Last month the Huffington Post wrote up a short blurb [endnote 1] concerning the opening of an ‘atheist church.’ Yes, you read that correctly, an atheist church. I was not surprised when I read about this so-called “church,” because in today’s culture the ‘atheist church’ is really mirroring what has been happening in Evangelical Christianity for decades, and sadly, can be found in some Lutheran congregations, too.
I don’t think it is news to point out that the United States is following Europe over the cliff of extreme secularism. Indeed, a Pew Research poll linked off of the Huffington Post article points out that one out of five Americans identify themselves as having “no religion.” Another way this group of people likes to describe their selves is as “spiritual and not religious.” Increasingly, religion is viewed as an unwanted tool left out in the proverbial tool shed to collect dust and rust.
What’s interesting about the ‘atheist church’ is it formed for pragmatic reasons, according to their website [endnote 2]. People who wanted nothing to do with God and yet wanted a “spiritual but not religious” wedding ceremony, formed the ‘atheist church’ so they could have their own ordained clergy to sign wedding documents. As this practicality unfolded, this same group joined together monthly for singing songs, fellowship, and listening to speakers present on topics of interest to them. Oddly enough, this description could be applied to American Evangelical churches today.
Let me explain that last comment. The rise of extreme secularism is the result of a number of things, but I believe two issues in particular: the killing of God and the destruction of objective truth in our culture.
Now by the statement “killing of God” I don’t mean to say that God is literally dead, no longer existing. What I mean is that ever since the European philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) [endnote 3] wrote his book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, humanity has quickly devolved into the Nietzschean super-hero who is a law unto himself with no need of God or anyone else for that matter, in order to live life. Mankind is in charge of the universe and we make the rules as we go along and as they suit us. How did we get to this point? Well for one, the culture has come to put faith in the rationalist’s view that God is not knowable to us through His revelatory word, but is only known through our perceptions of the world. In other words, the concept of an objective God revealed to us through means such as His spoken word was ultimately shoveled onto a trash heap of the unknowable and replaced with mystical experiences of an inner world, a world created behind the eyelids, so-to-speak. Indeed, this is the post-modern outlook which we are reminded of daily through every media type thinkable. We are constantly barraged with messages that there isn’t a single, objective, world which we can know outside our own perceptions of it. The ubiquity of the phrase “that’s your truth” is stunning. One can’t even talk with conviction about the news of the day without someone uttering, “That’s your truth.” People will allow mutually exclusive world-views to coexist as equally “true” without hesitation. Why? Most people follow their emotions and view any reasonable claims to objective truth with a skeptical eye. If God exists, then so-called knowledge of Him is based upon the irrational. Surely He is not knowable through any objective means and this idea has fully played out in Methobapticostal groups where inner experiences as evidenced by outward manifestations (such as speaking in tongues) are key.
American Evangelicalism provided the template for the ‘atheist church.’ As the culture has slid off the cliff into the abyss of secularism, Evangelicalism has been busy catering to the in-flight needs of the free-falling population. Really, it isn’t at all surprising given the theology prevalent in these churches. For the most part, theirs is the teaching that God doesn’t necessarily work through objective means to provide His grace to us. Indeed, God immediately zaps a person and they instantly have a personal experience with Christ, through which they make a decision for Him. The question is asked, “How do I know Jesus lives?” and the enthusiastic response is “Because He lives in my heart!” Evangelicals regard their human experiences as a demonstration of the truth of the reality of God. Having ecstatic experiences, wonderful feelings, making others feel good, and conquering immorality in the world are all proofs that Christ is real and He lives inside the person having these experiences. A question to ask, then, is why would an atheist want to trade their set of experiences, their ‘church,’ for those experiences of the generic, purpose driven, congregation down the street?
What sets Christ’s church apart from the pretend ‘church’ of the atheists, or from the heterodox congregations in American Evangelicalism is the truth that God deals with the human heart through objective means. Indeed, it is through this external word of the promises of God that we know Christ. How do I know Christ is real and for me? The peace of knowing God is not to be found in an inward trip through our emotions and neither is it to be found in empirical experience. No, Christ finds us through His Church and as identified by her marks, the preaching of the pure Gospel and the faithful administration of His sacraments. Ours is a reasonable faith, since we must look outside of ourselves to the Word of the Gospel, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. Only here in the objective means of Grace does God come to us through Christ Jesus and here we have the certainty of Christ’s promises which are truly outside us, extra nos.