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.
I didn’t want to read this book. I had just reached the finish line of my own pregnancy, surprised again by the arrival of a healthy, lovely baby. Engaging a story about another mother’s challenges with her son’s disabilities seemed smug, and maybe a little snide. I worried reading it would be intrusive, that it would somehow suggest I harbor an unhealthy fascination with distant tragedy. But ignoring it seemed worse, somehow, like indulging a privileged not having to know, an aloof not needing to listen.
The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these, little children, broken and joyful and ridiculously, shamelessly hopeful. It belongs to those with open hands and open hearts and infinite trust.And so I read it. In the long nights and bright days when my own son was brand new and helpless, I read Hilary’s story about the miracle of bringing tiny, fragile, cherished Jackson to this world. At first, I couldn’t help but compare her experience to my own, the anxiety of those early weeks, the insatiable desire for assurance that we were good mothers. The concrete details of our stories quickly diverged, however, as she received a series of prenatal diagnoses for her son that meant he would require significant, long-term care. At that point in her story, I expected to become a sympathetic observer rather than an empathizer. I expected to read about a wholly foreign experience, one full of medical interventions, shattered dreams, controlled despair, fulfilled hopes. My expectations were wrong, thankfully. While Hilary’s experience with her son’s physical challenges is fairy unique, the suffering—the insurmountable injustice of suffering—is a nearly universal experience.
Forgiving God is about disability, except that it’s not. Not really. It’s more pervasive than that, less about diagnoses and treatment plans and more about the human experience of anger and joy and sorrow, about the fierce paradoxes that love brings to us, binds to us. It’s about losing and finding. It’s about standing on the precipice of what can go wrong and falling. It’s about pain. It is about loving the present as it is and demanding that God bring our dreams to life.
Suffering, especially the suffering of a child, is an uncomfortable thing to consider. This discomfort is compounded if you, like me, find yourself removed from the suffering of children. Our subcultural norms further complicate the situation. Evangelicals are expected to muffle any hint of rage at the state of things, both in the wide world we inhabit and in our own smaller ones. When tragedy strikes, we have a ready set of responses meant to offer diluted comforts and steer us away from anger, because frustration with the way things are is often viewed as frustration against God. We’re often cautioned to resign ourselves, joyfully if possible, to what God has allowed. But this is an oversimplification, and Hilary’s brave and honest narrative loudly declares it so.
Simply accepting all things happily fails to honestly recognize that the world is not fully redeemed—not yet. Hilary’s story bravely approaches this difficult truth. It’s immediately clear to readers that she longed for and loves her boy with that deep, fierce, and primal love that mothers have. Even in her early pregnancy, before the complications arose, she wondered and worried and cared for him the way that all new mothers do. And this love is the very thing that forced to pay attention to her son’s suffering, that caused the pain to multiply in her. That love, ordained and blessed by God, forced her to recognize that things were not as they could have been.
It’s a question as old as the world itself, one that has caused some believers to abandon belief altogether: Why do bad things happen to good people, especially the smallest, most innocent people? Believers whose fear of God outweighs their love for Him might make excuses for Him, attempting to protect His character. But Hilary’s great love for God is what enabled her to wrestle with Him. Her persistence in demanding His blessing required a deep and rooted faith, one that maintained that God is good, one that held Him to His own word. Like Hilary, Job and Jacob knew and loved God so well that they weren’t afraid to spar with him, confident that his love and goodness could withstand their human anger. Jesus Himself reminds us of the importance of questioning, when He, at the peak of his suffering, shouted questions at the closed doors of heaven.
Hillary could’ve chosen a different path, blithely excusing away her son’s physical differences, offering benign, trite lessons on the spiritual fruit produced by her own suffering. But that would’ve been less loving, less faithful. Shying away from lament for the sake of protecting God’s name betrays a weak faith, one that attempts to cover up the inconsistencies between what we believe and what we see. Hilary’s anger at suffering is proof of her belief in the goodness of God. We rage at injustice because we understand, at a visceral level, the need for correction, for redemption.
This sense of need is a common grace. It is present in our deepest, most basic relationships—brother to sister, man to woman, parent to child. There is nothing we would not do to create a healed, whole world for the ones we love. There is also nothing we would not do to shield them from the idea that they are not already healed and whole. Both of these things are completely true, all at once.
Hilary often writes of the kingdom of heaven. The parables Jesus uses to describe God’s kingdom time and again involve great loss and great sacrifice, high stakes and overwhelming joy. They are about surrendering the things that feel essential to gain the only thing worth having. For Hilary, the kingdom of heaven is like Jackson. So, too, the kingdom of heaven is like my own son, Wilder. The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these, little children, broken and joyful and ridiculously, shamelessly hopeful. It belongs to those with open hands and open hearts and infinite trust. The kingdom of God is living in the now and the not yet, lingering in our limitations with full, bright expectation that God will bring justice and healing and grace, and knowing that God has brought justice and healing and grace, and that he is bringing it to us now, through one another. This love, the thing ordained and blessed by God, is also the thing that hold and heals us in our suffering.
The resurrected Christ walks among us, wrapped in the flesh of his followers. Suffering is not banished yet, true, but it is certainly made more bearable by our brothers and sisters. Hilary recognizes that, and praises the Body of Christ for the good work they do in the midst of darkness.
Hilary writes of saints, noted and ordinary. Her own words of fierce faith echo the sentiments of Julian of Norwich, who wrote in Revelations of Divine Love, “He said not, ‘Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be diseased,’; but he said, ‘Thou shalt not be overcome.’” Perhaps that is one of the truest testimonies to the love of God, one that can say with assurance that in spite of all darkness, the soul has continued to shine.
Jackson, Preston, and Hilary have suffered greatly. But they are most certainly not overcome. Thanks be to God.
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