Atheism of God

Reflections on the Atheism of God

For John Bentley Mays, 1941-2016, Canadian Art and Architecture Critic

JBM photoChristianity, G. K. Chesterton said, is the only religion in which God Himself appears as an atheist. Chesterton is speaking of the Cross, and is considering the words of the Incarnate Son to His Father: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? This isn’t mere appearance, a kind of disguise, but the decisive time of revelation, of Divine Self-disclosure, the consummation of God-in-the-world. And there, or rather here, in the time and place of the Cross, God appears as an atheist: God forsaken by God, Love unloved even by Love.

It is God Who opens out the distance between Father and Son across which this forsakenness is sustained. The Son dwells among us to be with us at the very limit of where we can find ourselves, the end-point which fulfills our dread, and our desire, of being without God. In traversing that distance, the Incarnate Son does not cease to be God; and so the distance He travels is measured by God’s capacity to separate from Himself, to be beyond Himself for the sake of what is other than Himself. In other words, the distance is measured by Love.

Within that distance, our world takes place. Each of us lives and dies somewhere within the distance that separates the Son from the Father on Good Friday. Everything unfolds within God’s being outside of Himself: all that draws, delights and compels us, everything which frightens and disgusts us; the good and the harm that we do, our monumental indifference, and the more or less settled places and patterns of our lives. The distance of the Son from the Father knows all this, embraces it, holds it and exceeds it. And so we can never be without God, in exhilaration or in sorrow, in darkness or in rebellion, more radically than God Himself has been. This and this alone makes redemption possible: God Himself sheltering and surpassing the extremity of our losses. The distance opened out on the Cross is always before and ahead of us, wherever we put ourselves or find ourselves. The Cross, the atheism of God, is the sign, and the price, of His unreserved solidarity with us. But ‘solidarity’ is a clumsy, indiscriminate term. We would be better off thinking of a lover’s visitation, paid to an uncomprehending beloved.

And indeed how else could God show Himself, how else could Love speak, than by this unreserved visitation to the loveless?

To be touched, however glancingly, by the singular, seemingly impossible beauty of that visitation is to have been touched by God. It is an awakening and generative touch: slowly, so unsurely, we are brought to fall in love with Love, and with Love alone: to want, in spite of ourselves, to become what He is and to do what He does. God Himself originates eternally in the power of Love to generate: and what Love generates is not fulfillment for itself, but its likeness in another. And so we find God, and therefore ourselves – a finding which is perhaps never fully conscious, never fully realized – only by entering into Love’s likeness, which is to say, for us, only on the way of the Cross.

The way of the Cross is a secret way, hidden from public approbation, and very often from the grasp even of those who travel it. On this way, one draws nearer to God than one can ever know. In the atmosphere of the culture wars, some believers spend time and energy regretting and contesting their all too evident loss of public prestige, the erosion of the social and cultural credentials of their Christian faith. But rather than styling ourselves through regret and contestation, we can receive modernity’s ambivalence as a corrective, an opportunity, even as a kind of gift. For God and ourselves can be found there too, even in the social and cultural orders we too easily characterize as post-Christian.

For after all what validation do we seek, in mourning the now deconstructed architecture of the so-called ages of faith? Didn’t the past in fact conceal an evasion, even an idolatry, no less potent than what faces and inhabits us today? How easily the truth of God was interpreted in terms of a lavish but also essentially secular iconography, a concentration upon sovereign power in which the way of the Cross is sublimated, made visible only as the emblem of a victory already adequately reflected in the social order.

But no social order, not even the Church, can adequately reflect the Cross. The victory that the Cross makes possible is never present and possessed, but is encoded within an always renewed experience of destitution and defeat, of waiting and of being led, of anticipation and of hope. The way of the Cross, in other words, ought to render inescapable for us the mystery of God manifesting Himself in human weakness and limitation. And here ‘in’ means within. God does not exert Himself against human weakness, least of all by showing up the weakness of those around us whom we might be tempted to style as enemies. He manifests Himself not by disclosing and subjugating the weakness of the excommunicated other, but by inhabiting our weakness, our limits, if only we resolve not to flee from them: or, more realistically, once we are rendered incapable of fleeing them. Only then does the unsayable intimacy of the Divine with the human unfold. If we try, nonetheless, to say it, we will find ourselves speaking of the endurance of the unendurable.

The unendurable can be nailed to us as if from the inside, in the afflictions played out within our minds and our bodies; it can seem to transfix us from without, in the simple consciousness of the burdens borne by others – even one other will do, once we begin to see truthfully, let alone the uncontainable burden of the sufferings and sins of the world. None of these is endurable – and so the alternatives can seem, in the end, to be either to hide from them or to succumb.

But on the way of the Cross we can be given, and can be taught to live from within, an unforeseeable substitution for our incapacity. We will come to be aware of ourselves, simultaneously, as helpless and as being sustained. A language is forged in which God is at last able to speak with us, a language raised up (as the Cross is raised up) from within the unendurable, an exchange between God and ourselves that cannot be objectified and transcribed but only enacted.

God’s visitation can seem, sometimes, as if it might as well mean unbelief, in as much as we are capable of laying hold of and inspecting it as a kind of talisman. And yet, in this very destitution, we can be led to acknowledge that what is real is indeed here, in the mystery of Love’s visitation, and not in things considered as objects to be known and used, of which the business of love could only ever be a decorative afterthought, bestowed or withheld as may be.

We can be led to acknowledge, in other words, that what is real is Love alone. Only the Cross reads the world, only the Cross reads our lives.

In an essay completed a few months before his death, John Bentley Mays wrote of what he called the void – not just neutral emptiness, on the one hand, or an abyss of negativity, on the other, but instead an in-between state, a waiting condition, without finality, coming into view as a space of impermanence, a clearing attuned to receive and to host the shifting vulnerabilities and joys of living.

In this characterization of the void he was chiefly considering architecture, but characteristically he was also thinking spiritually and theologically. I would like to think that we have, in John’s late consideration of the void, a metaphor for grace – for what I have been calling our visitation by Love. We cannot master the world or ourselves, but must be prepared to become a kind of emptiness, spaces of attentive waiting to receive what we need, and of yielding to what is asked of us, and in all the turns of happiness and vulnerability finding ourselves sustained and spoken to.

We can ask that this applies to us, as each of us, in his or her own way, tries, impossibly, to weigh what we have lost. And we must ask that it applies to John too, in death as it did in life. And the grounds of our confidence in asking these things, for John and for ourselves, could not be greater. For although an unthinkable distance now separates us, it is, even so, a distance contained between the Father and the Son on the Cross. In the Cross, Love has already given everything; and what Love gives, in time and in eternity, it never takes back.

By Fr Philip Cleevely, Cong. Orat.

St Philip's Seminary, Toronto
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