Written by Reuben M. Bredenhof |
Saturday, January 28, 2023
As children of God, the Lord has entrusted to us a great treasure—something to rejoice over and find delight in. When we demonstrate this joy to others, we can leave the results of each encounter to the Lord. God alone is the one who ignites true love and right passion. He just calls us to be the faithful and joyful witnesses of his glory.
This is one of the challenges in carrying out our prophetic calling in this world: we don’t always have an audience that’s interested in what we have to say. Our conversation partners might be apathetic. Why should they care about Christian truth? Some are openly hostile, of course, and some are interested to hear more.
But if I may generalize, I would say that our time and Western culture are marked by religious apathy.
At the core of religious apathy is a disinterest in questions related to God’s existence. These are questions like: Does God exist? If so, how does He reveal himself, and what is God like? And if He doesn’t exist, what does that mean for us? For many people who are living in Western countries like ours, these God-questions mean very little.
So where does this apathy come from? For this article, I am greatly indebted to the book called Apatheism, by Kyle Beshears (B&H Academic, 2021). He puts into words an undercurrent of thinking that makes it hard to be a faithful witness for Christ.
Beshears says that traditionally, there were a few different perspectives on the question of God’s existence.
1) atheism: the belief that God (or gods) do not exist
2) agnosticism: the belief that there is not enough evidence to prove or disprove the existence of God – ‘we just don’t know’
3) theism: the belief that there is a God (or gods) with whom we may relate
As the fourth perspective, Beshears says there’s another common perspective on God’s existence, and it’s probably the dominant attitude today. It has been called apatheism. It is the view is that whether or not God (or gods) exist is not that important.
An ‘apatheist’ doesn’t take a position on the question of God—he or she doesn’t care.
We’ve probably all had the experience of trying to engage with someone who doesn’t care, having a conversation about a topic in which they have no interest—it’s very hard. Ironically, it’s far easier to talk to someone who strongly disagrees with you about a topic: they still care about the matter under discussion.
For instance, think about interacting with a devout Muslim at university. Strangely enough, you actually have something to talk about with them! They’re invested in continuing the conversation, because they acknowledge that there is a divine Being.
Many years ago, I had a co-worker who loved to talk religion. He was a post-secondary student, well-read, and polite—and he did not believe in God. In terms of beliefs, he was on a very different foundation than me. And yet we had great conversations. We could talk easily and naturally, for he had clearly thought through some of his ideas; he had read and listened and considered.
That is probably typical of an atheist. They don’t believe in God for a reason: because of the problem of evil, or because religious people have done so much harm in this world, or because of some other critical point against faith. The point is, they have thought about it. So you can try to respond to them, to sort through objections, maybe use some apologetics to defend the truth and turn a conversation toward Christ.
By contrast, you might struggle to speak with someone who is apathetic. They just don’t feel anything about ‘God questions.’ This has been my experience several times while flying here and there. I sit down beside someone in the airplane, say ‘hi’ and tentatively start a conversation. Talk soon turns to what I do for a living: ‘Oh, I’m a pastor.’ And that’s a natural entrance to a discussion about God. I can ask: ‘Are you a Christian? Do you ever go to church?’ But I’m soon up against a brick wall.
Maybe a plane ride isn’t the best setting for this: When they hear that I’m a pastor, I think people get scared that they’re sitting beside a religious nut, someone who’s going to try to convert them for the next ten hours. So they shut down the conversation and get very interested in whatever movies are playing. Are they intimidated? More likely, I think they’re simply apathetic about God questions.