Why the need for a vulnerable God?

The Christmas season is a bit peculiar for atheists, especially de-converted ones like me. Choirs and the songs they sing are especially poignant. "O Holy Night" is beautiful and "Silent Night" is so wondrously simple. However, the religious pomp is no longer part of my life.

When I recollect the nativity story, it begins with a weary Mary who has traveled so far to Bethlehem, and a penniless Joseph who is panicking to get his wife somewhere where she can deliver a baby. There is no hospital, home, or quarters available, just a barn. Then there He is. Between runs from Herod and the life that is to follow, there is this moment where all has stopped and the universe looks on at God incarnate, this tiny, needy baby on a bed of straw. While "Hallelujah's" are part of the scene, it's really overwhelming peace that is iconized in the nativity.

Christianity is strong on symbols and the two biggies are the cross and the nativity. The cross is violent and the nativity is peace, but both exhibit a vulnerable God. It is this God-made-feebly-human characteristic that ironically makes the Christian God so attractive and able to yield strong convictions in followers. No wonder the broken hearted, lonely, and strung out reach out to Jesus. But what about us suburban upper middle-class kids? What is it really about the vulnerable-God story that hooks so many and can even make a formerly religious, now anti-religious atheist like me nostalgic?

10 comments:

Cliff Martin said...

Wow, Tom. You preach a better Christmas sermon than most believers I know. But you raise a valid and significant question. Indeed, we could let Jesus answer it himself: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) Jesus often said that he did not come for the “suburban middle class kids” of his day, but for the lost sheep. Yet, even though they were not the target of Jesus’ ministry, many of those healthy, righteous, together people did choose to come along for the ride. And, so long as they could stomach the throng of whores and addicts surrounding Jesus, they were heartily received. The Zacchaeuses, the Matthews, and the Nichodemuses were not turned away! But others, like the rich young ruler, found Jesus attractive but wholly inaccessible on their own defined terms.

Why such vulnerability in God’s “self-presentation”? Perhaps, as the above paragraph would suggest, it was an appeal to the lowest common denominator of mankind; God knowing that any other approach would slam the door of relationship in the faces of the bottom half of humanity. But for me (also a suburban middle class kid), the picture of the Almighty in kenosis (self-emptying), utterly vulnerable, unconsumed by self-importance, humble, serving, is what attracts me to him. And are these not the qualities we look for in our very closest friends? I am only free to reveal my deepest inner core to another who has made himself vulnerable to me.

It is, in fact, what draws you and me to each other. You are (dare I say) a rare atheist who is not consumed by self-importance, who does not demean believers, who is not afraid to mention your own “atheistic doubts” to believers. In short, you have readily presented yourself to your readers as vulnerable. And I hope I have done the same. I do not wish to pretend that my faith is all so secure and air-tight that I have no room for your penetrating questions and challenges. It is my desire to present myself to you as a vulnerable human being, sharing with you a sincere quest for truth, for the ultimate answers that are, at times, elusive for me also.

When I only present myself in my strength, I drive people away. My strength is never grounds for intimate friendship, for deep relationship. I usually come across this way. I am naturally self-assured, proud, “together”, successful in business and life, etc. But when I freely open up my weaknesses, when I own up to my own failures, when I lay out the frailties of my humanity – that is when I find people drawn to me, drawn to deep friendship with me, opening the secrets of their own hearts to me. It is remarkable. I am most “winsome” in my weakness, in my vulnerability. I define intimacy as “into-me-see”.

But what of God? He has no “real” weaknesses. He has nothing we could call “failure”. And, in his self-presentation to us, he admits none. Still, he takes on all the weakness inherent in human flesh. He absolutely humbles himself at the nativity and at the cross. He leaves no barriers of exaltation, of perfect strength, of free divine prerogative, to bar our access to him. One of my favorite verses is Proverbs 3:32. One translation says that he “takes the upright into his confidence”. Another has it “He is intimate with the upright.” God wants to share secrets with us. He wants intimacy with us. This absolutely blows me away. And if it is true (even if there is but a remote chance that it is true!) surely there can be no greater quest than our pursuit to enter into such a relationship with the Creator of all!

Tom said...

I'm a bit behind in Steve Martin's blog readings where I just found this related post.

Mike said...

"What is it really about the vulnerable-God story that hooks so many and can even make a formerly religious, now anti-religious atheist like me nostalgic?"

It's not surprising that we are all nostalgic for the comforts of our youth, and the culture we were raised in. And any vulnerable creature invokes our sympathy, whether it be a puppy with a thorn in it's paw, or a poor mother forced to give birth in a cold barn.

The stories (religious or otherwise) that have endured over time , have endured precisely because of the emotions they elicit from us.

You should not feel guilty for loving the rituals and comforts of Christmas or any other thing wrapped up in religion. These things belong to us as humans. They are part of us and our society. I as an Atheist and a Bright, will not allow Christians to take these things from me.

Merry Christmas!

Tom said...

Hi Mike!

I am familiar with Daniel Dennett, but have not yet looked at the Brights per se, even though I may very well be one! Thanks for reading, and more importantly, for sharing your perspective. You make great summarizing points.

As an atheist, one part of me is angry at "them" who fostered this vulnerable Christian-God story, taking advantage of our vulnerabilities and sympathetic emotions. When engulfed in belief, though, it is this vulnerable God, as Cliff points out, that automatically earns our respect, admiration, and devotion. It is nice to bask in it when you are in it. As a former believer, though, I also know it is this same component that makes it difficult to leave. It is not easy to disregard the puppy with a thorn in its paw and it is not easy to deny baby Jesus and to leave adult Jesus hanging there on the cross. Becoming apostate felt like I was doing that at times and I know some believers view apostates that way, as unsympathetic to everything God did for us.

While I feel grounded now and can balance my previous traditions with new views and also handle perspectives that believers might have of me, I appreciate your comment about "not allowing Christians to take these things [sympathy] away". Belief in the supernatural is so culturally tied to morals, feelings, and the meaning of life, but like the Brights themselves, I will attempt to show 'taint necessarily so.

Mike said...

Tom said...
I...have not yet looked at the Brights per se, even though I may very well be one!


Yes, well I decided to start self-identifying as a Bright, when a long time friend and fellow Atheist started telling me about some specific supernatural ability he had. And he was dead serious! This took me aback and I decided that the God question was only one instance of nonsense that people might choose to believe without question. Furthermore, when all the theists have lost their faith (God willing ;-)), who will do charitable works? Let's face it, they do this work well, even if it is a pretext for conversion. We need to step up and do this work.

As an atheist, one part of me is angry at "them" who fostered this vulnerable Christian-God story, taking advantage of our vulnerabilities and sympathetic emotions.

Belief in the supernatural is so culturally tied to morals, feelings, and the meaning of life...


Sure it's being "used" to manipulate, but I have recently decided that we need to take back and embrace these stories as our own. These stories are not history, but they are also not mere fiction. They are beautiful works of fiction from the minds of ancient writers on which many other works, and much of our culture is based.

As a former believer, though, I also know it is this same component that makes it difficult to leave.

Yes, but I think being hostile to the story makes us look foolish. The hostility we feel, is because we were tricked into believing it was a "true" story, from childhood. But we should be sympathetic to those who still suffer from this delusion, and joyful, yet not too proud of ourselves for our freedom from it.

Cliff Martin said...

Mike writes, “when all the theists have lost their faith (God willing ;-)), who will do charitable works? Let's face it, they do this work well, even if it is a pretext for conversion.”

No doubt there are some immature or wrong-headed believers who do “charitable works” as a “pretext for conversion”. But I don’t know any of them personally. The believers I walk with are far beyond your ill-informed caricature.

You seem to be reasonably well-informed on many topics. On the nature Christian belief, you display a great dearth of understanding. We do not live out of fear of damnation, nor are we motivated by hope of reward. We do not engage in good works as a pretext for conversion. Jesus taught something very different.

And Tom, I find among my Christian friends no basis for your assumption that believers’ are hoodwinked and/or trapped in their belief by some sense of fealty to the vulnerable babe in the manger.

It is no wonder you have rejected Christianity if you actually think that believers are the simplistic, sappy sentimentalists you paint us out to be. I would reject theism and Christian faith along with you if I saw believers as you apparently do. Try reading a little GK Chesterton, or Owen Gingerich, or C.S. Lewis, or Francis Shaeffer. I could expand that list, if you’d like. Among such writers, you will find none of groveling, emotional, mindless sorts you imagine us to be.

Cliff Martin said...

I just reread my own comment. That was some rant, wasn't it! I do apologize for the tone, if not the content. I sometimes chafe when I "listen in" to skeptics chuckling together over what they perceive as the inaneness of belief.

Some friendly advise: there really are many highly intelligent, deeply thoughtful believers. That doesn't make them right, of course. But if your agenda really is as you claim, to rid the world of belief, you will never accomplish such a goal so long as ridicule and belittlement remain in your arsenal. You will need to take people of faith far more seriously.

It goes both ways. I am equally annoyed when I hear ill-informed believers ridiculing atheists.

Tom said...

Cliff,

That was a rant! Quite different from your first comment to this post.

There is a lot embedded in my original post and my other comment that you are overlooking. How many apostates do you converse with? What is your impression of them?

Again, becoming atheist is for some people like me a very calculated decision. Imagine that you became atheist. It would mean taking that precious vulnerable God that you cherish and say, "You know, it's not real." Now, you don't wake up to that. You play with the idea for a while first. During that tick-tocking there are days where you look at Jesus on the cross and you feel foolish and guilty for thinking He's not real. If it was an impersonal God, or one who did not give up so much, eh, whatever. But the Christian God is personal and was vulnerable and suffered. That's the message.

Now, say you do finally reject it. Wouldn't you be pissed off at the religion for propagating a sentimental story? At the same time, don't you think the ceremonies and pomp could ironically leave a nostalgia?

Now, I've restated my history. How does that project an assumption that Christians are "groveling, emotional, mindless?" I am saying it is a story that has changed the lives of millions and the course of history. Why? You may pad the answer with miracles, but there is a lot of culture, history, and human psychology there that we might both be curious about.

Cliff Martin said...

Yes, Tom. I was probably overreacting to comments by both you and Mike. We must always fight to overcome this tendency to paint our opponents in own chosen colors, creating a straw man which is easily dispatched. I read just this morning a column written by Charles Colson (with whom I frequently disagree, btw) in which he wrote in response to a recent Richard Dawkins article,

Speaking of faith, what Dawkins means by the word faith is, to put it politely, idiosyncratic. His technique, on display in the Scientific American piece, is to find the most extreme, fringe Christian positions and ascribe them to all Christians. He then cites these beliefs as proof that all Christian faith is irrational.

Christians use the same straw man technique on atheists, and as I said before, I have even less patience with that!

To your final statement, I say "yes!" and I look forward to further exploration with you. I also promise to return to the subject of randomness, either here or on my own blog when I start writing again.

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