August, 2007 (posted August, 2010)
How should I go about teaching the Christian faith to an atheist?
Sincerely, (inquirer from England)
My dear brother in Christ,
There is no clear answer to the question that you raise.
Certainly one issue has to do
with what sort of Christian faith you want to teach.
Do you want to teach the Sermon on the Mount,
or do you want to teach the Book of Revelation?
When you turn to the Old Testament,
do you want to teach Leviticus,
or do you want to teach Isaiah?
Does God burn unbaptized babies in the fires of Hell forever,
because their parents lived too far away from the nearest church?
Or does the Holy Spirit offer every human being
at every moment of their lives
the opportunity to turn toward love,
toward kindness, toward forgiveness,
an opportunity which the Spirit of God pours out upon the world
without regard to race, class, language, culture or location?
Dear friend, if you can tell me more
about what the Christian faith means to you,
I might be able to make more suggestions
about how you could teach it to an atheist.
I think perhaps the most important way to teach our faith,
is to live our faith.
If the atheists around you see that your faith
makes you a kinder, more patient, more forgiving,
more truthful, more helpful human being,
they will be very curious and interested to know,
who is this person, Jesus, who has called you to a deeper life.
Jesus said "By their fruits, you shall know them [sincere disciples]"
A final thought: do not be misled by the words of atheists.
Many atheists say they do not believe in God.
But the truth is, they do not believe in the Church,
because of the many wars, murders, oppressions and persecutions
the Church has supported over the centuries.
Truly, it is a wonder that anybody on earth can still believe in God,
given the terrible record of the Church, of those who claim to represent Him.
Many atheists, although they say that they do not believe in God,
actually do believe in a moral order of the universe,
a moral order that makes demands on them that they cannot escape,
and directs them toward the life of compassion that Jesus taught.
Many Christians, on the other hand, have a fear-based morality
(do this or you will burn in hell!)
which is not based on trusting in a deeper good,
but instead is based only on fearing eternal punishment.
(I find it to be one of the ongoing sorrows of life
that people who were continually punished as children
grow up to be adults who are obsessed with…
guess what… continual punishment!
I resist every effort to wrap a Christian flag
around this tragic human failing.)
So in closing I must share with you
that my experience has been to find
that many Christians are functioning atheists
and many atheists are deeply Christian.
So please be careful in the assumptions that you make about atheists.
Some atheists may be deeply sincere Christians without the labels.
The great temptation of Western civilization
is to love words more than actualities,
to love the label more than the virtue itself.
So perhaps if you approached the atheists in the spirit of deep listening,
wanting to learn from them what gives their lives meaning and hope,
you might be deeply surprised,
and discover among your atheist friends and co-workers
many "underground" Christians.
Before we assume
that we are better than other people, or more religious,
we should, it seems to me, at the very least,
take some time to get to know them,
and listen to their hearts' deepest concerns.