The “Religious” Dimension of Atheism (1/2)

Other interpretations of atheism exist, that consider it not only as a metaphysical or scientific phenomenon, but also as a historical phenomenon of reaction against an inadequate ethical and religious vision of the relationship between human beings and God. Among these, offered by authors such as: H-U. von Balthasar, K. Rahner, E. Borne, C. Bruaire, G. Fessard, H. de Lubac, G. Marcel, G. Morel, E. Mounier, J. Lacroix, P. Ricoeur and others, is one which says that atheism can have a positive function of intellectual purification from the false idols of modernity and from all the absolutes created by us, responsible for having hindered the vision of the true God, revealed in Christ. In short, it is suggested that atheism is not only (justly) criticized from the metaphysical or rational perspective, but is also valued by a renewed Christian philosophy that is more attentive to the Bible.

Romano Guardini (1885-1968) speaks of a “purifying atheism” with regard to the philosophical idols represented by all those deistic or theistic conceptions, which take the cue from the conception of God as a Being and transcendent Principle of the cosmos, instead of beginning by considering Him as highest and greatest personal subject. Atheism would then have the providential function of purifying the “outdated viewpoint” of ontology, to open our eyes to the vision of the living and personal God. The God-Person is the God that looks not at the being, but at the existence; He is the God-for-us, the God-for-humankind, the God who speaks and gives a meaning to real human life. Atheism, of course, does not lead us to explicitly recognizing the existence of God, an existence in which metaphysics was positively concerned, but rather would prepare more suitable existential conditions to the act of faith in his Word. Faith, according to Guardini, cannot be born as the result of a conceptual elaboration. We can open to faith only existentially, in the horizon of a conception of God as Value and as a Person. Only when faith is welcomed as a gift, we have the proof that the true face of God is the “God-for-us.” “Atheism can act in a positive sense also as historical factor, which awakens a dull and ‘sleepy’ religiosity, which leaves aside a false auto-intelligibility and intensifies the attention towards issues. By making everyone responsible that every genuinely religious existence is based on decision and constitutes an audacity, this type of atheism can bring vital matters to a superior level” (R. Guardini, Fenomenologia e teoria della religione , in “Scritti filosofici”, vol. II, Milano 1964, p. 280).

Along the same lines the theologian Dietrich Bonhöffer (1906-1945) pushes this vision even further and in a more radical way (1906-1945). A witness to his faith to the point of martyrdom under Nazism, Bonhöffer, like Barth maintains that the provocation of atheism allows the overcoming not only of the concept of God as a “being” but also the religious concept of God as “transcendence,” both linked to a purely rational and mundane consideration of God. According to them, this should open the way to the God-for-us of Biblical Revelation, a thesis that recalls what was stated by Emmanuel Lévinas (1905-1995) regarding the absolute transcendence and “otherness” of God, who can appear to us in the “face” of others. Radicalizing the positions of Karl Barth’s “dialectic theology,” who confirmed the absolute distance between the human being and God (the Totally Other, Ger. ganz Anders ) and the supremacy of the historical Revelation of God in Christ against every philosophical speculation on God, Bonhöffer also adopts the position of existential thought, in particular that of Kierkegaard. According to the Danish philosopher, God is not an object but a Person, not an Es but an Er , and the believer must be familiar not to the calmness of thought but to the risk of faith (Ger. Glaubenswagnis ), he is not asked for concepts on God, but for a very decision of life (Ger. Entscheidung ). It is in this precise theological context that Bonhöffer is not afraid to claim that, thanks to contemporary atheism, we are in reality faced with the death of the “religious God-object,” the “stop-gap God” (Ger. Lückenbüsser ) invented by us to respond to our own insecurities. The human being, having reached adulthood in the era of secularisation, no longer knows what to do with such an idea of deity: God as a hypothesis, as a stop-gap, has become superfluous for our existential problems.

It is no longer possible to announce to our contemporaries a God merely understood as a remedy for human deficiencies, the God of Power and the Supreme legislator of the cosmos. We must rather announce a God that is powerless and weak in the world: only a God like this can remain with us and help us. This, for Bonhöffer, cannot be the God of philosophers, but the God of Biblical Revelation. The death of the stop-gap God, capable of covering our personal deficiencies and gaps, opens up a vision of a God who abandons us not because he is absent, but because he appears present in our own lives, in the good that we do and in the positive efforts of our work. Feuerbach’s thesis, according to which God is the alienating projection of the essence of the human conscience, is here turned on its head: God is with us in our lives and our story when we fulfil our nature and our full vocation as men and women. “And we cannot be honest without recognizing that we must live in the world etsi Deus non daretur. It is just this that we recognize in the presence of God. God himself compels us to this recognition. The achievement of the ‘coming of age’ brings us to a true recognition of our situation in God’s presence. God makes it known to us that we must live as men and women that can get by without God. The God who is with us is the God who abandons us (Mk 15:34). The God who makes us live in the world without the work hypothesis of God, is the God in whose presence we are at all times. With God, and in the presence of God, we live without God. God is powerless and weak in the world and only in this way does he stay with us and help us (Mt 8:17). It is very clear: Christ does not help us by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness of his suffering” (Widerstand und Ergebung , C. Kaiser, Gütersloh 1998, pp. 533-534). The transcendence of God is discovered therefore not as metaphysical transcendence, but rather as an “agapical transcendence,” as God for us, who makes us, in turn, a sort of transcendence for the others.

Source: Gaspare Mura (Interdisciplinary Encyclopedia of Religion and Science)


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