Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Can Atheists Be Thankful?

"For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened." -- Romans 1:21

Nearly everyone expresses gratitude on Thanksgiving. Regardless of your beliefs or your situation in life, all of us can find someone or something for which to be thankful. Giving thanks is a natural response to kindness or good fortune. People do it reflexively, without considering the implication of such an act. But if one does consider the implication, he will come to the realization that it is showing appreciation to God.

On its face, this may sound like a stretch. After all, an atheist can be grateful for the people and things in his life without believing in God. But where did those people and things come from? Who gave him breath? Did he and the loved ones in his life self-generate? What of the material world? Did it come from nothing? The only logical answer is that all has been created and sustained by a transcendent and omnipotent being, the God described in Scripture.

An atheist, by definition, must reject this answer and hold fast to the belief that we did self-generate, that everyone and everything came from nothing. In doing so, they can choose to give thanks for only who and what they can see, the people and things in their life that bring them joy and comfort. While it does not make sense to give thanks to non-sentient things, they can be thankful to the people in their life who have shown love and kindness to them. And their gratitude can end there. This position, however, is problematic for another reason.

If everyone is simply the byproduct of an undirected material process, then everyone is controlled by that process. This includes our thoughts and actions. In a materialist worldview, free will does not exist. Human beings are randomly hardwired organisms that have no say in the matter (no pun intended). And if one believes this, it makes no sense to be thankful to the people in your life. They are who they are and have done nothing as individuals to be kind or benevolent or courageous. None of their desirable qualities originate from a rational calculus and they could just as easily be sociopaths if the laws of nature had operated differently.

Atheism contradicts itself on its fundamental assumptions and is therefore invalid. Nevertheless it has grown in popularity as modern man seeks complete autonomy from nature and God. In a sad and pathetic irony, this has led to the embrace of a materialistic determinism that denies all freedom and eliminates any reason to give thanks. Of course, no one can live like this. An ideology that is at odds with reality cannot be sustained. Atheists cannot help but be thankful for the beauty and goodness in their life. This gratefulness arises involuntarily. But the sentiment is stillborn, severed from its source and suppressed by their ideology, leaving them confused and cynical. It is not a coincidence that secular culture is increasingly defined by sarcasm, ingratitude, and despair.

In perfect contrast, Christianity contains none of this contradiction or confusion. The Christian can logically be grateful for both the people and things in his life because everyone and everything is created by God, “from whom all things came and for whom we live.” Man is made in the image of God, endowed with the freedom to give thanks to the creator and to choose good over evil (which is merely the negation of good). As the Psalmist declares, “It is good to give thanks to the LORD.” Doing so acknowledges the source of all goodness and, in turn, helps one find his proper place in the created order. Giving thanks to God is conforming to reality, which is the only way to find lasting happiness.

Unlike an atheist’s involuntary and fleeting expressions of gratitude, Christian thanksgiving is a conscious action that is not dependent on circumstance. It is an outpouring of gratefulness that the dreadful suffering of our fallen world cannot destroy because Christ has overcome the world. The victory is won. He has conquered death. Being truly thankful is an immutable state of mind that is grounded in eternal truth. It is a joy that atheists cannot share or understand.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Fixing Our Eyes

“Turn us again, O God of hosts, and cause thy face to shine; and we shall be saved.” -- Psalm 80:7

Mourning the loss of his friend, Augustine lamented, “For in whichever direction the soul of man turns, unless it turns to you, it is transfixed on things that cause pain. They are born and die.”

Death is the starkest and most painful reminder that nothing in this world is permanent. Not that we should need a reminder. Everything -- our minds, our bodies, our relationships, our physical surroundings, the entire universe -- is in a constant state of change. All is in flux.

We are born into this state and quickly learn to accept it, even embrace it. In a contingent universe, change is essential. We are dependent on it not only for our development but for our very survival. It is integral to our temporal existence. Nonetheless, it carries powerful emotions, as anyone who has watched his child grow or witnessed the death of a loved one can well attest.

Change may be the most natural thing but it strangely feels like the most unnatural. We are often surprised by it, caught unaware that something we expected or hoped to be around forever has been lost. Such sentiment seems illogical, for it contradicts everything we know about the world around us.

Scripture addresses this great contradiction by explaining that God has appointed to everything a season but has also planted eternity in our hearts. Despite being flawed and finite creatures surrounded by a world in decay, we have an innate sense of the infinite that cannot be eradicated.

It is an irony that makes perfect sense. A contingent universe must have an extrinsic cause. There is no logical alternative. The material world did not (and cannot) create itself. As dependent beings that are part of the material world, we are reliant upon an eternal and unchanging God for our every breath. Deep down we understand this truth and long for the permanence of the creator.

In his anguish over the death of his friend, Augustine reflects on the world that is passing away, “Let my soul praise you by means of these transient things, O God, creator of all things, but let it not become fixed and glued on to them with its love of physical senses. They go where they are going, into unbeing, and rend the soul with perilous longings, for she wishes to be, and loves to rest in the things she loves. In them, however, there is no resting place, for they are impermanent. Who can hold on to them, even when they are at hand?”

The answer, of course, is no one. None of us can hold on to impermanent things. They are gifts for a season, flowers that wither away. When they pass they elicit longings within us that can only be satisfied by the one who does not pass, the one who is the same yesterday and today and forever and who knows our innermost being. As Augustine famously wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” In this rest, there is “neither past nor future, but only being, since it is eternal.”

Innate within all of us is the recognition of eternity and the search for rest, which is found in God through the redemptive work of the Son. Christ has lifted the curse of our fallen world for all who put their trust in him. This is the way to lasting joy and peace. As Augustine, quoting the ancient prophet Amos, prayed, “I will seek you that my soul may live.”