Arts and Culture

Common Ground with Atheists

by Father Robert Lauder

Fourth in series
IN A COURSE that I offer in the philosophy department at St. John’s University, the students and I try to study the mystery of God.  Though the course is entitled “The Problem of God,” what we spend a great deal of time on is the problems that philosophers have had in speaking of God. Even those philosophers with whom we might seriously disagree can provide us, perhaps indirectly, with insights into the mystery of God.

The second section of the course is devoted to studying some influential atheists such as Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Sartre and Bloch.  I tell the students that I agree with all the atheists that we study because the God that they are rejecting is a false God, a God who will not allow human creatures to grow and develop.

Each atheist we study sees God as being against human beings, thwarting human beings’ efforts to be free and to live meaningfully.  The God that the atheists reject is a burden, a hindrance in the path of human growth and freedom. One commentator on these atheists described them as anti-theists; they not only disbelieve in God, but they are militant in their efforts to show that God does not exist.

The view of God that the atheists attack was on my mind as I read Johannes Metz’s “Poverty of Spirit.”  Metz presents a view of God that stresses that God is all for us, that not only is God not an enemy but rather God’s presence in our lives frees us and enables us to grow and develop beyond our plans and wildest dreams. Metz writes:

“…God does not undermine our humanity, he protects and insures it. His truth makes us free (cf. Jn. 8, 32). Unlike the pagan gods, God does not expropriate man’s humanity.  In drawing man to himself, he sets man free.  He is the guardian of our humanity, who lets us be what we are. When God draws the creature to himself, the creature becomes all the more important. When God draws near, he makes the glory of our humanity shine even more brightly before us. He heightens our true greatness as human beings….

“God has come to us in grace. He has endowed us with his life, and made our life his…. His grace does not cause estrangement…, as sin does. It reveals the full depths of our destiny (resulting from God’s salvific initiative in history), which we could not imagine ourselves.”

How we think of God greatly influences how we think of ourselves and how we think of ourselves greatly influences how we think of God.  Each of us has an image of self, and each of us has an image of God. To the extent that we allow those images to influence us, they will play a very significant role in our experiences and in our relationships with others.

I knew a young man who had a terrible self-image.  He was intelligent, witty, handsome and a genuinely good person. I once asked him to tell me one good thing about himself.  He could not mention even one. I could have mentioned 20.  How did he get that self-image?  Who gave it to him?  I don’t know, but because of it he had trouble with all his relationships. Because he could not love himself, he could not love anyone.

It seems paradoxical to me that poverty of spirit reveals our greatness. Unfortunately, poverty of spirit might lead some to think that we are less than nothing, that we have no intrinsic value, that our dependence on God reveals our basic worthlessness.

The opposite is true. Metz wrote that God lets us be what we are. God’s presence in our lives does not erase or annihilate us. Rather, God’s presence in our lives allows us to grow as persons.

Our poverty of spirit, strange as this may seem to us, allows us to appreciate what an almighty loving God has done and is doing for us. Once we recognize our neediness, which is another way of identifying what we have been calling our poverty of spirit, we can become aware that we are made by God for God.

Our consciousness, which is created by God, is directed toward God; our will which is created by God, is only going to find fulfillment in a loving relationship with God. No finite being will ever satisfy us or fulfill us.  To be human is to be magnetized by God.  The deepest level of ourselves is oriented toward God and nothing less than God will satisfy us.

Poverty of spirit tells us who we are, and it calls our attention to Who God is.