I’m seeking some advice from Catholics, and I was hoping you could crowdsource this to your blog. I’m an atheist dating a Catholic, and, a week ago, I asked if anyone had suggestions for ways to explore Christianity that I ought to adopt as New Year’s resolutions.
Well, I’m a college student, so my New Year doesn’t start until classes do, so I’d still welcome suggestions. If you want a quick sense of where I am now and some of my unanswered questions, I wrote a very brief sum up of the year here. I’d welcome questions or advice.
P.S. I already have several of Mark’s books, so no need to make the obvious suggestion. I also already attend Mass every week– I made a deal with my boyfriend that I would go to church if he went to ballroom dance lessons.
Leah, if you haven’t met her yet, is a sane atheist whom I have come to like a lot: humble before reality, mature, charitable, and not filled with the sort of strident ideological certitude and nasty belligerence that characterizes Ditchkins and their acolytes. The internet does not tend to Darwinianly select for such voices, so I am grateful for her blog.
As far as my suggestions go, I think Jesus is probably the best counsellor in this matter:
“My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me; 17 if any man’s will is to do his will, he shall know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.” (John 7:16-17).
In short, the best way to proceed is to do what Jesus says. If you don’t know where to begin with that project, start where you are. Ask him (even if it feels like asking the air) what needs to change in your thoughts or actions in order to become a bit more like what Christ commands us to do and be. Something will fairly quickly turn up. Start there. It may feel like playing pretend. What’s the harm in that? If it *is* pretend then there’s nobody there and you’ve spent a few weeks exercising you imagination. If it isn’t pretend, then he is there and is on record as saying that even an act of faith the size of a mustard seed is good enough for him for starters.
That doesn’t mean the work of the intellect must cease, of course. If the various conversations about the mere existence of God are helpful then pursue them. St. Thomas did. But do be aware that Jesus, at any rate, had little interest in chatting about God the Ground of Being or First Cause or Designer. Such a take on God, while useful to philosophers attempting to engage a radically impoverished spiritual culture on the barest minimum of terms, is like talking about the alphabet.
Jesus was not about demonstrating that ABC existed. He thought in sonnets and sought to make poets. The trouble about focusing all one’s energy on questions like “Does God exist?” is the same trouble as focusing all one’s energy on whether A B and C exist. One can get caught up in the “problem” of why there are so many typefaces, and why more ancient tongues do not all agree on whether “j” or “i” should perform this or that function and why some languages have no A B or C at all that the much larger fact of language is lost altogether. Not all such cleverness is wisdom and children are spared a lot of wasted time by just internalized this basic stuff and moving on to the more interesting issues in language thereby.
Jesus spends absolutely no time on the question of God’s existence for the same reason that Shakespeare spends no time proving that English exists. It’s an obvious fact in which he and his audience live and move. The quarrels of the New Testament are quarrels among grad students who learnt their ABCs long ago and are now discussing (and discovering both the sins and virtues) of more advanced discourse–in fact, extremely sophisticated discourse–about God.
Of course, it is the special anxiety of the modern and post-modern world to wonder if these ancient Jews were simply operating from the start on the basis of a massive category mistake: they assumed a theistic world, were wrong, and *everything* they thought was based on this massive error. They may have gotten factoids like the hypoteneuse or Euclidean geometry right. But the cosmos they lived in was fundamentally an erroneous one and the whole project of simply assuming theism was a massive mistake.
Sure. That’s possible. But it’s also just as possible that the categorical denial of theism by the atheist is the huge blunder and that Jesus and his hearers (both friend and enemy) are in the right mental universe. If so (and it seems an even bet at least) then it seems to me that the experimental route Jesus advises (“do my will and you’ll know whether I speak from my Father”) seems the sound route to take. What could it hurt?