I was thinking about this over the last few days, and while driving my car between the bookstore and my daytime employment, I saw one of our bookstore customers out for a walk. She is an interesting person, and I’m going to take a few hundred words to tell you about her, and then I’m going to tell you why any of this relates to my discussion with Brian Flemming.
This young woman is twenty-something, and there are three obvious characteristics of her life. The first is the fearlessness of innocence about her. She doesn’t have the face of a person burdened by the long-term, or of someone worried about all the stumbling around all of us do every day. She’s innocent in a way that I would never want to be, because she can not comprehend a great deal of life, and she will have the mind of a child all of her days. She isn’t bewildered, but she is also not very complicated and doesn’t see life as a complicated transaction.
The second matter is that she is obviously a stay-at-home mom. Her child is always with her, and this woman is more than dutiful in caring for that child. She doesn’t just bring the child in-tow everywhere. She escorts the child as if she were showing her the world for the first time, as if there is something wonderful in a walk around the block. That child has the same uncomplicated, innocent face her mother has, and the toddler is quick to recognize anything that can be interpreted as kindness with a smile.
The last detail almost goes without saying: this woman loves this child as the most precious gift she has ever received. Her attention and devotion is lavish – extravagant in a way a more complicated person could not possibly maintain. She always manages kindness even in saying no, which is itself an art all parents struggle with.
Now, let’s be honest: this is a very flowery picture of this woman and her child. She is a developmentally-disabled adult, and she has a developmentally-disabled child. Because all I know of them I know from my interaction with them at the bookstore and around town, I may only be getting a somewhat-superficial understanding of who they are and what goes on in their relationship.
But the question in my mind as I thought about them between jobs was this: what hope in the world is there for them? I blog a lot about the high-octane end of theological stuff, but you know what: I’ll bet she couldn’t understand any of that. If she read it, she’d probably not draw a lot of comfort out of the particular details of salvation Jesus outlines in John 3 because, well, it’s complicated. She’s not that complicated. How can it comfort her to try to lay out the nuance of grace and particular redemption – if it is true at all?
That, for me, is where Brian Flemming comes in – as a particular kind of atheist in the spectrum of atheism. In Brian’s world where God is a lie and a conspiracy, man is left to his own devices – and, I would bet, at the mercy of the rationality of his fellow men in the hope they would act in a cooperative way toward him. Certainly, superficially, the atheist does not think that all men ought to use others as a means to an end and abandon them when they are of no use. Someplace in the atheist, says the atheist, is the milk of human kindness.
Honestly: I can buy that. Even with my commitment to Christian anthropology, I am 100% confident that the atheist sees himself as a nice guy who would have compassion on and for this girl and her baby. The atheist might find himself – as I find myself – asking her if there’s anything that my wife and I can do for her, or if there’s anything she needs. Because I can’t imagine looking at her and not having compassion for her.
And the atheist may even come across and explain why, exactly, he has compassion for this woman “because she is another human being”. She deserves compassion, I imagine Brian would say, because she’s in the brotherhood of mankind.
But how does the atheist then assess what compassion looks like? For example, I am certain that if someone found Brian in the situation of a stay-at-home Dad without any advanced education, Brian would find it extremely compassionate for this nameless benefactor to send him to college to get as advanced a degree as Brian could earn. It would be somewhat of a waste for Brian to be left uneducated because he is plainly a bright guy, and it would be lavish to give him that education – beyond merely compassionate and into loving.
In this case, I think it is doubtful that this young woman could earn even an Associates degree. Paying for college courses for her would be lavish, but if she is bound to flunk all the courses, it seems it would also be misplaced.
We could go through several iterations of what might work for Brian but would not be very productive for this young woman, but here’s my point: in the atheist world view, where there is no purpose implied in human life (because human life is the result of the same process which produced ant life, and cat life, and cow life, etc.), there is a problem in answering questions like, “what is compassion?”
Now hear me clearly: the question is not, “does the atheist feel compassion?” I would bet you that the atheist undoubtedly would feel compassion, and does feel compassion. There is no doubt that the atheist is not a Vulcan ascetic with no feeling and only logic to guide him in his choices about what to do. I am sure the atheist, faced with this woman as she was walking down the street, would feel something called “compassion” and, if he was not in a hurry, he’d do something about that feeling. He’s not Stalin or Nietzsche because he’s late for a meeting any more than the Christian in the same situation with the same day behind him and ahead of him who did nothing would be Torquemada.
Indeed: the question happens to be: “How do you manifest compassion to those who are unlike you?” Because it is very easy to manifest compassion to other American white middle-class people with college educations most of the time – they are just like us, and we have a lot of the same points of reference. You need a penny? I got a penny. You need a job? I know a guy. You’re having a mid-life crisis and you’re wondering if you should have been a doctor or a painter or a writer or a bar keep? Dude: shut up and cut your grass and tell your wife you love her, and mean it – don’t be stupid and throw out what you have for what you think might have been better in some way.
But what happens when we run into, for example, this girl who is nothing like us except that she is another human being? She’s not smart – so she’s not going to get our jokes. She’s also not very equipped to handle commercial responsibility – so you can’t really get her a “better job”. She’s also not as ridiculously-complicated as we are – so she probably doesn’t even comprehend some of what motivates our compassion for her from an atheist perspective. How do we decide how to offer her compassion?
One atheist answer, of course, is the “prime directive” answer: if she isn’t complaining because she doesn’t recognize some of her misfortune, don’t do anything. Let sleeping dogs lie. Another answer would be, “ask her what she needs, just like cent did, and do what you can to fulfill those needs.”
It’s that second answer that intrigues me, because this woman regularly answers that question with this reply, “would you pray for me and my baby?”
Now, the wrong argument to make from here is “AHA! The atheist can’t pray, so I win!” See: I think the atheist, who thinks there is no one and nothing there to pray to, has nothing to lose by praying with this girl – if it makes her feel better, he might actually call it a good deed because he filled an emotional need for this person. The atheist can pray, in the same way that the atheist can play a video game and, with the rest of the crew of the human ship Pillar of Autumn, including the A.I. Cortana, fight against The Covenant.
But the atheist finds himself in an interesting predicament: has he discovered that (as he classes it) the lie of God has at least one beneficial use in this world? For example, that girl derives some kind of emotional comfort from this lie. Would it be better for her sake to help her know the truth rather than to pray for her and with her and make her belief more elaborate?
Further, can the atheist replace the hope of God with something else? If we assume that God is a lie, this girl’s hope is a false hope – there is no ultimate hope, no redeemer at the end of time, and this life she has is all the life she will ever have. Same thing for her baby. And let’s face it: whatever she doesn’t really understand about the world, I am sure she understands that she is not like folks like me and Brian.
I think atheism has its audience – the people for whom it plays very well. For example, I am sure it plays well for Brian Flemming, who has a little bit of money, a little bit of talent, a little bit of brains, and a little bit of youth. Brian, I am sure, likes atheism because in it lies the ability – in fact, the necessity -- to say, “I am who I say I am, and not what others may say about me. I have the authority and the ability to make me whatever I wish.”
The problem is that atheism doesn’t play as well on the street. The developmentally-handicapped girl with the equally-handicapped baby doesn’t find any solace in the “be all you can be” slogan which is necessarily the atheist recruitment copy. To be sure, that in itself doesn’t make atheism false, and it certainly doesn’t make Christianity true. What it does is express the limits of the atheistic worldview – because atheism as a system doesn’t have any room for people who aren’t as smart as Brian Flemming. If the key learning from atheism is that human beings are self-determining rather than subject to the purpose of God, the atheist has to answer the question posed by those who cannot determine their own purpose.
I’d be very interested in kicking this somewhat-extemporaneous monologue with actual atheists, and I’d ask the reg’lers of the blog to keep the cross-talk down to a minimum in order to facilitate that chat.