The Answer to an Atheist’s Longing
No matter what your atheist friends or relatives tell you, they’ve got deep spiritual longings. And Jesus is the answer to those longings.
Nat Case calls himself an atheist. He says that he doesn’t believe that God, in the sense of a “living presence, with voice and face and will and command,” exists.
Yet, as he recently wrote in the online journal Aeon, he regularly attends Quaker meeting services.
The “why?” behind this contradiction says a lot about how impoverished the modern world’s alternatives to Christian faith are. Case’s contradiction can be traced to his childhood. A “voracious reader,” he was “moved to tears” by magical stories. Even as an adult, those stories and the magic they portrayed stayed in his heart and despite knowing they’re fiction, he still “believes in them.”
Most of all, they didn’t bore him, which atheism does because it tells him what he isn’t, and like all of us he yearns to know what he is.
Fifteen years ago, Case started attending Quaker meetings after being turned off by what he calls the “mushiness [he had] found in the liberal spiritual communities that admit non-believers.”
He says that “[B]inding oneself to specific patterns, habits, and language” provided what he calls a “spine” that was missing in other groups.
Still for all its subjectivity and theological imprecision, a Quaker meeting is still, as Case acknowledges, “a religious service, expectant waiting upon the presence of God.” And to put it mildly, that places someone who doesn’t believe in God in a difficult position: How do you submit, in the way that believers are supposed to, to something you don’t believe exists?
And how does that “submission” produce a “humbling of self” and “laying low of ego” when you can’t even muster a “vague” and “inwardly detected sense of the divine?”
Case’s “solution” is to treat the whole experience as a kind of shared “bubble of fiction,” in which “prayer” is addressed to “whom it may concern.” It’s all his materialistic—or as he puts it, “stuff is all there is”—worldview will permit.
What that worldview definitely will not permit is to contemplate the possibility that the stories he loves—or as C.S. Lewis puts it, “The Great Story” –really are true. His materialism causes him to reject the idea of God “as a living presence, with voice and face and will.”
Thus, he’s left feeling something akin to the “stab, the pain, the inconsolable longing” that Lewis described in “Surprised by Joy,” with no real prospect of having that yearning satisfied.
The sad irony is that when he suggests that what people like him need is a god they can “plausibly imagine,” he is apparently unaware that such a god actually exists: His name is Jesus. As John 1:18 says,
“No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”
When Case yearns for a god “that we talk to, and who [talks] back,” he is describing the God—Father , Son and Holy Spirit—who Christians profess and worship.
This was the God who satisfied Lewis’s yearning and can satisfy Case’s. He is the one towards whom the stories Case loves ultimately point. He both models and empowers the humility Case speaks of.
His name is Jesus. It’s our job to proclaim Him—both in word and deed—and to pray that people’s worldviews don’t keep them from finding what they desperately long for.