Are believers encouraging mockery of their own beliefs?
Commenting in 1938 on a recent spate of ill-informed, atheistic critiques of Christianity, the Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac asked: “If such a misunderstanding has arisen and entrenched itself, if such an accusation is current, is it not our own fault?” De Lubac’s question recognizes an enduringly profound and troubling fact: If caricatures of Christianity are prevalent and seem plausible, then Christians themselves are surely partly to blame. After all, Western secularism is largely a homegrown phenomenon; globally speaking, widespread unbelief is predominately a feature of (post-)Christian societies. This was duly admitted in the Second Vatican Council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.” In a striking acknowledgment, which de Lubac helped to draft, the council confesses:
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.
Fifty years on, we might do well to bear this in mind. One commonly hears the complaint that such-and-such an atheist writer is merely dismantling strawmen or tilting at theological windmills—that the God in whom Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris does not believe is not the one Christians believe in. While such appraisals are often quite correct, we ought not to dodge the deeper issue. If Christian theology is so susceptible to cartoonish misrepresentation, or if Christians have gained a reputation (however false) for being irrational non-thinkers, then this can scarcely have arisen ex nihilo. Might not some of the windmills tilted at be ones that we ourselves have helped to construct?
As Vatican II reminds us, Christian complicity in the growth and vitality of contemporary unbelief is hardly confined to intellectual factors. Nevertheless, the widespread prejudice that Christianity is not just irrational but positively antirational corrodes our ability to give a persuasive “accounting of the hope that is in [us]” (1 Pt 3:15). Hence correcting this impression is an urgent task for the new evangelization. Accordingly, I will mainly focus here on the issue of faith. This core Christian concept—indeed, the very foundation on which all else is built—is right at the heart of recent atheist critiques. And it is also a prime example of what both de Lubac and the council had in mind.
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