Among American adults about 4% self-identify as atheists. I don’t like saying this, but if you look at behavioral patterns, the percentage is much higher. There’s a lot of what Richard Rohr calls “practical atheism” among us church-going Christians. (The Wisdom Pattern, p. 74)
You see, Jesus showed us what life looks like when we trust—when we feel in our marrow—that God loves us no matter what. We forgive and we’re generous.
We don’t use violence to achieve our ends. We don’t use material wealth or social status to measure our own or anybody else’s worth.
In other words, when we’re aware of God’s loving presence in our lives, we’ll take some big risks. And the biggest risk of all is to love our neighbor—as in, well, everybody—like our own life depends upon it.
Strictly speaking, there are lots of self-proclaimed atheists who act in a very Jesus-y way without such trust in the divine. I guess you might say that they are practical Christians.
But like I said, using Jesus’ example as a measure, there are also a lot of practical atheists among professed Christians. And I confess that I act like one more often that I like to admit.
God is present. What is often missing is our awareness of that presence. When we become aware, we are transformed. Awareness of God’s love for us leads us to act like the beloved children of God that we are.
Waking up to and being transformed by God’s loving presence in our lives is a central theme of my latest book Looking for God in Messy Places. God is the God who shows up. Everywhere. Always. And our spiritual challenge is to open ourselves to that presence.
Here’s a brief excerpt (Chapter 3, pp. 30-32):
“Wow” is a common expression. We use it in a variety of ways. Sometimes we’re acknowledging somebody’s good news. “I got an A in my Organic Chemistry class!” “Wow!” We react to horrors and absurdities with, “Wow! That’s awful!” or, “Just, wow!”
But the “wow” I uttered in response to [an especially brilliant] sunrise was of a different variety, the kind that expresses a state of wonder. I gasped with my whole being as I saw a beauty that conveyed something spiritual to my heart and soul.
This sort of “wow” is more than an autonomic response like saying “ouch” when you stub your toe. The vastness of the sea, the majesty of a mountain range, or the timbre of a singer’s voice moves you in a deep and enduring way.
The moment usually passes quickly, yet it’s as if a tectonic shift in your self-understanding and perception of the world around you has begun, if only in some small way. That’s because God has addressed you. And God always addresses you with love. That’s when God begins to be real in your life.
One of my philosophy students taught me this lesson years ago. We’ll call her Hulga. Like her parents and grandparents, Hulga was culturally Jewish and devoutly agnostic. She was bright, articulate, and wickedly funny.
During a classroom discussion about one of the classic proofs for the existence of God, Hulga offered an insightful criticism of the thinker’s line of reasoning. She ended by saying something like, “There’s really no evidence that persuades me to believe in God.”
I responded playfully, asking her what she would do if God showed up in this classroom and, in a booming Wizard-of-Oz sort of voice said, “Kneel and worship me.” Without missing a beat, she said, “I would say forget it. Just look at the mess you’ve made. Besides, that’s no way to start a relationship.”
Then I asked her to consider another scenario. God sits next to you, looks you in the eye, and says, “I love you.” Hulga grew silent and thoughtful for several long seconds. “I’ve never thought of that,” she said. “That would be really different.” I think she meant, “Wow!”
The kind of “wow” I’m talking about is like being caught in God’s gaze. You know what it’s like to be caught in the act of doing something when you thought no one was looking.
Maybe you were talking to yourself or scratching your rear end and you heard a cough or footsteps behind you. You’ve been seen. Someone else makes themselves known to you, but you don’t see them. You’re being seen by them.
Wonder is our experience of being seen by the God who is love through and through. God’s love does more than merely acknowledge our lovableness. God’s love makes us the beloved. Wonder is the realization that we are the beloved, and this is where hope begins.