These two books come from cultured and urbane Catholic professors of theology, one at Boston College (Imbelli) and the other at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham, London (Bullivant). Neither needs to raise his voice to make his case effectively. Both are concerned, albeit in different ways, to contribute to the new evangelization of post-Christians or “resting” Christians in the North Atlantic world. Their writing draws energy from the radiant vision of the Second Vatican Council and the perennial newness of the Gospel.
As the co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (2013) and author of various works on contemporary atheism, Stephen Bullivant is well equipped to explore the culture of unbelief and do so from the standpoint of “faith,” by which he unequivocally means Christian faith in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God who died a hideous death on a cross and rose gloriously from the dead. Recognizing that “atheism can be, and very often is, compatible with living a rational, meaningful and morally virtuous life,” Bullivant aims to understand rather than directly refute modern atheists, who have become a major feature of historically Christian countries. He acknowledges the permanent role of Christian apologetics. But he presses the need for dialogue with the sizable and now longstanding numbers of nonbelievers in the Western world and not merely with such strident exponents of the “New Atheism” as Richard Dawkins, who simply does not speak for many agnostic atheists.
Bullivant admits that “there may even be atheist saints.” But even so, he adds, “if Christianity is true, then atheists—along with all other non-Christians—must surely, at the very minimum, be missing out on something of supreme significance.”
Christians themselves can promote the culture of unbelief by failing to live, explain and share their faith. Bullivant, while highlighting this failure, dedicates eloquent pages to examining three specific triggers of contemporary unbelief: (a) the strange and even bizarre nature of the Christian message, (b) the problem of evil and (c) the sense that science explains everything and so makes faith in God redundant.
Bullivant does an excellent job showing “the outrageous character” of the Christian claims. “Irrespective of whether they are true or not, these are surely among the wildest and most monstrous claims ever proposed in human history.” Many Christians have become so used to the narratives of the nativity and the crucifixion that they forget the scandalous nature of those narratives.
Bullivant does not pretend to “dissolve away the problem of evil,” but shows rather how the killing of the incarnate Son of God makes the challenge “deeper and darker still.” Beyond question, we may not sell short the challenge of horrendous evils. But a hope in Jesus that protests against crucified suffering enjoys a huge advantage over agnostic atheism. While not alleging that they can here and now come up with a satisfying explanation, Christians trust that one day God will reverse the situation between perpetrators and victims and let us see what evil and pain were “all about.” Those who deny a personal life beyond death cannot look forward to any such final account. I would have liked some reflections from Bullivant on the strength and value of Christian hope.
In a few pages Bullivant dispatches the common but often weakly argued case that science and religious faith simply cannot co-exist. That view has even led some atheists to assert that “eminent scientists who claim to hold theological beliefs cannot really do so” (emphasis original). This ploy could obviously be turned against its authors. Those, like Dawkins, who claim to hold atheistic beliefs, cannot really mean what they say.
But rather than spend time engaging in an apologetic rebuttal of non-believers, Bullivant proposes ways for entering into a new age of dialogue with atheists of every stripe. His clear, accessible and witty language serves to enhance his proposals notably.
Where Bullivant admires Fyodor Dostoevsky and draws on the stellar novelist’s wrestling with the issues of evil and unbelief, Imbelli relishes the achievement of Dante, who turned Thomas Aquinas’s prose into poetry. The greatest of Christian poets continues to serve as a treasured dialogue partner with agnostic outsiders like Clive James. Now old and sick, James published last year, as the culminating achievement of his career, a monumental translation into English verse of The Divine Comedy.
Robert Imbelli aims at nothing less than restoring the vision of the glory of God on the face of Jesus Christ—an aim that the Second Vatican Council notably expressed through two daily customs. The proceedings of the “plenary” or general sessions opened each day with the celebration of the Eucharist and the solemn enthronement of the Book of the Gospels. Christ and the Trinity presided over and permeated the entire work of the Second Vatican Council, with its aggiornamento(updating) of the church’s life that frequently took the form of ressourcement (retrieval) of treasures from the past.
Rekindling the poetry of a life-changing faith in Christ as truly divine and fully human will be the only basis for an effective new evangelization. Imbelli places that faith in the context of the Trinity, the Eucharist and the church. The reflections he offers aim to revitalize a full Catholic commitment. Although not everyone may be as sanguine about what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has contributed to the church’s liturgical life, Imbelli repeatedly offers insights that serve Catholic life, liturgy and proclamation.
His book features four well chosen and beautifully reproduced illustrations: a classical image of Christ from Vézelay, Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity, Caravaggio’s “Supper at Emmaus” (the version now in Milan) and the “Cross as the Tree of Life” (San Clemente, Rome). Imbelli is guided by the conviction that the beauty of great works of art can communicate more vividly and effectively than much theology. He comments incisively on the four illustrations and weaves their messages into his own text.
Imbelli, who was in Rome for the last papal election, outlines the encouragement Pope Francis has been giving to the new evangelization. Imbelli has even managed to insert a postscript on the November 2013 exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” which spells out the challenging and hopeful program for Christian living and preaching that the pope has set before the whole church.
These books by Bullivant and Imbelli have somewhat different aims, but they converge in encouraging and promoting an active, Christ-centered existence in the church that engages generously with the wider world. Both authors enhance the value of their books by providing well-selected guides to further reading. Both share a life-giving commitment to Christ and his body, the church. Their pastorally relevant and historically insightful books will play a part in radically renewing the church and its members.