One of the more interesting things to observe on social media, often not in a good way, is the interaction between believers, atheists and agnostics. There is certainly tension present. Some atheists and agnostics show great frustration with Followers of the Way*, and they do have good cause to be disappointed.
Georges Bernanos captured this dynamic very well in his essay, The Sermon of an Agnostic on the Feast of St. Therese. In this essay, written in 1938, Bernanos conveys the point of view of an imaginary agnostic who has been given the opportunity to deliver a sermon to a parish of self-satisfied and mediocre Catholics. Bernanos was a Catholic novelist and essayist, and it was considered a sign of his great integrity that he was far harder on the Church and his fellow Catholics than on anyone else.
From the outset, his narrator pulls no punches:
“Ladies and Gentlemen”, he would begin, “I don’t share your beliefs, but I probably know more about the history of the Church than you do, because I happen to have read it, and not many parishioners can say that.”
“… Who among you is capable of writing twenty lines about his or her patron saint?”
Lesson one, don’t BS or condescend to an atheist or agnostic. They have probably come by their position the hard way, either through formal education or long life experience. Their common sense may exceed yours, and they may very well know philosophy, theology, the history of the Church or the Bible better than you.
Despite this, some will make time for us, even when we ignore them:
For though you’re not interested in unbelievers, unbelievers are extremely interested in you. There are a few of us who at some point in our lives have not made a tentative approach in your direction, were it only to insult you. After all, put yourselves in our place. Were there … the faintest chance of your being right, death would come as a devastating surprise to us. So we’re bound to watch closely and try and fathom you.
Lesson two, you will have some opportunity to demonstrate or discuss your faith with them, whether you intend to or not. Be ready.
But we are often not:
“Yes, we were drawn to you. But now we’ve decided that you’re not very interesting after all, and it’s rather disappointing. And we hate to think what fools we were, ever to have hoped in you, and to have doubted ourselves, our own unbelief.”
Lesson three, we may be accountable to some degree for their lack of faith. Jesus says woe unto those who are a stumbling block to children. But is he just speaking of physiological age? What if its spiritual age as well? We will have to account for the atheists and agnostics we disappointed by our bad example.
For example, do we take the Sacraments seriously? Bernanos’ agnostic suggests we often don’t:
When you come out of the confessional, you’re in a ‘state of grace.’ A state of grace … are you sure? Can you blame us if we don’t believe it? We’re wondering what you do with the Grace of God. Should it not be shining out of you? Where the devil do you hide your joy?
Lesson four, as Teresa of Avila said, “Lord, save us from gloomy saints.” Behave like your faith matters more than the world
Instead, we seem to put too much faith in politics or money, not God:
But what surpasses the understanding is that you habitually reason about the affairs of the world in exactly the same way as we do. I mean, who’s forcing you? … But when your fathers profess the pitiless economics of Mr. Adam Smith, or when you give solemn honor to Machiavelli, allow me to say that you cause us no surprise – you simply strike us as odd, incomprehensible fellows.
Lesson five: If you make an idol out of your politics, possessions, or career, why should atheists take you seriously about the Good News?
Despite any frustration we have with atheists or agnostics, we must never judge them for their profession of faith. A scientist once calculated that about 150 billion humans beings have been born on planet Earth since homo sapiens came into existence (I have no issue with the concept of the evolution of human beings over many thousands of years, in a manner consistent with the will of the Father. Nor does the RC Church). Billions lived and died before the Incarnation, never knowing the Good News. Billions have lived and died since without being baptized or even being preached to.
For whatever reason, one of the mysteries of Salvation history is that only a vanishingly small number of human beings encountered Jesus in person, and a minority, even through today, have ever been formally inducted into the faith through baptism. Most of the people who have been born went to their deaths knowing nothing of the Sermon on the Mount, the Crucifixion or the Resurrection. Most people did not believe Jesus during his day, so perhaps it is appropriate that most of humanity not believe his followers.
Peter Kreeft has suggested that one of the purposes of the Communion of Saints is for those of us who are wealthy in life to share with those who were not in the next. When you lay up treasures in heaven, it may be for those who were never graced with any spiritual treasure in this life.
Does Bernanos’ narrator offer any advice for today’s Christians? His narrator prophesies our present, and says we must become children again:
Fear those who are to come, who shall judge you. Fear the innocence of children, for they are also enfants terribles. Your only way out is to become children yourselves, to rediscover the heart of childhood. For the hour shall strike when questions hurled at you from all points of the earth shall be so direct, that you will not be able to answer except by yes or no.
Lesson six, social media places our Faith under the microscope like never before. And we will be questioned by the orphaned children of our age, who will not defer to us or accept the things we take for granted. They find much of the world rather absurd, and laugh at it. And Bernanos advises that we will never respond adequately to their laughter except through the childlike heroism of a Joan of Arc before her accusers.
Christians who listen to me – that is your peril! It is difficult to follow up a society that has foundered in laughter, because even the fragments will be useless. You will have to build it all up again. You will have to build it up under the eyes of children. Become as children yourselves. They have found the chink in your armor, and you will never disarm their irony save by simplicity, honesty and audacity.
You will never disarm them save by heroism.
Lesson 7, argument is of limited value. Apologetics has its place with those who are eager to believe, and need guidance or encouragement. Our Lord had little success with argument with those disinclined to believe him. Do we expect to do any better than Him? While we have a duty to be honest when the question is put to us, we will best persuade through our heroic example, which may include prayer and fasting, and all the ordinary or anonymous sacrifices we are called to make every day.
When I die, I want Jesus to call some of these formerly hard nosed atheists from the far reaches of eternity (Heaven) or temporality (Purgatory). They can be His prosecuting attorney against me in my final confession. Did I ever impress or convert a one by my example, or my prayers? Up to this point in my life, I cannot say with any confidence that I have. I would have to plead guilty to every charge they might make, a witness for the prosecution.
P.S. If you wish to read more Bernanos, many of his writings have been translated into English. Unfortunately, much of it is out of print and hard to come by at a reasonable price. The essay I have quoted from is available in The Heroic Face of Innocence: Three Stories by George Bernanos at a reasonable price in e-book form.
* As Christians were apparently known in their early years. The French writer Fabrice Hadjadj has suggested, half-seriously, that Christians go back to using that description, as it sounds far more mysterious and intriguing.
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