Precious Allies

When the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer died in December at the age of 104, obituaries listed among his most significant edifices two structures built for remarkably different clients: the French Communist Party headquarters in Paris (1965) and the Roman Catholic cathedral in Brasília (1958). Another church design of Niemeyer’s is considered by many architects to be even more significant than his church in Brasília because it predated the liturgical and architectural ferment around the Second Vatican Council by several decades: the Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Pampulha, Brazil (1940). Described by fans as a whimsical conjuring of a bouncing ball and by foes as a garish and profane take on an airplane hangar, the building (whose design features a prominent row of parabolas) has had a profound influence on church architecture throughout the world. It would not inevitably look out of place in a present-day North American parish, a testament to the reach of Niemeyer’s ideas about sacred buildings.

One other thing: like Le Corbusier, his mentor (and fellow church designer—he built the famous “Pilgrim’s Chapel” in Ronchamp, France), Niemeyer was an atheist.


A month after Niemeyer’s death, the secular and the religious met again at the second inauguration of President Obama in Washington, D.C. On that day, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia drew attention for the jaunty cap he sported, a replica of the one worn by St. Thomas More in a famous portrait by Hans Holbein. Because More chose martyrdom in 1535 rather than betray his conscience at the demands of Henry VIII, some commentators suggested Scalia was making a none-too-subtle point about the Obama administration’s ongoing political struggle with Catholic bishops over religious exemptions to elements of the Affordable Care Act. More’s final words are reputed to have been, “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”

Robert Bolt, the British writer whose play “A Man for All Seasons” (later made into an Academy Award-winning movie) did much to launch Thomas More into the public imagination four centuries after his death and several decades after his canonization, described More as “a man with an adamantine sense of his own self,” a person whose unswerving commitment to his faith and his own conscience made it possible to make the ultimate sacrifice. But Bolt (who also later wrote the screenplay for “The Mission”) admired More because of his defense of conscience, not his religion. Robert Bolt was an atheist.

Strange bedfellows, no? They are not alone. Xavier Beauvois, the director of the 2010 cinematic masterpiece “Of Gods and Men,” also identifies himself as an atheist, despite the explicitly religious nature of that film. The list goes on and on. What artists like Beauvois and Bolt (and Niemeyer and Le Corbusier, in their own way) share with believers is an admiration for a transcendent aesthetic, a sense that art need not just comment on the human condition but can lift up the human spirit toward something beyond itself, something that believers might call God. Their belief (or lack of it) might make them seem unlikely fellow travelers for those who are deeply invested in the Christian tradition, but they are fellow travelers nonetheless. Pope Francis, who has linked large-scale acts of violence to the “attempt to eliminate God and the divine from the horizon of humanity,” nevertheless also suggested recently that atheists could be “precious allies” of the church in efforts “to defend the dignity of people, in the building of a peaceful coexistence between peoples and in the careful protection of creation.”

And why not? As Flannery O’Connor once acidly noted about Catholic fiction, a fairly consistent motif of self-consciously Christian art, architecture and literature is its deplorable tendency toward either the saccharine or the obscene, as if saints are innocent or terrible and never anything in between. If we truly accept the significance of the Incarnation, we also accept that nothing in creation is foreign to God and to belief, even if crafted for a dramatically different purpose. The sacred need not always be set against the profane; the church need not always be against the world. And in valorizing a transcendent aesthetic, in holding up what is praiseworthy and godly, the atheists can indeed be our allies. Sometimes they point to God in places the rest of us fail to look.

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Bruce Snowden
5 years 9 months ago
Holy Father Pope Francis said, Atheists could be the Church’s “precious allies” defending human dignity, also in building peaceful co-existence and through ecological sensitivity. In other words, by focusing on what is, in a word, “godly” Atheists can be allies of Christianity or more precisely, the Catholic Church. Strange as it may seem, of late the celebrity Atheist Stephen Hawkins has, in a way, allied himself unintentionally no doubt, to Catholic theology saying what the church has always said, that materiality came into existence “out of nothing.” Hawkins added however, that God is not needed to do that, suggesting that somehow it just happen and still does! I find that puzzling, for can anything ever, “just happen?” Does Hawkins mean that materiality caused itself and has the ability to do so with omnipotent potential, without beginning, without end? Sounds God-like to me! Is Hawkins saying that materiality has a God-like quality and is ever responsive to a “Let it be” command from within itself when in its nothingness it somehow cogently reacts? I can agree provisionally with the hypothesis that matter may have God-implanted freedom to evolutionary react, but dragging along a “troubling” question however – not for me, but logically I’d say for Hawkins, namely, “where did materiality get the “go ahead” to issue the command, “Let it be?” And how? In truth Stephen Hawkins, all Atheists “live by faith” far greater than mine! They believe in the power of materiality to do things on its own, obviously from within itself, a power which doesn’t exist until the command is given. How does that command happen? Faith in God as Creator is much more understandable and believable! I doubt there’s a totally convinced Atheist, for just as Believers may at times doubt the existence of God, so too, Atheists must at times wonder if there is a God, negating their fundamental premise. Believers return to Faith in God for after all, true Faith in God is a Gift from God, rooted in Faith, for Faith is a most trustworthy telescope through which God can be seen questioned and understood. Whereas, Atheists seem to have nothing to return to but denial. True too, Believers are not the only ones who “speak in tongues” difficult to understand. Atheists too, “speak in tongues” just as difficult to understand. But as the Holy Father has said, sometimes we speak the same “language” and become ally, one to the other. In a sense Atheism is a bandage, an interesting bandage covering the wounds that the mystery of God can inflict – you know the question, “If there is a God, WHY! WHY! WHY!” And more. Interestingly in the private revelations of Divine Mercy, St. Faustina Kowalska says that Jesus told her at the hour death he comes one last time to everyone illiciting a Profession of Faith, one last time to say, “I believe!” Of course Jesus has included Stephen Hawkins and all Atheists in that promise so there’s always hope. Blessed John Paul II and Hawkins have at least one thing in common – they both have shown how to gracefully endure a disabling handicap. In his graceful endurance of disabling illness Stephen Hawkins is truly precious ally to the Church and the Church to him! That’s admirable! At least so it seems to me as posted.
J Cosgrove
5 years 8 months ago
One's religion is most often an emotional commitment as opposed to an intellectual one. Atheism is as much a religion as Catholicism because it an expression of one's relationship to the ultimate cause of the universe and ourselves. We as Catholics say it is an omniscient and benevolent God while the atheist just says it happened by some unknown material process. Either way it is a statement about ultimate causes. And as such it is often strongly emotionally held. Don't look for reason in an atheist's beliefs. There are none. Don't look for science to support the atheist despite what the conventional wisdom says. It doesn't. Science actually supports the concept of a creator very strongly. A long time acquaintance of mine recently said rather proudly that he helps out at his wife's church but is a committed atheist. This a person who thinks of himself as rational but cannot justify his beliefs. They are emotionally held and in his case, probably due to a resentment some place in his past. Most atheism is based on a resentment, with the primary object of that resentment, organized religion. And organized religion has a long track record of providing a good model for this resentment. Another source of atheism is a hubris that says I am all that is needed. There is no one greater than me that caused me so I have no allegiance to such a force or owe this force/person anything especially worship or adoration. This is especially true for those who are gifted intellectually. So look for resentment and pride as the source for atheism, not logic or evidence.
J Cosgrove
5 years 8 months ago
For those readers who think that the progress of life over time is well understood and explained by the ideas of Charles Darwin, read The best scientific answer to the questions how did life start and how did it evolve, is to say it is a mystery for which we have no credible answer. That is the correct scientific answer.


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