Jews, Christians and Muslims learn the ways of faith from many sources—Scripture, authoritative teaching, the examples set by holy men and women.
But the challenge that Patrick Ryan, S.J., recently posed urged them to look elsewhere.
What, he asked, can people of faith learn from atheists?
“The Atheistic Imagination: A Challenge for Jews, Christians, and Muslims,” the annual Spring McGinley Lecture, examined this question April 24 at the Lincoln Center campus and April 25 at Rose Hill.
Father Ryan, Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society, suggested that “men and women of faith—Jewish, Christian, and Muslim—sometimes need to see ourselves as others see us.” Drawing on the works of three contemporary writers, he examined their respective critiques of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
The American Jewish writer, Philip Roth, in recent novels confronts evil in the world and questions the existence of a benevolent God.
“The great novelist intends to expose the cruelty of God, the capriciousness of the world in which we live,” Father Ryan said. “Roth’s is a dark vision, imaginatively and superbly conveyed …. Glibly expressed faith needs to pause in the presence of this darkness—pause and reflect.”
The Irish writer, Colm Tóibín, who is openly gay, expresses a deep dissatisfaction with the Church’s teachings on sexuality.
Tóibín takes his stand on the borders of faith and unbelief, and yet he obviously loves much that is Catholic. “Catholicism and all its trappings,” he has written, “somehow belonged to me.”
The British-Indian writer, Salman Rushdie, contends that faith, at best, comforts believers and, at worst, it “infantilizes” them.
Rushdie’s satirical 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, provoked from Imam Ruhollah Khomeini a fatwa, an Islamic legal pronouncement calling for his death.
Rushdie admits that, “I can see [faith] being valuable to other people, like a consolation in difficulty,” but “For myself, I don’t feel the urge. There’s no hole in me that it needs to fill.”
Father Ryan, engaging in “trialogue” with the three writers, suggested apposite reflections for each.
To Roth, and his characters’ charges about God’s exalted and distant remoteness from human suffering, Father Ryan suggested that there is a rich tradition in Judaism of a “prophetic understanding” of God as tender-hearted. In the Talmud God is even said to have been filled with pity for the Egyptians drowned at the time of the Exodus.
Tóibín’s “aesthetic appreciation of Catholicism,” bears some relationship to the thought of the late Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. Pope Benedict XVI also sees artistic beauty as a path to contemplating the beauty of God.
Meanwhile, Rushdie—the “most” atheistic of the three—raises several valid points against Islam, including a critique of contemporary Islamic madrasas (religious schools), according to Father Ryan. However, his antagonism to Islam misses the centrality of divine mercy to Islam, especially in the Qur’an.
Responding to Father Ryan’s talk were Rabbi Daniel Polish, Ph.D., spiritual leader of Congregation Shir Chadash in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Amir Hussain, Ph.D., professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University.
According to Polish, atheistic remarks from Jews come within a wider context, because being Jewish encompasses more than holding certain religious beliefs.
“Jews are a people,” Polish said. “The religion of that people is Judaism, but the identity is conferred by being part of that people, or participating in that civilization.”
“It includes the freedom to abandon God altogether, or, at least to be deeply disappointed with God, to argue with God, to call God to the docket as the accused,” he said.
Hussain, who expressed considerable enthusiasm for much of Rushdie’s writing, pointed out, however, that atheism and secularism are not synonymous, a nuance that Rushdie misses.
“When we say that [for instance] North America is secular, that does not mean it is a society of atheists,” he said. “What we mean by secular is that there is no official state religion.”
Even the most rigorous of atheisms have something to offer believers, Polish said, for, if God is absent, humans are left with certain “moral imperatives.”
“Atheism teaches that when you see someone in need, you cannot just walk by and say that God will take care of him,” he said. “If there is no God, then how much is expected of us.
“If we cannot depend on God to prevent another Auschwitz, then we have to take that responsibility on ourselves. If we cannot depend on God to feed the hungry, it is we who must rise to the challenge.”