Lately I have been inspired by atheists to deepen my own faith. I believe deeply in the power of interfaith and ecumenical dialogue, and I include atheists in that conversation. I love having theological conversations with thoughtful atheists who are asking the same big questions as I am. I often find we have more in common than I would initially expect.
Take, for example, this segment of a letter to the editor written by Ken Beck from Illinois to Harper’s Magazine:
I believe that this earth is all the heaven we will get, and so I am mindful of the plight of the bees when I allow my kitten to have a taste of predation and kill one in the clover blossoms.
As I approach my own geezerhood, however, I assuage my worries about the degradation of our planet with faith in a larger conception of nature- one in which we humans are just a part. Our manifest flaws, of which greed and profligacy are not the least, seem to me to be part of nature’s inexorable and merciless script. If we cannot save ourselves from ourselves, and we do in fact spoil our nest, then we will be the ones diminished in numbers. Isn’t there relief in knowing that if this happens, we will be limited by this simple equation in our ability to cause further damage?
Nature is a larger and stronger entity than we are. If we manage to create such astonishing toxicity that we take ourselves out completely, and take with us much of Creation as we have known it, that which remains will be necessarily emergent. I am perhaps perverse in taking this as a comfort, but even if we do get our act together and conserve as much as possible of what remains of our environment, nature always retains the capacity to wipe us out regardless.
Even though I do not believe that earth is the only heaven we will get, I find it a challenge for me to imagine this as a possibility to act from. How would I treat the earth differently if this were the only heaven I get? This letter has a wonderfully refreshing combination of urgency and calmness. He brings a lovely sense of reverence to the power of creation. Catholics believe in the holiness of God’s creation and have a Catholic Social Teaching tenant to Care for God’s Creation. This same reverence and conviction can be seen in the choice of the writer to capitalize Creation here. It is easy to assume that a person who does not believe in heaven may give too much importance to humans. Here, the writer does the opposite. He is saying that nature is stronger and more powerful than humans. There is a sense of awe and wonder at the immensity of creation.
If I, as a theist, had approached this letter with a closed mind, I could have stopped reading the letter after the first clause. I would have missed out on the writer’s powerful challenge to us to save ourselves by conserving nature. He is saying that if we keep eroding the earth, we will not kill the earth, we will kill ourselves. Nature is stronger than us and will survive whether we do or not.
In February in New York City, there is a lot of cold concrete. It is easy to forget about the beauty of Creation and put myself first. This letter invited me to reconsider bringing a sense of reverence to the earth as a gift from God. I am grateful.
What are the big questions that atheists and theists can ask together?
Where do you see interfaith and ecumenical dialogue happening? Why is it so important in society today?
What can we do today to conserve and respect nature?