Enlightened Atheists

February 24, 2012

The other day I had an unusual and very special guest come speak to my Religious Studies class, author and activist, John Nichols. It was unusual for at least a couple of reasons: one, John is pretty much a recluse and rarely appears in public; and two, it is a course in Christian Scriptures, and John is an atheist.

Sometimes I think I am, too. What I mean, of course, is that the God many of the friends and writers I respect most reject is not the God I believe in or adore, either. My God does not cast judgment, neither punishes nor rewards, but simply calls me to an ever greater, utterly mysterious, direct encounter with love.

In this sense, there are atheists I know who more fully embody God-like qualities than any self-proclaimed believer. John Nichols is one of them. A passionate voice for human rights over the past five decades, John has gradually softened into someone who does not merely rage against the injustices of humanity but lives the teachings of love and compassion we find in the great sacred scriptures of the world’s religions. I have watched John’s ego identity—much as I have witnessed Ram Dass’—melt in the warmth of a life lived for the sake of love, until he simply exudes that radiance. Like any saint, John Nichols has become love. I had suspected this from afar for quite some time, but the other day I bore witness to it up close, and all I could do was to bow inwardly at his feet.

As you may know, I am the entire philosophy and religious studies department at my community college. The last few semesters I have made a point of offering classes that stretch me, and give my students a wider range of choices. In my naivete, I thought a course in Christian Scriptures was a great fit. After all, I have been translating the Christian mystics for years, and have steeped myself in the biblical teachings that inform their visionary wisdom. What I didn’t anticipate was that my class would fill with fundamentalists who are much more interested in testifying to one another and preaching to me than in exploring the socio-political, historical, and archetypal context for these sacred writings–in other words, engaging in critical thinking (with an open heart). In fact, they do not, for the most part, have the slightest idea what I even mean when I talk about inquiry.

So I was really curious to see how my atheist friend, John Nichols, might rock the boat when he came to visit. The reason I invited John (you might be wondering) was because we were discussing Christ’s Sermon on the Mount–which comprises the majority of his teachings on social justice, compassion, and forgiveness—and tying this in to Liberation Theology. I had discovered at my friend Sean Murphy’s birthday party a few days before, while sitting next to John Nichols at dinner, that he had been very involved in the Sanctuary Movement of the early 1980’s (I had too, as an interpreter for Salvadoran refugees). He had spent time in Central America, and had been deeply impressed by the powerful faith of the people, and how their religious beliefs were inextricably entwined with their revolutionary activities. My academic side (angel) thought his stories would be illuminating for my students. My rebel nature (demon) may have been hoping to provoke them into a more liberal state of consciousness….

As it turned out, my radical activist friend did nothing to shake up or any way offend my conservative students. Instead, he told wonderfully engaging stories of his own adventures, and in the end tied it all in to what is most beautiful and liberating about the teachings of their beloved Jesus. They were totally captivated. And so was I. And all the while, John exuded this lovingkindness, humility, and wonderment in the face of the human condition. His visit changed something deep inside all of us. That is enlightenment. That is radical and revolutionary action. I am the one who was broken free of my prejudices and preconceptions. At the feet of an atheist, I have caught a glimpse of God.

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