Sunday, April 15, 2012

A day for us of little faith

The second Sunday of Easter has been a special day for me since my conversion to Christianity more than thirty years ago. And it isn't just because of the beautiful hymn, “O Sons and Daughters Let Us Sing,” though that certainly adds to the experience. But for me, who came to the faith after years of questioning and doubt, St. Thomas's Sunday is something to look forward to. It's called that because the Gospel reading for Roman Catholic, Anglican,and most mainline Protestant churches is John 20:24-29:

24But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, [the Twin] was not with them when Jesus came.
25The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the LORD. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.
26And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.
27Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.
28And Thomas answered and said unto him, My LORD and my God.
29Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. (KJV)

Too often, Thomas gets a bad rap from preachers because of his unwillingness to believe instantly in the resurrected Jesus. Thomas had not been present when Jesus first appeared to the rest of the disciples in the upper room, where Jesus showed them his pierced hands and wounded side. They had the advantage Thomas lacked. Had one of the others been in the same situation as Thomas, he might have done the same thing. His honesty in not believing blindly has always impressed me. He is the patron saint of those of us who don't always have the mustard seed's worth of faith that Jesus asks of his followers.

But lately I've wondered whether we “of little faith” have had ours strengthened by the fashionable trend of atheism. I'm not talking about people whose atheism comes from honest inquiry, but those who have declared themselves atheists because it's now the popular thing to do.

I first recognized the new reality four years ago, when I was in Chicago for Amtrak block training. It's a two-day training session, so as an out-of-towner, I had a hotel room at the Holiday Inn for two nights. And since I don't have cable TV at home, I was watching MSNBC. Bill Maher's show came on, and I was interested in one of the guests: Reza Azlan, a brilliant Iranian-American writer who has done so much for our understanding of Islam and the Middle East. But first I had to sit through Maher's conversation with the two men behind the cartoon South Park. As usual, I was impressed with Azlan.

It was an intelligent discussion until Maher brought up his atheism. The two South Park guys chimed in that they were atheists, too, and Maher said to Azlan something to the effect of “But you're not an atheist. You're a Muslim.”

Azlan asserted that he was.

And Maher asked him why he didn't join the atheists. I don't remember the exact words, but it had an “everybody's doing it” sound to it.

I realized I had more in common with the Muslim Azlan, a man of faith, than with Maher or the two South Park guys. I do not know how any of the three men arrived at their atheism, but they did not try to persuade Azlan with logic or reason, but with fashion. I do know that Azlan's God is the same compassionate God most Christians and Jews worship. The details—the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, etc.--are far less important than the compassion.

Something is not necessarily wrong because it's fashionable. But it's always best to question anything in the current vogue. And I fear that too many people are embracing atheism without a great deal of thought or introspection.

As for us of little faith, we have the example of Thomas, who had the courage to declare his doubt among an audience of believers. I pray to have the courage to maintain my faith in a popular culture of unbelief.


Charles Gramlich said...

Strangely, I was just talking to my wife about this last night. I was wondering why we're suddenly seeing so many "athiest" statements and cartoons. I didn't really think of it as having become a fad but you're right, there is that element to it.

magdave said...

No, to my mind, it's less of a fad than a back-lash. Folks do not abandon their religion or faith unless they've plenty of reason to. Apostasy is no light matter. There are lot of fundamentalist voices disaffecting folks who might otherwise remain tied to their faith. The meanness of those who condemn LGBT people in the name of their religion are an example. It's just no good.

I personally have a lot of deference towards those whose lives find significance in the light of their religious faith. I choose to not judge the importance of that relationship. However, it is a different matter when folks use their religion as some kind of justification or rationalization for the demonizing of an otherwise harmless section of humanity.

On the other side of the coin are those--and even perhaps the same folks who are ill vehement towards LGBT people--who extend themselves in a selfless manner helping towards defeating hunger around the world. Such charity on one side and such malice on the other. What to make of that?

No, atheism does not breed in a vacuum. It's most likely a form of disappointment than anything else. Let's not judge the disappointed too harshly.

BTW, I am not an atheist.