I became an atheist at age 9. I became Catholic (of all things!) 30 years later. This, after hating Catholics most of my life and agreeing with all of my artistic and theatrical friends that the Catholic Church was ridiculous at best, contemptuous at worst.
But, even now 17 years after my reception into the Church, I remain adamant about one thing. If this is all a lie or a pleasant fiction, we should burn all the churches. If this is all a lie, it is the worst lie in history. If the Church is merely a human institution, then it will only get even more corrupt than it already is and it should be torn to pieces. If people believe because it feels good, to hell with people and to hell with belief – and to hell with needing a lie to feel good. You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth! But if we’re worthy of the name “men” or “women”, we can handle the truth – God or no God.
After all, Jesus Christ told us, “The truth will make you free”. That much even atheists would agree on. Or at least they should – if they were more than fad atheists playing party games with nihilism.
And I know, I know – it’s Easter and that whole rising from the dead thing is a bit much, but that’s not really what turns people off. (By the way, if Jesus did not rise from the dead – crazy as that sounds – then the whole thing is false. “If Christ be not raised, then is your faith in vain,” as St. Paul was honest enough to say, “and we are the most miserable of men”. – 1 Cor. 15:17 So don’t be a “Christian” because Christ was a nice guy; He was God and the proof of that was His resurrection; if you don’t believe that, well, that’s understandable, but then stay home on Sundays and don’t get a job as a fill-in pastor at a Presbyterian church … which is a story I’ll tell in my book.)
What turns people off, and what turned me off for all of my young life, was not the miracles or the resurrection or the weird Christian culture or the Bible. Far from it. The Gospels, in particular, always fascinated me, and I remain (I’m sorry to say) one of the few Catholics who regular reads Scripture (apparently).
What turned me off then and what turns me off now was Christians and what they did with their faith. As Groucho once said to Chico, “I want to join a club and beat you over the head with it.” That sums up a lot of what Christians do with “Christianity”.
Bl. John Henry Newman described what’s behind this attitude found in many Christians …
They forget that all men are at best but learners in the school of Divine Truth, and that they themselves ought to be ever learning … They find it a much more comfortable view, much more agreeable to the indolence of human nature, to give over seeking, and to believe they had nothing more to find.
This is the problem. And it’s endemic in the Catholic Church, at least. Eric Voegelin describes it this way …
Certainties, now, are in demand for the purpose of overcoming uncertainties with their accompaniment of anxiety … [and yet] … Uncertainty is the very essence of Christianity. … “Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1)
The bond [of faith] is tenuous, indeed, and it may snap easily. The life of the soul in openness toward God, the waiting, the periods of aridity and dullness, guilt and despondency, contrition and repentance, forsakenness and hope against hope, the silent stirrings of love and grace, trembling on the verge of a certainty which if gained is loss—the very lightness of this fabric may prove too heavy a burden for men who lust for massively possessive experience.
I love that last line. We are “men who lust for massively possessive experience”! We all are.
JRR Tolkien describes this very lust and the disenchantment that accompanies it.
[The things that become disenchanted] are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them.
In other words, God becomes a mere tool for prideful man, for anxious man, for lazy man; a possession, a “thing” like other “things”.
This is why we need a savior. Because even the greatest gift we’ve been given – faith in a merciful and just God – is something we want to put in our pockets or “lock in our horde” and use for our own security, to allay our anxiety, or (what is worse) to use as a kind of weapon, a club we join and beat people over the head with.
Both believers and non-believers have this trait, this hard-heartedness, this possessiveness, this tendency not to be humble in the presence of the truths of God, but to appropriate and manipulate them. One of the most apparently devout young Catholics I knew used faith in God as a giant contraceptive against reality, keeping the Spirit out while maintaining the bubble of fiction that was her life, a bubble she made certain He never pierced. She lived a life devoted to Spiritual Contraception (and physical contraception, for that matter). The quasi-atheist quasi-Catholic friend I described here is not intent on approaching God (and hence the meaning of life) with humility and genuine curiosity, but instead is set on constructing clever arguments that Jesus would be too foolish to penetrate. And yet what is life but this reaching out in faith … this anxious trust that what we do in time matters eternally, that if we seek we find, that if we love we will somehow be loved back – and that even if we’re not, it’s the offering, the act, that matters?
One of my best friends is an agnostic, or at least won’t discuss matters of faith. But she gives her entire heart and soul and being into educating children – a job which she finds eternally significant, though she would never describe it in those terms. She knows, as we all do, that love outlasts time and death. In that sense, she knows the inner meaning of the Resurrection better than most “massively possessive” Christians do.
Another friend of mine is a non-Christian and is in desperate need of cheap health insurance. He looked into a Christian Health Share program, which would have saved him a lot of money, but refused to join it because they demand a profession of faith and he refused to lie in order to join the group. He refused to lie! He, a non-Christian, refused to claim to be a Christian, even though it would have benefited him to say so. And yet, one of my most discouraging battles on the internet over the years was with “devout” Catholics who kept insisting that lying could be a good thing – a holy and righteous thing! – despite settled Church teaching on the contrary.
We could all give examples like this, examples of people who reject “Christianity” and yet behave better than most Christians, who believe in the transcendent nature of love, sacrifice, morality.
This is why I believe. Because it’s true. I believe in the dogmas, but the dogmas are signposts, signposts to encourage us to keep seeking, to keep praying, to keep living “in openness toward God”; they are not walls in which to barricade ourselves and keep God and others out. We search because even through passion, death and darkness, even through the horror of Good Friday and the loneliness of Holy Saturday, even through moods of despair and absurdity, even through all of this, if we seek, we find – we find in the depths, we find in the tomb, we find in one another, the silent secret of new life.