Easter, we have been giving up a faith in which God is an instrument for sanctioning our own means and ends, in order to discover a richer and more honest faith in which our doubt, despair and disbelief are recognised and remembered. Because part of the Easter message is that our experiences of the absence of God do not signal our distance from God but, rather, our identity with God who, in Christ, was also forsaken by God. Christ's crucifixion experience of divine abandonment is the moment that Christianity is revealed as the religion in which, as G.K. Chesterton observed, 'God seemed for an instant to be an atheist'.1

So this is not a common atheism. It is not the intellectual atheism of the New Atheists, for example, for whom faith in God is illogical. Instead, it is an existential atheism that asks in faith: why are we forsaken? God is not necessarily intellectually questioned - Christ's cry is addressed to God - but belief in God no longer provides meaning and purpose. It no longer guarantees an answer to or escape from existential questions of suffering, death and forsakenness.

ANOTHER ATHEISM
The origins of Atheism for Lent can be found in Merold Westphal's Suspicion and Faith: The religious uses  of modern atheism,2 which introduces readers to the great atheist critics of religion, the unholy Trinity of Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche. A second important text is Bruce Ellis Benson's book on philosophy and idolatry, Graven Ideologies.3 But the catalyst for this course has been the work of 'emerging church' author and speaker Peter Rollins. In 2006, Rollins started an Atheism for Lent course at Ikon in Belfast,4 in which participants committed to reading a chapter of Westphal's book a day, meeting together regularly to discuss them. In Spring 2011, Rollins ran an online seminar about Atheism for Lent, hoping to inspire webinar participants to set up their own versions of these events.

Having written academically about a number of the theologians and philosophers who have influenced Rollins' work, I was intrigued by the possibility of exploring these thinkers in a more contemplative environment. As a scholar of religion interested in how contemporary theory can impact everyday religious discourse and practice, and as someone who is unsure of her own religious identity, I found the idea of Atheism for Lent appealing on several levels. So, during Lent 2011, I began running an Atheism for Lent course with Journey, a collective in Birmingham that welcomes Christians, spiritual seekers and those of no religion. Our course ran with an average of twenty members, meeting every week to discuss the reading material that I had prepared on atheists ranging from Freud, Marx and Nietzsche to Ricky Gervais and Derren Brown. I acted as a facilitator for the group, enabling understanding and encouraging dialogue.

I urged participants to move on from their questions about these critics of religion, beyond a critical questioning of them, towards a point where they could let their own faith be placed in question by them. We followed each discussion session with an hour of quiet time for the difficult process of introspection. And at the conclusion of the course, we created a ritual gathering to further contemplate the course content and to share it liturgically with those who did not take part in the discussion group. Journey is a church that is already comfortable with what they call 'theological ambiguity', recognising the validity of different paths to God, stressing that behaviour is the true measure of belief, and acknowledging that doubt is central to the life of faith.5 This meant that, while the pastor did not reassure participants that their faith could withstand the criticisms of religion explored in Atheism for Lent, his role was to help them work through any issues that arose in a safe and familiar environment.

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SUSPICIOUS OR SCEPTICAL
Westphal distinguishes between two types of atheism - scepticism and suspicion. Whereas scepticism is a form of what might be called 'evidential atheism' - an atheism which requires of theism evidential proof of its claims - suspicion is a hermeneutic. A method or principle of interpreting beliefs and practices, it can help us to seriously think through the differences between the reasons we give (to ourselves as well as to others) for our beliefs and actions and the latent motives that are revealed when we direct our attention to how those beliefs and actions function.

Suspicion exposes, therefore, the self-deceptions at work in religion that hide how much it is unconsciously shaped by values that we consciously disown. The suspicion of the New Atheists, for example, reveals the ways that religion can be irrational and immoral, logically inconsistent, irrelevant and unnecessary for living a good and enjoyable life, physically violent, and psychologically abusive. But as sceptical atheists, they also assert that religion is false and untrue - a lie.

This difference between scepticism and suspicion is well illustrated by Gervais' film The Invention of Lying (2009), at the heart of which is the conviction that religion is so closely linked to historical embellishment that it is akin to lying. This is Gervais' scepticism. But his suspicion is also apparent. When the central character is overhead lying about life after death in an attempt to console his dying mother, his new knowledge about heavenly mansions bestowed by a Man in the Sky when you die enables us to see how easily this-worldly self-interest morphs into otherworldly self-interest and into a world-negating sentiment of 'screw it, soon I'll be in my mansion' (seen on the placard of a homeless man).

MASTERS OF SUSPICION
Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche, the 'masters of suspicion', accuse us of practising a similarly self-serving and life-negating religiosity. Framed in the sceptical language of falsehood and lies, it is possible to more clearly see the functions that atheist critics suspect religion plays in our lives.

Freud's suspicion links religion to his theory of dreams as the disguised fulfilment of a suppressed wish. Religious beliefs function to make life tolerable, and religious practices are strategies for managing guilt and mutiny. In ostensibly expressing remorse for sin, the renunciations involved in religious practices actually re-enact and repeat the offence. Through what he calls 'religious ceremonials', we both cancel our guilt and renew our rebellion against God - the father figure - by offering sacrifices as a bribe, in exchange for continued disobedience. Is this the way that the Eucharist functions, re-enacting the torture and execution of God? Does this ceremonial allow us to symbolically renounce our guilt, yet symbolically repeat our triumph over breaching the prohibition 'thou shalt not kill'?

Marx's hermeneutic of suspicion draws attention to the links between religion, social complacency and political complicity. Christianity manifestly professes to overcome, yet latently preserves, existing social and economic divisions and injustices. It serves an 'ideological' function, therefore - masking a contingent ordering of society that benefits some whilst oppressing others. What kinds of injustice and suffering do our beliefs and practices leave unchallenged, by tolerating or supporting the economic and political ways in which the social order is currently structured? Does the 'spiritualisation' or 'futurisation' of the Kingdom of God make Christianity latently compatible with the social evils that it otherwise decries? How else is the critical political potential of Christianity neutralised and domesticated?

Nietzsche's suspicion is expressed in his parable of the madman who proclaims the death of God, who has become nothing more than the foundation for and guarantee of meaning and purpose. With his death comes the death of any single, absolute or universal system of value and morality - whether religious or secular. Morality is plural, functioning as a reflection and instrument of self-preservation, of the 'will to power', which is the 'will of life'.

So, while we may claim to act for strictly moral reasons, we act out of self-interest. However, Christian repression of the will to power means that these natural desires fester and grow, finally finding expression in moral superiority and in what Nietzsche calls 'spiritual' or 'benevolent revenge'.

From biblical descriptions of the Pharisees, it is easy to see why he uses this term to describe a morality in which the goodness of the good depends on the wickedness of the wicked (think, for example, of the Pharisee in Luke 18 who prays, 'God, I thank thee that I am not like other men'). What happens to our manifest beliefs in forgiveness, salvation or love of neighbour, if our notions of goodness depend on latent comparisons with those whom we have first deemed sinful?

DARING TO LISTEN
Can and should Christians take all these atheist critiques of religion to heart? For those who are willing, Atheism for Lent provides an opportunity to seriously think through their implications with the support of others.
These same criticisms of religion can be found within Christianity itself of course, issued by prophets like Amos and Isaiah (who have God say, 'I hate your church; what I want is justice' - Amos 5:21-24 and Isaiah 1:11-17, very loosely paraphrased), but also by the Apostle James, Saint Paul, and Jesus himself (for whom the faithful are 'stumbling blocks' to each other [Rom. 14:13], faith without works is 'dead' [James 2:26] and even the most pious are as 'whitewashed tombs' [Matt. 23:27]). The shared target of these biblical and philosophical figures are idols - material or conceptual representations or practices - and their shared protest is against what Westphal calls 'instrumental religion' - the form of faith that reduces God to a means for achieving our own ends.

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Reading Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche in the context of Atheism for Lent can form part of a Lenten practice where we seek to purge ourselves of a faith in which God and religion function as masks for self-interested desire and aggression, as an escape from the uncertainties and hardships of life, and as legitimisation for the oppression and persecution of others.

To the extent that our Christianity functions in these ways, perhaps we have created God in our own image. Perhaps our religious beliefs and practices are indeed formed from our own needs, wishes and wants. From our fears and anxieties. Our ambitions, aspirations or pride. Our anger or our envy. Our cynicism or mistrust. Our resentment, bitterness or spite.

Atheism for Lent helps us to ask, 'if this is how my religion functions, what happens to my faith?'

DIVINE DOUBT
Atheism for Lent encourages us not only to identify idols and to acknowledge our intellectual doubts, but to begin to existentially experience something of what Jesus felt on the Cross - where doubt, disbelief and atheism become internal to Christian faith.

This move from an intellectual doubt to what Peter Rollins calls an 'existential atheism' can be seen in the trajectory of his work. How (Not) to Speak of God is about conceptual idolatry and the status of our theology,6 and The Fidelity of Betrayal suggests that Judas' betrayal of Christ, which led to the expansion of Jesus' mission, might be mirrored by a betrayal of idolatrous beliefs and practices, leading to an expansion of the Body of Christ beyond the institutional markers of Christian community and identity.7 However, in Insurrection, Rollins' concern with conceptual idolatry and intellectual uncertainty becomes more clearly that of an experiential doubt or existential atheism, taking significant cue from the psychoanalytical work of Slavoj Žižek.8 He opens by noting how to believe is human. Belief in the idea of a (divine or human) guarantor for meaning and purpose is easy and 'natural' for us. But to purge ourselves of the God of philosophy - that conceptual idol - or of the God of instrumental religion - that psychological crutch - in other words, to doubt God - that is hard, that is 'super-natural', that is divine. To do that, it takes God. This is why, in Christianity, on the Cross, God doubts God.

REBIRTH NEEDS DEATH
Many within the church today intellectually affirm that doubt and disbelief, and perhaps even a divine absence or atheism, are part of Christian faith. And yet Rollins illustrates how our material social actions can also reveal that it is precisely this espousal of doubt and disbelief that enables us to maintain a way of life that unconsciously disavows these conscious affirmations. Our actions can reveal that belief persists in selected figures (clergy, saints, even Christ himself) and structures (liturgies, prayers, preaching, even the church buildings themselves) who, as Žižek says, are 'supposed to really believe' and that, in Rollins' words, 'believe on our behalf'. These others thereby protect us from the potentially revolutionary psychological impact of those times when we experience the absence of the presence of God. We can cognitively affirm a Christian atheism without undergoing the existential atheism that is central to the Christian's participation in Christ's death - and the resurrection that follows it. For the Christian narrative suggests that it is in this traumatic crucifixion moment, where security and certainty are lost and we feel abandoned, that we can experience resurrection, rebirth, and revolution, being turned around and transformed.

Atheism for Lent can be a communal mechanism through which we move from an atheism in which we disbelieve in the God of the philosophers to an atheism in which we disbelieve in the God of religion. Here, a certain God dies as the guarantor of meaning and purpose, throwing us back into the material world in which we live and act, this Good Friday, without the security, guarantees or rewards of Easter Sunday.

GOD IS DEAD. GOOD.
Towards the end of our 'Forsaken by God' service, I read Kester Brewin's poem, 'God is Dead. Good'.

Dead.

Today, there is no hope.
There is no resurrection,
no looking forward to a Sunday
which does not yet exist in even
the wildest imaginations.
There is no prayer,
no solace,
no point.

God has died.
It's over.
Finished.
Give up.
Go home.
Return to work.

The best you can do
is carry on the memory;
the only remainder of belief,
now all has been strung up
and screwed up,
is to consider that maybe
his life was well lived,
and that helping the poor,
and standing up for the oppressed
was worth dying for.

God has died.
We live still
this Friday
to do Good.9

GODISNOWHERE
Atheism for Lent is not as bleak as it might first appear. In Hey Nostradamus!,10 one of Douglas Coupland's characters doodles words that reflect a shift in perspective similar to that involved in this course: 'God is nowhere, God is now here'. Paradoxically, perhaps it is in our doubt, disbelief, despair and atheism, that we can participate in the resurrection life of God?
Our 2011 Atheism for Lent course attracted participants from a wide variety of religious backgrounds, and included Christians, agnostics, spiritual seekers and atheists. We explored the range of both our personal convictions and our perennial doubts. It provided a supportive space to really wrestle with often piercing critiques of Christianity and of the way religion can function in our lives, to truthfully confront our own intellectual and existential atheisms, and to recognise in those moments of disbelief, despair and death the possibility of resurrection.

One post-evangelical participant valued the opportunity to re-think the relationship between Christianity and truth, seeing the transformative truth proper to faith as distinct from the truth claims of specific religious and secular traditions. An agnostic found that Atheism for Lent enabled him to see the ways in which atheism too remains in the shadow of a dead God by dismissing religion but retaining belief in the possibility of secure foundations for morality. For another participant, the course gave permission to think through the political and social implications of Christianity as an instrument of the state. For one of Journey's worship leaders, the challenging course formed one step along a path from Christianity to atheism, while the 'Forsaken by God' service provided a powerful shared experience of collective creative expression. Enriching the course's content through the use of ritual and liturgy in a familiar and safe environment, many found this gathering to be a moving moment in which fears could be faced and shared.

As for me, I don't know whether I'm a theist or an atheist. But, then again, perhaps my true identity cannot be found at the level of conscious belief anyway. Perhaps it is to be found in my social and material existence, in what I do, in how I live my life?

During a closing song, written by Pádraig Ó Tuama, in which we sing of finding our home in Babylon, in exile, forsaken by God, we move around the room blowing out candles until we are left in a darkness that symbolises our atheisms. We remember that today, on Good Friday, as on every day, we are without a certain God and yet with God still.

At three o'clock we heard him cry a loud lament. 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' But I think I also heard him say, 'It is finished. Go in pieces to love and serve the Lord'. Amen.

NOTES
1  Chesterton, GK, Orthodoxy (Moody Publishers, 2009/1908), p.207.
2  Westphal, M, Suspicion and Faith: The religious uses of modern atheism (Fordham University Press, 2007/1998).
3  Benson, BE, Graven Ideologies: Nietzsche, Derrida and Marion in modern idolatry (InterVarsity Press, 2002).
4  www.ikonbelfast.wordpress.com
journeymcc.wordpress.com
6  Rollins, P, How (Not) to Speak of God (SPCK, 2006).
7  Rollins, P, The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a church without belief (Paraclete Press, 2008).
8  Rollins, P, Insurrection: To believe is human; to doubt, divine (Howard Books, 2011).
www.kesterbrewin.com/2011/04/22/god-is-dead-good/
10  Coupland, D, Hey Nostradamus! (Flamingo, 2003).