A Response to Alain de Botton’s “Religion for Atheists”
This past weekend I happened across an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal which contained excerpts from Alain de Botton’s newest book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believers Guide to the Uses of Religion. The title of the op-ed was changed to read “Religion for Everyone”, probably because the editors felt it would attract a broader audience. While I have not read the book (it publishes in the US in March), the extra-long op-ed piece — presumably inclusive of the “choicest” portions of the book — grants enough of a basis for this response.
De Botton’s goal is quite simple: “to reclaim our sense of community…without having to build upon a religious foundation”. To this end, he chooses idealized religious customs and considers how to clone them for society-at-large. This has been done before, of course (see: Socialism).
The climax of de Botton’s piece is to conceptualize a modern mimicry of the Christian love feast (which I described in an earlier post), and which de Botton venerably regards as a historical oddity:
“What we now know as the Eucharist began as an occasion when early Christians put aside their work and domestic obligations and gathered around a table (usually laden with wine, lamb and loaves of unleavened bread) in order to commemorate the Last Supper. They talked, prayed and renewed their commitments to Christ and to one another…In honor of the most important Christian virtue, these gatherings became known as agape (love, in Greek) feasts and were regularly held by Christian communities in the period between Jesus’s death and the Council of Laodicea in A.D. 364. Complaints about the excessive exuberance of some of these meals eventually led the early Church to the regrettable decision to ban agape feasts.”
De Botton then pitches “an ideal restaurant of the future, an Agape Restaurant“(!), with the following characteristics:
- “Such a restaurant would have an open door, a modest entrance fee and an attractively designed interior. In its seating arrangement, the groups and ethnicities into which we commonly segregate ourselves would be broken up; family members and couples would be spaced apart. Everyone would be safe to approach and address, without fear of rebuff or reproach. By simple virtue of being in the space, guests would be signaling—as in a church—their allegiance to a spirit of community and friendship.”
- “The Book of Agape would direct diners to speak to one another for prescribed lengths of time on predefined topics…to coax guests away from customary expressions of pride (“What do you do?” “Where do your children go to school?”) and toward a more sincere revelation of themselves (“What do you regret?” “Whom can you not forgive?” “What do you fear?”).”
- “Thanks to the Agape Restaurant, our fear of strangers would recede. The poor would eat with the rich, the black with the white, the orthodox with the secular, workers with managers, scientists with artists. The claustrophobic pressure to derive all of our satisfactions from our existing relationships would ease, as would our desire to climb ever higher in social status.”
I can see how this notion of an “Agape Restaurant” would be very appealing to one uninitiated with this decidedly Christian phenomenon. De Botton’s restaurant has all the supposed trappings of the love feast: warmth, diversity and openness. But it is missing the most basic and fundamental motive for the gathering, and, even the main course of the meal itself: agape. That is, love. The love feast is a feast of love.
Thus, as a Christian believer whose local church life involves at least one vibrant love feast each week (and sometimes more), the notion of a love feast without love, or an “Agape Restaurant” without agape is laughable and makes me think of this:
But in all seriousness, I am.
To have the vestiges of the love feast, and yet to be devoid of agape itself, the love of God, or, perhaps more precisely, the God who is love (1 John 4:8), is to have the most refined futility and the most absurd isolation.
Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is, than a fattened ox and hatred with it. (Proverbs 15:17)
De Botton’s proffer is actually an honest plea for community, and I give him credit for candidly recognizing that great need of man. But in his romantic naivete he forgets that community is but the second of man’s deepest longings and incomplete without the first: the longing for reality. Reality (aletheia in Greek) is the opposite of vanity and conveys the sense of verity, veracity, genuineness and sincerity. It is one of the profound words in the New Testament and ultimately reality is found only in God and through His dispensing of Himself to us.
Without reality, all community is predictably vain and empty. There is actually no shortage of community in the world: sports teams, reading clubs, fraternal organizations, alumni classes, virtual communities, work societies, ethnic groups. The list is endless. But there is only one place where the two common desires of humanity — reality and community — truly converge: the church.
And this is where de Botton’s atheism fails him. The church is a profound mystery (Eph. 3:4) and the spiritual union of the visible church with the invisible Christ is, in the apostle’s words, a “great mystery” (Eph. 5:32). This great mystery can never be properly understood by one who stands at the threshold of faith.
And He said to them, To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God, but to those outside, all things are in parables. (Mark 4:11)
But this great mystery of Christ and His love for the church is known to every genuine believer.
This love is not abstract but is the very atmosphere of the church. The church exists in this realm of agape. This love takes fallen, pitiful humans as the object of the Father’s great affection (Eph. 2:4). This love caused God to send His Son, Jesus, to redeem us and give us eternal life (John 3:16). This love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5). And now, this love spontaneously impels us to love God and one another (1 John 4:21).
And thus we have the true origins and practice of the love feast from the earliest days of the church through the present. Clearly, agape is no ordinary love. The apostle John writes, “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19, emphasis added). Christians love because. This love has a unique source — God Himself. Thus, this love cannot be duplicated or manufactured. Any attempt to do so is actually an admission of one’s need and desire for God Himself, as agape and aletheia.
Dear Alain, I would be happy to acquaint you with Christian friends of mine throughout the world — wherever you may be living or traveling — if you are desirous of tasting a genuine love feast. Certainly if you are ever in Los Angeles, a standing invitation to a love feast awaits your acceptance.