One of the best theology books I’ve read in recent years is Tomas Halik’s excellent Patience With God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing In Us. Halik grew up in communist-controlled Czechoslovakia and despite being ordained as a priest he had to conduct his duties in secret to avoid detection by the state. He found himself spending far more time with atheists rather than believers, and now finds that he often identifies more closely with outsiders than with traditional Christians. He says that he too is “often oppressed by God’s silence and God’s remoteness” and that this experience is common ground that Christians and Atheists share alike.
The book resonates with me because although the circumstances of my life are very different to those of Halik’s, I spend far more of my time in an environment that is atheistic and comparably little time with fellow Christians, with even less time spent engaged in activity (prayer, worship etc) that could be called specifically Christian. Many of the experiences that have formed who I am are ones that have been shared with atheists rather than my fellow believers. It is hard to imagine how those I share so much of my time with could ever come to be part of Christ’s Church. That is not to say it cannot or will not happen, but I confess that it is hard for me to imagine people I know ever being more than interested outsiders, which is why I am encouraged by Halik’s book.
Halik uses the story of Zacchaeus to illustrate the importance of reaching out to those who are not zealous followers of Jesus, or even what we might now call “active seekers”, but who are what Halik calls “interested outsiders”. The calling of Zacchaeus helps us imagine how Christ might respond to those who might be distant from any kind of traditional church, and who would not belong to a Christian community in any sense.
After the story of Zacchaeus’ calling we never hear from him again. He begins not in the crowd thronging around Jesus, but remains at a distance, hiding in a tree. As a tax-collector he is an outsider even among his own people, but nonetheless he is the one that Jesus calls by name and who he invites to eat with him, causing great scandal (“He eats with sinners!”). After his encounter with Jesus he does not appear to continue to follow him round, and there is no record of him going on to play a role in the life of the early church but
“what we do know however is that he decided to change his life, and salvation came to his house. In our times the Church has been incapable of addressing its Zacchaeuses in a like manner.”
Halik attributes this incapability in part to over-enthusiastic zealots within the church who wish to leave no questions unanswered and who cannot abide mystery and uncertainty (mirrored by dogmatic atheists on the other side) when in fact the story of Zacchaeus encourages the Church to take the shy, hiding, questioning, and distant outsiders more seriously. In the current age this means, says Halik, that part of Christian witness means being “a doubter among doubters” and a “questioner among questioners” in company with contemporary Zacchaeuses who may never become part of the church in a traditional sense, but who are nonetheless still sought out and loved by Christ.
There is after all much in common between Christians and Atheists, Halik argues, but not among those on either side who are unflinching dogmatists and who view their opponents as an Ideology to be eradicated or as a disease to be cured. Rather the shared experience of Christians and Atheists is in the apparent hiddenness and absence of God in the world, particularly in the face of great pain and evil. Some forms of Atheism respond to these experiences of absence and conclude that “God is Dead”, while more dogmatic Christians can dismiss this questioning and mystery with pat answers (“Jesus is the answer!” – but what was the question?!) but Halik argues that while pain and suffering are real and dark experiences for all, this atheist response is one of impatience in the face of God’s perceived absence. On the other hand, lives lived in the knowledge of Christ approach the same darkness and pain
“but I can also find other possible interpretations of the same experience and another possible attitude to “the absent God”. I know of three (mutually and profoundly interconnected) forms of patience for confronting the absence of God. They are called faith, hope, and love. […]
Faith, hope and love are three aspects of our patience with God; they are three ways of coming to terms with the experience of God’s hiddenness. They therefore offer a distinctly different path from either atheism of facile belief. In contrast with those two frequently -proposed shortcuts, however, their path is a long one indeed.”
Rather than grounds for continued unbelief or facile belief, the frequent apparent absence of God in the world is integral to the formation of Christian character and thus part of our witness to Christ. Because our lives are lived in the confidence of the finality of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, we are able to approach suffering and darkness with faith, hope, love, and trust. Above all we can afford to have patience with God in a world that is impatient.
I struggle to do Halik real justice with these few thoughts on his book. He is an excellent writer and writes with great wisdom. Buy it on Amazon here.