Notes from the Field: Atheism for Lent

A guest post from the field: Steve Johnson of St. David’s Minnetonka sends this testimonial about Peter Rollins’ series, Atheism for Lent. Do you have a program, curriculum, or resource you’d like us to share? Send your story to formation@episcopalmn.org.

This year St. David’s Episcopal Church offered a program called “Atheism for Lent” as a Lenten study to help interested parishioners explore and challenge their beliefs and assumptions concerning God. The six week course was presented by Peter Rollins, a philosopher and public speaker from Belfast, Ireland, and brought in short excerpts from the work of more than 25 other philosophers and theologians from 3,000 years ago to the present. About 38 parishioners and others from outside our congregation began the challenging course with about half of them going the distance. A number of people, including at least one from out of state, elected to pursue the course on-line without attending the weekly gatherings. We began each gathering by sharing a meal together which helped bond our group into a community. IMG_5496

The study began with a critique of an instrumental god: the anthropomorphic being we pray to expecting intervention in our world, and then moved on in the next segment to explore a more mystical concept of a god that has no name or being that we are capable of comprehending. This idea is at the core of the course and it took us a while to get our minds around it; the informal discourses by Peter Rollins and the discussions in our group were very important to help us in our struggles because the writings of the famous philosophers were quite opaque to laypeople.

The following segment was more accessible as we read from a number of philosophers – Karl Marx, Friedrich “God is Dead” Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud – who want us to eschew religion as a solace and escape from life’s problems and instead engage in life through class struggle or psychoanalysis or violent revolution to change it and remedy the problems. Marx says of religion: it is “the sigh of the oppressed, the heart of a heartless world, the spirit of spiritless conditions.” It did not occur to these revolutionaries that one can find in religion both comfort and guidance for positive engagement in life.

After that brief respite we dove into the 20th Century existentialist philosophers – Bonhoeffer and Tillich and others – who confirm the death of God in light of the conflicts and horrors of the 20th Century. Bonhoeffer wrote about his concept of a Religionless Christianity as an affirmation of life and faith while he was locked in a Gestapo prison, which must be one of the most hopeless places we can imagine. Tillich talks about a God above our traditional theistic God, again proposing that God transcends all understanding — not “a Being” but the “ground of being”.

The Atheism for Lent course wrapped-up with a few discussions and parables emphasizing some of the themes that were woven through the series: the importance of doubt to our beliefs, and the concept that desire is what drives human effort and that attaining what we have desired provides only momentary satisfaction that crumbles quickly into disappointment. A delightful parable by C. S. Lewis shows us God as the light that illuminates everything around us, but by itself cannot be seen. Then John Caputo explores the question, originally posed by Augustine: “What do I love when I love my God?”

Finally, as kind of a coda to the program, Peter Rollins brings Jesus into the discussion for the first time and explores the concept of the crucifixion being the time when man actually did kill God, but the resurrection begins a new life with God.

At the end of the final session the question was asked: “What was the most important or significant learning that you experienced during this study of Atheism for Lent?”

Answers varied but can be grouped into a few themes:

  • It was wonderful to be able to able to participate in challenging discussions of complex theological issues in an inclusive community of intelligent people with very different perspectives and ideas. It “pushed me outside of my comfort zone, therefore resulting in new learning’s.”
  • We enjoyed exploring our faith and having it challenged from so many different angles.
  • It was enlightening to explore the concept of God not as a being but as “the intelligence behind the universe,” and “God above God.”
  • The study was different in many ways and provided a new way of thinking and sharing.

Reported by Steve Johnson, St. David’s Episcopal Church, Minnetonka, MN