A friend had a German exchange student living with them. He was a nice kid. Middle class and smart, but when they took him to Mass he said, “I don’t know why people need God. I don’t need God.”
My friend said, “Believing in God gives me peace of mind.”
“But I already have peace of mind” said the German kid. Of course. He felt okay because he doesn’t need God. He has a secure life. He enjoys health, good contacts, prosperity and a seemingly secure future. The poor kid mistakes complacency for peace of mind. His mind isn’t at peace. It’s just dead. He’s never looked misery in the face and never yet asked the big questions.
He’s typical of the young generation of European atheists. They really, honestly do not see any need for God. Without having any moral education they feel no guilt over anything. Without having any religious education that includes heaven and hell they have no worries about the afterlife. They do what they like when they like and see no need for God. What catechesis they have had is universalist (the merciful God will ensure that everyone goes to heaven) so of course he concludes that religion (and God) are irrelevant to him.
The irony of this is that he is the result of a great Christian experiment in which we have tried harder than ever before to show how very relevant God and religion is to the human race.
When my friend tried to argue for God by saying he met a need (he gives me peace of mind) he articulates the main problem with modernist religion. It is this: we have tried to argue for God and for religion according to utilitarian methods. We want to make God necessary for people. We want to show how God meets their needs, makes them happy, and how religion makes them nicer people and how religion will make the world a better place. In other words, we have a marketplace mentality. If we can just show people how great God is and how super dooper religion is we’re sure they’ll buy the product.
To do this we inevitably sugar coat the product and therefore sell them a false religion. When they realize they’ve been duped they clear off and never try Christianity again. So, for example, a person is told by some Evangelical preacher that Jesus will save them from their sins, heal them, fill them with the Holy Spirit and they will belong to a wonderful, warm and genuine family of God as they belong to the Church. Then they join the church and find a group of struggling sinners just like they are. They feel they’ve been sold a bill of goods, and they’re off.
The permutations of this false religion are endless in America. We Catholics have our own version. It’s called AmChurch. It’s comfort religion. Sickly sentimental worship songs, masses that are all about ourselves and how good we feel. Songs and sermons about how we are going to change the world ‘We can make a difference’ etc. It’s all a big pep rally to make people feel good and feel relevant and feel alive and most of it’s fake.
I’m for preaching what they call here in the South the ‘ole time religion’. It’s a tough, uncompromising religion that believes in heaven and hell and preaches the simple truth that we’re all sinners headed away from God unless we turn and repent and believe the gospel, and take up our cross to follow Christ.
The modernist will cry out in horror, “But people just don’t believe that sort of thing these days!” Well some people don’t, but in my experience, most people who take religion seriously at all are crying out for this sort of message. This is exactly what they believe and they wish their clergy did too.
The modernist will cry, “But it is so irrelevant to modern people!” Well, making religion ‘relevant’ hasn’t done anything but empty churches. Let’s try the irrelevant for a change. After all, to paraphrase St Therese of Lisieux, “There is no merit in doing something that is relevant.”
PS: This post is a re-write of one posted last week with the title ‘The Crux of the Matter’. The first version was hastily done. I took it down, but someone asked for it to return. So here’s a new version.
Tonight, on It’s the Mind, we examine the phenomenon of deja vu, that strange feeling we sometimes get that Fr. Longenecker has posted an essay before.
It’s a re-write. The first version was a little leaky.
The German exchange student is so typical of the new secular European youth. (The only religious youth there are Islamic, I fear.) And the confusing thing about them is that they’re so open and honest, very nice, actually. One simply *likes* them. There is nothing about them of which one could disapprove or criticize. And yes, they’re atheists. I think in many ways it would be easier to deal with one of the hate-filled Islamics, easier, that is, to feel secure in one’s Christian faith. These happy, quite-nice young people are a greater challenge to Christians’ convictions than terrorists.But here it is on its most basic level, maybe: They are young and strong, with bright eyes and good teeth, happy, optimistic, and very intelligent, wealthy–and likeable. And they love, yes they do, and deeply. But that’s just it: the most they can ever have is each other. And even if you love someone, there is no greater deprivation than not loving Christ. It isn’t a question of “needing” God, but of loving him. That is the pearl worth selling all those wonderful attributes to gain. Without it, there is only poverty.As for how to preach to them, I don’t think you can. “The wind blows where it will” and all we can do is be grateful for it.
To all who live in or know this European culture, What do the poor do? The ones Mary said, “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” What of the poor? Certainly with a country heavy in taxes there are poor. I’m curious to know their response to all these absurdities.
I once got into a discussion with my cousin when he wanted to know, why after years of committed atheism, I now believed in God and I was now a Christian.I was excited that he wanted to know. I began an enthusiastic presentation of the reasons for my belief. He asked a few vague questions and I became gradually aware that there was a barrier to him really coming to any understanding of the faith. He couldn’t counter my arguments for the faith, nor did he really try to, but rather he simply let the conversation run out. It was obvious that believing in God was NOT something that would fit in with his lifestyle. It would have been too demanding on him. He was much happier to coast along in a vague agnosticism and a world where you could do your own thing.That is why Father Longenecker is 100% correct. Any appeal to modern man on the basis that Christianity will make you feel better or that God is a sort of cosmic Santa Claus, who will humour all your whims, is doomed to utter failure. We must present the stark truth – man is a sinner who needs redemption. We can add to this the truth that Christianity is the ONLY explanation of life that really makes sense and explains the reason the world is the way it is. Sure we can also say that once you are united with God, life is so much more beautiful and meaningful and that our God IS a God who answers prayers and God does love us. He loves us so much He sent His Son to die for us.By the way – my cousin continued on his path, took mind blowing drugs, ended up losing his job in law and now lives a lonely existence in a little apartment in a run down part of the city where he spends the day smoking and taking his psychiatric medication. Life without God and His truths is no life at all.
Dustthouart – Monty Python references must be recognized! LOL!Fr L – this is a great post. I’m going to link to it at my blog later in the day. Thank you!
Veritas,I know your frustration, both from your own experience and from your cousin’s. That is why I feel sorry for the preachers whose sermon is intended to convert non-believers. It can’t be done, not by us. Billy Graham remarked that he only gave the same message over and over–why was he so “successful”? Because it was not his sermon that converted, but the Holy Spirit. He knew that. Our Lord said the same thing: The wind [the Spirit] blows where it will. We don’t control it. We can’t guide it with words to the target we choose. It chooses “where it will”. (I use the pronoun “it” for clarity, not for theological accuracy.)I don’t think threats of hell work, except in children, or in those very much burdened by a sense of guilt. Psychiatric drugs or other therapy to erase guilt is a great disservice to many. The only real cure for guilt is forgiveness.For other people–perhaps most?–the only thing that works is emptiness. No one, human or divine, can fill a place that is not already vacant and empty. The young European has no empty place. If he should ever hunger for that which no earthly thing, including human love, can fill, the Holy Spirit may find him. I don’t think threats of hell would be very effective.
Timely, Father. Re-write as much as you wish; this is a crucial issue. I see this phenomenon (in part) as the result of a degenerative communication of the Church’s Christology, particularly in Europe. I’ve lived across Europe, at various intervals, since the early 1990s (I feel old and decrepit just writing that) and have certainly encountered this ambience everywhere. Yep. Christology has been sacrificed in favor of an overweening pedagogical emphasis on this rather watered-down ecclesiology (c’mon, we’ve all seen it), and that bit hasn’t been well-communicated, either. Don’t get me wrong, I think deficiencies in Christological communication (if you will) are troubling the global church, with the diaphanous sort of ecclesiological pap being circulated and constantly recycled in place of it, but the effect is especially grave on the European mindset. The Euro-mind needs a massive and very well-calibrated “Christological infusion” to stop the hemorrhaging. My opinion. Maybe I’m way off base. It’s a terrifying problem on the Continent, in any case. Wow. It merits a book, which I’m not about to write here (any longer, at least). But, again, from my experience doing catechetical work in Firenze and Paris (especially), christological concerns play ~one~ important part in this crisis. It does indeed vary from, say, Bonn to Bordeaux, but it’s pretty uniform in being a grave problem. Glad to see you bring this up.
Thank you for the re-write, although you made a couple of other points in your original post which were important, and which elicited some very astute observations.This is a keeper.
You sound like an Orthodox priest (with the exception of the AmChurch reference). My priest is from Texas. He doesn’t quite get to hell and brimstone, but he often gets very close. And we’d rather have that than a secularized, feel good homily.
My parents hosted a French exchange student recently and she was utterly mystified by the God-focused atmosphere of our house- prayer at meals, prayer at night, religious art on the walls, and church related-goings on throughout the week… It makes me so sad to see Europe in such a state of spiritual and moral decline.
Thanks for re-posting. I read the original and was much edified, and when I went back to look for it, I thought I must have only imagined someone spoke that clearly.