November 27, 2012

How to talk to an atheist

By Rebecca Ryskind Teti *

Do you know what distinguishes the New Evangelization from evangelization simply? The audience.

Traditional missionary work brings the Good News to people who have never heard it. The New Evangelization aims closer to home: at re-awakening faith in people and cultures who have fallen away.

This past October in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI launched not only a Year of Faith – a concentrated effort from now until the Feast of Christ the King 2013 for Christians to rediscover their faith – but also the Synod on the New Evangelization, a gathering of the world’s bishops to pray and discuss how to spread Faith in the face of expanding secularism.

The Holy Father is personally engaged in this effort at renewal. He’s dedicating his Wednesday Audiences all year to a discussion of what faith is and how it is kindled in the human heart.

His Nov. 14 address is particularly instructive. How does a believer address an atheist? Interestingly, the Pope distinguishes among different forms of atheism, concluding that the least wholesome among them is not simple unbelief – never having heard the truth or being unable for some reason to believe it. No, the worst atheism is practical atheism: professing belief, but acting as if faith has nothing to do with real life.

This kind of unbelief is especially pernicious because it causes cynicism and indifference. Simple unbelief is often still seeking and open to the spiritual dimension of life. Practical atheism reduces the human horizon to the material, and “this reductionism itself is one of the fundamental causes of the various forms of totalitarianism that have had tragic consequences in the past century, as well as of the crisis of values” we see today.

How does one speak to a jaded soul who thinks he’s heard everything Christ has to say and whose eyes glaze over at the idea of anything “churchy?”

Appeal to the human and the real, says the Pope, specifically in three ways.

The world. This might seem a surprising starting point given Christian suspicion of “worldly” things, but the Pope isn’t talking about filling people’s heads with celebrity gossip and video games. He means helping people rediscover the beauty of the earth and all that’s in it. Remember that old Robert Louis Stevenson couplet: “The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings?”

Benedict’s take on that comes from Einstein: “The world is not a shapeless mass of magma, but the better we know it and the better we discover its marvelous mechanisms the more clearly we can see a plan, we see that there is a creative intelligence. Albert Einstein said that in natural law is ‘revealed an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.’ Consequently a first path that leads to the discovery of God is an attentive contemplation of creation.”

Man himself. The noise and perpetual distraction of our culture have the effect of alienating the human person from himself. If he looked within, what marvels he would find in his own human spirit! Among them, the qualities the Catechism (#33) lists: “his openness to truth and beauty, his sense of moral goodness, his freedom and the voice of his conscience, with his longings for the infinite and for happiness.”

To speak to the people of our time requires not denouncing them so much as showing them once again who they are, and that requires making time and space for silence and contemplation. We need to recover “the ability to pause and look deeply into ourselves and to reinterpret the thirst for the infinite that we bear within us, that impels us to go further and to refer to the One who can quench it.”

Living faith. The Holy Father never tires of repeating that the saints are the Church’s best argument. Here he comes back to that idea, teaching that unbelief has the right to encounter in Christians coherence between what we say and the way we act.

Living faith cannot be reduced to a moral code – in fact, says the Pope, many people today suffer from a constrained and cramped idea of faith precisely because they associate it only with rules. Evangelization is not about transmitting a moral code, but about transmitting – through our behavior and the goodness of the communities we build – the Person behind every Christian rule or practice.

A soul engaged in a loving relationship with God is open to grace, is transformed by it, and becomes a channel of God’s grace into the world – a person whose very life, even without preaching, becomes a sign of hope.

Rebecca Ryskind Teti is Operations Coordinator for the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship at the Busch School of Business & Economics at CUA, though the opinions are her own. This column is modified from an earlier version that first appeared in Faith & Family  magazine.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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