Do you ever read atheist or agnostic authors and start to feel the existential weight of their unbelief? Do you ever follow out the ‘feeling’ that arises when you do that; particularly as you do so as a Christian? I do. Indeed, I just have been experiencing this sensation once again. I am in the process of reading Terry Eagleton (again); he is not even close to being a militant atheist; if anything he is a
soft atheist or searching agnostic. Nonetheless, he operates with machinations that are at overt odds with the Christian reality; particularly when it comes to who Jesus Christ claimed to be. So, just by way of old wounds I have a space to ‘feel’ the angst and utter hopelessness that this sort of agony of thought (ought) to produce; you know: ‘dark night of the soul’ sort of stuff.
My antidote to this sort of stuff, in years past, was to refer to the myriad of evangelical apologists out there; you know: William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland et al. But this isn’t all that satisfactory. The reason this isn’t ultimately satisfactory for me is because they aren’t defending the sort of God I already have a personal and dialogical relationship with. They, instead, are defending the god of the philosophers; the same god most atheists are rejecting. In that sense, if that was the god I was feeling angst about, I suppose what they write would offer assuage. But that’s not the God I know. So what I’ve come to recognize over the years is that there is a misidentification, not just by the atheists, but also by most of the Christian apologists, when it comes to the god they are arguing about.
Because of this, what brings me refreshment—after feeling the loss that someone like Eagleton inhabits, even if he doesn’t ‘feel’ the same loss, currently—is not to go to the “apologists,” but instead it is to go to the Christian Dogmaticians of the church. This is an interesting combine, really, because many of the apologists I am referring to would also refer to some of these church fathers when they are engaging in their defense of God. But again, I think there is a misidentification taking place on various fronts here. The apologists are mostly using the thoughts of some of these church fathers (whether these are patristic, mediaeval, post reformed orthodox, orthodox Lutheran etc.) in abstract ways; abstract in the sense that they are often disregarding the subtleties present in the thought of these various fathers. In other words, the fathers (and mothers) are typically writing for the edification of the church; not attempting to ‘defend’ say, the existence of God. The appeal in the fathers, often at best, is an aesthetic, not analytic one. As such, there is a depth dimension present in their writings that already requires a prior commitment to God’s Divine Revelation; something atheists and agnostics repudiate. In this vein, the fathers have the resource and access to the heavenlies to speak things into my heart that the apologists do not.
The antidote that works best for me these days—an antidote for curing the feeling of hell’s darkness—is not the apologists (who typically push me into this feeling of loss), but the fathers. When I read the fathers there is an encouragement that bears witness with my spirit, such that Jesus comes to be magnified; and God glorified. This is not to say that the fathers all have equal value, but instead to recognize that when I read sound Christian theological reflection there is a fire rekindled that is often quenched when engaging with the atheists (or even the apologists).