22 July 2007

Normal adolescent questioning: Is this really unfaith? Atheism?

Recently a mother approached an AOL bulletin board with questions regarding her adolescent daughter and the serious questioning she was going through with regard to her faith in God. The term atheism was thrown around, but left undefined; while most of the respondents pointed out the importance of this phase in the girl's faith development and encouraged the mother to continue dealing with the situation as she had been doing, one person posted she was concerned that this child had "cut herself off from God" at such a crucial time of her life. It seemed important to me to respond to this, not least because I am always amazed to find Catholics who believe that simply (or rather, ostensibly) questioning the existence of God (or of inadequate notions of God!) is genuine atheism or, more importantly, represents genuine unfaith and the relative (much less the absolute!) absence of God from the person's life. Here then (with some redaction of the opening) is that response:

Sorry, but how can we say this young girl has "cut herself off" from God??? He dwells within her; he is part of her very being (remember Ratzinger's work on the dialogical character of the soul?). Has she closed herself off to the life that is deep within her summoning her to grow and be? Has she closed herself to love, to being present for and with others? No, as her Mother's description of things makes very clear, she has not. She is questioning, yes, and doubting, yes, but how else is one to move from childish imitative faith to a more independent and mature faith of her own? To question, and even to doubt seriously is not the same as sin where we do reject God's presence (even this cannot make him absent from within us or our own subjective world). It is a way to actually engage with God and his creation --- a God who is always bigger than the notions of him we are taught as children --- and certainly it can be a way our faith matures and deepens rather than leading us away from faith itself.

On the subjective side of the equation (the side of the subject who is doubting or seeking), better serious questioning and doubt than a "faith" which never matures beyond the immature credulity and images of God that are best outgrown or transcended. The Apostle Thomas seriously doubted, and his doubt prepared him for God's revelation; it did not close him to it. And on the objective side of the equation (the side of objective reality: what is really there apart from the subject who is doubting), we must remember our OT: "if I go down into the depths of sheol, you are there . . .". God reveals himself as the One who will be with us in season and out; his name means he will be the One who he will be and implies this faithful being with us no matter what.

Again, the Apostle Thomas doubted as seriously as anyone could, and God did not reject him, did not absent himself from him. Indeed, he revealed himself in a fresh and heretofore unheard of and impossible way. Thomas' doubt CAN (and some commentators rightly suggest, should) be read as a recognition that the resurrected Christ had also to be the crucified Christ or he would not be believable, and isn't this the absolute truth? Isn't this the heart of our Gospel faith? We believe in a scandalous God, one who stretches former categories and ordinary ways of knowing him, coming to us in weakness, and kenosis. While we reject NOTIONS of God, we do not necessarily reject God himself, and in serious doubting and questioning we do not cut ourselves off from God, but open to finding him (indeed, we are often desperate to find him) in new and more profound ways.

Again, what is sometimes called atheism is rarely truly that, for the person continues to believe in objective value, continues to search for, be open to, and affirm meaning (of which God is ALWAYS the source and ground), continues to love others in a way which is (and can only be) empowered by God and open to knowing God --- eventhough the word God is rejected, and certain notions of him (many of which OUGHT to be rejected as parodies of the real God) are no longer helpful. It is nearly impossible to be consistently atheistic (this requires the rejection of meaning as such), and when we are speaking of an adolescent making the transition to more mature faith, the things called "atheism" are far from the embittered, cynical, nihilistic positions characteristic of genuine atheism.