Saturday, January 31, 2009

Church for Atheists

Along the lines of the entry earlier this week, I have been thinking about the spiritual health of non-Christians. They have the same needs as any Christian has. They need community. They need opportunities for service. They need places to express joy and thanksgiving (even if it’s directed to the universe in general). I think it’s clearly biblical to try to bring them to church. Unfortunately, all the talk about Jesus and miracles is terrifying for a staunch materialist.

When we see a man who has been beaten by robbers and left for dead, what ought we to do? Put him on our own donkey. Sure. But what if he refuses our help on the grounds that he is terrified of donkeys? He will not accept the best thing for him: to be carried to a place of rest. So do we throw up our hands and give up? After all, he had his chance and he blew it. Or do we try to pull he and the donkey together, much to the protestation of both man and beast? We know for a fact that his riding the donkey will be for his own good; coercion may be the most merciful thing.

Moreover, when we offer him wine, and he refuses, saying he doesn’t believe in the power of alcohol to dull pain. Do we force the wine upon him?

In my little rip-off of Jesus great parable, the robbers are Humanism and Materialism, the man is the atheist, and we’re in the role of the good Samaritan. Our donkey is church and the wine is prayer. For many of us, we can think of nothing else but the donkey and the wine. And in part it’s right; the church is indeed the best community on Earth and prayer is the best way man can commune with God. But the man has a deathly fear of the donkey and will not ride it; he does not believe in the wine, and will not drink it.

I propose that we consider another approach: give him all he is willing to take. He’s hurting, so let’s let him lean on us and walk towards the inn, albeit it at an excruciatingly slow pace. He won’t take wine; let’s offer him water. There is no question that he’s thirsty, almost to death for any liquid.

What is the leaning and what is the water? I’m not quite sure, because Christians haven’t quite figured out what spiritual practices are tolerable for Atheists. An Atheist would not come to a prayer meeting; would he come to a lesser communion of God by quiet meditation? Or perhaps stargazing? An atheist would not sing about Jesus; would he sing about the beauty of nature?

I am not thinking about this in typical Evangelical terms (though I think those approaches also are valid). What first motivated this was the question: how do I heal the spirits of my atheist patients? Even assuming that total spiritual healing would never come through Christ, did I not still have an obligation to heal as much as I could? So how can an atheist who is starving to death for community and parched for spiritual practice be healed in part?

I am also not talking about watering down the Gospel. The Gospel must be preached with power and authority at Church; the effort to seek and save the lost must continue unabated. But just like international work, long-term solutions are ideal, but people are starving to death today. Evangelicals have done a superb job at the long-term (eternal even) solution for the soul, but what keeps the soul of an Atheist from starving today?

I pose this question particularly to church people. I don’t know the answer. I see terrible spiritual affliction, and though the church is fighting it systemically, there are too many suffering without relief today who feel too uncomfortable to come to church. Should we have 'church' for atheists?

How can we be a Good Samaritan and give relief to the soul of the bruised and beaten Atheist today?

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