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With the rise of the so-called 'New Atheism' over the last decade, there has been a parallel rise in the energy that Christians have spent on apologetics and interactions with those vocal unbelievers who would want to discredit our faith.

 

At one level, this correlation makes perfect sense and it just demonstrates that believers are ready to faithfully and pro-actively engage with the issues that distort the truth about Jesus. Its also a great example of us grabbing the opportunities for gospel witness that arise when religious beliefs are being dissected in public discourse. But I wonder if there's also something else going on for us as we pour so much of our time and resources into combating the New Atheism. I wonder if we're not just opposing it for the sake of those entranced by its spell, but in a strange way, also rejoicing in it because it makes us feel like we're on secure and familiar ground.

 

Back when I was an undergraduate university student in the mid '90s, many believers thought that one of the great looming threats to the faith was Postmodernism. The concern was that if the postmodern maxim took root - that there is 'no absolute truth', or at least no knowable absolute truth - our assurance would disintegrate and evangelism would become impossibly difficult as Christianity's central supporting pillar of absolute, objective facts crumbled away. No facts would mean no firm basis for faith. I think it was important to be alert to this risk and good for Christians to defend the notion that there is knowable truth beyond ourselves, as it is today. However, I'm not sure that we should be too worried that the Christian faith completely lacks appeal for postmoderns.

  

In fact, we know that God's love and truth have subjective as well as objective dimensions. He deeply loves each individual human being with all their unique thoughts, dreams, feelings and fears, and he deals with us all as particular people, not as clones programmed to have a common response to standardised, impersonal information.

  

Just as Modernist's hunger for universal and unchanging facts can be sated by the gospel, so too can the Postmodernist's longing to be individually understood, accepted and validated. Yet although both approaches are faithful to different emphases in the gospel, I think it's the case that many of us feel far more comfortable and confident presenting the gospel through dispassionate, factual arguments than through loving, personal relationships. Hence my wondering about whether the New Atheism has given us a little reason to rejoice.

 

The New Atheism has moved the conversation about belief back into the modernist realm of cold, hard facts and away from the messy, emotional subjectivities of Postmodernism. Indeed, the New Atheism aligns surprisingly well with my '90s Christianity as it relishes all things objective, provable and absolute. And althought these two wouldviews disagree about God, they share a consensus regarding the way he should be investigated. So I wonder if we Christians are partially happy to spend a lot of time talking with the New Atheists because they offer us a conversation that we know how to have and they rescue us from the pressure of having to work out ways to effectively evangelise postmoderns. 

 

But the problem is, it's a front. The New Atheists are actually postmoderns too. In fact, one of the defining characteristics of their movement is its great emotionalism. There are lots of personal stories fuelling the New Atheism, and many of them include deep hurts, rejections and offensive experiences. Could it be that one reason we haven't seen many conversions of today's atheists, despite all the time and effort we're putting into engaging with them, is that we haven't given them enough personal attention or individual love? I actually suspect that for many of today's atheists, the intellectual arguments are red-herrings that serve to deflect our attention away from real matters of the heart. And if this is right, but we only meet with them to debate facts, we may be subconsciously confirming that they've found a good way to avoid the very personal claims Jesus makes on their lives.

  

When writing to the Thessalonians, Paul reminded them that he, Silvanus and Timothy:

 

...were gentle among you like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8).

 

He also said:

 

You know like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12).

  

Paul and his co-workers were highly intentional in sharing the truth of the gospel, but as they did, they also gave themselves to the Thessalonians in close relationships. They built familial bonds and dealt with "each one" as they helped them to live in God-honouring ways. My point in considering these verses isn't that the Thessalonians were akin to the New Atheists, nor that is was always Paul's approach. Rather, it is simply to show that peronal love and gospel truth together have always been a very powerful combination and I think it's the mix we need as we continue to seize the evangelistic opportunities the New Atheism presents to us. Let's not just try to argue people into the kingdom, but let's make sure that we're also working hard at the sometimes awkward and often costly business of loving them in too. Let's love today's atheists as individuals, not just as people who moved the conversation back into impersonal public space.

 

 

This piece first appeared on The Gospel Coalition Australia website -    http://australia.thegospelcoalition.org