JOPLIN, Mo. —
We Christians can become pretty "worked up" about atheism.
In my younger days, the most vocal of the atheist activists was Madalyn Murray O'Hair. It was as though her life's ambition was the eradication of God along with the presence of God in America's public life. Her sons, William and Jon, following along in the footsteps of their mother, were also avowed atheists at a very young age and eventually provided capable leadership in O'Hair's American Atheist Center.
Tragically, O'Hair's son Jon and a granddaughter were murdered. William moved on in life to eventually profess Christianity and write a book, "My Life Without God," which portrays a very disturbed and dysfunctional family. Years earlier, when William had first become a Christian, his mother issued a statement which she said would serve as a "post-natal abortion."
Christians responded to Madalyn Murray O'Hair's activism with a strong activism of their own -- apologists with their pens, pastors with their sermons, Sunday school teachers with their lessons and writers with their books and essays. Celebrity preachers called for open debates to be aired over television.
I was right there, flaying away, as a young ministerial student and pastor.
I wonder sometimes, as I look back over those years, about the emotions we Christians felt in response to the O'Hair challenges to God. Were our responses more like debate and argument rather than thoughtful expressions of our faith? As I reflect about those days, it seems as though Christians were more angry than caring. How easy it is to get caught up into an argument with its accompanying emotions and feelings.
We read that Jesus was observed "seeing the multitudes" and feeling compassion for them (Matthew 9:36). Is there any reason to think that there were no unlovable people in that multitude? Rather than noting the ugliness of the multitude, Jesus saw them as "sheep without a shepherd," not knowing the truth or, for some reason, not accepting the truth. We must ask of ourselves, what do we feel when we see the multitudes in all their unbelief?
Karl Barth, a 20th century Swiss theologian, near the end of his career was asked to write a response to an essay written by atheist Max Bense. Barth accepted the assignment but surprised many with the title of his response to Bense: "The Rationality of Discipleship."
The surprise had to do with the fact that Barth's sharpest jabs in the essay were reserved for Christians for what he calls "practical atheism," professing belief in God, and yet living life in such a way that does not involve God at work, at play, in the voting booth or in the home. Practical atheism is, according to Barth, the most pernicious kind of atheism.
What Barth actually said in his essay is that "Christians don't need to argue better than atheists, they need to live better." The question of God's relevance easily trumps the question of God's existence. Barth is right.
The central question has shifted. In the days of O'Hair, the epicenter of the conversation was "Does God exist?" Today, it seems to me that a shift has occurred. The new question is, "Does it matter that God exists?"
Craig Tally is the senior minister of First Community Church in Joplin. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.