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Atheism and the Experience of God (2)

Fr. John Breck

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Those who hold that the only sure ground of knowledge is scientific inquiry and rational analysis actually represent not so much science as the heresy of "scientism," a purely materialistic view of reality. Yet science itself debunks that approach with its acceptance of principles such as those embodied in quantum mechanics and relativity theory. In a universe where subatomic particles constantly appear and then disappear, where electrons can "communicate" with each other instantaneously, irrespective of the distance that separates them, where nebulae trillions of miles high spawn entire galaxies, and where gratuitous beauty exists in so many things from abalone shells to Pacific sunsets, is it intellectually responsible to conclude that the countless millions of Christian believers on earth (to consider only them) who claim to have direct, immediate and personal experience of God are simply deluded, that they are all merely victims of fantasy or wishful thinking?

Certainly, some do draw this conclusion, and they believe they base their judgment on fact, on what is real. Just as certainly, the believer cannot prove that he or she actually believes. Yet this is true of a great many aspects of our life. We cannot prove that we love another person (our gestures of affection, support, even self-sacrifice may be motivated by self-interest; we cannot demonstrate the contrary in a purely scientific way). Yet few would want to argue that genuine, self-giving love does not exist. The same can be said for faith. No one can verify either the content of their faith or that they actually hold to that faith. Yet we can argue empirically that the multitude of martyrs, who have died under torture in defense of their convictions, bear an eloquent and virtually irrefutable witness to the fact, the reality, of their belief. Irrefutable witness, nevertheless, only to those who are open to receive it. Are those multitudes simply deluded (as we might hold a suicide bomber to be)? Or is their death, voluntarily assumed like the death of their Lord, "evidence" that not only their faith is real but that the content of that faith is real as well? A "theist" would say yes, while an "a-theist," of course, would say no.

In fact, there is probably no such thing as a true "atheist." Your God is whatever constitutes your highest, most treasured value. It may be the self or some virtue. It may be a possession or some aspiration. Most of us, including atheists, are in fact idolaters. We substitute our intellectual capacity and our mundane desires for ultimate, transcendent Reality, and we offer them our homage. Still, a great many people have searched the Scriptures, followed the wisdom of the Church's spiritual elders, and celebrated the mysteries of faith in personal and communal worship, because there they find the key to the absolute Truth beyond every empirical reality. There they perceive and rejoice in the presence of divinity. And with that presence, they come to what is for them an undeniable and genuine knowledge of the God of infinite compassion and love.

They may not be able to offer scientific evidence for the object of their belief, but that is irrelevant. The experience of the living God -- in prayer, in liturgical worship, in the beauty of creation, in self-sacrificing gestures of love -- is all the evidence they need to be convinced that true Reality lies beyond the limits of scientific inquiry. That Reality can be known only by what the Fathers call "intellection": a direct and immediate "noetic" experience of God that flows forth from the intimate, personal relationship He establishes with us.

The holy monk Silouan of Mount Athos (+1938) was canonized as a saint of the Church in large part because he embodied just such a noetic experience of God. Referring to believers and atheists alike, he says this:

"Here is an enigma: there are souls that have come to know the Lord; there are souls that have not come to know Him but believe in Him; and there are others still that not only do not know God but do not believe either, and among their number are to be found learned men.

"Pride is at the root of unbelief," he continues. "The proud man would acquire knowledge of things through his mind and his studying, but it is not given to him to learn to know God, in that the Lord reveals Himself only to the lowly in heart ... With the mere mind we can only come to know the things of this earth, and then only in part, while God and all that is of heaven are known through the Holy Spirit." (1).

These celestial things the atheist (or nominal believer) knows nothing about. Knowledge derived from noetic experience is a knowledge beyond empirical knowledge. It is the experiential knowledge of and communion with a Reality that scientific inquiry cannot possibly grasp. It is a Reality that can elude the sharpest brain, yet it is open and accessible to a little child. In the simplest terms, it is a matter less of the mind than of the heart.

Footmote: 1. Archimandrite Sophrony, St Silouan the Athonite (New York: SVS Press, 1999), 354f.

The Very Reverend John Breck is a professor of biblical interpretation and ethics at the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris.

Read the entire article on the Orthodox Church in America website (new window will open).

Posted: 31-Jan-07



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