The phrase Godless world is popular with some presidential candidates. In recent months it has also occasionally appeared in Catholic publications and catalogs. Catholics are mistaken to use the phrase or others like it.
Catholics believe in the Incarnation and the Redemption. God, through God’s creation and through Christ’s death and resurrection, is already in our holy world. Encounter with God for a Catholic is thus normally mediated through the world. Catholics experience grace (God’s love) through family, neighbors, co-workers and others. Catholics meet God in the sacraments; the little sacraments of daily life and the liturgical sacraments.
Most Catholics most of the time do not claim a so-called direct or individual relationship with God. The relationship is mediated. God’s love and God’s truth come by way of the world; by way of discovery in the classroom or the lab, inside the ups and downs of home life, through art, music or literature, through conversations and action on the job, through stories about one’s grandparents, and through the worldly accomplishments and setbacks of predecessors in the faith.
God’s grace is normally not loud or bright or immediately evident. That is why Catholics are given, as it were, special analogical eyeglasses and special analogical earphones to see and to hear from God who is disguised in ordinary circumstances. This is the function of the marvelous Catholic sacramental imagination. The Eucharist, to give one basic Catholic example, reveals God magnificently. But God comes disguised or concealed as a flat wafer (“work of human hands”) or a droplet of wine (“fruit of the vine and work of human hands”). God makes use of flawed worldly things (wheat, grapes) and people (bakers, vintners, fellow worshipers) to stay connected with God’s analogues, with all of us who are created “in God’s image and likeness.”
Because the world both exposes the love of God and conceals the greatness of God, Catholics need to meditate daily or at least weekly on one’s comings-and-goings. Catholics need to recall the details of the day and week to appreciate that God is constantly lurking about the world—the workplace, the home, the neighborhood. Aware or not, appreciative or not, we never have a moment when God is absent from the world. It is wrong to presume that the world is Godless and that we somehow have to restore God to any alley, any medical complex, any union hall, any media hub, any trading floor, any park or museum, any airport or loading dock. God is already there. The world cannot be Godless.
Of course there is sin. Of course there are features or overtones of modern life that warrant Catholic criticism. Of course Catholicism, indeed Christianity, is counter-cultural. But it is also and mostly culture affirming.
Any strategy related to the phrase Godless world assaults God’s gifts of reason and science, God’s gift of nature and beauty, and particularly God’s living Incarnation in the world. Likewise Catholics should use the phrase culture of death and other negatives sparingly and with plenty of context.
For Catholics, the world is basically good through flawed by sin. The world is the place of encounter with God. The world needs healing and merciful kindness, yes. But God’s plan for the world does not need condemnation from self-serving and self-appointed messengers of God.
Droel edits a newsletter on faith and work. It is free from NCL (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)