In his delightful comic romp Slouching Towards Kalamazoo , novelist Peter de Vries describes an amusing debate on the existence of God between an atheist dentist and a Methodist minister. The minister had previously published a pious essay for the local secular paper¯an op-ed piece that was easy on the intellect, to be sure, but for that reason one that would hardly seem to arouse controversy. But its lazy pieties got under the skin of the dentist, who sent in a bristly letter to the editor in which he lobbed several freethinking cannonballs at Kalamazoo believers.

As might be expected, a veritable enfilade of ensuing responses poured in from outraged readers. Of course, if this had happened on our contemporary and always-humming Internet, the debate would have gone on into cyber-eternity. Instead, the weary editor announced that he was cutting off the debate in the editorial pages: Letters on this topic were now closed. But as a consolation prize (for he suspected his readers were quite enjoying their outrage), he announced that the dentist and minister had agreed to a live debate three weeks hence in a local auditorium. During that lead-time, the two debaters boned up on the favorite works of the other: The minister dutifully studied the works of Bertrand Russell, while the dentist worked through the apologetics of C.S. Lewis. The kick, though, was that by the end of the three weeks, each man had, strange to relate, changed his mind based on the one-sided works he had been reading, so that on the day of the debate the minister came to the podium to argue the case for atheism, while the dentist confessed himself a believer who had finally seen the light.

The humor of course works because everyone recognizes that such switcheroos almost never happen, least of all in the span of three weeks, and simultaneously. I mean, how many people do you know who have changed their minds about the existence of God based on some opponent’s argument? Precisely because each side thinks its views are rationally grounded, while the other position is mere irrational dogmatism, reasoned argument almost never affects the outcome of the debate. (Notice that the Bible gives no “arguments” for God but simply proclaims his “mighty deeds” for his chosen people to accept. Notice, too, that the Psalmist never thinks it is up to the individual to defend God; rather, he cries to God to defend the individual.)

For all those reasons and more, I tend to avoid getting into debates with professional atheists¯not because I’m afraid I will fall into the trap of the Methodist minister and lose my faith from reading too much Russell or Hume. Nor would I ever expect that my debating skills, such as they are, might change the mind of any putative atheist interlocutor. In admitting this, I am not¯I hasten to add¯calling for lassitude or intellectual laziness on the part of believers, for a society built on atheistic principles would certainly have enormous consequences for how society lives out its values (at least Nietzsche got that right). But one thing would not change in an atheistic society, because it never has changed: human nature. (Just look what happened to Stalin’s New Soviet Man.)

I got to thinking about all this when I first read Pope Benedict XVI’s latest encyclical Spe Salvi . In the section dealing with atheism, I found a couple of points striking. First, rather than taking atheism head-on as an ideology in the manner of de Vries’ minister and dentist, he shows a genuine respect for the intellectual plausibility of at least some schools of atheism, especially the one that goes under the name of the Frankfurt School (a neo-Marxist band of social philosophers and reformers whose most famous representatives were Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno). Second, after taking the Frankfurters’ thought on their own terms, he then lets them follow their own nose , so to speak, by showing that, even on their own admission, their thought leads them to the threshold of Christian conclusions. Here’s how this method of avoiding direct attack works in practice:

The great thinkers of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, were equally critical of atheism and theism. Horkheimer radically excluded the possibility of ever finding a this-worldly substitute for God, while at the same time he rejected the image of a good and just God. In an extreme radicalization of the Old Testament prohibition of images, he speaks of a “longing for the totally other” that remains inaccessible¯a cry of yearning directed at world history. Adorno also firmly upheld this total rejection of images, which naturally meant the exclusion of any “image” of a loving God. On the other hand, he also constantly emphasized this “negative” dialectic and asserted that justice ¯true justice¯would require a world “where not only present suffering would be wiped out, but also that which is irrevocably past would be undone.” This would mean, however¯to express it with positive and hence, for him, inadequate symbols¯that there can be no justice without a resurrection of the dead. Yet this would have to involve “the resurrection of the flesh, something that is totally foreign to idealism and the realm of Absolute spirit.”

In other words, for Horkheimer and Adorno a true atheist would abjure any god, not just the God of the Bible. An atheism true to itself ought to disavow as well all the other shopworn substitutes on offer: dialectical materialism, liberalism, progressivism, the pursuit of happiness, whatever. Moreover, when that abjuration is consistently maintained, the pope avers, it will lead the honest prober to the threshold of Christian faith, even if the consistent atheist has already forbidden himself passage to the transcendent realm. But at least he’s arrived at the portico to the cathedral, however much he dreads stepping inside.

These reflections are my initial foray into an experiment I want to try out here: Can Benedict’s strategy be applied elsewhere? Are there other atheists out there who are also taking up Christian doctrines in a way that might indeed be keeping them from crossing the “threshold of hope” but whose treatment of Christian themes is still instructive for believers, in just the way Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s atheism is for the pope? In what follows, I want to try that same Benedictine approach, but this time not with the issue of atheism per se but with what one atheist in particular makes of the Christian doctrine of the atonement, the doctrine that teaches that the sufferings of Christ were necessary (however such necessity is defined) if the world is to be reconciled to God.

It is widely recognized that, outside a whole set of other presuppositions in which alone this doctrine makes sense, the New Testament view of Christ’s necessary sufferings strikes the nonbeliever as, at a minimum, baffling. (The task of evangelizing secular culture is not made any easier, it goes without saying, when liberal Christians join in the chorus and accuse St. Paul, among others, of holding up to us, in his theology of the atonement, an image of God as a patriarchal child abuser.) But, I wish to ask in the spirit of Spe Salvi , what does the world look like without a doctrine of atonement? Suppose God does not exist. How then are genuine crimes to be atoned? What makes reconciliation possible if ultimate justice is unattainable? How, in other words, do atheists deal with guilt¯their own and that of others?

Consider Ian McEwan’s famous (and bestselling) novel called, appropriately enough, Atonement . (Warning to the unwary: The rest of this essay will be one long plot-spoiler.) To begin with, McEwan is himself an atheist and never bothers to hide the fact, although his is not the aggressive atheism that seeks to extirpate religion by evangelizing on behalf of its unbelief in peremptory and arrogant tones. In an interview for the New Republic posted January 11, 2008, he even says that religion is ineradicable and it would be “a terrible idea to try to suppress it, too.” So, I ask, can one “do an Adorno” on him? Meaning, can we let McEwan follow through, on his own terms, the theme of atonement and see where it leads?

Reviews of Atonement , whether of the novel or of the recent movie version, generally fall into two extremes: either total admiration or sneering dismissal. I shall not be adding my voice to that cacophonous chorus by either praising or denigrating the work in whatever form, book or film. I just want to see what the need for atonement looks like to an atheist. That is, what happens when someone commits a wrong so egregious that it cries out for atonement, but the wrong has been committed in a culture where there are no means available for the repair of such an evil? As W.H. Auden said when he returned to Christianity at the onset of World War II, crimes that cry out to heaven require a heaven to cry out to.

The story, briefly, is this: On the hottest day of the year in 1935, Briony Tallis, a thirteen-year-old of overactive literary imagination, accuses a servant’s son, Robbie Turner, of raping her elder sister Cecelia. The accusation is an outright lie but gains its traction from a set of coincidences that all work against the couple (think here of Aristotle’s dictum that a convincing impossibility works better as a plot device than an unconvincing possibility).

As might be expected, this lie destroys the family, and the rest of the novel shows Briony attempting to “atone” for it. Robbie has been sent to prison, Cecelia has cut off all ties with her family, and Briony has been left to stew in her lie for five long years. When war is declared, Robbie gains release from prison by signing up for combat duty, where we meet him in the debacle known to history as the evacuation of Dunkirk. In the meantime, Cecelia has become a nurse at a London hospital; and Briony, now eighteen, has followed her sister’s career, too, where she is now a student nurse. Then, after the evacuation from Dunkirk, Briony tracks down the flat where Cecelia is staying and where, to her immense surprise, she encounters Robbie, who, it turns out, has managed to get safely back to England in the evacuation.

At this point, the novel moves suddenly to the present, where Briony’s extended family is celebrating her eightieth birthday. And now the kicker: It turns out that everything we have read up to now has been Briony’s , not McEwan’s, novel¯ she is the narrator and not an omniscient third-person narrator of McEwan’s invention. Then comes an even greater shock: She now informs her readers that Robbie did not actually survive Dunkirk but died on the eve of the evacuation, and Cecelia was killed a few months later in an air raid. The other ending, where the lovers are finally reconciled and Briony will soon be telling her family the truth, turns out to be her novelistic way of atoning for her sin¯by making it all turn out well in her head!

And just what is in that head? Here is what we learn of her in the concluding passage of Atonement :

When I am dead . . . and the novel is finally published, we will only exist as my inventions . . . . No one will care what events and which individuals were misrepresented to make a novel. I know there’s always a certain kind of reader who will be compelled to ask, But what really happened? The answer is simple: the lovers survive and flourish . . . .

The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination, she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all . . . .

I like to think that it isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end. I gave them happiness, but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me. Not quite, not yet . . . .

But now I must sleep.

How does one even begin to interpret this extraordinary passage with its astonishing combination of arrogance and self-deception? Here’s one possible mitigating reading, plausibly argued by Anthony Lane reviewing the movie version:

Such is the atonement of the title . . . . It is time, she says, for “the absolute truth,” yet even now there is a haze of evasion; in revealing the destinies of Robbie and Cecilia, she takes the opportunity to improve them¯to touch them up with joy as she writes them down. This is a commonplace of mature narrative, and none the worse for it: the white-haired heroes of late Shakespeare, like Leontes and Pericles, enact it obsessively, as if to heal the child-harming wounds that both they and their tragic predecessors, from Shylock to Lear, have allowed to fester. Nothing is more insistent, in the artist’s mind, than the will to transfigure the hell-bent into the heaven-sent . . . . Just one problem: her last, beneficent lie made me look back over the expanse of the film and realize, to my dismay, that I hardly believed a word of it.

Plausible as these views are, I would only add that we’re not supposed to believe any of it. There is a long tradition in Western letters that attacks fiction for being, well, a fiction¯or, more bluntly, a lie: Plato, Augustine, Rousseau, Wilde, and Brecht all insist, in their different ways and for different reasons, that artists are the great deceivers of mankind.

Does McEwan agree? I presume so, since he created a narrator who must rank as one of the greatest liars in all of literature (Holden Caulfield, you’ve just been beaten at your own game). But to me, McEwan’s motivation is not the point. I know nothing of the man except what I’ve read from his interviews, and I know nothing of his skills as a novelist except from the only novel of his I’ve read, Atonement . But then, I’ve always been suspicious of what the New Critics called the “intentional fallacy,” an error of interpretation that says a work of art must be solely determined by what its creator meant it to be. In other words, the novel stands on its own, a novel whose “author” (an invention of McEwan’s to be sure) is a congenital liar .

She lied when she accused Robbie of raping Lola; she lied in thinking her work in the hospital for the war-wounded could atone for the damage she did to her sister and to Robbie; she lied when she wove a happy ending for her now-dead lovers; and, above all, she lied when she said: “I like to think that it isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end. I gave them happiness, but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me. Not quite, not yet.” Ah, that fateful concession not yet . How long will it be before she contacts her publisher and changes the ending again and lets her characters grant her retrospective and retroactive absolution? Sure, Briony, as St. Paul did not quite get around to saying: See how all things in the end work together for the good of those who love God write fiction!

What struck me in reading this intricate work of metafiction was the implicit motor of the plot: Briony knew the devastation she wreaked and knew equally she had to atone for it. Lies that consequential demand atonement, as the title of the novel already tells us. But Briony lives in an a-religious world (religion never comes up in the novel, even as a topic of conversation), and so her only way to expiate her lie is by living a life of yet more lying. “Horkheimer radically excluded the possibility of ever finding a this-worldly substitute for God, while at the same time he rejected the image of a good and just God,” says Pope Benedict.

I suspect McEwan has taken the same position as Horkheimer, rejecting God while eschewing easy substitutes for Him, precisely by writing a novel about a character who herself tried to find a this-worldly substitute for God (fiction) as a way of atoning for her sins. But such a project, such a hope, is itself a lie. Indeed, it is, according to the Bible, the greatest lie of all: substituting a no-god for the real God.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J. teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois.

References :

Spe Salvi
Slouching Towards Kalamazoo by Peter De Vries
Atonement (the novel) by Ian McEwan
Atonement (the movie)
Anthony Lane film review in the New Yorker
Ian McEwan on religion in the New Republic

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