Dear Donagh,

…. Very few of my friends would say that they don’t actually believe in God, but there isn't one of them who shows any enthusiasm for their religion.  Whenever you bring up the subject, they just shrug it off.  Or some of them start talking about priests abusing children and they get angry about it all over again.  The idea of God seems to be dying out year by year.  I understand them in some ways, but I can't see how people can put God entirely out of their life.  Granted, there were bad priests, but God didn’t approve their behaviour.  Why blame God for it?  These friends of mine are honest and good-living people, who look after their families.  I avoid the topic of religion now when I'm with them, but I feel a bit of a coward for that.  What should I do in the circumstances?  Can you advise me?  John C.

Dear John,

I wish I could give you a satisfactory answer to your question.  You mention your circle of friends who can't bear to hear about religion, but of course the circle of practical unbelievers is vast: people who give no more than ‘notional assent’ to the faith.   For every person who makes a reasoned argument for atheism, there are thousands who just turn and walk away.  However, though the scale of this may be greater today, it is not something new.  When it was socially required, many conformed to religious practice; but now that the pressure is off (or pushing in the opposite direction), they show the distance that was always there. 

On the other side, I'm convinced that many who would not describe themselves as religious at all, follow the Gospel path better than many who profess to follow it.  Remember that passage in Matthew’s gospel?  Jesus said: “What do you think?  A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘My boy, go and work in the vineyard today.’   He answered, ‘I will not go’; but afterwards thought better of it and went.  The father went to the second son and said the same thing; and he answered, ‘Certainly, sir’; but he did not go.  Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Mt 21: 28-31).  In other passages in the gospels, Jesus praises the faith of a pagan Roman centurion (Mt 8:10) and a pagan Canaanite woman (Mt 15:28); he tells an expert on Jewish law to imitate the behaviour of a pagan Samaritan (Lk 10:37).  This is very radical teaching, and it was not lost on some Christian teachers through the ages.  St Augustine (354 – 430) wrote, “How very many sheep there are outside the Church, and how very many wolves within!”  It should make us vividly aware that the line we draw between believer and unbeliever is much too clear to be accurate.  

Yes, we are in a time of upheaval.  The scandal of child abuse did (and continues to do) untold damage to the Church’s ability to preach the Gospel.  Scales fell from the eyes of many who used to hold the clergy in high esteem.  Looking back, it was never realistic to think that all priests were holy.  But every extreme creates its opposite: priests were seen as (kind of) semi-divine; now they’re seen as semi-human.  It won't cut much ice with your friends if you tell them that the abusers were a small percentage.  The fact that even one did so, is a horror; the sight of even one wolf in the fold is terrifying.  There's no defence, no argument; we just have to take the consequences; and one of the consequences is that many people have walked away from the Church and don’t intend to return. 

Life has to go on.  How is it going to go?  Nobody knows in the long run.  Whether we are clergy or laity, we have to keep on keeping on, somehow.  Preaching the Gospel in word and deed is not a project of our own devising; it is something we are called to, and we have no right to give it up.  Hope is one of the three ‘theological virtues’ (faith, hope, love).  Calling them this is a way of saying that they focus on God (‘Theos’ is the Greek for ‘God’), unlike the ‘cardinal virtues’, for example, which focus on ourselves.  These three theological virtues are fundamentally one, so can no more give up hope than we can give up faith or love.  In a strange way, it is helpful to know that giving up is not an option.  But it still leaves us with the question, how to go on. 

When we are walking on ice, how do we walk?  We take short steps, and we watch carefully where we are going.  Likewise here, we try to keep the faith by living with heart – moment by moment, heartbeat by heartbeat, doing the ordinary things with faith, hope, and love.   Short steps.   Like Jesus, we don’t give up on anyone, because, like those pagans he befriended, they may well have more faith than many an explicit believer.  We cannot believe in God without believing in people – because, clearly, God believes in them.  So, one of the ways we can manifest the faith that is in us, is to believe fully in the people around us.  You must have noticed many times that people come to life when they realise that someone believes in them.  This is selfless work; it has the stamp of the Gospel on it; and it is creative in untold hidden ways. 

I took flak from someone recently after I had expressed ideas like the above.  He was convinced that this was a sell-out of the Church, and that we should be leading the charge in defending the Church, attacking its attackers.  That, of course, is the language of warfare – or at least, stonewalling; it makes the Church seem like a political party, and its preaching like a political rally or an advertising strategy.  Jesus told Peter to put his sword back in its scabbard (Mt 26:52).  Aggressive self-defence impresses only aggressive people (who are already convinced in any case), and it alienates most others. 

So, John, how are you to cope with your friends’ hostility to ‘God and the things of God’ (to use that strange expression)?  Remember that they may be suffering still from treatment they received from some insensitive priest or teacher in the past.   Here’s a suggestion.  Your friends know that you are a believer, and so, they judge God by you and everything you do; everything is ‘a thing of God’.   When you stand steadily by your faith, feeling free to express it, never ashamed of it, never entering a conspiracy of silence about it, you are making God visible to them.  Belief in God is not just of the mind; it is also a matter of the heart (the word ‘belief’ comes from ‘lief’, which is related to the word ‘love’).  Likewise, atheism isn't only of the mind; it is also, or even mainly, of the heart.  When it is obvious to your friends that you believe in them too, even if they can't bear to hear of God, you are making God visible to them.  That is the only effective ‘proof’ for the existence of God.  “God is love.”  Only by separating you, their friend, from God can they reject God.  So, courage, my friend!  But I wish I could do more justice to your question. 

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