How a young atheist and a priest who lost his faith made me a better evangelizer

Pope Francis laughs as he speaks with a man in the Shrine of Our Lady of the Watch during his May 27 pastoral visit in Genoa, Italy. (CNS photo/Alessandro Garofalo, Reuters) Pope Francis laughs as he speaks with a man in the Shrine of Our Lady of the Watch during his May 27 pastoral visit in Genoa, Italy. (CNS photo/Alessandro Garofalo, Reuters) 

It is a familiar interaction for anyone who has given a parish talk. After my lecture someone, usually a parent, speaks to me sadly about someone else, usually a daughter or son, who no longer has any interest in the Catholic faith. Each time, I am left to grapple with their questions: How do you bring someone back to the faith? How do you evangelize those who see no value in a relationship with a loving God?

How do you evangelize those who see no value in a relationship with a loving God?

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Recently two unlikely people helped me to sharpen and, I hope, deepen my answers. One was a complete stranger; the other my friend, a resigned priest. Both rejected the Christian faith.

•••

“I don’t believe in God,” a young man proclaimed during the question-and-answer period of a talk on personalist philosophy I gave at the Catholic Worker house in the Bowery in New York City a couple of years ago. “I don’t believe in life beyond the grave. I don’t spend any time thinking about these topics. I don’t feel inclined to think about them, and I don’t feel guilty. I just live my life.”

He was with a small group of students from a Catholic university attending the lecture, and I thought he exhibited some courage expressing his views among a largely Catholic audience. I almost immediately thought of the novelist Walker Percy—his preoccupation with what he called “the malaise” and his affection for the father of existentialism, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55).

What Percy called the malaise, Kierkegaard described as a kind of despair: being lost in everydayness, unable or unwilling to confront ultimate questions. Kierkegaard thought that every person lived in one of three spheres of existence: 1) the aesthetic, which was immersion in the sensory pleasures of this world with no awareness of transcendence; 2) the ethical, a kind of Stoicism, which stressed duty, commitment and fidelity to law; and 3) the religious, which was an interpersonal relationship with God that was achieved not through reason or argument or proof but through a leap of faith. A person who makes this leap should live in such a way as to bear witness to the loving presence of God. That witness could be both a sign and an invitation to others.

For much of Percy’s first novel, The Moviegoer, the narrator and main character, Binx Bolling, lives in the aesthetic sphere, but he is on a search. He notes: “To become aware of the possibility of a search is to be on to something. Not to be on to something is to be in despair.” Eventually, through a love relationship with a very needy young lady, Binx makes a leap to God.

Kierkegaard got it right: The key is bearing witness with your life.

I was hoping to speak with the student after my lecture at the Worker, but he left before I could catch his attention. If I had, I probably would have confronted him with some questions touching on metaphysics that I propose to students in my philosophy classes: What do you think is the meaning of life? What are the implications for living if there is no God? If there is no God, isn’t human existence absurd? What is your experience of loving and being loved, and what is the meaning of a love relationship if life is absurd?

I do not think there is anything wrong with these questions, but I now suspect that in posing them I would have been more of a proselytizer than an evangelizer to the young man. Perhaps I suspected that I could argue him into belief. After reflecting on my experience with the student I realized that evangelization requires more than verbally presenting questions. Kierkegaard got it right: The key is bearing witness with your life. No one can convert anyone. A genuine conversion must be free. In respecting the freedom of the other, we are imitating God, who created human freedom and respects that freedom.

•••

In “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis wrote of evangelizers: “Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty, and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but ‘by attraction.’”

Could it be that the first step in an evangelizing relationship is that the evangelizer be evangelized?

I should have kept those words in mind when I sat down for lunch to catch up with an old friend, a resigned priest. In tracing his journey away from the faith, my friend argued that Christian belief makes no concrete difference in a person’s life. He said: “You believe in a personal God, and I believe in existential energy. It does not make any difference in the way we live.” I quickly responded: “Of course it does. I can relate to a personal God. I can’t relate to existential energy.”

I felt good that my comment silenced him. I’d had the last word, won the debate. But looking back at the conversation, I wonder if my friend was inadvertently challenging me to be more of an evangelizer, a witness, rather than a proselytizer. Could it be that the first step in an evangelizing relationship is that the evangelizer be evangelized?

Pope Francis has stressed again and again that God is a part of everyone’s life—even those who never think of God or who claim to have lost all faith in God. In the interview published in America in September 2013, Francis said:

I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.

Looking back on my two interactions with this “dogmatic certainty,” I no longer find them discouraging. For the evangelizer, discouragement is not an option. No, I did not change anyone’s mind. But perhaps, though the young student and the retired priest did not intend it, they were indirectly evangelizers to me. Why not? The Holy Spirit breathes where he will.

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J. Gravelle
2 months 3 weeks ago

I don't purport to speak for any others on Team Infidel, but were I that young man, I'd have replied thusly:

"What do you think is the meaning of life?"

I don't know that there's an intrinsic meaning. Life has for me whatever meaning I ascribe it. The meaning I derive from a Van Gogh might be similar OR dissimilar from your own, but that makes it no more or less meaningful.

"What are the implications for living if there is no God?"

That depends entirely on which God there isn't. If there's no Zeus, then lightning is a natural phenomenon. If there's no Yahweh, the same might be said of the universe itself.

"If there is no God, isn’t human existence absurd?"

No. If there's no God, human existence is finite, rare, and precious. These are the qualities of things that are valued and cherished. For anything in seemingly infinite supply, the opposite is often true. Contrast diamonds with grains of sand, as just one example.

"What is your experience of loving and being loved, and what is the meaning of a love relationship if life is absurd?"

We've established life isn't absurd, so hopefully we can dispense with the second half of that question. As for the first part: I have people who often put me ahead of themselves in importance, and they enjoy the same consideration from me.

I did enjoy this article, Brother Lauder.

Xapis...

Richard Bell
2 months 3 weeks ago

"Life has for me whatever meaning I ascribe it." That is to say, there is no meaning of life but only life's meaning ascribed by each person. And that is to say there is no meaning of anything but only anything's meaning ascribed by each person. That is to say, no one gets the wrong answer to any question of meaning of anything, unless one makes a mistake about what meaning he has ascribed (and there are obvious difficulties in conceiving such a mistake). That is to say, meaning of anything is radically personal. That is to say, any statement ascribing meaning of anything is tantamount to an expression of emotion.
"If there's no God, human existence is finite, rare, and precious." Here is one of those statements. Understand it as no more than expression of the author's emotion at the moment he wrote.

J. Gravelle
2 months 3 weeks ago

"That is to say, there is no meaning of life but only life's meaning ascribed by each person. "

I thought I'd acquiesced that point with my admission that no intrinsic meaning seemed apparent...

Richard Bell
2 months 2 weeks ago

Well, yes! My riff is reductio ad absurdum.

Kevin Colquitt
2 months 2 weeks ago

Color me unimpressed with the author's essay and your arrogant reply to J. Gravelle.

One can't help but notice the almost complete lack of humility and charity in most of those who are allegedly filled with the " love of Christ" - not surprising to an atheist because faith is as shallow as a pop top and fraudulent as well.

One also can't help but notice that neither the author nor you (and every time that such supposedly momentous questions are posted by evangelists everywhere) can be bothered to answer them or the answers are so puerile as to be dismissed outright as nothing but more wishful thinking.

Richard Bell
2 months 2 weeks ago

My reply is arrogant? My reply is completely lacking in humility and charity? I suspect that you are hypersensitive -- that you are offended by someone's showing your belief's absurdity -- and that you are hyperbolic in expressing your emotion. But I humbly and charitably ask you to justify your allegations, and I assure you that I would gladly repent if you succeed.

Kevin Colquitt
2 months 2 weeks ago

Yes. Yes.

Richard, we're you able to read past the first paragraph? In the third, I pointed out that neither you nor the author could not be bothered to answer the array of questions that he posted... and you still haven't!

I didn't notice that you "showed my beliefs absurdity" just juvenile mocking... perhaps you can do no better.

Richard Bell
2 months 1 week ago

I made clear my only interest -- the statement "Life has for me whatever meaning I ascribe it." That statement implies absurdity. Demonstrating the absurd implication of that statement is not showing arrogance -- not by any conception of arrogance other than the conception of someone very timid or otherwise hypersensitive. Neither is it just juvenile mocking -- not by any conception of juvenility other than the conception of someone very juvenile or otherwise feeling inferior.
Why do you criticize me for failing to answer that array of questions?

Bill Stewart
2 months 3 weeks ago

For me, and I'd think for a priest who'd lost his faith, the "what are the implications if there is/isn't a god?" questions aren't helpful. They're fine for "why should somebody who's never been a believer want to check this stuff out?", but they aren't reasons to believe that Christianity is true (or false), and they're even less help to somebody who used to believe the rather amazing claims of Christianity were true but no longer does.

Anne Chapman
2 months 3 weeks ago

As someone who is a professional evangelizer, you make some assumptions that might defeat your efforts right out of the gate.

After my lecture someone,...speaks to me sadly about someone else, ...who no longer has any interest in the Catholic faith. ....How do you bring someone back to the faith? How do you evangelize those who see no value in a relationship with a loving God?

The assumptions are blinding you to the realities of the lives of those who either no longer practice any religion formally, and/or those who are agnostic or atheist.

. "Losing interest" in the Catholic faith does not mean that someone sees no value in having a relationship with God. Many former Catholics no longer attend mass precisely because they found that the institutional church presented a barrier to their relationship with God. Since they place a high value on their journey towards God, to their relationship with God, they choose to go around the barrier, leaving it behind.

There are many people of faith, who are not part of the RCC. In addition, there are many who no longer believe in the tenets of Catholicism, or of christianity, or of any religion. Yet they, including atheists, find meaning in their lives. Your assumption that a lack of belief in God makes life absurd, without meaning, and that love and loving relationships become impossible, is an assumption that is itself so absurd that it's hard to believe that you actually believe it!. I agree completely with J. Gravelle.

J. Gravelle
2 months 2 weeks ago

Well said, Sister Chapman.

Though you might have OPENED with your closing sentence. ;)

Xapis...

acct066 .
2 months 3 weeks ago

I share Pope Francis’s belief that “God is in every person’s life,” though the older I get, the more I see the wild diversity of ways God is manifest in people’s lives, and not always in forms that are easily recognizable from the world’s faith traditions. With some chagrin I have come to admit that I—a committed Christian and lifelong churchgoer—seem to have agnostic friends who live lives closer to the sacred than mine. Attempting to evangelize to them would feel not only presumptuous but misinformed and misguided; I wouldn’t know where to begin to do it with any authenticity. In general I’ve become wary of evangelization efforts focused on atheists, nonbelievers, or the “unchurched” when there are so many hurting folks already among us in the pews--or believers who never step foot in a church--who need our comfort, support, love, and guidance in helping them grow in relationship with God. Those are the people I feel called to evangelize to.

Anne Chapman
2 months 3 weeks ago

Bravo!

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