Lessons on Christian atheism from my coffee mug

December 7th, 2015

I actively despise lukewarm coffee. As far as I know, you can’t order coffee “room temperature” at any Starbucks or Caribou Coffee. And with good reason. There is no greater beverage disappointment than grabbing your mug and putting that ceramic cylinder to your mouth only to partake of tepid coffee. I’ve had something similar happen with iced coffee or iced tea; I take an innocuous sip and discover my once refreshing, cold brew is now a watered-down shadow of its former self.

If we take the final book of the Bible seriously, God also is also not a fan of lukewarm. John the Revelator warns the church at Laodicea, “I wish that you were either cold or hot.” (see Revelation 3:14-22) Another way of putting it: I wish that you were either a serious atheist or a serious Christian. Somewhere in between, living a lie, will not do.

I believe that this — what we might call a Christian atheism — is the most serious issue facing the church in North America today.

One of my teachers, Stanley Hauerwas, calls this phenomenon “practical atheism.” Atheism, as he describes it, is not necessarily an explicit denial of God but living as if God does not exist. Many of those who ascribe intellectually to the idea of God or even those who have “given their hearts to Jesus” go about their 24/7 without their words, thoughts, deeds or wallets impacted in any way that would suggest authentic Christian faith. This is Christian atheism.

Of course, this is not a danger unique to the 21st century. In 1675 a German pastor named Philip Spener wrote a work called the Pia Desideria, meaning “pious desires.” With uncommon vigor, Spener insisted that too many so-called Christians had only the outward form of religion without the power; his call to holiness and intentional Christian growth was so inspiring it launched a movement called Pietism, which heavily influenced John Wesley and many others. What he wrote in 1675, a century before the American Revolution, applies equally today:

“…there are not a few who think that all that Christianity requires of them (and that having done this, they have done quite enough in their service of God) is that they be baptized, hear the preaching of God’s Word, confess and receive absolution, and go to the Lord’s Supper, no matter how their hearts are disposed at the time, whether or not there are fruits which follow, provided they at least live in such a way that the civil authorities do not find them liable to punishment.”

I would hate to be the one to tell Spener that many of our church leaders would consider the above a description of an advanced disciple! But we can see it for what it is: Christian Atheism.

Tim Keller, a pastor in New York City, points out something interesting about this. It’s commonly said, and I’ve repeated it, that we face a world very much like the first Christians faced in the Greco-Roman world of the first century: a world where people are very spiritual, but not religious; a world where every possible religion is available, and you can choose any of them as long as you don’t say one is more true than another. And all that is true. But there is a difference between the world we find ourselves in and the world the first Christians faced: We aren’t facing an unchurched world, we’re facing a dechurched world.

Think of it this way. When the flu season is about to begin, many of us go and get a flu shot. The flu shot is a vaccine; a vaccine protects you against a virus by giving you a weaker version of the virus you want to protect against. Your immune system can fight off the weaker version, and in doing that it creates antibodies. Those antibodies, if the vaccine works correctly, will prevent you from getting the stronger version. Your body has been tricked into fending off the real disease. You’ve been inoculated.

Keller’s point is that the difference in living in a unchurched culture and a dechurched culture is that a dechurched culture has had a version of Christianity before and rejected it. It has been inoculated against the virus. Thus, it is a harder task to spread the gospel, to share the good news of Jesus, when our culture has already been inoculated by a weaker version, by a false version, of the faith. And yet many Christians, even lifelong church leaders, cannot tell the difference between authentic discipleship and Christian atheism.

A series of surveys conducted recently among American teenagers revealed just how serious this inoculation goes. The directors of the survey concluded,

“It is not so much that U.S. Christianity is being secularized. Rather, more subtly, Christianity is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself, or more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by quite a different religious faith.”*

We have mistaken the real thing for the lukewarm, the virus for the vaccine, the faith of our fathers and mothers for Christian atheism. According to this survey, evangelicals, Mormons and African-American Churches are among the least affected by this trend, while Catholics and mainline Christians (which includes Methodists) come out the worst. We are not not sure why a majority of American churches have had difficulty in maintaining the Christian story and handing it on to others, but the statistics are terrifying.

My own observation is this: Many Christians today, especially those of us in the mainline, know what we are against more than that which we affirm. We don’t want to be “those kinds of Christians,” the Bible-thumpers that are hyperjudgmental and no fun to be around. But we are so afraid of being labeled as religious zealots — even though we’ll show zeal for almost anything besides our faith — we overcompensate. We set the bar so low that we trade the beautiful, radical, compelling faith of the apostles, saints and martyrs for a lukewarm shell of a thing with no power to transform our families, our churches, our communities, or us. I do not believe anyone goes to bed early on a Saturday night so they can hone their Christian atheism the next morning.

John Wesley preached a famous sermon called “The Almost Christian,” where he addressed many of these themes. He also lived in a place, 18th century Britain, where Christianity had become tepid and “practical atheism” was the norm. He preached to people who were inoculated and invited them to try out the real virus through prayer, small groups, visiting the sick and the prisoner, and by studying Scripture and worshipping with head, heart and hands.

I conclude with the benediction at the close of his sermon, a prayer of hope that God might grant us something beyond the lukewarm Christian atheism to which we have become accustomed, for it is a faux faith that needs to be dumped so that we can be filled once more with the real thing:

“May we all thus experience what it is to be, not almost only; but altogether Christians; being justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Jesus; knowing we have peace with God through Jesus Christ; rejoicing in hope of the glory of God; and having the love of God shed abroad in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost given unto us!”

*Quoted in Dean, Almost Christian (New York: Oxford University Press 2010), 3

This is the second article in “Encountering Atheism,” a three-part series by Drew McIntyre. Drew blogs at Plowshares into Swords and co-hosts the WesleyCast.

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