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Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Life of Intensity, Urgency, and Meaning

I begin 2014 reading Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  She is my peer, born just 3 months before me.  She has lived a life vastly different than mine.  A Somali, she made it out of that Muslim country and out of Islam altogether.  I was surprised to see that the forward to her story was written by noted author and celebrate atheist Christopher Hitchens.  I did not realize her escape from oppression had led her to atheism, but someone not likely associate with the late Hitchens unless she was an atheist herself.

I checked out Ali on google.  The summary describes her as “a Somali-born American feminist and atheist activist.”  Her blog confirms this  From the posts I skimmed, it seems clear that her main subject matter is the abuse of women in Muslim cultures.  I am only a few pages into her book, and I will read it all the way through.  It is a powerful story.  I say that even as I am male and an avowed religionist.

OK, I would never refer to myself as a ‘religionist,’ but Hitchens was consistent in his contempt for religion – Christianity, Islam, it did not matter.  He was not simply a nonbeliever.  He was aggressively opposed to believers.  I have watched You Tube videos of his debates with William Lane Craig and Alister McGrath.   In those instances, Hitchens displayed a quick wit and a thoroughly unconvincing case for atheism.  I took away from both events a great admiration for the gracious patience of both Craig and McGrath.

Reading Hitchens’ forward in Ali’s book got me thinking about him again and thanks to Google and my daughter waking at 2:45AM (with a fever which always makes her talk in her sleep and insist on sleeping with mommy), I am at my kitchen table with time and reading material.  I am particularly interested in a 2011 Huffington Post column by Paul Brandeis Raushenbush.  He is an American Baptist minister and was the dean of religious life and the chapel at Princeton University. 

Raushenbush’s column is titled “When an Atheist dies.”  But in it, he writes “When an atheist dies it is wrong to wonder what is happening to them now that they are dead.”  My question is why?  Why is it wrong for Christians who believe in eternal life to wonder about the eternity of someone who assaulted (through literature, not violence) Christianity?  Christianity is all about proclaiming that Jesus is Lord.  Raushenbush, a Christian minister, was the director of religious life (a life lived under the lordship of Jesus) at Princeton University.  Why would he say it is wrong to wonder about the eternity of Hitchens, a man who rejected the lordship of Jesus?

I am not saying Christians ought to rejoice at Hitchens’ death.  We should not.  I do not definitively declare Hitchens hell-bound.  God did not consult with me on eternal judgment for Christopher Hitchens or myself or anyone else.  But, I am a pastor and have presided over numerous funerals and have spoken to people about God and life and eternity.  I have had these conversations over and over in my 20+ years in ministry.  People want to know about life after death.  People read.  People know when a famous nonbeliever dies and they ask.  I don’t understand Raushenbush’s assertion that it is wrong to wonder about the atheist’s eternal fate.

I also don’t understand the dichotomy Raushenbush draws between focusing on living in the present and longing for eternity in the Kingdom of God.  He quotes a lengthy passage from Ayaan Hirsi Ali which ends with a John Lennonesque notion that death replaces the “siren song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. … There is nothing more [than this life.] But I want nothing more.”  Reflecting on this passage, Raushenbush writes that concentrating on this life “fills these precious moments that we have on earth with intensity, urgency and inherent meaning.

To be fair, Raushenbush is specifically writing about atheists and afterlife.  He might write something different were he talking about Christians and afterlife.  So, I have to ask, does one’s beliefs determine one’s eternal reality?  I think it does not.  I think God is real – more real than what I can perceive with my five senses.  God is Lord.  God will not just let me fade into oblivion if I choose not to believe in him.  When I die, if I die as an unbeliever and as a God-rejecter, I will be judged by the God I rejected. 

And as for living intensely, I really believe Raushenbush has it completely backwards.  The most alive moments of my life came when I was acutely aware of the reality of and presence of Heaven.  In Ethiopia, with a mission group, I fed a plate of supper to a handicapped street woman and her child.  Both were clad in rags.  All that they owned was on their backs.  Maybe sharing supper with the poor doesn’t qualify as living intensely for Mr. Raushenbush.  For me, it was invigorating.  I was blessed beyond words.  I would never have been there if not for my belief in God.  No, I do not understand how atheism fills the present with “intensity, urgency and inherent meaning.

I cannot imagine a more preposterous notion.  I get what Raushenbush is saying.  The atheist has nothing more, so he has to get the most out of “the now.”  Surely Raushenbush would acknowledge that Hitchens is an exception and that there are plenty of atheists who waste their lives on trivial things and hollow materialistic pursuits.  There are plenty of Christians who do the same, by the way.  Hitchens did not have intensity, urgency, and meaning because he was an atheist.  His life had those qualities because he was a crusader for atheism.  His mission was to defeat religion and because he was a talented writer, he garnered the admiration of Christians like Raushenbush.  In fact, Raushenbush, again I emphasize, a Christian minister – ordained to lead others in following Jesus, lauded the life of someone whose fame came at least in part for this creative and articulate rejection of Jesus.  Hitchens said terrible things.  But, he said them well.  So we must acknowledge that he lives well.

I am grateful for all three – Ali, Hitchens, and Raushenbush.  I am grateful to Ali for sharing her story.  I pray for women who are harmed and mutilated in cultures that do not honor their humanity.  I am grateful to Hitchens for raising the bar and forcing brilliant Christians like McGrath and Craig to articulate reasonable defenses of Christianity.  And I am grateful for the way Raushenbush’s article forces me to think about these things.  I pray in 2014, I will focus on the Kingdom of God.  I pray I will see it. I pray that in seeing it, I will live with intensity, urgency and meaning.

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