Do Your Beliefs Cause Unbelief?

Last week, I pointed to the “eclipse of God” as the deepest problem afflicting modern Western societies. This disappearance of God from man’s existential horizon causes many other problems (especially moral problems), and it presents a profound challenge to traditional religious faith.

This is a multifaceted problem which deserves sustained examination. This week, I want to explore one of its more provocative facets: namely, the responsibility of believers for unbelief. Specifically, I wonder: Are we conveying an adequate image of God to those without Christian faith?

On this point, the Second Vatican Council acknowledged that “believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism” – particularly when they practice or present the faith in ways that “conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion.”(Gaudium et Spes, 19)

Volumes could be written about instances where believers have obscured the true face of Christ and his Church. In cases of blatant moral scandal, it is easy to see how believers contribute to atheism.

 

But there are more subtle ways in which we may block others from belief. The reality of God can be obscured even by a Catholic whose beliefs are not consciously heretical, and whose life is not morally scandalous.

Even this sort of person can make Christian belief unattractive or even unthinkable to others, if he presents them with a flawed view of God. Without deliberately violating any doctrine of the Faith, he may still present an image of God that is so inadequate, as to be substantially wrong.

Most likely, such a believer has already internalized this distorted perspective in his own life. He contributes to the larger cultural “eclipse of God,” insofar as he shares with others his own murky, clouded view of the Lord.

This, again, is a vast subject. We must narrow our focus: to two fundamental ways in which morally sincere, doctrinally orthodox Catholics still manage to repel others from Christ and the Church, by presenting misleading images of God.

The first distorted image, is of a God who is only fully present in our explicitly “religious” activities, whose involvement in the rest of life is limited to a kind of moral policing. Grace is seen as limited to sacraments and prayer; truth, beauty and goodness are acknowledged only in “Church-approved areas.”

The second distorted image is of a God who, by revealing Himself in Christ and the Church, practically ceases to be mysterious. Unintentionally – and contrary to the Church’s own teaching – we sometimes speak as though the Church “knew everything about God,” with barely any mystery left over.

No well-informed Catholic actually holds these opinions as conscious beliefs. However, some of us – and I do not exempt myself – have an unconscious tendency toward these warped view of God. By reflecting such views in our interactions with others, we inadvertently contribute to the “eclipse of God.”

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Both of these distorted images – the God whose only role in secular life is that of a moral watchman, and the God who is rendered “non-mysterious” by His self-revelation – seem rooted in an overreaction against opposite errors.

The virtual restriction of God’s activity to explicitly religious acts (sacraments, prayer, Church-identified charity, “Christian culture”) is an overreaction against the opposing “horizontalist” mindset – which overemphasizes the love of neighbor and risks forgetting the worship of God.

Likewise, if we treat God as if He were involved in the secular sphere only as a judge, we are probably overreacting not only against horizontalism, but also against the heresy of antinomianism: the idea that God does not really judge our actions at all.

Similarly, the aversion to speaking of God as mysterious – to the point of acting almost as though He were fully comprehensible – is an overreaction against theological looseness, which sometimes invokes God’s mysteriousness as a pretext to strip religious doctrines of any clear, fixed meaning.

Unfortunately, the opposite of a falsehood is not necessarily a truth. Often it is a falsehood in its own right.

Whatever errors we seek to avoid, we have surely taken a wrong turn if God, the absolutely Infinite and Transcendent, no longer seems mysterious – as if we could know practically everything about Him by reading the Catechism and the great theologians.

Likewise, we know our perspective has been warped if we imagine God involved in “the world” mainly as a judge of its worldliness – when in fact, He is constantly granting all of us our being, and incessantly inviting us to share His transcendent life by grace.

These are profound errors. They may not be as common, across the board, as the opposite errors they seek to combat; but on the other hand, they are more likely to be found among fervent, self-consciously orthodox Catholics – those with more desire to evangelize.

This means that we, for all our evangelistic zeal and professed orthodoxy, may potentially “conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion.” For surely God does not stand aloof from the secular world, or purely as a judge over it; nor has He ceased, in his self-revelation, to be mysterious.

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There are many ways in which – without straying into conscious, culpable heresy – we can misrepresent God, through distortion or wrong emphasis. I have also focused on these two ways, partly due to my own experience; but also because they are problems we can readily address.

We can fight the “eclipse of God” by clarifying our own vision – filling in deficiencies or distortions in our view of God, so that the image we present to others is both more authentic and more attractive.

Insofar as we mistakenly experience God as virtually uninvolved with the secular world – or present there only as a judge of its failings – we can look to the advice St. Ignatius Loyola gave, about the training of the early Jesuits:

“They should strive to seek the presence of God our Lord in all things – for instance, in association with others, in walking, looking, tasting, hearing, thinking, indeed, in all that they do. It is certain that the majesty of God is in all things by God’s presence, activity and essence.”

Though sometimes labeled as “Ignatian,” this form of contemplative awareness is a rightful part of all Christian spirituality. It is the supreme antidote to a narrowly-confined view of God, which can drive people away from faith.

By acquiring the vision of “God in all things,” we can work against the broader cultural eclipse of God. We can convey a more true and beautiful image of the Lord, “everywhere present and filling all things.” God is “not far from every one of us”; His grace is omnipresent, even if it is not always fully accepted.

But what about the other problem I have highlighted, the tendency to treat God as non-mysterious?

Here, I believe the answer is mainly found in contemplative prayer. The contemplative tradition takes us beyond concepts and thoughts about God, into the lived experience of his unfathomable Mystery.

Contemplation is not a futile shutting-off of the mind, but a form of singularly concentrated attention – in which physical and mental stillness become vessels of God’s ineffable presence.

This kind of contemplation is not occupied with thoughts, because it is a different way of knowing: a way which surpasses conceptual and discursive modes, coming to rest in a direct intuition of the Absolute.

This traditional form of prayer can be practiced in different ways: through the Jesus Prayer or another short formula (such as a Psalm verse); through mindful repetition of a single word or phrase; or in a pure, wordless attentiveness to God.

Like the “Ignatian” recognition of God in all things, this non-conceptual way of prayer can correct our distorted views of God. Contemplation, in particular, counteracts the tendency to treat God as a fully-knowable “object” rather than an infinite Mystery.

In contemplative prayer, we discover that God’s incomprehensibility is nothing to fear. It does not mean we know nothing whatsoever about God, nor does it make Catholic doctrines untrue. It simply means that the Lord, even in His self-disclosure, is always greater than our finite minds.

Mystery and revelation are not opposites, as some people think. When we become comfortable with the mystery of God, we can share the truth of Christianity without appearing to “put God in a box.” We can help the world understand that God’s true self -revelation is always the door to an ever-greater mystery.

Believers have undoubtedly contributed to the rise of atheism, often by conveying inadequate views of God. If we want to fight the “eclipse of God,” we can begin by clarifying our own vision: by finding God in all things, and going beyond concepts – true though they are – to know Him as Mystery.

To show the world that God is neither distant, nor aloof; and that he is simultaneously knowable, and mysterious : these are urgent tasks, in the time of the “eclipse of God.” The first need is to see clearly ourselves.

Benjamin Mann

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Benjamin Mann is a Byzantine Catholic, former atheist, and incurable philosopher, with experience in journalism, speechwriting, and monasticism. He published a short autobiographical book, “Shouting Through the Water,” in 2014 (available as a free download at http://tiny.cc/sttwbook), and is preparing a sequel reflecting on his post-monastic life. His current interests center on the integration of psychology and meditation within a traditional Christian framework

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