Jesus christ declares himself an atheist
scene of the parable of the Good Samaritan.
RACHEL We’re interviewing Jesus Christ today on a bend of the road that goes from Jerusalem to Jericho. This desolate landscape was the setting for one of his most important and memorable parables. Isn’t that true, Jesus, or am I mistaken?
JESUS No, you’re not mistaken. One day the teachers of the Law asked me which was the greatest of all the commandments.
RACHEL And they didn’t know it themselves, even though they were teachers?
JESUS They knew it quite well. Love God and love your neighbor, I told them. But they insisted “And who is my neighbor?” They were out to provoke me.
RACHEL And what did you do?
JESUS I told them a story that I knew would provoke them! Once there was a man who was wounded by bandits on this same road where we are now. A priest passed by and made as if he didn’t see him. A Levite also passed by and took no heed of him either. Finally, a Samaritan came by, approached the wounded man and helped him out. After telling the story, I said to the teachers of the Law your neighbor is the one on the roadside; your neighbor is the one who needs your help. I also told them of those three men, the Samaritan was the only one who loved God.
RACHEL And did the provocation work?
JESUS They left there furious.
RACHEL But why furious?
JESUS Because of the Samaritan. When I was a kid, I always heard people saying “Samaritans are filthy pagans.” They despised them because they weren’t pure Jews and didn’t mix with anybody. And to top it all off, the Samaritans didn’t believe in the priests or in the Temple or in the God of the Jews.
RACHEL Were they atheists?
JESUS That’s not a word we used in my time. But yes, the Samaritans didn’t believe in our God. They were… they were just that atheists regarding our God.
RACHEL What does that mean? Can somebody be an atheist regarding one God and not another?
JESUS There are false gods, like the idols. They should be dethroned, and people should stop believing in them.
RACHEL Are you referring to the present-day crisis of faith?
JESUS In my day the ones who caused the crisis of faith were the priests, with all their privileges, and the Levites, with all their laws and more laws.
RACHEL Well, nowadays something very similar is happening. You must have noticed. Many people claim to be atheist because of the bad example of the priests and the pastors…
JESUS Blessed are those atheists, for they shall find God.
RACHEL A new beatitude?
JESUS Look, Rachel, what the Jerusalem priests were really adoring was an idol that demanded blood sacrifices, imposed unbearable burdens, rejected women and sick people… I rebelled against that God, and I told my fellow Jews not to believe in him either. I also was an atheist, an atheist regarding that God.
RACHEL So you don’t condemn atheism?
JESUS How can I condemn it? It can be a short-cut for finding the true God. You have to stop believing in false gods in order to seek and find the real God.
RACHEL Could you explain a little more this rather … bewildering statement?
JESUS I already explained it on this same road long ago. Listen, Rachel, when you find the true God, you don’t have to look up in the sky or on either side of you. The priest and the Levite believed in a false god, a god in the clouds. It was the Samaritan who really believed in God because he saw the wounded man, drew close to him and became his neighbor. Only someone who loves his neighbor can believe in God.
RACHEL Reporting from the road of the good Samaritan and, as of today, the good atheist, in the desert of Judea, this is Rachel Perez, Emisoras Latinas.
ANNOUNCER Another God is Possible. Exclusive interviews with Jesus Christ in his second coming to Earth. A production of María and José Ignacio López Vigil, with the support of the Syd Forum and Christian Aid.
*More information about this polemical topic…*
The road that goes from Jerusalem to Jericho
Even now, as in the times of Jesus, the road that leads from Jerusalem to Jericho is impressive for its starkness, flanked as it is by gray, arid hillsides. On one of its bends a small chapel, called the Good Samaritan, recalls the famous parable of Jesus (Luke 10,25-37). In making a Samaritan the protagonist of his story Jesus employed a real “provocation theology” in dealing with his adversaries.
Although the Samaritans were descended from the original tribes that formed the people of Israel, a rebellion that occurred about one thousand years before the time of Jesus distanced them from the Jews in the south, who established their religious center on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, while the Samaritans established theirs in Sichem and on Mount Garizim. Two centuries later the Samaritans went into exile and mixed with other ethnic groups, which made them even more “different” in the eyes of the Jews. By the time of Jesus the Samaritans were looked down upon by the Jews, especially the teachers and doctors of the Law. Moved by a mix of nationalism and racism, the Jews felt a profound contempt for the Samaritan people. They thought that the Samaritans did not believe in God, because they believed in “another” God, different from their own, and they celebrated “other” cults in “another” temple.
Spanish theologian José María Marín has commented on Jesus’ use of the “theology of provocation”: When reproaching his listeners for their conduct or urging them to follow his preaching and counsels, Jesus often provoked an emotional shock in them in order to free them from the usual twisted interpretations,. When he told the parable of the Good Samaritan, the expectation of his audience was that, after the lack of sympathy shown by the Jewish priest and the Levite, a just Israelite would then appear as the “hero” who would help the battered traveler. But the one who arrived as the “hero” was the inveterate enemy: the heretic, the Samaritan. Jesus frustrated all the expectations of his listeners to show them that in God’s kingdom all borders between human beings disappear, since all of us are neighbors. By upsetting the expectations of his audience, Jesus aroused their emotions and thus guaranteed a stronger reaction.
Where you say God
In the 1970s the Spaniard Ricardo Cantalapiedra produced a song that became very popular; it set to music the poem “Mistakes” of Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga: Where you say law, / I say God; / Where you say God, / I say liberty, justice and love.
Lying behind the verses and the melody are the basic questions: what do we mean when we say “God”? what does it mean to say that “we believe in God”? If we want to be coherent, we should not answer the question, “Do you believe in God?”, with a quick yes or no. We should require a more precise definition: “What God are you talking about?” This is quite necessary, since there is perhaps no other word in the dictionary so full of contradictory meanings as the word “God”.
The idea or ideas expressed in the word “God” have an extremely long history in the rugged trajectory through which human consciousness has traveled. There has also been a long process of gradually transforming the idea of God and of developing it in accord with the advances in philosophy, politics, sociology, natural science and various theologies arising from the larger cultural context. However, this process has not moved at the same pace or in the same way in the world’s different cultures or among diverse peoples, much less among different individuals.
So it is that in the 21st century many people who are super-modern in their ways of dressing, speaking and acting can still believe in an idea of God that is basically medieval: they believe in a God who determines all historical events and orders all natural disasters; they believe in a God who rewards and punishes communities and individuals to demonstrate his omnipotence or to test the people’s faith; they believe that God governs their lives and decides their destinies. Such believers are modern themselves, but their God is pre-modern.
Where is God
The question about the meaning contained in the word “God” becomes more urgent and distressing when God appears linked to structures of exploitative and criminal power. Such historical linkage is the root of many of the world’s “atheisms”, especially in Latin America, the most Christian continent on the face of the earth, and also the one with the greatest social inequalities.
A song of the Argentine group Atahualpa Yupanqui, “Little Questions about God”, is one of many that gave dramatic expression to this problem during the years when liberation theology was strongest, which were also the years of the military dictatorships, terrible social injustices, and songs of witness and protest throughout Latin America. The song goes thus:
One day I asked: / Grandpa, where is God? / My granddad became sad / and didn’t answer me. / My granddad died in the fields / without prayers or confession, / and the Indians buried him / with cane flutes and drums. / After a while I asked: / Dad, what do you know of God? / My father became serious / and didn’t answer me. / My father died in the mines / without doctor or protection; / the boss’s gold is/ the color of miners’ blood. / My brother lives in the mountains / and has never seen a flower. / Sweat, malaria, snakes / are the life of the woodcutter. / And nobody should ask him / if he knows where God is. / Such an important person / has never passed by his house. / I sing along the roadways, / and when I am in prison / I hear the voices of the people, / who sing better than I do. / There is a concern on Earth / more important than God, / and it’s that nobody should spit blood / so that another can live better. / What God looks out for the poor? / Maybe yes and maybe no. / But it’s a sure thing that he dines / at the table of the boss.
Neighbor: the one to whom I “draw-nigh”
In the face of so many kinds of “atheism” that are prompted by the bad example of people who commit injustices and cooperate with abusive power and yet claim to represent God, Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is quite revolutionary and challenging: Jesus is saying that God is not in the temple or in fulfillment of the law, but in our neighbor, in the relation that we establish with our neighbor, when we “draw-nigh” (become neighbors) to those who need us. Neighbor is not only the one whom I find in my way, but the one in whose way I place myself: such is the formula of Gustavo Gutiérrez in his pioneering book Liberation Theology: Perspectives (1973). In the provocative parable told by Jesus, the person who “understands” this principle and puts it into practice is not one of “God’s official representatives”, but a Samaritan, an “atheist” as far as the Jews were concerned.
Atheology, a philosophy
The French writer and philosopher Georges Bataille (1867-1962) proposed in 1950 to write a book called “Summa Atheologica”, thus amending the title of the classical “Summa Theologica” of Thomas Aquinas. Bataille’s idea was to gather together in his treatise arguments and texts which would lead the reader to an informed, serious and healthy atheism. The idea of “atheology” was born with this thinker, who was never able to carry out his project.
The idea was taken up again recently by the French philosopher and professor Michel Onfray in his book, Atheist Manifesto (Arcade Publishing, 2007), which offers a critique of the three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The book defends the value of atheism as a positive humanistic and constructive stance, and it even proposes that atheism be taught in the schools as a regular subject. According to Onfray, the true “father” of atheism as a systematic philosophy was the French Catholic priest Jean Meslier (1664-1729), a true revolutionary who at the end of his life wrote a book called Superstition in All Ages: Common Sense (BiblioBazaar, 2007). In that book he offered clear and evident demonstrations of the vanity and falsity of all the divinities and all the religions of the world.
There are two aspects to the defense and justification of atheism: one is the negation of God’s existence, and the other is more complex: it involves the questioning of certain ideas of God, which have perhaps been those held by most people in determined epochs of history or in determined cultures and countries. In the course of history many people who never denied God have been denounced as “atheists” and have been burned at the stake or killed for their “unbelief”, but they were persons who simply rejected the “truths” about God which were those officially preached by religious institutions with repressive power. They were deemed “atheists” because they denied hell, predestination, original sin, the Pope’s authority, the virginity of Mary, etc.
A “Short bibliography on atheism and the history of Christianity” can be found at www.angelfire.com/az/ateismo/bibliografia.html, This site [all in Spanish] contains a great variety of interesting and suggestive titles and authors.
The God meme
Denying the existence of God is no easy task – and the reasons for this are not spiritual or moral. The British scientist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene (Oxford, 2006) has demonstrated the existence of “other” genes, different from the biochemical structures that by replication and biological transmission constitute the information that helps to shape our bodies.
These “other”, non-biological structures are called “memes”, which are defined as units of thought – ideas, values, concepts – created by our brains and replicated and transmitted culturally, from one brain to another. Like biological genes, “memes” appear, disappear, and recombine, and some of them prevail over others. The Oxford English Dictionary offers the following definition of “meme”: An element of culture that is self-replicating and that is transmitted by means of imitation. According to Dawkins, in all the cultural heritage of humanity there is no meme as universal and as persistent as the “God” meme.
Jesus transformed the idea of God
Through his words and actions, Jesus transformed the idea of God that was dominant in his time, in his culture and in his land. He opened the way so that humankind could form an alternative idea of God. The greatness of Jesus is found there, and it is for that reason that he has been a source of inspiration for so many people. In this sense Jesus was truly an “atheist” regarding the God that was dominant in the religious culture of that time, just as all of us are atheists regarding almost all of the gods in whom human beings have believed in other times and places.
Jesus was innovative and provocative in the way he contrasted his idea of God with that of his fellow Jews. He called God “papa”, and on several occasions he compared God to a woman. He told people of a God who never makes anyone sick and never discriminates against anyone; a God who is neither vindictive nor nationalist; a God who takes the side of the outcasts: women, children, widows, the infirm, the poor, the landless, the husband-less, the disreputable. He rejected the religion of sacrifices offered to gain God’s favor, and he gave priority to the “religion” of human relations. And, in the name of God and with a passion that inspired many of his compatriots, he confronted the priests (sacred men), the Sabbath (sacred day) and the Temple (sacred place). He called into question and swept away any and all hierarchy based on those dichotomies so characteristic of traditional religions: sacred-profane, pure-impure, saint-sinner. These revolutionary revelations of Jesus transformed the idea of God and located God in a completely different “place”. And it was because of these ideas that Jesus was persecuted and eventually murdered.
Jesus is the historical reference for all those who believe in another image of God and in another “place” where the “divine” can be found. From Jesus onwards, divinity will never again be found in the political theocracy of Judaism; it will be found only in the transcendence that lies within human relations based on mutual caring, equity, inclusion, compassion, solidarity, etc. The God of Jesus will never be found in dogmas, in laws or in the political institutions of Christianity.