Millennials ask good questions, hard as they are, and they can't settle for "you just have to have faith..."
Let’s call her Caroline. I could use any name, but I’ve always liked Caroline so I’ll use that name. Should I ever meet the Caroline I have in mind―a real person, though to be clear we have never met―I’m certain I would like her just for her name.
There are other reasons, too. She is an attractive personality. She’s loyal to her friends, tries to do the right thing as she understands it and has plans for career, marriage, I don’t doubt, and maybe children later on. She is in her mid-20s, thereabouts, not too long out of college and, unless she is very lucky, struggling still with her education debts.
She is also — I may be saying this too strongly — a walking indictment of Catholic parish education and faith formation, which is to say she hasn’t had much, if any. At the very least, what she received has become abraded. Her faith, she lost it somewhere and, to the concern of her mother, just isn’t much interested in looking for it. She’s okay, thank you, and if you were to ask why her faith is the way it is, her explanation would mirror thousands of other people whose descriptions more or less match her own.
There are Carolines widely spread across the Christian spectrum; no reason to single out just Roman Catholics. Catholic or Protestant, Caroline is replicated in every denominational heritage.
Distilling what Caroline has told her mother, though God may in some sense be real, the Bible is not. It is too credulous of miracles. Besides that, if Jesus is the only way to the Father, then God is too cruel beyond measure, capriciously condemning all the rest of humanity whose only “fault” was to be born among the wrong people who happen to hold the wrong religion. Where is the love of God for them? More than that, Caroline counts atheists among her friends. They are genuinely good people, disturbingly, more giving and kind than some Christians she knows. Are they too destined for hell?
Caroline asks good questions, hard as they are. But questions like these do not arise from nowhere. These come from deep within the culture and they cannot be responded to with “you just gotta have faith.”
We are living in the midst of postmodern nihilism. A fancy phrase but it means, essentially, there are no longer set certainties, no uniform way of discerning life and our purpose. Postmodernism had led to moral and ethical confusion. Our morality has become privatized; we shop around for what we like. I can’t think of a better example than the restaurant tag, “No rules. Just right.”
How do we know it is right if there are no rules determining it, and if there are no rules, how do we judge if it is wrong? A variation runs “my life, my rules.” And if life is morally nihilistic―without decisive purpose and no certain goal at the end―then you had just better get busy and “grab all the gusto you can get.” This is what Caroline is encountering.
Those two ad slogans, simple reflections of our culture produced by ad men smart enough to see it, summarize for me the twin afflictions of false belief and despair. False belief, at heart, I think, is denying that God is a God of mercy. It may be unfair, but yeah, so it seems to Caroline, he’s willing to condemn billions. Despair, the existential sort, is thinking all you get is just what you can see.
There are times when I describe myself as a recovering atheist. I’ve been down Caroline’s road. I can recall my conversion to atheism with the same clarity of a born-again Christian, down to the date and the hour if I search my memory. Unlike my born-again experience with atheism, my re-conversion to faith was a gradual drift, flowing along to the gradual place where I was surprised to find myself a believer, again.
Study tipped me. (I have some resources for all the Carolines who are questioning and questing, and willing to study a little. They are at the end of this article.)
But looking back, thinking it over, while an atheist I harbored some deep anger at God, and strangely it was because he did not exist. I recognized that without God not only is everything permissible (Dostoevsky), it was also pointless. False belief: no God. Despair: life has no ultimate summit. This is the contestation I faced, along with the Carolines of the Church, as well.
I will pray for Caroline, of course, and for those like her, and for her friends. Time for them, I think, is on God’s side―his love will have its way. As the Church has said in council:
“Through [the Church’s] work, whatever good is in the minds and hearts of men, whatever good lies latent in the religious practices and cultures of diverse peoples, is not only saved from destruction but is also cleansed, raised up and perfected unto the glory of God, the confusion of the devil and the happiness of man.” Lumen Gentium, Vatican II (Chapter II:17)
Letters to a Young Catholic, by George Weigel, a journey through Catholicism, tied to real places, real people, and real issues. Weigel assures me “old” Catholics will like it, too.
Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”, by Hans Urs von Balthasar, is an examination of the Christian hope that all will be saved through Christ; call it Christian universalism. While the hope is real, the doctrine is not. Nonetheless, while the Church has gone out of her way naming some who are most surely already saved, she has never specifically named anybody who is not.
For me the reality of God came down to the reality of the Resurrection, and Carl Olsen’s Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, unquestionably, is one of the better books on it.