I recently received a link to an article posted on Salon.com that brought back a memory from 25 years ago. The article was entitled, “Don’t Stop Believin’: Do atheists need a church?” by Katie Engelhart. The memory was of a physician, Steve.
Steve had never gone to church and was not a Christian. Much to his wife’s surprise, one day he started attending – regularly. Some years later when I asked him what prompted that change he said he’d come to realize that church was the only place he knew where people gathered with the specific intention of becoming better people.
There are some Christians who would say “becoming better people” is the reason they attend church. Many others would say they go to find help and consolation in the face of life’s struggles and trials, to be with people who find meaning in the world the same way they do, or to learn about what’s most important (for them — Jesus).
These and the many other reasons Christians give for attending church are what the “New, New Atheists” (a term coined by physicist Jim Al-Khalili) are interested in as they look at us Christians ... all except any God part. In his book “Religion for Atheists,” Alain de Botton writes, “... in the course of ridding ourselves of unfeasible ideas [that’s what he calls our beliefs], we have unnecessarily surrendered some of the most useful and attractive parts of the faith.” He cites specifically contemplation, community, confession, gratitude, and the cycles of religious observance as being among those parts of what we do as church that are “useful” enough for atheists to steal them (his words, not mine).
De Botton, who is an atheist, thinks most non-believers are committed to leading good lives. I would have no reason to disagree. The folks I know who are atheists are good people. Besides, I don’t know anyone who wakes up in the morning and says, “I want to lead an abominable life today.” De Botton explained to an Amazon.com book reviewer, though, that “the problem of the man without religion is that he forgets. We all know in theory what we should do to be good (my emphasis). The problem is that in practice, we forget.” And that, he says, is what going to church does for religious people and why there should be church for atheists.
Fr. Robert Hovda, a liturgical reformer following Vatican II, saw church differently. Our showing up on Sundays (or Saturdays for some of us) he likened to “playing the kingdom.” In the same way children learn about the adult world through play, we Christians learn about the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed, and our place in it, by “playing the kingdom.”
But because we live most of our time in a culture whose ways can be seductive, it is easy for us to lose ourselves. Being in church on Sundays offers us a different reality where we can reconnect with our truest and best selves.
De Botton says the function of church is to remind us what we need to do to be good. Many Christians would agree with him, I suspect, even though he is an atheist. But what if he has it backwards? What if church is about our identity/about our being, and it is out of our transformed being that real good flows?
Maybe participating in church is a way to enter God’s reality that Jesus called the Kingdom. There we can see that we, who were created by a good God, are good. And maybe, as we play the Kingdom in Church, we will know that we are not isolated monads in a lonely universe but are one with all else that is in the dance of life.
Rather than “use” the practices of the church in the self-serving way that De Botton suggests for atheists, what if we were to enter into them in a self-giving way, to be present through them to the Creator of the universe and to one another and all that God created? I wonder what we would discover. I wonder who we would discover.
Leigh Waggoner is rector of St. Barnabas Church.