The Lenten challenge: giving up atheism

40 days and 40 nights- MapHobbitBy Nicolete Burbach

This year, in aid of the special needs charity, Mencap, I have given up atheism for Lent. What I have been doing is trying my best to utilise my theological knowledge in order to think about my experiences within a Christian framework, whilst practising the traditional Lenten devotion of fasting, and attending church services. To accompany it, I have kept a reflective diary here.

Some of these reflections have led me to reconceive of the Lenten period itself. For those of you who don’t know, Lent is the 40 day period leading up to Easter, in which Christians have traditionally performed various devotional acts, such as fasting. It commemorates Christ’s going into the desert, where he fasted for forty days and navigated His divinity, revealed at his baptism prior to his retreat.

The whole thing seems quite weird at first glance, not in the least theologically. Christians do not believe that salvation comes through doing actions (“works”) other than accepting God’s grace (whatever it is that God does which ‘saves’ us), and maintaining a disposition of obedience to God. In this light, acts of penance like fasting seem really strange.

A number of realisations which I have come to over the course of my project has led me to reconceive of what the Lenten practices mean: firstly, commitment to faith is an action which takes place in a social context. This social context makes all religious acts communicative, shaping your relationship with others within this context through the declarations that they constitute.

Secondly, I am strongly committed to certain moral principles, which I cannot ethically go back on for the sake of a charity fundraiser. These principles conflict with a good many orthodoxies. I think that this reflects the experiences of a lot of religious people nowadays: we live in a society, the broad values of which do not always cohere with those of our religious traditions. We are hodge-podges of beliefs from a variety of sources, all melding together to create one big, messy framework for life, and must find a way to reconcile the truths which we derive from disparate sources.

A third realisation was that Christianity, is hard. It can be incredibly beautiful, but even some of these beautiful bits are scary or unpleasant. Furthermore, the beautiful bits can come to seem banal and unimportant. My life has not been particularly easy of late and, to be honest, this project has been an unnecessary complication which I have come to resent at many points. There are days when I just do not care. Similarly, I doubt there are many believers who can maintain a state of intense religiosity at all times. Belief is uncertain, and being faithful is arduous and tiresome and sometimes dull. Religious people are still only people, and probably suck at being religious only slightly less than I do.

Rowan Williams talks about such a thing as “meaningful action”. This kind of action embodies a will to affirm a certain set of values, allowing others to participate in that affirmation by participating in those actions. Williams associates this idea with the Christian idea of witness: the creation of meaning within a social discourse through the production of symbols, which can be participated in in this way (Williams, 2005: 1-3).

As we have noted, there is a communicative element to them. More specifically, we might say that they embody the hopes and commitments of Christianity as ‘meaningful actions’. In participating in them, we show a certain relationship of belonging to the Christian community. We can use this to situate the devotions. Firstly, just as it is hard to sustain religiosity, it is hard to sustain penitential acts. These devotions are a microcosm of the difficult religious life, and by struggling to embrace them, Christians communicate a will to struggle to embrace this life.

Secondly, Christianity places a lot of theological weight on the idea of tradition. In order for continuity of tradition to be clearly evident, there needs to be some visible link with the origins of the tradition. However, as traditions evolve this visibility can be lost. The problem is intensified by the cosmopolitan mixing of cultural forms, which can obscure the core of continuity by causing diversification within these forms. Set devotions sustain this visible continuity, even if the minutiae of their meanings shift as the context changes. These forms being linked to the actions of Christ himself, continuity is shown between the present and the origins of the movement. By participating in them, Christians can declare their participation in this cultural history.

I am not a member of this tradition, and so my performing of these practices takes on a different meaning. In attempting to engage with Christianity in this way, I am bearing witness to its resonances with my own, unbelieving life. Lenten devotions (‘giving something up for Lent’) within a wider secular context also functions similarly. The survival of this practice places our society in continuity with a cultural history which colours and shapes it: the secular observance of Lent is a witness to a cultural core that is still very much Christian.

Rowan Williams. 2005. ‘Introducing the Debate: Theology and the Political’, Theology and the Political: the New Debate ‘(eds.)’ Creston Davis, John Milbank, Slavoj Žižek (London: Duke University Press) 1-3

Photograph: MapHobbit via Flickr

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