There is no substitute for good example. Faithful Catholics preach the best homilies. Still, how does the Church address atheism in a systematic way? Catholic theologians, leaders, and educators suggest four approaches, summarized below.
First strategy to Address Atheism: Adaptation
A few theologians support a strategy that imitates the approach of St. Paul, to become all things to all people, becoming atheists to atheists or adapting the Gospel to the atheist’s mentality. This approach was advocated by “death of God” theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer. When St. Paul was preaching at Athens, he incorporated the worship of the Unknown God into his sermon about belief in God (Acts 17:6). After trial and error, this approach was deemed a failure (New Catholic Encyclopedia 17, 29).
Second Strategy to Address Atheism: Confrontation
This position reasons that only a madman or a fool can assert the death of God. The first step is to abandon this position. The second is to convert and profess complete belief in God. This approach was endorsed by Karl Barth and Jacques Maritain. In our ecumenical age, this confrontational approach is considered too drastic (Ibid)..
Third Strategy to Address Atheism: Integration
A third strategy is integration: Atheism can be integrated and developed into Catholicism by showing that the atheist’s own view of the world, of history, of society, logically leads to God and does not exclude God at all. On the contrary, integration leads to God and to the providential plan of salvation, to liberation, to love, and to the joy of life lived within the Trinitarian mystery.
There are three main branches of this strategy: the scientific, followed by Teilhard de Chardin; the political, followed by the Latin American theologians like Leonardo Boff; and the metaphysical strategy of Paul Tillich and Karl Rahner.
These approaches of integration enter into positive dialogue with scientists, philosophers, artists, politicians, and others who do not share a religious belief. Integration manages to appreciate their way of understanding and explaining things. Yet, while the principle of causality is at the heart of all matter, it cannot directly prove the existence of a personal God. Father Michael Buckley, S.J. opines that it is more beneficial to the atheist and the Church if appealing to the contemplative-kerygmatic approach precedes abstract philosophy (Ibid., 29-30).
Fourth Strategy to Address Atheism: Double Conversion
For theologians like Richard Niebuhr, Henri DeLubac, and Hans Urs von Balthasar, atheism implies a double distortion, a distortion of the natural and supernatural orders.
The first conversion, the horizontal level attempts to convince the atheist that religious belief in Christianity does not go counter to men and women; it does not belittle their dignity nor does it hamper their freedom. The message of Jesus brings and develops light, life, and freedom.
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Christianity is intended to underscore one’s ability to realize and make room for transcendence, both horizontally and vertically (Ibid). For the natural order of things, von Balthasar offers first a statement and then a series of questions:
There is an I, and there is a you. Who is this person within who says I? What am I precisely? Am I pure chance? Why am I I and not you? Not merely why, but that I am? Why do you love me? Why me? If I do the things I shouldn’t do, and don’t do the things I should—am I not a riddle unto myself. Doesn’t someone owe me an answer for this contradiction within me? On the positive side of things, my spirit has been bestowed from outside of me. In happy amazement I can experience myself deep down immersed in my heart, my imagination, my feelings, my emotions, my moods (The Von Balthasar Reader, 59ff).
Von Balthasar quotes Blaise Pascal who casts the riddle of the self in his own way: “What sort of freak then is man! How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe! Who will unravel such a tangle! . . . What then will become of you, man, seeking to discover your true condition through natural reason? . . . Be silent. . . . Learn that man infinitely transcends man. (63; From Pascal: Pensées, 1966 trans. A.J. Karailaheimer, 64-65.)
“God Is Inescapable”
Henri De Lubac observes that “man cannot get around God, cannot do without God; God is inescapable; meanwhile Nietzsche battles against God whom he regards as nothing but an enemy of life. Therefore, God must be killed. Atheistic humanism was bound to end in bankruptcy, for man is himself only because his face is illumined by a divine ray.” To De Lubac’s remarks, Father W. Norris Clarke, S.J. points out the error in the famous Cartesian phrase: “I think; therefore I am” and must be rephrased to: “I am, therefore I think.” Or better yet, “I am thought of; therefore, I am.” The Clarke corrections re-establish the right order of creature to Creator.
The second conversion, the supernatural level is the conversion toward the work of salvation that God accomplishes in Christ. The gospel is no longer a fairy tale or an absurd story. It is the truth that makes men and women, restores them to health interiorly and fills them with joy (New Catholic Encyclopedia 17, p 30).