It can be very exhausting to feel like the entire weight of the world is on your shoulders, to feel that it is somehow your job to fix enormous problems on your own. True, we don’t phrase it that way, but it is easy to feel like we can’t let up our efforts, and have to work past the level of our capacity because there is so much to be done.
Although seductive – because it makes us think of ourselves as committed, dedicated people – such behavior really is a form of “functional atheism.”
In his book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation, Parker Palmer describes functional atheism as
the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us. This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen – a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God.
Parker talks about this in the context of talking about leadership and community, suggesting that if we are made for community (a basic truth in Catholic thought), then each member of the community must be both a leader and a follower. More importantly, regarding our sense that the fate of the whole world rests on us, he reminds us that “[c]ommunity cuts both ways: when we reach the limits of our own capacity to love, community means trusting that someone else will be available to the person in need.”
It is an important lesson. As Palmer writes
The gift we receive on the inner journey is the knowledge that ours is not the only act in town. Not only are there other acts out there, but some of them are even better than ours, at least occasionally! We learn that we need not carry the whole load but can share it with others liberating and empowering them. We learn that sometimes we are free to lay the load down altogether. The great community asks us to do only what we are able and to trust the rest to other hands.
It is good to examine our own behavior and ask whether a bit of functional atheism is lurking beneath the surface. I’m not decrying hard work, but a lack of trust – in God and in other members of our communities.