The Phenomenon of Unbelief and the Christian Response
A Series on the Challenge Before the Church
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, The Departure of the Prodigal Son
The following is the first essay in a series for the coming year regarding the phenomenon of unbelief in the Church. These essays will gradually work toward an identification of the problem of unbelief and its causes before working toward an outline for a Christian response.
A number of years ago, in one of my more ambitious moments of undergraduate study, I decided to write my first philosophical essay. This was going to be my big breakthrough, I thought, when I would make an original contribution to the always thorny topic of human freedom. I wrote slavishly for days, edited the essay again and again, checked and rechecked the texts from which I drew my inspiration, and finally sent it off to a few of my favorite professors for review.
Of course, my original contribution was neither very original nor much of a contribution to the study of human freedom. But it was a good exercise for me, inasmuch as I learned two important lessons from the experience. The first is that when we have the kinds of ideas that nag at us from within and resist all efforts to push them to the side, we ought to do something with them. This is not to say that there is no such thing as a bad idea. There are plenty of bad ideas, and most of us have bad ideas at least some of the time. I know that I do. But this is to say that sometimes it is hard to know whether or not an idea is a good one until we give it a more formal voice on paper or in conversation, and see what comes of it.
The second lesson that I learned is that when we desire to share our ideas with another person we need to tell them why this idea matters, and then if necessary, why the idea matters to us. The professor who overtime became something of a mentor to me, upon reading my essay, offered plenty of encouragement but insisted that people will always be more likely to read or to listen to something if they believe it to be important. And, in the absence of such conviction about the general importance of the idea, people will be more likely to read or listen if they understand why the idea is important to the person who offers it. When people give time to the discussion of ideas they want to know what is at stake, and at a minimum, they want to know the motivation that lies behind the conversation.
These thoughts of motivation and importance have been swirling around in my mind for years as I have tried to make sense of two of the most formative influences on my life: the Christian faith, of course, but also the great number of people in my life who do not believe in Christ. Here is a story that matters to me and here I believe the stakes are high. I am enchanted by Christianity and have long wondered why things worked out so that others so dear to me are disenchanted by the Christian mystery.And I believe that right there in those words is the heart of the problem: a lack of enchantment with Christianity. We could also say ‘an absence of attraction.’ So many who lack faith are not enchanted by the mysteries, the power, the reality of Christianity. The deepest truths of Christianity are not instilled upon the heart in those childhood years when our interior lives are most malleable . . . most open to being formed in Christ through the Church.
These deepest truths were rarely given a voice in my adolescence. These are truths whose general absence during the formative years of a person’s life will often leave the indelible mark of having left no mark at all. These are truths whose absence in a young person’s life result in something like the biography in negative that I know well for myself: the story of a Christianity that my childhood friends and I never knew; of a Christianity which, were you to look at snapshot of our lives as teenagers, might have existed in empty spaces between the shapes and figures of the faith as it was explained to us; and of a Christianity which, were it to have filled in those empty spaces with the plenitude and vibrancy of its supernatural color, might have united those many shapes and figures into the kind of tapestry whose beauty cannot but leave its mark upon the soul.
In other words, my intention for this essay is to give an account of how many of my peers from adolescence have stopped believing in God. Twenty years ago, I never would have imagined that so many of the people important to me — people who once seemed to take so much pride in being a Roman Catholic — would have ceased to live the Christian life in a way that gives the living of the Christian life real meaning. But hindsight is 20/20, as they say. Looking back on our lives now such a development seems almost inevitable. And so, this is the story that I want to share with you. I’d like to give you an account of why I think my peers —and so many others — have lost faith in the Christian mystery.
Although the Christian mystery is a phrase often used in our churches, I am not sure that many have put too much thought into the meaning of these words. I know that I never did when I was younger. And I think it very doubtful that the majority of the self-proclaimed atheists you will meet on the street have much of an understanding of the mystery they reject. As a matter of fact, of the atheists that I know or have known over the years I have yet to meet a single one who after a profound amount of study and with an open mind came to the conclusion that God does not exist. Most atheists aren’t testing a hypothesis. Most atheists are not approaching the notion of God as they might approach a matter for scientific investigation.
I mention this because it touches on the first of three claims I want to make about modern unbelief. Here is the first: no one is born an atheist. In fact, children are hardwired to believe in all manner of invisible realities: a god, an imaginary friend, a former Bishop from Turkey currently living in exile at the North Pole who doles out presents once a year. The process of growing up entails the sorting out of which of these realities will endure as an active feature of a person’s life and which must be let go. Now, for a great many people the idea of the Christian God is not one of the invisible realities ever up for review in the years which constitute late-childhood and early adolescence. These people will — if they find God later in life — these people will not be finding their way back to God. Their story is different and it is a fascinating story that is often told in parish meeting rooms and auditoriums around the world. Theirs is a story that must be told.
But this is not the story that most concerns me. The story that most concerns me tells of the lives of those friends of mine who were born into the faith but who with the passage of time identified God as one of those invisible realities that must be forgotten in the process of maturation. And as a living witness to their turn toward atheism I assure you that this change in their lives did not result from years of study and rational contemplation. Rather, the turn toward unbelief begins when Christianity is understood as a limiting condition on adolescent experience or as a set of ideas ineluctably associated with something else that a young person rejects out of hand.
These are two of the main sources of modern unbelief within our Church. I’ll mention a third soon enough. For now, consider that many young people want to be promiscuous. They want to go to parties and they want to test out alcohol or sometimes drugs. They want to give relationships a go. They want to learn to drive and escape from the grip of their parents as much as they can. And young people want to do all of this with as few arbitrary restrictions as possible. When parents restrict the freedom of their children for good reason the restriction might sometimes be tolerated by a teenager. But when a restriction is grounded in a set of Christian beliefs regarding how a person should live many young people will start to think that this source of authority must be set to the side. This is especially the case when we understand that guilt also functions as a limiting condition for many young people. No adolescent wants to live under a constant cloud of shame for simply doing what everyone else is doing — for doing what their culture often tells them is perfectly normal. That desire to escape from any abiding experience of shame or guilt leads many young people to question first the Church, and then if necessary, to question God. If you are curious about the role that guilt and shame sometimes play in the Catholic life I recommend that you watch just about any Martin Scorsese film. These are sentiments that leave a mark.
A young person will also begin to question God and the Church when they view the faith as associated with some other institution or organization that is rejected. This can begin quite harmlessly. ‘My parents are super religious so I’m not going to be like that,’ many adolescents might say in their nascent days of rebellion. But with time, when religion becomes associated with a particular political party or system of government or as something that takes a hardline on a contentious issue that dominates a news cycle or a cultural agenda, many young people will find themselves once again in a position where God and the Church must be dismissed in order to get other important parts of life right. We all know that the culture wars have done real harm to the faith of our young people. And when this happens, again, it is not because the profound questions being asked by our culture-at-large have prompted some kind of sincere intellectual discernment amongst young Catholics nationwide. It is because they have a friend who is homosexual and the Church seems not to tolerate homosexuality. Or it is because they have a friend who had an abortion and the Church does not seem to offer much forgiveness for those kinds of sins. Or it is because to be Catholic seems to require membership with the Republican or Democratic party and in those heady days of adolescent idealism having the right political philosophy often determines moral goodness, and so God gets tossed out with bad politics.
Each of these sources of modern unbelief — Christianity understood as a limiting condition and Christianity understood as something guilty by association — is a Christianity reduced to a moral code that is then rejected. A young person who comes to see Christianity as something that limits freedom or imposes guilt or ostracizes certain demographics or advocates for a certain political position is a young person who does not know the mystery of the Christian faith. And that reduction of the faith to a moral code is something that we all do from time to time because it is something remarkably easy to do. To live in accordance with the dictates of morality is an important part of our faith. But it no more constitutes the whole of our faith than a list of the rules of chess constitutes the experience of playing the game. Like a chess player we will need to appeal to the rules of the game from time to time in order to explain it. But were a person to abandon chess because they refused to abide the indignity of restrictions on the movement of a pawn, or because they’ve come to see chess as something that old men and Central Park hipsters play while not contributing to society, we might think they’ve failed to obtain an understanding of the beauty of the game. Moreover, we might think that we have failed to teach the game very well.
This first claim about modern unbelief — that no one is born an atheist — leads to a second claim about modern unbelief: modern atheism for the most part is not functionally distinct from apathy. We do not need to dwell much on this point but I do think it is important. When a young person proclaims that they are an atheist they are often no more than filling an intellectual vacuum. The deposit of our faith is something like a web of interconnected claims about the way the world fits together. A young person who rejects a particular claim which resides within the deposit of faith raises doubts about any number of other claims that are just as important. At this point a tension sometimes develops because most people desire a unifying worldview. Everyone wants an organizing principle to push back against the chaos feared to exist in the periphery of our lives. And so a young person who has rejected God for a very specific reason will with time feel the need to find a new organizing principle. This kind of behavior — again — is not the result of study. It is the result of not caring very much about what principle will organize and give orientation to their lives.
Young people care very deeply for particulars: particular people, particular issues, particular claims about what is true and what is false, particular convictions about what is good behavior and what is bad behavior. Whatever universal, organizing, life-orienting principles a young person comes to believe in must conform to these particular claims. And what a young person will often do rather than engage in the kind of careful study and hard work required to craft a cogent and cohesive picture of the world is begin to use the word ‘atheist’ to describe a fractured world view. We might call this phenomenon ‘second-order apathy.’ Many young people who use the word ‘atheist’ to describe their worldview do not care about caring about how they see the world. Instead, many young people care about doing the kinds of things they want to do and believing the kinds of things they want to believe and having the kinds of people in their lives that they want to have in their lives. And when these particular concerns do not seem to fit together with concepts like God and the Church — especially a God and a Church they do not to understand very well — many young people begin to use the word ‘atheist’ to describe what is really a more profound absence of caring about what to care about in life. Their organizing principle becomes nothing more than the dictates of their own will. But terms like ‘solipsism’ and ‘narcissism’ are pejorative. Better a word like ‘atheism’ to describe a worldview that consists of little more than personal sentiment supported by those elements of idealism picked up from political diatribes, pop culture, misunderstood conceptions of empathy, or cursory readings in the liberal arts.
I want to avoid tricky concepts and difficult vocabulary as much as I can. But I use the phrase ‘second-order apathy’ to describe the phenomenon of not caring about what to care about in life because I think it conceptually distinct from everyday, run of the mill, ordinary, same-old same-old, not caring about religion. There are all sorts of people who care very deeply about putting together a cohesive worldview for themselves but who do not care at all about religious truth. These are people who tend toward a more genuine form of atheism because they claim that there is no such thing as religious truth to begin with. In our 21st century, so-called ‘New Atheists’ have dominated the bestseller list from time to time. Authors like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Steven Pinker have collectively sold thousands of books making the argument that to care about religious truth is the kind of silly and superstitious behavior that occupies the time of the uneducated. To the extent that a robust and conceptually rigorous atheism exists in our society, it is found in the work of authors like these men.
But the work of these authors reveals a final feature of modern unbelief: modern atheism — even in its most robust forms — is boring. I owe a debt to the theologian David Bentley Hart for this insight. Hart, in a number of essays, has lamented the state of modern atheism. In one such essay, Hart explains that he finds that what is . . .
chiefly offensive about [modern unbelievers] is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel.
Hart’s point is that modern atheism picks its spots. Modern atheists look at the Christian tradition in the West and elect to keep what they like and to dismiss what they dislike. Christian concepts like love of neighbor and peace as the proper goal of political society must be retained; Christian ideas regarding human sexuality or the immortality of the soul must be rejected. The modern atheist worldview is not nearly as comprehensive as many think and the result is a very boring way of seeing things. There is nothing especially interesting about keeping what you like of the Western tradition and discarding the rest. It’s a rudimentary, derivative, and juvenile way of engaging a culture, all dressed up in complex language and clever book titles.
Skeptics and unbelievers in ages past were much more provocative and original. David Hume, writing in the 18th century, did not think it possible to know that a cause and its effect were connected to one another in any way that matters. He didn’t think our minds were built for the task. He didn’t think that there is any kind of guarantee that two balls that strike each other on a pool table will move a certain way, and Hume thought there is no guarantee that the sun will rise tomorrow simply because it has risen every other day of our lives. Those are just two of his more famous examples. According to Hume, doubt runs through the whole of existence. We can’t really know anything, and we only think we know things because we become accustomed to perceiving things happen in a certain way with regularity. As you can imagine, such a worldview does not leave much room for God and Christian belief. But what Hume does offer is a profound, comprehensive, and cohesive challenge to the Christian vision of reality.
Friedrich Nietzsche offered another such vision a century later. Nietzsche famously spoke of the ‘death of God,’ but when he used the phrase Nietzsche knew that to talk of the death of God in Western culture is to talk of a massive upheaval in values. As Hart explains:
Nietzsche understood how immense the consequences of the rise of Christianity had been, and how immense the consequences of its decline would be as well, and [Nietzsche] had the intelligence to know he could not fall back on polite moral certitudes to which he no longer had any right.
Nietzsche knew that the destruction of Christianity in the West entails the destruction of values fundamental to our cultural understanding: love, charity, equality, and aspects of justice all lose their meaning with the death of God. This is why Nietzsche is labeled a nihilist. Without the Christian God giving a foundation to Western culture there is nothing within our Western tradition in which to believe. Our highest moral values in the West are inextricably intertwined with Christianity and so the rejection of the Christian God is the rejection of Western morality. Nietzsche — unlike the New Atheists — did not pick his spots. He instead offers a cohesive vision of what a post-Christian society must look like.
I think that Hart is right to lament the state of contemporary atheism. Moreover, I think that the state of contemporary atheism tells us something important about the state of contemporary Christianity. The fact that contemporary atheism no longer paints a vivid picture of what a society without God as its foundation must look like results from the fact that in important ways Christians no longer paint a vivid picture of what a society with God as its foundation must look like. This is an idea that Hart implies and that is worth developing further: skeptics and non-believers respond to claims that Christians make about how human beings ought to understand the world. Atheism pushes back against a Christian vision of the deep structure of reality. Atheism depends on Christianity for its source material and develops the grandeur of its vision in direct response to the quality of the Christianity present in a culture. We regularly see examples of such relations of opposition in ordinary life. The inspiration of an antagonist depends upon the quality of a protagonist. A good detective sharpens the talents of the best thieves. Good students respond all the more strongly to the provocations of the best professors. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson only made each other better on the court.
We can put the matter this way: if modern atheism is boring it is because modern Christianity fails to inspire the kind of criticism that it once did. Earlier, I mentioned two sources of unbelief in the modern world: Christianity understood as a limiting condition on human experience and Christianity understood as being intertwined with some other reality that a person finds troublesome or problematic. Here is a third: modern Christianity often fails to hold people’s interest. This is not to say that there is a problem with the faith itself — far from it. Moreover, this is not to say that the quality of the Christianity that defines a particular time or place depends on the extent to which Christianity entertains its believers — nothing could be further from the truth. What is problematic is neither the content nor the popular appeal of Christianity. The trouble, rather, is this: when Christianity is misunderstood or reduced to something less than the fullness of its glory it fails to hold people’s attention for very long. Christianity fails to captivate the mind or the eye. Christianity loses the ability to motivate great actions, overwhelm the senses, or spark the development of profound ideas — a Christianity that is reduced or misunderstood is boring.
Boredom is a serious problem for human beings. Loving and caring depend in a fundamental way upon the ability of a person, an ideal, a value, an activity, or some other feature of reality to hold our attention. When someone or something that we love or that we care about fails to hold our attention, we risk a great deal of upheaval in regard to what is most important in our lives. Boredom is that constant threat that lurks just outside of our field of control. The philosopher Harry Frankfurt describes boredom this way:
The essence of boredom is that we have no interest in what is going on. We do not care about any of it; none of it is important to us. As a natural consequence of this, our motivation to stay focused weakens; and we undergo a corresponding attenuation of psychic vitality. In its most characteristic and familiar manifestations, being bored involves a radical reduction in the sharpness and steadiness of attention. The level of our mental energy and activity diminishes. Our responsiveness to ordinary stimuli flattens out and shrinks. Within the scope of our awareness, differences are not noticed and distinctions are not made. Thus our conscious field becomes more and more homogenous. As the boredom expands and becomes increasingly dominant, it entails a progressive diminution of significant differentiation within consciousness.
At the limit, when the field of consciousness has become totally undifferentiated, there is an end to all psychic movement or change. The complete homogenization of consciousness is tantamount to a cessation of conscious experience entirely. In other words, when we are bored we tend to fall asleep.
The trouble is that the Christianity many young people are presented with is boring and the result is a gradual loss of spiritual consciousness.
There are times when I think that I am overstating the case. Often, when we hear that people no longer believe in God, we receive dramatic reasons for why this is so. We are told that there is evil in the world and God does nothing about it. Or that the Church does not accept people for who they are or for who they want to be. Or that a person has suffered great tragedy in life and God was never there to console them. These are all serious matters. Many people do come to a state of unbelief along these lines. But I cannot help but think these kinds of claims are outliers. Most people don’t come to unbelief in these ways even when such language is used later in life to describe a personal history with belief.
Here is why I consider boredom such a threat to spiritual life. When we love or care about someone or something, we are usually willing to endure quite a bit of hardship to preserve the relationship. When something or someone is important to us, we have all of the reasons needed to persevere. There are millions of people in the world who experience evil and yet still maintain a relationship with God. There are thousands in our culture who put sincere effort into sorting out how God fits into their understanding of who they are and of what they want to do with their life. And there are many people who have experienced tragedy and never gave up on God. When something is important to us, we give it more than half a chance in times of hardship. When we love or care for someone, we tend to give them the final word.
The trouble with boredom is that boredom makes it very difficult for something or someone to become important to us. When something does not hold our attention we tend to move on as quickly as possible. We don’t give things or persons that bore us very much time. Without time and attention it is impossible for us to commit to something or someone in meaningful ways. Now, we might be able to feign importance for quite some time because many parts of life are interconnected. I tried to pass my math classes in high school not because math was important to me but because passing math was required to graduate high school. Graduating high school was important to me. Moreover, graduating high school was important to my parents, who were very important to me. But I assure you that math did not captivate me. Math did not hold my interest. To this day, math is not important to me. I do not care for math and I do not love math. Mathematics and I went our separate ways that first weekend of June in the summer of 2002.
I mentioned not long ago that I wanted to give an account of why friends of mine from adolescence no longer live Christianity in meaningful ways. Here is what I think happened: Christianity bored my friends. It did not hold their interest and Christianity never received much of their attention. The failure of Christianity to hold their attention meant that the faith never became important to them. My peers did not care about their faith beyond what was required to satisfy the requirements of family, academic, and parochial life. When Christianity then began to place limits on freedom, to trigger feelings of shame or guilt, or to become associated with other troublesome or undesirable elements of society, they never gave the faith half a chance to respond. Christianity was not important enough for them to engage in that kind of work. Over the course of time, what began as a casual apathy about what to care about or how to understand the world developed into a more formal claim to an atheism that in a profound twist of irony is as boring as the Christianity from which they fled.
That is the general picture I want to paint regarding the origins modern unbelief for many young people. It is — like all grand unifying theories — something of a reduction. I have simplified much for the sake of brevity, set aside complications for the sake of telling a good story, and left much unexplained because these are issues that demand more time and attention that I am yet able to give them. But it is a picture that is important to me because it tells a story about people who are important to me. And as I hope you have realized by now it is an important story for many people because it is a story that many people know well. We have seen in these last decades many young people leave the Church and it leaves us wondering what is the cause of such a religious exodus and what might have been done to prevent it. Sometimes, when I am with a group of people and the topic of lapsed Catholics arises I cannot help but think that we are something like the executives of Major League Baseball, wondering why everyone is at the football game and searching for new ways to compete with the NFL.
I make the analogy between the landscape of American Catholicism and the landscape of American sports intentionally. Baseball dominated the attention of most Americans for most of the 20th century. When the NFL began to challenge baseball for viewers and fans baseball responded in many different ways. The MLB built newer stadiums. The MLB launched ad campaigns to emphasize the place of baseball in American tradition and to draw attention to the good work that baseball does in American communities. People were brought closer to the field. Bobbleheads and t-shirts were given away. Discount ticket nights became more common. Conversations about making substantial changes to the rules of the game in order to generate more offense became a regular feature of sports talk radio. Advocates for bunting and better defense pushed back against all talk of relaxing rules to make the game more entertaining. And after all of this, baseball still lags far behind the NFL in ratings and national appeal.
American Catholicism has followed baseball down this road in many ways. We have built newer and more modern churches. We have diversified our music. We have appealed to our traditions. We have launched campaigns to emphasize the good work we do in American communities. We have increased the number of ways that people might participate in the Mass. We have hosted more bull roasts and run more silent auctions. We have reached a point where some people talk constantly of changing the faith in order to broaden its appeal and other people talk constantly of returning the faith to an older form of expression. And so we have often failed— just like baseball — to understand that there is a distinction between music capturing a person’s attention and the reality behind the music capturing a person’s attention; between a building that appeals to a person and the reason that the building exists appealing to a person; between appreciating something in itself and appreciating something for what it does or for how it appears.
Baseball will always be its best self when it is loved and adored by people who have lived the game. When my grandfather watched baseball, he was immersed in a living memory of a life spent with the game. He remembered playing sandlot ball in Brooklyn on the south side of the Harbor; and pitching against Al Kaline before he played for the Tigers; and watching the Orioles win and lose the World Series; and helping grandchildren learn how to wear a glove and throw a ball in his backyard. My grandfather spent his life around baseball. The quality of a stadium or the number of home runs in a game or the color of a t-shirt given away or even the depth of a steroid scandal made no difference to him because the sport itself had held his interest for decades. There were times when what was new in baseball reminded him of something that took place decades before and there were times when memories inspired him to turn on the television and check the score of the game. Baseball was connected to too many facets of his life to be casually forgotten. A person who loves baseball loves the game itself. The love that a person has for baseball gives him or her all the reason needed to watch a game.
The same goes for Christianity. A person who loves God needs no further reason to go to church; he or she needs no further reason to pray; he or she needs no further reason to sacrifice for family and give back to a community. Love gives reasons of its own. Moreover, Christians who love God are immersed in a living memory of God’s saving action in human history, reflected and replicated in the thousands of single moments of grace that mark a life spent in friendship with the Divine. The Christian life when it is well-lived collects all of a person’s experiences into a unity that reveals the depth of God’s eternal love for creation. When a Christian life is well-lived there is nothing more beautiful that exists in the world.
But living Christianity well requires first and foremost that love of God. By now, I hope that my thoughts on this matter are somewhat clear. If we want to love God, we need God to be important to us. If we want God to be important to us, we need to give God the time and attention needed to allow the relationship to develop. Finally, if we want to give God the time and attention needed to develop a relationship, our early experiences of Christianity must hold our interest. Faith must captivate us. And when we speak of being captivated by the faith it must be the faith itself that arrests the mind and stirs the soul: not only the music; or the role that we play in our community; or the means through which the faith is taught; or the good work or fun experiences associated with the Church. When Christianity itself holds our attention we might find it within ourselves to give God the time needed to work in our lives. When the faith itself holds our attention, we might develop a love of God that gives us all the reason we will ever need to live the Christian life and to live it well.
Our task is to find a way to captivate with the words and actions of the faith. We need to hold people’s attention. We need to help them fix their gaze upon a God whose love cannot but inspire and whose work in the world cannot but fascinate. The way to do this is to recognize that there are two features of Christianity that set Christianity apart from other religious traditions: knowing Christ and the possession of a particular way of seeing the world. Now, knowing Christ is the kind of work best left to Christ. We need to make it clear to others that we know Christ ourselves through our words and actions. And we might flesh out a person’s understanding of Christ over time or help them to see where Christ is working in their lives. And we might invite them into the kinds of relationships or events in which Christ is more likely to make himself known—most especially through the Church which is the Body of Christ. But no amount of arguments or explanations will bring a person to Christ. Christ will bring people to Christ and it is important that we recognize the limits of our evangelization.
We can, however, work to give people a Christian vision of reality. The story of Christianity is the story of a perpetual advent: it is the story of men and women, of prophets and angels, who prepared the world over the course of centuries for the coming of Christ. That work involved helping people to understand that the horizons of the world were immeasurably more broad than might be imagined. That work taught people to see that each and every generation of the human race was caught up in the midst of a great drama that was cosmic in scope and eternal in time. That work aided people in their understanding of how every aspect of their lives was bound up in the story of a God who loved so much that he both created a world and then offered his life in order to redeem it. To prepare the way for the coming of the Lord is to teach a person how to recognize Christ when he appears. And someone who cannot see well or who loses interest along the way will find it difficult to recognize the Messiah when he arrives. Just as we cannot know the protagonist of a story without knowing the setting in which that story unfolds, so we cannot know the great Protagonist of human history without knowing the contours of the world in which he works.
My hope for the Church is that we will become adept at teaching the faithful —especially the young — to behold in daily life the God who reveals and redeems. A Christian who sees our world as a great theater in which God’s creating and saving work is accomplished cannot help but be captivated by the mystery of God’s love for us. And a Christian who is captivated by the Christian vision of the world will find themselves in a better position to know God and to love God.
For an account on what is meant by the term ‘mystery,’ see: Your Life is Claimed by a Mystery at Ecclesia Christi Baltimore.
David Bentley Hart, “Believe It or Not.” First Things (May 2010).
Hart, “Believe It or Not.”
Harry Frankfurt, The Reasons of Love. 2004: Princeton UP. p. 54.
Beautifully written and thoughtfully reasoned. I especially loved your baseball metaphor. I’ve struggled with these issues over the years and have listened to some of your homilies. I’m thankful for the vision you bring. It’s sensible and hopeful. Continuing to pray for you and your work there!
When I think of my own previous agnosticism, the issue was that the concept of God explained everything, and consequently nothing. And clearly, if He were the puppet master in control of everything, as we were led to believe as children, He was making a grand mess of things. I began to believe priests and nuns were on a par with used car salesmen, towing ineffective party lines. They could not explain who God was, and should be able to I thought. And liturgy had no effect on me, or on any of the other people that I could see who went to the same Church. So I asked myself as a young Jesuit college student: Was God a doppelganger for the previous Bishop of Turkey? I did not know, and I did not care. I had a life to organize and had become fascinated with science. Science could answer the Why! So I went the path of science as an alternate for a couple decades much to the consternation of my parents. Just as it was beginning to dawn on me that science did not hold certain answers either, my dissertation chair just out of the blue happened to mention that he had gone with his family to a specific church for Easter. Since my mother's dying wish was that I would return to the Church, and I had been impressed with Saint Pope JP II's success with Solidarnosc, I decided to drop in myself, but with the caveat that if there was a lot of nonsense, I would stop. I made a conscious effort to understand what mystified me previously, instead of dismissing it as nonsense. And this bore fruit. Christ DID have the answers, if I gave what He said more thought. And all of a sudden I could KNOW that there was a force of some kind that created trees, for example. And I began to think I had an idea who Christ really was and what He was about. I enrolled in several priest-led Bible studies and Jesus began to make more sense to me. I dug deeper into theology. And it didn't hurt that I began reading scientists' concept of God and their journeys to understanding - e.g. Francis Collins, in The Language of God. (He converted himself when he realized that he hadn't given his atheism the thought he had given to his scientific work.) True Christianity began to fascinate me and I tried to find my feet in Christian advocacy, following JP II though with little success except in helping to stop the death penalty. I still have the same problem with liturgy that I had as a youngster - except for the readings and the homily. The latter keep me going to Mass, either online (during the pandemic) or in person. And now, it doesn't alter my own faith to see nominal Christians eschew true Christianity. But I do think that young people need to see Catholic Christians leading successful efforts to restore cultural harmony - to show that Catholics are on the right path to understanding God, that Catholics make a positive difference in the world (the way Christ did (not by burning heretics)). I think it would be difficult to interest them in pomp and circumstance when there is so much else to do with better effect. Parish community projects would make a good start. The other alternative for would-be congregants is to continue acting in the world at their jobs, expressing themselves - without the help of Christian resonance.