Acts 17.15-21 – God and the new atheists
Posted: 16 February 2011 in Acts

And they that conducted Paul brought him unto Athens: and receiving a commandment unto Silas and Timotheus for to come to him with all speed, they departed. Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry. Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him. Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection. And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is? For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean. (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)

Today’s new atheists seem to have the same problem the Athenians suffered from long ago. They can bring their brain into gear (just about), but they have great trouble engaging their heart. Worse than that, they are downright distrustful of it. But it is of course the heart which has a central role to play in any sort of relationship, and that is especially so in the case of God. It is at this point that a new atheist will typically intervene to tell you that the heart is just a pump. What has happened to make people so distrustful of anything other than the purely cerebral – and to such an extent that even such a commonplace metaphor as “the heart” has to be given a crassly literalistic understanding?

In fact, there is no way of knowing God except by engaging with him through the heart. As something ultimately mysterious, and beyond human conceptualisation, engaging with God must necessarily involve something more than the intellect. I speak as a Protestant myself, but I suppose Protestantism, with its emphasis on the written and spoken word, must bear part of the blame for the current situation. Words go to make up sentences, and sentences are manipulated by the rules of logic, so they practically invite a cerebral approach. But in religion the cerebral is worthless unless it also sinks down into the heart.

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