Wearing my bishop’s purple clerical shirt, collar, and pectoral cross, I was ordering lunch at an Austin restaurant with my friend Sharon. The Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention was underway in the Convention Center across the street. Since no tables were available, we sat at the bar.
When our twenty-something server asked for our drink order, I asked for sweet tea. Tongue in cheek, I added, “I’m not sure Jesus will love you if you don’t have sweet tea.”
Without missing a beat, she smiled warmly and said, “Well, I’m an atheist, so that really doesn’t matter to me. But we do have sweet tea.”
I immediately liked this woman. More for her response than for the sweet tea. And she seemed to enjoy the brief exchanges with Sharon and me each time she stopped by to check in with us.
If time had allowed for a serious conversation, I might have said something like this: “You know, sometimes I’m an atheist, too.” Sometimes, I’m an accidental atheist.
Most people think that atheists reject the idea that God exists. When they say that there is no God, atheists put the notion of a divine being on a list that includes unicorns and faeries. By contrast, faith places God on the existing-being list with stars and alligators and Dachshunds.
This is not the sort of atheism I stumble into. I suppose that’s largely because I don’t think of faith primarily as giving assent to or rejecting this or that set of ideas. Instead, faith is believing. And believing is following a Way.
The late Marcus Borg once made the point that believing in God—or believing in Jesus more specifically—would best be thought of as be-loving. Putting that in a slightly different way, following Christ means to walk the way of love. The way that Jesus embodied, exemplified, and inspires.
The way of love is a way of intentional response. We experience God’s love for us in various ways and respond to that love. As the theologian Karl Rahner once said somewhere, the Christians of the future will be mystics or there won’t be any Christians at all.
Jesus taught everyone that we are God’s beloved children. He wouldn’t have had to tell us this if it were obvious. The world kicks plenty of us around, tosses us aside, and treats us like something on the bottom of somebody else’s shoe.
People go hungry, go homeless. Get fired and get abused. People languish in jail and know cruelty at the hands of those who should nurture and protect them. We all face challenges and disappointments and wrenching heartaches. Moreover, an elite group of rich and powerful people (called by some Oligarchs) seem intent on establishing once and for all that they are the winners and some people are just losers.
The Way of Jesus is a radical alternative. We are God’s beloved, and so is everyone and everything we encounter. However bruised and battered and disfigured by circumstances they may be. Each step we take is response, response to the love we’ve been given as gift. Pure, unearned, unachieved, unconditional love.
We love because we have been loved. We feed the hungry, mend the wounded, comfort the suffering. But we don’t stop there. We ask a clarifying question. In a world of abundance why is anyone hungry? Why is there so much needless suffering? The Creator did not have such a world in mind. And so love moves us to realign the world with God’s dream.
And this is where I slip into atheism. I don’t reject creeds or scoff at Scripture or argue with theologians. I slip into cynicism. I grow discouraged. My heart sinks when I read in the media of one more political outrage, one more hate-fueled attack, one more economic measure aimed at privileging the few at the expense of the many.
I stumble. I forget, mostly only momentarily, that love is calling me to courage, boldness, and perseverance. God is acting. What seems impossible is not impossible. And that Holy One has done and will do the impossible through frail and fragile hands like ours.
My occasional atheism is accidental. I stumble and fall on the way. But because I’m not alone, friends help me to stand again, to dust myself off, and to take the next step. The Way is always about just taking the next step. No matter what.