Love Be Damned: The Atheist Longings of a Christian

Christopher Hitchens was right when he said that raising children comes as a “solid lesson in the limitations of self to realize that your heart is running around inside someone else’s body.”

Perhaps that is why Christopher Hitchens was an atheist. If ever there is reason for anxiety and fear and doubt in this world, it is not for all that is threatening and hideous and evasive in this world–it is just the opposite. There is no better reason for despairing of this world than in those moments when the dark dross of its surface gives way to an eruption of its hidden but essential light. We are enslaved to the glamour of its haunting goodness. We cannot help but being grief-struck by the wonder of love and the love of loving.

That is, the moment we experience the miracle of being human, most deeply revealed in the experience of being a parent and “realiz[ing] that our heart is running around inside someone else’s body,” it is certainly at that moment that we should run from our humanness. Blot out the painted day and the glowing night; ignore the nagging compulsion to kiss your son’s forehead, to gesture to him the embrace of his whole life within your own; curse the day you and he were born because, damn it all, it is all damned to die.

I sympathize with the atheist on this point. The world betrays us. It convinces us we should love it and all that is in it. And yet, it gives no account of the way the fullness its loveliness can only be felt in the simultaneous awareness of the vacuity of its endurance. Hatred for God is born out of the nakedly futile jealousy of love, a jealousy directed to an Object we know not other than that we are not It, a jealousy that is both outraged and imprisoned by its foreboding consciousness of death in a world that lives on only to keep drumming its funeral cadences. We would crucify the One responsible for this world if we could get our hands on him.

How can we deny that feeling when we consider not only the inevitable loss of all things, but, most wrenching of all, that those we love most uncontrollably and mysteriously will themselves discover this lostness and will themselves be pulled into its abyss? How can we not be consumed by sorrow upon seeing the unknowing innocence of our child’s trusting eyes? Why should we pretend that love is something that the world should strive to discover, something to enjoy, something to spread like a flame in the winter’s night. Why should we thrust ourselves into this ocean of embrace in full recognition that we are too weak to not be ejected from it, and until then we will be carried to its edges by wave upon wave of grief? Why should we delight at yesterday evening’s neon Kentucky sky as though it were anything but the repetition of that daily sign that all light will be forced into the dirt? Why does autumn become the fall only as leaves die?

The great plague of love and our loving of love is identical with an acute heartache for this dying world. The creed of the human experience is thus: “God has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecc. 3:11).We are cursed to love with an eternal love and to do so within a mortal body. We do not fear death because we will lose life; we fear death because we will lose love, and because we know that all love will be lost. And the only thing that could make this worse, the only thing that could add to our torment, is to take it all in and greet it with hope–as though the world around us will one day awake from its comatic state to greet us back for all eternity. That is a pain that will always tempt us with the seduction of atheism: that that which makes us most truly human can be explained away as pure illusion.

The gospel of atheism is the most rational way of coping with the loss of all things. It is the truest “opiate of the masses.” And wherever there are lives that are oriented towards death, whether by building temple-sized coffins for a name to live on or by consuming this world like a prisoner’s last meal, atheism is believed–and this atheism unwittingly or not exists in every religious community. But the honest atheist knows that the sooner he confesses that love is an illusion, the sooner he can get on trying not to love, which does not necessarily imply a kind of violence toward another but does indeed imply a kind of violence toward oneself, a tenaciously willful purging of one’s most uniquely human qualities, which sink like bait into the experience of life without hiding the barbs of mortal futility: the compulsion to care, to embrace, to laugh, to sing, to be still.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is foolishness. It is the foolishness of the cross, which not only believes in love in the face of death, but discovers love in the Face of death–because in either the greatest deception or the deepest Truth of this world we believe that the Face of Death was worn by the Face of God. And we therefore believe that death has been swallowed up in Life, and that in this death–and only This death!–the truest form of Love is revealed: the Love of the Beloved which dies for the salvation of a world which is also beloved: the Son of God whom the Father gave to the world, the Son of Man who on behalf of the world gave himself back to the Father, together send the Holy Spirit to pour forth himself with the flint-like conviction that Jesus truly is Lord, that God truly has raised him from the dead, and thus that we are free to love the God we once hated and so too the world we once hated to love.

And all this we must believe by embracing the implications of the cross with its infinitely unreconcilable polarities which require nothing short of a miracle to believe: that the death of the world is precisely what world deserves and the death of God is precisely what the world is worth.

It is in this foolishness, we somehow know–beyond our capacity for proving how we know–what everyone intuitively knows but rationally–and quite rationally–refuses to believe: that it should be, that it must be, True: that the setting sun really will rise in the morning, that from the Fall really will rise a new Day, that the eternal nature of love has a future fitted precisely as its home. And in knowing that, we are free to live in full abandon to the radiance of life in the light of love. And we can once again kiss our children without staining our lips with an unbearably bitter wine.

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:1-5).

“But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mk. 3:29).

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