Yesterday I blogged about how theists and atheists are the not all that different from each other; we are almost all transcendentalists in the sense that almost all of us find some kind of moral, ethical and even spiritual meaning in life. Human life amounts to more than eating and scratching our various itches, and whether or not we believe in God, we want to do something real with our lives. We have itches that scratching won’t fix.
On this sixth day of Christmas, I want to blog about how theists and atheists are different. While both groups think life means something, we understand that meaning in different ways.
Atheists and agnostics experience transcendence in two ways; theists add a third. The first dimension, common to almost all human beings, appears in those ‘peak experiences’ we have from time to time. There are moments and relationships in life that point beyond the physical realities toward the meaning of life. Painting a picture, talking with a friend or a loved one, holding the hand of a small child, volunteering in a homeless shelter, watching the surf roll up the beach as the sun rises on the horizon: at certain moments in our lives these very ordinary experiences connect us with something that somehow feels more real than the superficial and trivial concerns that usually engage us. Something triggers a moment of special clarity and insight that puts the issues and problems of our daily lives into a new and more meaningful perspective. Mystics and people with strong religious beliefs see these moments as encounters with God. But others feel that these experiences are ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious: they experience a feeling of intense meaning and perception that isn’t grounded in any specific religious or theological context.
Some of us have these moments more than others and they seem to be more common at some stages of life than at others, but I’ve never met someone who doesn’t have and doesn’t cherish these moments when things all seem to come together, when the universe seems to make more sense than usual and we feel somehow at home.
A second way that theists and non-theists are in touch with something bigger than themselves is when we perceive the power of ideas and ideals. Things like justice and freedom can’t be bought in a store or seen on TV, but we feel they are important and real. They have no physical existence but we not only know what they are; if we don’t have them we hunger for them as much if not more than we hunger for real, physical food.
The idea of truth has the same kind of power. Whether we think about scientific truth or moral truth, we want to know what it is and we want to see it recognized and honored. We dislike hypocrisy because it is a crime against truth. We hate censorship for the same reason. We believe that human reason ought to be free to operate, free to reach its conclusions, free to share its findings with others.
You don’t have to be a religious believer to believe, for example, that there are causes in whose service you should be prepared to die — or that you ought to be willing to make financial sacrifices to help the poor. You do not have to believe in God to believe that there is an objective standard of fairness by which your conduct is judged, and that some human actions are clearly right (as when a fireman goes into a burning building to save an endangered child) and others (as when a fraudster establishes a Ponzi scheme to bilk the credulous and the elderly out of their life savings) are clearly wrong. “Right” and “wrong” are abstract ideas, but they are ideas with great power over us and both religious and non-religious people aknowledge their sway.
Mystic or spiritual experience of the meaning and coherence of existence; the appeal of values like justice and truths which speak directly to our hearts in ways that cannot be denied: these are two ways in which almost everyone on earth experiences the power of transcendence in ordinary life. Having these experiences is part of what it means to be human; interpreting these experiences is what often divides people into different theological and political camps.
Most of the atheists I’ve known have a profound and moving faith in the meaning and value of human life and in the value of abstract ideas and ideals. Some believe in these virtues and values enough to stake their lives on them and they have faith that doing so results in a life that is more meaningful and more real than one squandered simply on the pursuit of material goods or prestige and success.
Theists, at least in the Abrahamic traditions which I know best, go a step farther. They not only believe in meaning as found in moments of intense personal experience and in the great abstract and impersonal ideals like justice and truth. They believe that the source of meaning and existence hangs together and points to something greater than itself. For theists, life is ultimately meaningful and meaning itself is ultimately personal.
Part of this comes from experience; theists often feel that they have directly experienced God in some of those moments of transcendence that we all feel. They feel they are encountering Somebody at those peak moments of insight and feeling, not just Something. At those peak moments of insight, and even in the midst of everyday life, for many theists there is an experience that the universe doesn’t just sit there while we experience it. It responds to us in a meaningful way.
Theists also look at values like justice and truth and think they tell us something about the way the world is made, not just how we feel. For theists, the universe isn’t just a place with scattered bits of meaning in it. Meaning isn’t decoration or illusion, grace notes that accompany us on our meaningless way through the dark void. Existentialists and others who believe that the universe is ultimately meaningless but who still choose to act as if meaning was real are among the moral heroes of the world, but theists think there is more to life than the affirmation of meaningless ideals in the face of an uncaring void.
They think meaning really means something, that it all adds up. The transcendence that comes to us in life doesn’t just happen; it points to the nature of ultimate reality. That ultimate reality transcends our ability to comprehend, and we only get scattered glimpses of it here and there, but whatever it is, it is greater than we are.
To be a theist is to believe that the meaning we experience in life is a clue. We can follow that clue to learn something of the nature of the creator of the world, of the author of meaning.
This leads very naturally to the concept of a personal God. The ground of all being, the ultimate reality behind everything else, the final and ultimate meaning to which everything else points will certainly be different from us. It is probably going to be indescribably and infinitely more alive and more complex than anything we know or can imagine – but it is certainly not going to be less complex, less individuated, less self-aware than a human.
This fountain of transcendence is not going to be something that can be captured and domesticated by human categories and words. The great theologian Thomas Aquinas at the end of his life said that all of his theological work was ‘like straw’ compared to the reality he glimpsed in visions. He wasn’t retracting his work; he was observing that the reality went beyond anything he could express.
Like Aquinas, theists in all the great religions have tried to make sense of the immensity of meaning that they see coiled at the center of the universe; it is in these theological understandings that the great religions often differ. Christianity has a unique and disturbing approach to understanding God; understanding this is the next step in our quest to make sense of Christmas.
I won’t try to speak for Islam or Judaism, but to understand where Christians are coming from with this whole God thing, it’s probably more useful to think about the heart of the universe than its king. If you think of God as the source of the meaning that flows through people’s lives you will come closer to how Christians think of him than if you think of God as the universal lawgiver or even as the creator.
Christmas takes the universal creator out of the realm of abstraction and brings him into our world. God is the baby in the heart of his family, the adored child whose presence gives new meaning and hope to the parents and friends. This is not God as the Punisher and the Avenger; it is God giving himself to the world out of uncontrollable, unstoppable love. For Christians, the familiar scene around the manger is among other things a way of saying that we can be at home in the universe; despite the immensity of stars and space stretching away from us on every side, the universe makes sense – and we are loved.
Meaning lives and meaning loves; that is what Christians are celebrating at this time of year.