Has atheism gone too far?

It only happens every seven years or so that the last day of the year falls on a Sunday. This year it's that time again. If a Sunday has the date December 31, it is given the beautiful name "Altjahresabend" - even in the morning. A year is drawing to a close, and just as you look back at the day in the evening, today we look back at a whole year.

A small passage from the Book of Moses, the Book of Exodus, is proposed as a biblical help for this year's Old Year's Eve. It is about the great move of the people of Israel out of Egyptian slavery.
And the Lord went before them, by day in a pillar of cloud to guide them in the right way, and by night in a pillar of fire to shine for them so that they could walk day and night. The pillar of cloud never left the people by day, nor did the pillar of fire by night.

A powerful picture with which the Jews imagined the permanent presence of God during the long journey through the desert. Old stories are told because the past has a meaning for today: just as we were released from captivity back then, we will never allow ourselves to be enslaved again. A powerful myth. This power of myth is beautifully captured in the subtitle of the epic film "Star Wars", which has had tons of fans all over the world for 40 years. The German subtitle reads: "Once upon a time, in the distant future." The myth is neither old nor new, it stands outside of time. That is why George Lucas, the inventor of the Star Wars sagas, did not want modern, typical science fiction music for his films, but rather timeless, classic tones. He found it with the composer John Williams, whose music will accompany this morning celebration.

"Once upon a time, in the distant future" - let us look back on the old year according to this motto and learn from it for the new year. If you imagine that the past 365 days lay like an area in front of you - were there moments that protruded like a pillar of cloud? Perhaps there were also experiences that were like holy fire. For me it was a single sentence that my thoughts have been revolving around since reading it. It is from Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentine storyteller. In a lecture on Buddhism, Borges said in a subordinate clause that Buddhist monks also meditate on the fact that Buddha never existed in the course of their spiritual training.
Does belief have to try unbelief?

That remark struck me like the sight of a pillar of fire in the desert. To think without the founder of your own belief as a believer? It's like pulling the floor out from under your feet. I imagined that there would have been such an exercise on the path to my belief. Suppose that when I was fourteen I had to spend a weekend in my confectionary free time as if Jesus had never existed. Or I would have tried "seven weeks without God" during Lent. Or studying atheism for a semester as part of training to become a pastor. During my studies, like any future theologian, I actually dealt with atheist philosophy and with God-is-dead theology. But I was never asked to let that get closer to me.

Looking back, I realize that I had forbidden such thoughts out of fear. I think many Christians feel the same way. But wouldn't it be important to boldly take other standpoints and, as it were, to feel them from within yourself? Wouldn't a firm belief only emerge when one has experienced non-belief and can say: "No, atheism is not for me. I will remain a Christian."

I guess very few Christians have gone that far. That probably also applies to the other side. Of those people who cannot imagine the existence of God, very few are likely to have tried faith in God himself. They only look at him from the outside and say: What kind of naive people are they who still believe in God like little children!

Atheism 2.0

For a few years now there has been talk of an atheist who does it differently. The philosopher Alain de Botton approaches faith from the side of the unbeliever. He was born in Switzerland 48 years ago, lives in England and comes from a family where atheism was taken for granted. God was out of the question with the Bottons. People smiled compassionately at people who believed in God, Jesus, Allah, Vishnu or something else. But Alain was suspicious of this arrogance.

Because many atheists definitely say: I love Christmas carols, I love the paintings of Christian art, I admire the cathedrals and like to read the Bible. They are drawn to the moral and emotional side of religion, but cannot stand the doctrines of the church. Until now, so de Botton writes in his bestseller "Religion for Atheists", until now one had to choose between two evils: Either one wanted to use the achievements of Christian culture for oneself, then one had to admit to the associated dogma. Or you rejected the dogmas, but instead lived in a spiritual wasteland. A terrible state of affairs, which the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche described as follows: "To live in such a way that it no longer makes sense to live - that is now the meaning of life."

An atheist learns from religion

De Botton believes there is a solution in the middle between the two. He advises atheists to open up to the good side of religion. He calls it "Atheism 2.0" and goes on a voyage of discovery in the treasure of religious culture:
Religion answers the big questions about morality, orientation and consolation with certainties. Something that worldly educational offers do not offer. If a young person today wants to find guidance and consolation for his life at university, he will be disappointed. Students are not considered to be in need, but rather as being in need of learning. You get data and facts about learning, but no help in life.

Religions take a different approach. Preachers dare to tell people how to live. They preach about the duties of parents to their children, the duties of children to their parents, the duties of politics to the citizens, and the duties of citizens to the general public. They dare to say to their listeners: I want to give you orientation. I want to give you comfort. You have to change your life.

Religions divide time for the same reason. We perceive the New Year as a more secular festival. But the calendar is actually a religious invention so that people are confronted with the most important thoughts over the course of a year. In the secular world they say: If an idea is important, I will think of it at some point. Religion says: Better to direct your thoughts to certain truths at certain festivals. At Christmas to gratitude for life, on Eternal Sunday to transitoriness, on Old Year's Eve to the wonder of timelessness. Just like John Williams' timeless music for the film "The Empire of the Sun".

Sunday services without God

The ideas of "Atheism 2.0" have turned into a movement. It is called "School of Life". In some major cities around the world, people meet for an "assembly" on Sunday mornings. The shape is deliberately copied from the Sunday service. There is a kind of sermon and a kind of church year. The "School of Life" has over 8 million followers on the Internet. Above all, however, and this is where it gets interesting, it is also gaining popularity from Christians and members of other religions.

Because at the other end of the spectrum, among believers of all kinds, there are at least as many discontented people as among atheists. Joachim Kunstmann, Professor of Religious Education, is one of several Christian theologians who urge a distinction between religion and religion. On the one hand, there is the lively, experiential religion that gets along quite well with contemporary culture. The account of the creation of the world in seven days, for example, is a myth intended to explain the Sabbath and not a scientific description of how the earth came into being. For them, no world collapses when they learn that the story of the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire and the people of God wandering through the desert are myths with a long tradition and history of impact.

On the other hand, there is a religion that seems more and more absurd to such differentiated people. A religiosity that takes its own myths and symbols for facts. Which makes the seven days of creation an irrefutable scientific fact. Blocking out everyday reason always finds friends, because people long for certainty of faith. An increasing isolation can also be observed among clergy and devout parishioners. They denigrate public opinion as "modernism" or simply "disbelief". Anyone who questions old ways of thinking will be rejected or excluded. In the end it turns into fanaticism.

Faith and unbelief go towards each other

We have not only known since the religiously motivated terrorist attacks of recent years that it is not harmless. Humanity has had terrible religious wars. Wars between rival religions, and bitter battles between individual denominations within the same religion.

I am convinced that we humans are capable of learning. We can learn from past wars. We believers must call out to fanatics of all kinds: Enough! We want to stay alive! We don't want to be dragged into the next catastrophe by religious disputes!

In spite of the terrible confessional wars almost exactly 400 years ago, we Christians are actually predestined for peace. Because our Christian faith is a mixed religion. We have two scriptures, the Old and the New Testament, one from the Jewish faith and one from the Christian faith. We believe they belong together. That the history of God with his people continues with all people, that all of humanity is God's people.

The dream of a world of encounter

Let’s look ahead on the old year’s evening. What kind of world do we long for? I don't dream of a world with clear borders between religions. My ideal is not a planet full of isolated territories with high walls, behind which cultures, denominations and religions have holed up. I dream of a world that looks like a big marketplace where people meet, talk and meet. A place where even people without religion have a place when they have given up the spirit of hostility towards those who think differently.

At the "Sunday Assemblies" it is just as human as it is at our church services. But the principle of politeness applies there - a valuable achievement of human coexistence in order to get along with those who think differently. Those who have practiced being polite can prevent war in the near future. When a believer relates how he prayed fervently, an atheist listener should quietly respect it. Just as a believer should admit to an atheist interlocutor that he cannot do anything with a certain conception of God.

Jews and Christians as neighbors of atheism

We are predestined for peace of faith for another reason. Because the Christian as well as the Jewish religion are characterized by the fact that they are not afraid of atheism. Time and again in both the Old and New Testaments there are reports of people who question the existing image of God. In the book of Job, for example, the question is: What if something bad happens to a good person? The good person Job says to God: "I have a contract with you. If I live according to your commandments, you will bless me, you have promised me. I have to be able to rely on that." But he loses everything. Sick and silent, he sits in sackcloth and ashes. His friends say, "I'm sure you missed something. There are probably commandments that you didn't know about." But Job stays upright. He says no to his friends and insists on his rights.

In the end, God insists on his omnipotence. He can do what he wants with anyone. But, and this is the breathtakingly new thing: Job emerges from the duel with God as the moral victor. The person Job, who relied on a contract with God, stands in the end above the despotic God, who lets people sign contracts and then does not keep them.

For me, atheism is not the answer. People had a wrong idea about God. God is not a detached tyrant, infinitely far from people, who can do what he wants. We have to imagine God more humanly, on an equal footing with us. God is closer to us than we thought.

The end of the warlike god

Then came a man who proclaimed just that, Jesus of Nazareth. An educated Jew from the country who may have had contact with other spiritual schools from the Far East. During this time, raw materials from all over the known world were transported through Israel. The country was a hub of goods, and certainly also of world views and religions.

This Jesus will sit with me in the big market place that I dream of. Jesus will eat and drink with the Jews and tell about his friend and example Job. Jesus will remind them of the Messiah, the long-awaited Savior who redeems the warring parties from the misery of hostility. Jesus will sit with the atheists and shake his head with them at Pharisees and other stubborn representatives of organized religion. Jesus will rejoice with the Muslims about their enthusiastic love for the unnamed God. Jesus will be amazed with the Hindus at the infinite richness of the manifestations of the divine. Jesus will agree with the Buddhists that a person has to leave any conception of God behind them. And Jesus will bear testimony as a person that a person is ready to die for this truth.

I would like a place full of people from all faiths. This is a dream. The whole world will never become such a peaceful, debating marketplace. But we will always sit at coffee tables and conference tables, on pub benches and sofas, and we will always have the freedom to talk about what separates us. Or about what connects us.

My favorite piece by the film composer John Williams is the march for the film "1941", a satire on the war, and a box office flop. I love the piece because it's a musical satire. You can't march to such music full of triplets and syncopations, but actually only dance or bob your body and in any case have no warlike thoughts. But those of gratitude and joie de vivre.

Sunday old year's evening, Radio Bayern 1, December 31, 2017, 10:35 am, Pastor Wernerüstenmacher, Groebenzell

No text has influenced world history as much as chapters 5 to 7 of the Gospel of Matthew. The teaching of Jesus is concentrated in the Sermon on the Mount, it contains the core elements of faith. The history of its impact runs through 2000 years of Christianity. Do you know the Sermon on the Mount?
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