Posted by: Gabriel | February 3, 2009

The Piety of Atheism

An excerpt from The Roots of Christian Mysticism, a collection of and commentary on quotations from the early Church fathers by the late French Eastern Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément:

It is this supreme revelation – that of Christ – which we must understand from expressions suggesting both an unfathomable plenitude exceeding even our idea of God and our absorption in Being. And perhaps contemporary atheism, to the extent that it is not stupidity but a purifying revolt, could be understood in a new way, as the path of ‘unknowing’ that is not an intellectual path (for negation is denied just as much as affirmation) but is pure adoration. (p. 30)

I’ve come across this idea several times now in various sources and I thought part of what Ryan and Trevor said today about atheism’s attacks as liberation for theology fit in well with a discussion of this question.

The early Church fathers (cf. especially Pseudo-Dionysius) who said, as good Neoplatonists, that as people grow in their relationship and understanding of God, everything which they had previously attributed to God (e.g. wisdom, omnipotence, even love) falls away from their conception and they realise how inadequate these names are for God. Even the word “God” becomes unusable since it carries with it an implicit conception. In the end, no words can be predicated of God and people must fall into a reverent silence.

To be honest, though, I am not 100% convinced that atheism is reverent in this way. The majority of atheism, most definitely, is a “loud silence” and an “idolatrous silence”; meaning simply that it is a silence of defiance, rather than a silence of reverence. I think I tend toward this identification because most people who identify as atheist, from my experience, are anti-religious. It is, however, fully understandable that Clément, because of Eastern Orthodoxy’s intimate familiarity with officially atheist governments, would have experienced many atheists who were not at all hostile to religion and would be more comparable to the self-declared agnostics of my experience; those people who are agnostic either out of apathy, or out of frustration with mainstream religion.

These latter frustrated agnostics are particularly relevant, in my opinion, to this question of silence. Agnostics, many of whom go under the well know (and well criticised) label of “spiritual but not religious”, I could definitely look to as embodying a true understanding of proper silence; or at least an understanding which should not be condemned. I feel that religious people should properly and understandably view agnostics as in need of the revelation of their religion, but that the great majority of religious people should also understand that they would do very well to learn from the silence which agnostics/atheists take towards God.


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