“Worship him, I beg you, in a way that is worthy of thinking beings” — Romans 12:1 (Jerusalem Bible Translation)
Anyone who lives in Western society is aware that Christian intellectualism is being challenged; both explicitly by the New Atheists (despite their straw man arguments) and implicitly by the media and non-believers of goodwill who have a presupposition that Christianity or any other religion is simply the practice of meaningless ritual or the unquestioned ascension to statements made from above, whether it be Rome or sacred texts. These presuppositions not only frequently go unchallenged by Christians, but they are sometimes validated by the Christians who make statements that are contrary to both sound reasoning and sound theology.
This week’s America Magazine contains a provocative and excellent article by Stephen Bullivant, Theology Professor at St. Mary’s University College in London that addresses these issues head-on. In the article, Professor Bullivant challenges Christians to both understand the intellectual tradition of their faith, and to communicate this tradition in the language that is intellectually sound to non-believers, even if non-believers ultimately do not agree.
The article consists of three sections.
The first section highlights the principles of St. Augustine (from the fifth century) and Cardinal Henri de Lubac (in the twentieth century) that believers have an obligation to present an intelligent accounting of their belief. As St. Augustine said:
“It is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an unbeliever to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics [the literal interpretation of Genesis] and we should take all means to present such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up a Christian’s vast ignorance and laugh it to scorn”.
The article also quotes the Church’s understanding of the this principle from Vatican II’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”:
“Believers can have no small part in the rise of atheism, since by neglecting education in the faith, teaching false doctrine, or through defects in their own religious, moral or social lives, they may be said rather more to conceal than reveal the true countenance of God and of religion”
The second section of the article highlights the symbiotic relationship between reason and faith. It starts with statements by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and A.C. Grayling that define faith as a commitment to a belief that is contrary to evidence and reason. As Professor Bullivant states:
“The one problem with this [definition] is that this is not what faith, whether religious or otherwise, means at all. The word faith comes from the Latin word fides, and its primary meaning is “trust”. That is why to have confidence in something is to trust that it will happen.”
In other words, faith is not belief contrary to evidence, it is trust in an ultimate outcome or understanding of reality with the support of evidence, whether it be reason, science or otherwise. Professor Bullivant provides examples of where Christians too often fall prey to statements about “blind faith” without the need to resort to the intellectual underpinnings that support their faith. The Church hierarchy is sometimes complicit in this not articulating a clear position of faith. For example, in 2010, Pope Benedict gave an extensive book interview with Peter Seewald on a variety of subjects. One aspects of that interview was a discussion of what the Catholic Church is doing to assist AIDS victims in Africa. After discussing the deep involvement of the Church in assisting victims (e.g. 25% of all AIDS victims in the world are treated in Catholic facilities), Seewald and Pope Benedict discussed on whether the use of condoms would help reduce the spread of AIDS. Pope Benedict stated Church teaching that condoms is no more than a temporary band-aid and that the real solution is to have a more humane and fulfilling view of the sexuality of the human person. However, Pope Benedict also said that there is a hierarchy of values and in the context of a hypothetical of a male prostitute who views sexuality solely as a self-gratifying drug rather than a loving relationship. Pope Benedict indicated that in this context, the use of a condom could be a “first step in the direction of moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.” This statement is clearly a correct Christian view that the path to God is gradual. Christianity identifies the end-point in Christ, but also recognizes that Christ meets us where we are.
The mainstream press took Pope Benedict’s statement as a change in the Church’s view on contraception, which it clearly was not. Unfortunately, rather than emphasizing the core teaching point God meeting us where we are as Pope Benedict did, the Vatican issued statements restating its view on contraception, without the full analysis of Pope Benedict’s teaching. This is a prime example of a missed teaching opportunity by the Vatican.
The third section of the article calls on Christians counter these deficiencies and to “make a real effort learn more about the faith we profess (and to receive the requisite help and encouragement in order to do so). Evangelization begins at home”. In summary, I would challenge Christians in four areas:
1. Knowledge of Christian Belief. Take every effort to Christianity, both the doctrinal practices but more importantly the historical and philosophical underpinnings of Christianity. The documents of Vatican II are a wonderful starting point, as are many of the speeches and books by theologians such as Pope Emeritus Benedict. It was only after reading many of these resources that I shed the immature belief of my youth and discovered the true richness of Christianity. I am a Christian because I belief it is the best description of ultimate reality.
2. Knowledge of Science. Science is a system that is widely accepted by modern society and strongly promoted by non-believers. Often they attempt to contrast science with faith. Of course, Christians know this is not accurate. Christianity gave birth to science and science is a wonderful tool to help us better understand the Creator and to draw closer to him. Christians should make an effort to understand scientific principles and current scientific knowledge. They should also integrate this knowledge in their faith.
3. Sympathize with the Legitimate Issues of Nonbelievers. Many nonbelievers raise legitimate questions about Christianity. If there is a God, why doesn’t he make himself more visible? How can the concept of evil be reconciled with a loving Creator? If religion is supposed to make better people, why do so many Christians and other people of faith do evil things? These are real questions for which there are explanations, but reason people can certainly disagree on how valid these explanations are. It is in the genuine dialogue, with non-believer and in the accepting of their concerns that we can find common ground in our humanity.
4. Live the Gospel. Lastly, and most importantly, Christians must live the Gospel of loving God with our whole hearts, minds and souls and our neighbors as ourself. Christianity did not survive its early centuries as a small offshoot of Judaism in a hostile society due to its intellectual rigor (although that was a necessary pre-condition). The primary reason Christianity survived its early generations was because of its counter-cultural emphasis on love of God and love of one-another. Christians lived these values and, in many cases, died for these values in its first few centuries. It was because of the attraction of this living out the faith that Christianity was able to survive. Today, although Christians make up a much larger portion of humanity than they did 1,800 years ago, it is often hard to tell who Christians are: Divorce rates in Western societies are comparable for Christians and non-Christians. There have been horrific scandals in the clergy from the recent child abuse cases to the corruption of the late middle ages. If being able to provide a basic intellectual case for the faith to non-believers is a minimum starting point, living the Gospel of love, service and joy can be a witness to non-believers to want what Christians have.