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.
In October, popular evangelical blogger Jen Hatmaker announced her support for same-sex marriage. As Christian readers were still digesting this, popular evangelical “mommy blogger” Glennon Doyle Melton announced that, following her divorce, she had begun a same-sex relationship with soccer star Abby Wambach. On Instagram, under the heading “LOVE WINS ANNOUNCEMENT PART ONE,” Melton wrote:
Feels like the world could use all the love it can get right now. So today, I’m sharing with you my new love. . . . And oh my God, she is so good to me. She loves me for all the things I’ve always wanted to be loved for. She’s just my favorite. My person. . . . We [Melton, Wambach, and Melton’s children] are a modern, beautiful family.
These two high-profile happenings in the evangelical world seemed to suggest that a shift is underway. As Kate Shellnutt wrote in The Washington Post in an article about Melton’s announcement, “Support for same-sex marriage continues to edge up among Christians each year, though white mainline Protestants and Catholics, most of whom are in favor, remain more than twice as likely to endorse the practice as white evangelicals, according to a Pew Research Center report.” But the widespread influence of Hatmaker, Melton, and other evangelical writers and thinkers who are calling for a relaxation of Christian standards on sex and marriage is likely to keep that support edging up, and up, and up.
How do we reconcile this with the teachings of the Bible and the Christian church? Many people would say that’s obvious: If God is love, then the more love, the better.
I’m not sure it’s that simple. The idea sounds good, yes—but it also asks us to overlook some significant truths about the nature and limits of love, as well as God’s desire and calling for His people.
This one-two punch got me thinking about Graham Greene’s 1951 novel The End of the Affair. The book is one of Graham’s four “Catholic novels”; though one could make a case that his Catholicism informed more than just those four, they’re the ones in which religion takes a prominent role. And in The End of the Affair, it was the church’s teachings on sexuality, marriage, and divorce that shaped the course of the story.
Mind you, The End of the Affair is not what we tend to think of as a “Christian novel” today. Prior to the book’s opening, its protagonists, Sarah Miles and Maurice Bendrix, once engaged in a passionate extramarital affair—until Sarah abruptly ended it. The book, then, tells the story of Maurice’s attempts to understand what happened and to win her back—attempts so confused and desperate that he stoops to engaging a private detective, who steals Sarah’s diary for him to read.Is God’s definition of love restricting us from happiness or freeing us from the self-love that entangles us?
There, Maurice discovers that Sarah ended the affair because, after Maurice was nearly killed in an air raid, she had promised God—a God in whom she didn’t even believe at the time—“I love him and I’ll do anything if you’ll make him alive. . . . I’ll give him up forever, only let him be alive with a chance.”
This is the improbable, inauspicious beginning of faith in Sarah’s life, and it sparks a fierce conflict within her between faith and love. Even as Sarah begins to believe in God, she is still deeply in love with Maurice. And eventually, she attempts to reach a compromise. In modern parlance, she tries to find a way for love to “win.”
This is the moment in Greene’s book that reflects the cultural moment we’re in. The questions that Sarah asks her priest about marriage and divorce, as well as his answers, are closely tied to the Catholic context of the novel—but I think there’s something in the passage that speaks to Christians of all denominations. Sarah tells the story in a letter to Maurice:
I went to a priest two days ago before you rang me up and I told him I wanted to be a Catholic. I told him about my promise and about you. I said, I’m not really married to Henry any more. We don’t sleep together—not since the first year with you. And it wasn’t really a marriage, I said, you couldn’t call a registry office a wedding. I asked him couldn’t I be a Catholic and marry you? I knew you wouldn’t mind going through a service. Every time I asked him a question I had such hope; it was like opening the shutters of a new house and looking for the view, and every window just faced a blank wall. No, no, no, he said, I couldn’t marry you, I couldn’t go on seeing you, not if I was going to be a Catholic. I thought, to hell with the whole lot of them and I walked out of the room where I was seeing him, and I slammed the door to show what I thought of priests. They are between us and God, I thought; God has more mercy, and then I came out of the church and saw the crucifix they have there, and I thought, of course, he’s got mercy, only it’s such an odd sort of mercy, it sometimes looks like punishment.
The dilemma as Sarah sees it—at least at first—is startlingly modern and familiar: old, dead, stifling religious rules versus real, insistent, satisfying, life-giving love. What jolts her into a new way of seeing, however, is a glimpse of what’s at the very heart of Christianity: the cross.
In the cross, we see love that is the very opposite of self-fulfilling. It is not conventionally beautiful, and it certainly does not appear to be winning. It is agonizingly painful, pouring out everything for the sake of those who are cold, indifferent, or even hostile. This is the kind of love Sarah—and humanity in general—does not want any part of: “I’m tired and I don’t want any more pain,” she pleads with God in her diary. “I want ordinary corrupt human love.”
But ordinary corrupt human love is precisely what the Christian faith—as spelled out in the Scriptures and taught for centuries by the church—has always placed restrictions on. The trouble is how those restrictions are viewed and interpreted: Is God’s definition of love restricting us from happiness or freeing us from the self-love that entangles us? We can ignore those restrictions, or condemn them, or try to rearrange them—but if, in fact, they do come from the Word of God, we can’t just wish them away. Somehow, even when we can’t understand, we have to find a way to accept that God—the loving, merciful, kind, understanding, grace-filled God—has defined love in a specific way, one that isn’t up to our own interpretations.
I don’t write this as one who thinks that God’s definition of love is simple or easy, or even always fair. As a single Christian woman, I live with those rules every day, and it’s no easy burden. Since Graham Greene was hardly the poster boy for marital fidelity or obedience to church teachings (the novel, as it turns out, was born out of an affair of his own), he probably didn’t think the rules were easy or fair, either. But at the very least, his story proves that he recognized their reality and their power.
Evangelical Christians have fallen too much into the habit of believing God exists to affirm our deepest desires, whether material or sexual. We have forgotten that sometimes God, for reasons of His own, calls us to nail our desires to that ugly, painful, bitter cross. But the mystery of Christianity is that what dies is also raised again to life. Resting in this mystery is the paradox of faith: that God has our greatest good in mind when He calls us to the cross.
Sarah Miles discovers this in her difficult, reluctant journey of faith. As she obeys God in giving up Maurice, she finds herself capable of a new, greater love: God’s love and peace begin to invade her life, and compassion spills out of her—for her hapless husband, Henry, who she can no longer pretend wouldn’t be hurt if she left him; for a disfigured atheist she goes to for counsel; for practically everyone who crosses her path. Sarah was not capable of such love before. These people experience blessings that they never would have known had she simply focused on and followed her own desires.
Were Sarah Miles a real person living today, no doubt many well-intentioned Christians would tell her to go right ahead and follow her desires, to love according to her own definition. There would be no “No, no, no” from them, as there was from the priest in the story. They would be more eager to make sure no “cruel restrictions” got in the way of her blossoming faith. They would tell her to follow her heart, live her truth, embrace her own happiness, and let the chips (and the ex-husband) fall where they may.
But that’s not how Greene’s story goes. Sarah’s ultimate victory—so different from what many would now consider a victory—is expressed in one of her final diary entries, when she writes to God, “Did I ever love Maurice as much before I loved You? Or was it really You I loved all the time?” What she comes to understand is that her conflict was not just between faith and love; it was between a lesser love and a greater love. For Sarah, then, love wins—not the love she expected or hoped for, but a love that is so much more than she ever dreamed.
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