If I, as a devout Christian, were to dialogue with the folks who put up the atheist billboard at the end of the Lincoln Tunnel in New York City I would focus on the word myth. The billboard, as you probably know, pictures a classic scene of the Nativity of Our Lord, and has the caption, “You KNOW it’s a myth. This Season, Celebrate REASON!”
Yes, I would say, Christianity is based in stories with some historical basis passed on over millennia by a community of people to explain and preserve a set of beliefs and a way of life. This is an alternative definition of the term, something much different from a purely fictional story. And I would share my favorite definition of myth, stated by a young child: “A myth is a story that’s true on the inside but not always on the outside.”
Another important point I would want to make—one of those points that seems that it should go without saying but, alas, must be said—is that there is a wide diversity among those of us who identify ourselves as Christians. For the most part, the Christians I hang out with in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America respect deeply the beliefs and non-beliefs of others. Our understanding of God does not lead us to condemn others, but rather, to love one another. Many Christian billboards cause me to cringe. The fact is, I am more comfortable with kind, friendly atheists than self-righteous Christians who are sure they have all the answers.
I would most certainly share with my fellow human beings who cannot make sense out of God that sense is not the most important aspect of faith—though logic and reason figure in. We do not check our brains at the door of the church and science is no adversary of our God. To find meaning in life and death and life again, we value both mystery and knowledge, both emotion and intellect. Our life together is reasoned and disciplined, and yet, our practices help us move beyond reason. Barbara Crafton, Episcopal clergy, expresses this well: “Liturgy is the recapturing of something that once happened, bringing it alive again and amplifying its meaning in the present moment. Sacraments are not rational occurrences, and they cannot be reduced to reasonable explanation. It is one of the saddest parts of being rational beings, this sterile insistence of ours that everything make sense, our grumpy suspicion of mystery.”
Those would be a few of my main points. And I would listen. I would want to know how they’re faring on this terrestrial ball with its vicissitudes of life. I would learn from them, I am sure, and we would discover common ground. These speculations are based on dialogues I am privileged to enter into frequently.
And I would desire civility and mutual respect in our conversation. I’ve been cruising the Internet, reviewing dialogue between atheists and Christians on billboards and other matters. Clever terms and phrases have made me smile and even laugh out loud, but I was, ultimately, sad at the animosity exhibited. Terms like “religiotards” and “kool-aid drinkers” and descriptions like “your illogical, irrational, Bronze-Age belief system” don’t create a comfort zone for sharing differences and finding likenesses. Neither do patronizing, condescending attitudes displayed by Christians towards those who don’t believe the way they do.
In my Sunday by Sunday series, relationship between Christians and atheists is incarnated in the characters of Rose, inveterate church lady, and Jim, her non-believing neighbor. Dialogue isn’t always easy for these two. With determination and mutual respect, however, they maintain civility and focus on values and beliefs they share. Therein lies human connection which seems sure to align well with the purposes of a loving God—and with an ordered universe.