Growing in Christ - Meditation
An Atheist Friend
It is not often that, as Christians, we meet an atheist whom we instantly admire and respect. How can we feel otherwise about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an outspoken critic of the oppressive cultural practices found in countries such as Somalia, Kenya and Saudi Arabia? Her autobiography, entitled Infidel, describes a complex, astonishing life in which she progresses from dutiful Muslim girl to outspoken, free-thinking atheist woman. Her abhorrence of and opposition to such practices as excision, forced marriages and honour killings has resulted in her being in great danger, and living a life requiring constant security measures.
Those of us raised in the West tend to enjoy discussing ideas in neat categories - we think about philosophy in university classrooms, we listen to sermons in churches, and take political actions at election time. Familiar as we are with the substantial separation of church and state, we hesitate to advance ideas critical of foreign cultural practices and religions. We are aghast when we see those of extremist mentalities mixing religion and politics to produce horrifying results.
Ali is not reticent, however, about advancing what she believes to be truth and reason in exposing practices which are oppressive to women. She has embraced the Enlightenment philosophers, such as Spinoza, to be her guide for rational thought:
Three hundred and fifty years ago, when Europe was still steeped in religious dogma and thinkers were persecuted - just as they are today in the Muslim world - Spinoza was clear-minded and fearless. He was the first modern European to state clearly that the world is not ordained by a separate God. Nature created itself, Spinoza said. Reason, not obedience, should guide our lives. (p.282).
Reason is important, of course, and indeed Christians would say the ability to reason is a gift from the God who created nature. A Christian might ask an atheist: from what moral foundation do you commence the reasoning process? In other words, how does one judge something to be not only logical, but "good?" While putting Spinoza on a pedestal is rather dubious, we nevertheless read in Ali's book about her amazing intellectual curiosity and heroic efforts to obtain an advanced education.
Christians who like to think hard about things are likely to get headaches, these days. The world is getting complicated. We hear about extremist attacks against innocent people and we want to do everything possible to protect and defend, and to bring murderers to justice. We see refugees fleeing war-torn countries and we long to welcome them as neighbours-but we also sense within ourselves some fear and legitimate concern. We admire Ali with her outspoken, unrestrained courage but note with some dismay she has abandoned belief in God altogether (p.281). She-or we-could say it is none of our business, but she is not a fictional character, she is a real person. If we are evangelical Christians, we are obliged to take a polite but sincere interest in the fate of her soul, just as we would in the case of anyone else's soul.
Putting everything else aside for the moment-and indeed it is unlikely current political issues will be resolved in our lifetime-what would we say to Ali? How would we talk about God with a woman who has experienced nothing but pain and oppression in the religious culture to which she was born?
First and foremost, we would be anxious to tell the story of the woman who was accused of adultery and was about to be stoned to death. (Such things are course still happening in some countries today.) Jesus said, in words that have echoed throughout the ages-"Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her (John 8:7 ESV)." None of the men are apparently qualified to throw the first stone and so they go away. Jesus advises the woman that he does not condemn her and that she should "go, and from now on sin no more (John 8:11)." It is impossible to overstate the importance of this story in trying to understand the grace of God-his unmerited love and forgiveness-and how it has influenced Western culture for two thousand years.
Secondly we might love to tell the story of the woman at the well. Jesus starts a conversation with a Samaritan woman, this being remarkable in itself because in Biblical times, "Jews have no dealings with Samaritans (John 4:9)." Why is Jesus taking time to talk to her? She has had numerous husbands; and we suspect a very colorful life. Jesus discusses water--that precious substance to people living in a dry land-- first in the literal sense, then in the spiritual sense:
Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life. (John 4: 13-14).
This beautiful, poetic invitation to the eternal life is something that we believe still stands open for the despairing and spiritually thirsty people of the world. In both of these examples we see Jesus relating directly to an individual. We hope that Ali would begin to see at least partly why Christians like to think of their faith as a "relationship" rather than a religion.
Thirdly we might invite Ali to contemplate a verse which has yet to be fully grasped by our own society, but which has nevertheless influenced the historical and political sanctity of the concept of equality. This is Galatians 3:28: "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." In other words, to be a Christian is to believe in the equality of human life and human souls; to be unconcerned with distinctions of race, socio-economic status, or gender. The fight for equality was not invented by secular humanists yesterday, or in the sixties, or in the American Civil War-it has been going on for a long time, and only rarely will contemporary advocates of human rights acknowledge their debt to the Christian ethos. Christians themselves, being imperfect people, have struggled to live up to their own Biblical ideals-but the struggle continues.
Would our hypothetical conversation with Ayaan Hirsi Ali bear any fruit? Is it clear that an oppressed woman, and indeed any oppressed person, can find a joyful refuge in the Christian faith? Have we made the case that not all religious cultures are the same, as so many people blithely assume? We have not even begun to discuss the significance of the death and resurrection of Christ. We cannot predict how anyone might react, of course, and in the end we would want to say a prayer; then trust in God's divine providence. We know very well that sometimes it takes a lifetime before people are ready to make a commitment to the God who so loves them in Christ.
In the meantime, Christians can extend the hand of friendship to Muslim and atheist alike, trying to fulfill our commitment to our neighbours and our Lord without compromise to either.
John 8:12: "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."
In faith and fellowship,
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