An interesting article.
My family was ‘culturally Christian’ in a small way: at Christmas, there was a nativity set on display and Christmas carols on the stereo, and my mom at one point reprimanded me for the teen habit of saying “Oh-my-God” as a verbal filler. But there was no Bible or religious books in the house, and we never went to church. As a teenager, I began to be concerned with questions of right and wrong, and felt a longing for meaning and connection, but it didn’t occur to me to explore these issues in religious terms.
In college I absorbed the prevailing idea that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, was just a historical curiosity, and that science could explain everything. By the time I was in my mid- to late twenties, I was convinced that there was no God (or any spiritual reality). I did not believe that I had a soul; I thought I was just an intelligent animal, and that when I died, my consciousness would simply blink out. I thought that there was no ultimate meaning in life, and that people who believed in any form of God were seriously self-deluded. It was a bit depressing, but I believed it to be the best explanation of the way the world is, and truth is better than false comfort. If that’s not atheism, I’m not sure what counts…
Sometimes I’ll hear atheists argue that “you don’t have to believe in God to be a moral person.” I agree! I know from my own experience that atheists can be moral people and do good deeds. What I couldn’t do, as an atheist, was to give a compelling reason why I had this moral sense, or to explain why I recognized that my efforts to be good always fell short of my ideals.
I also didn’t understand, then, that Christian teachings on virtue and morality were anything other than a set of rules and pious slogans – I didn’t know that the Church offered a relationship with a living Person who would, if you would allow it, actually do something to change and transform you into a new person, a fully alive person… But that was a something that took quite a while to understand, and indeed it’s only since I’ve become a Catholic that I’ve begun to fully appreciate the fullness and transformative power of God’s grace, above all through the Eucharist. It’s a completely different paradigm.
I wasn’t interested in hearing arguments about God, or reading the Bible, but God’s grace was working through my imagination… like a draft flowing under a closed and locked door.
To begin with, classic Christian literature planted seeds in my imagination as a young girl, something I write about in more detail in my book. Later, Christian authors provided dissenting voices to the naturalistic narrative that I’d accepted—the only possible dissenting voice, since I wasn’t interested in reading anything that directly dealt with the subject of faith or Christianity, and thus wasn’t exposed to serious Christian thought.
I found that my favorite authors were men and women of deep Christian faith. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien above all; and then the poets: Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, John Donne, and others. Their work was unsettling to my atheist convictions, in part because I couldn’t sort their poetry into neat ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ categories; their faith infused all their work, and the poems that most moved me, from Hopkins’ “The Windhover” to Donne’s Holy Sonnets, were explicitly Christian. I tried to view their faith as a something I could separate from the aesthetic power of their writing, but that kind of compartmentalization didn’t work well, especially not with a work of literature as rich and complex as The Lord of the Rings.
Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I needed to ask more questions. I needed to find out what a man like Donne meant when he talked about faith in God, because whatever he meant, it didn’t seem to be ‘blind faith, contrary to reason’.
The Christian writers did more than pique my interest as to the meaning of ‘faith’. Over the years, reading works like the Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, and Hopkins’ poetry had given me a glimpse of a different way of seeing the world. It was a vision of the world that was richly meaningful and beautiful, and that also made sense of both the joy and sorrow, the light and dark that I could see and experience. My atheist view of the world was, in comparison, narrow and flat; it could not explain why I was moved by beauty and cared about truth.
Someone once said something along the lines of ‘Preach the Gospel every day, and if you need to use words.’
I find that a very interesting concept, but I am not sure I can do it.