How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
The previous chapter of Culture Making was, to be honest, a bit of a downer and I think that it’s thrown me for a bit of a loop: I’ve been having some difficulty fully parsing the book’s remaining chapters. Crouch had been building a convincing case for our role as culture makers through much of Culture Making, so I’m still trying to make sense of this sudden appearance of pessimism. If I had to boil down what I believe Crouch is saying so far, it’s that it is impossible for us to truly affect the cultural change we seek to accomplish via our own human efforts, noble or mighty though they be (due to our lack of history perspective, our inability to foresee the repercussions of our efforts, etc.). Instead, we ought to be looking for where God is “on the move”, where God is affecting change: we ought to be looking for traces of God.
To that end, Crouch encourages us to look back in history to see where God has purposefully moved in the past. Christianity is a historical faith: Christians “believe that the world’s Maker has made himself known in history — not just in visions, inward dispositions or psychological experiences… The Jewish and Christian claim, as unlikely or even scandalous as it often seems, is that God has been involved in culture making from the very beginning.”
But how, exactly, has God been involved in human history? Crouch (rightly, I think) insists that attempting to divine the Divine’s efforts in human history is difficult. “Survivor bias” can trick us into thinking that God is on the side of the victor, that those who triumphed in past efforts — especially efforts that, in hindsight, seem obviously good — certainly had God on their side, and therefore, he was not on someone else’s other side. This line of thinking manifests itself in all manner of ways, from football players thanking God for their victory on the gridiron (as if God had their backs on the field and/or was working to ensure the other team’s defeat) to those who see disasters and calamities as God’s judgment on those they perceive as enemies (as was the case with the March earthquake in Japan).
Crouch mentions the Civil War as an historical example of this. Both the North and South believed that God was on their side. But the Civil War, though it had the noble end of helping to abolish slavery, was itself a fallen human effort fraught with sin’s effects. (One need only consider the body count, or atrocities committed by both sides, to realize that.) Even as we believe that God turned all of the war’s hatred, violence, and bloodshed to good — or, considering the racial tensions that still divide the U.S. today, is still in the process of doing so — it’s foolish to think that God was ever fully on any one army’s “side”, or that he fully answered one side’s prayers over another.
So Christianity says that God works in human history, but he apparently does so in very subtle, mysterious, borderline inscrutable ways — ways that certainly leave room for doubt and uncertainty. There are, however, two moments in history where Crouch believes that God moved unambiguously, and it’s to these events we can look to discern some form of pattern to God’s culture making efforts: the exodus and the resurrection. Crouch believe these are more than “religious” events, though they certainly have religious implications. The exodus and the resurrection are profoundly historical events. They offer compelling explanations for the particular and peculiar existence of both the Jewish culture and the Christian religion. Additionally, as Crouch explains regarding the resurrection, “if [it] is true, then Jesus’ life, death and victory over death give us unprecedented confidence that his way of life (and death) discloses something reliably true about the reality of God.”
So what does this reality look like? Or, as Crouch puts it, “what do [the exodus and the resurrection] tell us, in particular, about [God’s] purposes in culture?” According to Crouch, “one inescapable feature of both events is that they show God at work in the lives of the powerless… The exodus and resurrection are utterly unlikely events in the lives of a people and a person who have run out of other options, who have been crushed by those with cultural power — Pharoah’s Eqypt and Caesar’s Rome — and who lack the means to save themselves.”
In other words, God has a special interest in those who have no power in and of themselves, who have been ostracized, marginalized, and abused by those who do have all of the cultural power. This may be hard to believe for skeptics, and even for Christians, especially here in the United States where Christianity enjoys an incredible amount of cultural dominance, and where Christianity lives so near to the halls of power. But the Bible is full of images of God stooping down to aid those who are the weak. Folks such as these lie close to the heart of God, and when he’s acted most visibly in human history, it is in their favor. This should be a sobering thought for those of us who currently do enjoy so much cultural power.
But Crouch argues that there’s a second theme in both the exodus and the resurrection: “Not only do [they] signal God’s concern for the powerless, they display his ongoing engagement with the powerful.” In the exodus, this is through Moses, who himself enjoyed a great level of cultural power, wealth, and education as an adopted son of Eqyptian royalty. It is these things, i.e., Moses’ “cultural fluency”, that prove a crucial ingredient in God’s plans to rescue his people from their oppressors. The resurrection contains this as well. Prior to his death, Jesus had numerous interactions with the cultural elites of his day, be it the priests in the Jewish temples, Nicodemus (a member of the Sanhedrin, a high-ranking religious official), a Roman centurion, or Pilate. Likewise, the character of Jesus himself displays the powerless/power paradox. Crouch explains:
…Jesus, in life, death and victory over death, is not simply powerless — “Jesus meek and mild.” His way of life; his command over unclean spirits, illness and hunger; and his parables and actions all display his extraordinary power, even before his resurrection from the dead confirms his ultimate authority over heaven and earth. And yet this power is contained and even disguised in a Nazarene whose very accent betrays his culturally marginal status in an insignificant client state far from the streets of Rome.
Crouch sees this pattern — this powerless/powerful paradox — as a sort of template for seeing how God is at work in human history around us, if only because that is not how the world works.
When elites use their privilege to create cultural goods that primarily serve other elites, that is nothing but the way of the world, the standard operating procedure of culture. Furthermore, even when the culturally powerful deign to share their blessings with the powerless, but in ways that leave the powerless dependent and needy, this too is simply another marginally kinder version of the way of the world. Likewise, when the powerless cultivate and create culture that simply reinforces their oppression without bringing any real change in the horizons of possibility and impossibility, or when those in desperate circumstances rise up against the powerful, simply creating new structures of power in their place, we rightly recognize what is happening as business as usual.
Using the exodus and resurrection as a template of sorts, is it possible to determine other potential examples of God’s acting in history, of God working through the powerless/powerful paradox? Crouch mentions the end of apartheid in South Africa as one such example, in which those who had all of the power in the land (the white populace led by the office of President F.W. de Klerk) worked in an unprecedented manner with those who had no power whatsoever (the black populace led by Nelson Mandela) to bring about a peaceful transition to a democracy for all who lived in South Africa, regardless of ethnicity.
But as grandiose and wonderful as events such like that are, I find it more interesting to think of God working similarly in the smaller, more seemingly mundane areas of life. Crouch addresses this as well:
…it is clear from Scripture that God is equally interested in smaller-scale cultural change — and many of the most momentous changes start small. The household codes of the New Testament often provoke modern discomfort because they do not seem to pay enough attention to “equality” between masters and servants or husbands and wives. But considered as divine interventions in a cultural context where the horizons of possibility did not even include real friendship between a husband and wife (something many Greeks and Romans considered unthinkable), where masters had unlimited power over their slaves, and where children prompted not a shred of our post-Victorian sentimentality, the instructions for how Christians are to conduct their relationships turn out to envision massive restructuring of the existing horizons. When Paul asks husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Eph 5:25), he is inviting them into a level of intimacy and servanthood that was all but unknown.
Thinking back on the powerless/powerful paradox, I’m struck again at how much it cuts across so much of the culture in which I live. Though America prides itself on being a democracy where everyone has a say, on being a country where anyone can make it provided they have the drive and ambition, the fact is that there are structures in place that benefit some and oppress others. And I, by virtue of certain factors completely outside of my control (e.g., gender, ethnicity), have been able to benefit from those structures. In short, I am one of the powerful, one of the elites (even if I don’t often feel that way). And like anyone who has some power, I don’t want to give it up: I don’t to become uncomfortable or taken out of my comfort zones. We see that so much in our culture, where the “haves” do everything they can to hold onto whatever wealth and power they have, and the divide between the powerful and the powerless increases with every passing day.
However, if God engages with the powerful so as to aid the powerless, then I ought not hold too tightly to whatever cultural power I have (as if I can prevent God from stripping it all away in a flash). The cultural power that I possess is for God’s redemptive purposes, for his glory. Earlier in the chapter, Crouch references Isaiah 40:4-5, which begins with “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low”. Crouch sees the valleys as “places of poverty and powerlessness”, the mountains and hills as “sites of power and privilege”. In this passage, both sets of locales have their place in God’s plan, so that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.”
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