There are many odd things to be found on the internet, things strange enough to make one’s eyes widen and blink. But perhaps nothing is more odd (and to my mind, more blood-chilling) that the example and words of Mr. David Patterson. Mr. Patterson looks like an unlikely candidate to chill anyone’s blood—he appears on the online site of “4thought.tv” walking over to chair with the help of a cane, and then simply sitting and talking in a calm, friendly, and smiling way for a few minutes, looking for all the world like everyone’s grandfather. He opens his brief talk with the words, “My name is David Patterson. I don’t believe in the existence of God or heaven.” This in itself is not unusual, or blood-chilling. What does chill the blood are his next words: “I’ve been a Church of England vicar for forty years.”
The Vicar shared his central conviction with the words, “I don’t think that being a Christian has anything to do with thinking that God exists.” Of course he preached sermons from the Bible during all the time he served as Vicar, and conducted services using the Church of England’s liturgical prayers. But in his view, “The stories in the Bible were just that—stories, and I was drawing spiritual ideas from them.” For him, the Church’s task was “to bring all the ideals talked about in the words of the Scriptures and in the prayers of the Church all down to earth. It doesn’t depend in the least bit on whether some God exists or not.” If Vicar Patterson has an argument to justify his atheism he does not share it with us. He simply asserts, “There isn’t some guaranteeing being outside the universe. How could there be? The universe is all there is; there isn’t anything outside it.” As arguments go, this is pretty thin.
Believing in the existence of Vicar Patterson, to my mind, involves more problems than believing in the existence of God. So many hard questions crowd to the front demanding answers: Didn’t his conscience or sense of intellectual honesty suffer when he stood up to say the Creed every Sunday, with its opening words, “I believe in one God”? Did he not feel dishonest or foolish leading prayer to an imaginary being? What consolation did he have to offer his parishioners when they were tragically bereaved? And, perhaps the hardest question of all, how did he possibly manage to get ordained in the first place? Did not his ordaining bishop—or anyone in the whole ecclesiastical system--actually know him? As he himself related, “When I became a vicar I wasn’t actually asked whether I believed in the existence of God, and I don’t think that it occurred to me to bring it up.”
There are many lessons to be learned, however, from the example of Vicar David Patterson, though value of atheism is not among them. Namely, his practice and assertions throw into high relief the question of just why we go to church at all. For Vicar Patterson, we go to church so that we can hear “spiritual ideas”, “all the ideals talked about in the words of the Scriptures”. That is, church attendance gives us the opportunity to immerse ourselves in ideas, hopefully with the goal of letting these ideas influence our behaviour. If we read often enough about good people in the Bible, we stand a better chance of being good; if we pray to God with words that give us warm fuzzy feelings, hopefully this will make us better people. There is no evidence that this process of transformation by aesthetic osmosis actually occurs however, and the historical example of the Pharisees might be taken as proof that it is possible to combine religiosity with a cold heart. The main goal of church going is not exposure to ideas, even if they are fine ones.
Rather, the goal of church going is encountering God, and experiencing the inner healing and transformation that this encounter brings. God Himself once said, “No one can see Me and live” (Ex. 33:20), and that is exactly what we want. We want to see God and let our old self die so that our new self can be born. God has always existed, and long ago He sent His eternal Word to become flesh for us, to die on the cross and to rise again, and to ascend to heaven and send the Holy Spirit into our hearts. When we drag ourselves from our beds on a Sunday morning (those of us who are not “morning persons”) and assemble as part of the Church to participate in the Divine Liturgy, we do this precisely to encounter the risen and living God. Christ comes into our midst when we assemble in His Name, as He promised (Mt. 18:20), and as we encounter Him, we are shattered and healed, deconstructed and reconstructed, forgiven, embraced, and given new life. All of this presupposes, of course, that God exists. A non-existent God cannot do the necessary and difficult work of changing our hearts and transforming our lives. By ourselves, we cannot do this either, however many fine ideas and ideals we may be exposed to. We don’t need an aesthetic experience. We need a living God. Praying to an imaginary God cannot help us, anything more than can praying to the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. By ourselves we are incapable of “bringing” those fine ideals “down to earth” and into our own life. We need an incarnate God, the One who Himself came “down to earth”, to forgive and change us here and now, so that He can one day bring us up to heaven.
I appreciate the Vicar’s candour (though I do wonder a bit at his timing in sharing this now that he is safely retired). His candour allows us to dig deeper into our faith to appreciate again why it is that we go to church and what is the value of the Liturgy served there. Liturgy is not simply about good ideas. It is rather about bad people and sinners, and about how those sinners can experience the saving change that comes only from the hand of the living God.