Back in the third grade I wasn’t the kid who passed you the note asking, “Will you be my friend?” Instead, the friendships I’ve formed over the years have come about by some mysterious chemistry, seemingly without any design of mine. It was only after forming hundreds of them that I even began to think about the subject. And recently—as I thought about it—I realized some of these friends have been, and continue to be, atheists.
In one way that shouldn’t be a big deal. But in another it is. I’m a pastor, you see—the sort who really believes Jesus is the Son of God and thinks everyone in the world should think so too. So right there we have a little point of contention. How do I put up with these atheists and how do they put up with me? That’s something worth thinking about.
The ancient Greeks had ways of thinking about these things that I find helpful. Here’s an example. In English the word “love” has a lot of work to do. I can use it to convey my culinary preferences: “I just love Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey Ice Cream!” I can also use it to declare my deepest commitments: “I love my wife more today than the day we were married.” Context is the only guide to help you know what I’m talking about.
Koine Greek—the lingua franca of the first century and the language of the New Testament—had a word for the affection shared by friends. It is philia. It is characterized by mutuality. A friend isn’t a friend if you do all the giving. Likewise, if you find something else to do when a friend asks you to help him move after he has helped you move three times in one year, well, don’t expect him to be your friend for very long. Christians know love is still called for when people disappoint us, but the Bible has a different word for that sort of love. The word is agape. It is the love that persists in the face of indifference and even hostility. It is a very wonderful thing. But it is not the sort of love exercised in the daily round between friends.
So how have my friendships formed with atheists? The same way they’ve formed with believers. I’ve had something in common with a person and then some ineffable chemistry has kicked in. Usually what we’ve held in common has been fairly insignificant. We’ve had the same jaundiced sense of humor; or the same taste in books or the same love for the Red Sox. Later, when studying philosophy in graduate school, I formed friendships with atheists who like asking the same big questions I do. I’m certainly not the first person to experience this sort of thing. Where would we be today if J.R.R. Tolkien hadn’t formed a friendship with a garrulous atheist by the name of C.S. Lewis?
In an earlier article I outlined ways I have turned the inevitable intellectual and verbal conflict with these friends into spurs to my spiritual and intellectual growth. Some people found that practice objectionable. All I can say is that no atheists have been harmed in the process. Here I want to briefly describe something else—a mental discipline that makes the maintenance of such friendships possible.
I call it “bracketing,” and it requires self-control and an ability to make distinctions. Really, it is helpful in any relationship that calls for navigating disagreements about important things—which is another way of saying all relationships, not just relationships with atheists.
Bracketing is a temporary suspension of judgment. When someone says something you take exception to, you don’t have to respond immediately in the moment—really, you don’t. You can bracket the statement, holding it away from the person who said it and holding it away from yourself. This helps you keep a clear head. Few things cloud the mind more than intense emotions, and our emotions are often stirred deeply by the topics of highest importance. It might be worst coming back to the topic later, but often the “fight or flight” response betrays us. The muscles in the neck tense, the heart beats faster and the ability to reason shuts down. That’s why you’re prone to say things at times like this that you later regret.
Here is an example of a time recently when bracketing was called for. Although the occasion wasn’t in the framework of a friendship I still think the principle is transferable. I write speculative fiction—fantasy, science fiction, even a little horror. I’m working my way through the works of H.P. Lovecraft and I came across this little item from one of Lovecraft’s letters to a friend:
“I certainly can’t see any sensible position to assume aside from complete skepticism tempered by a leaning toward that which existing evidence makes most probable. All I say is that I think it is damned unlikely that anything like a cosmic will, a spirit world, or an eternal survival of personality exist. They are the most preposterous and unjustified of all guesses which can be made about the universe. … I … regard them as arrant and negligible moonshine. … I must be classed, … practically and provisionally as an atheist.”
Having read that I could have said, “Well, there you go—the man was an atheist, his works are worthless,” and slammed the book down and walked away. That would have been a mistake. Lovecraft is perhaps the most important writer of weird fiction in the 20th century. His genius is a direct outworking of his atheism. Without knowing that, I cannot begin to understand what he was saying nor why so many people resonate with it. Furthermore, the more I understand the man—the squandering of his New England patrimony by his father, his hard-scrabble life, his personal failures and disappointments—the more I even sympathize with him.
Apart from those considerations, there is a good deal to consider in what he said. Was Lovecraft a sensible man? What “existing evidence” is he referring to,and what has he failed to consider? Have we ever been surprised by things turning out to be the case that at one time we considered “unlikely”? After holding the statement up and looking at it a while, we see that much of its persuasive power is derived from assumptions that are smuggled in beneath the surface—those and bravado.
This all requires work, but I think it is the sort of work Jesus expects of His disciples. When He said, “Judge not …” He didn’t mean to imply we will never be judged—just that we lacked what was needed to do the job. And that is largely due to a lack of self-knowledge. “Do not seek to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye, first remove the beam in your own eye, then you will see clearly.” Oh, do I have a beam? I hadn’t noticed. And how would I know the beam is gone if I didn’t see it in the first place? There’s a thought.
Bracketing is an admission that you don’t always know enough to make a judgment. And knowing what you don’t know may be the best way to invite a few atheists on your Facebook friend list.
C. R. Wiley has written for Modern Reformation and Touchstone Journal. He writes young adult fantasy under the pen name Mortimus Clay. The debut of his weird fiction exorcist, the Reverend Ricky Jehu Clay, is forthcoming.