Sunday, December 18, 2011

What Christians can Learn from an Atheist

Christopher Hitchens: God's Favorite Atheist?
Christopher Hitchens. Born 13 April 1949. Died 15 December 2011.  I was not familiar with this man until today, only a few days after his passing, however after reading a few articles on the man reflecting on his life and his zealous atheism, I am uncertain as to whether or not I would like him or if we would have been friends. He certainly seemed as if he was quite a likeable character even in Catholic and Christian circles. I think I would have at least held a considerable amount of respect for him.  I would also like to think I understand at least some of the reasons behind his disbelief. None of these reasons may have been decisive factors, but they certainly seemed as if they were contributors to his self-dubbed "anti-theism."  I would like to discuss two significant points that Hitchens made in a recent interview and their significance in evangelization. Hitchens was wrong about many things, but he was right on these two points. In an article titled Hitchens: God's Favorite Atheist? posted on the World Net Daily, author Art Moore describes an interview he had with Hitchens.

Noting that Christian evangelists say they are motivated by a desire to please God, I asked Hitchens – pointing to his "zeal" for his message – what motivates him.
"Well, intellectual scorn, really. Frankly," he said. "A sense of superiority, arrogance."
He quickly made it clear that he was speaking for himself.
"It's a feeling of just intense irritation that people are allowed to say that they are people of faith. They feel that by making this statement they have added to the argument," he said. "By announcing they believe something for no reason at all, without any evidence, they don't contribute to the discussion."
(Read the full article here:Christopher Hitchens: God's favorite atheist?

Christina's World, Andrew Wyeth.
This part of the interview reminded me of a point that my ethics professor, Professor Javier Carreno, made on the first day of class last spring during my studies abroad in Austria as part of the Franciscan University Austria Program. He told us about a fashion competition that took place a few years ago during which one of the judges, a homosexual, inquired as to the reason behind the traditional views on marriage held by one of the contestants who was a Christian. The contestant responded that she believed that marriage was between a man and a woman because that was what she was raised to believe. She had been taught that her whole life. The judge replied that her reasoning was stupid. When he finishing the story, I thought my ethics professor was going to uphold the bravery of the contestant for standing up for what she believed. However, my professor said that in a way the judge was right. The reason that the girl had given for her belief was stupid. It's not enough to say that you believe something because you have been taught it your whole life. This is poor reasoning, if it could be called reasoning at all. One needs to actively wrestle with their beliefs and either reject them or take them on as their own.  Christians, especially Catholics, need to take responsibility for their faith through ongoing conversion, forming themselves in their faith through philosophy and theology. Hitchens called attention to this fault in certain Christians who simply say they have faith, and think that this simple statement is good enough. Hitchens had every right to voice his irritation with such people. Catholics need to be capable of answering not only for what we believe but why we believe it.

But he said one of his "big quarrels with the Anglican church, the one in which I was baptized, is that it got rid of the King James Bible for the most part and the old hymnbook."
"They now sing and read these banal versions of [liturgy], which I used to enjoy," he said.
"I now go to an Anglican or Episcopalian ceremony, and I'm just horrified by what they've lost," he said, "what they threw away when it was unarguably a huge, aesthetic advantage."

Hitchens called attention to the need for beauty as well as truth in Catholicism. The significance of beauty in the conversion of the human person is often neglected when it comes to evangelization . . . at the expense of souls like Hitchens'. Beautiful art, beautiful music, beautiful language are what Hitchens calls "a huge aesthetic advantage." Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky said once, "Beauty will save the world." Pope Benedict XVI has called beauty the language of the human heart.  He says, "The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of an arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes so that we can see the truth more clearly." Note that Hitchens specifically mentions the language of the Anglican liturgy and the music. How we pray and what music we sing at the liturgy does in fact matter. Dr. Peter Kreeft gave voice to this in a lecture he recently gave at Franciscan University titled, "How to Win the Culture War," where he mentioned an instance in which he had accompanied a Muslim friend to Mass one day.  The Muslim said afterwards that while the beauty of the architecture had lifted his soul upwards, the language of the liturgy had left his soul horizontal and flat. In the same talk, Kreeft spoke of two separate atheists he knew who converted to Catholicism after hearing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. For some people, it takes more than just the naked truth to draw them into the fold. It takes the harmonies of Faure's Requiem, the stirring use of shadow and light in a Caravaggio painting, the lofty spires of a cathedral. Benedict XVI calls sacred music "an audible and perceptible rendering of the truth of our faith. In listening to sacred music - suddenly we feel: it is true!" This is a principle that applies to all forms of art.  
Although the Catholic Church has always advocated the use of beautiful art as an integral part of evangelization, her support has not always been properly  represented in the liturgy or recognized by bishops, priests, and laity. Fortunately, this is beginning to change. With the arrival of the new translation, the language of the Roman Rite has improved immensely.  Through the work of our beloved Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, organizations such as the Church Music Association of America and the sacred music programs of Franciscan University and Ave Maria University, sacred music is beginning to make a come back in the Church. These institutions and programs are helping artists and musicians to recognize the need to use their gifts for the conversion of souls. They are shown that it is not enough simply to create art. Rather, they must be taught the principles of beauty behind it so that they can create art and music containing the qualities of universality, goodness of form, and sanctity. I conclude with a passage from Bl. John Paul II's Letter to Artists

Statue of St. Paul at St. Paul's Outside the Walls Basilica, Rome.

 "Mine is an invitation to rediscover the depth of the spiritual and religious dimension which has been typical of art in its noblest forms in every age. It is with this in mind that I appeal to you, artists of the written and spoken word, of the theatre and music, of the plastic arts and the most recent technologies in the field of communication. I appeal especially to you, Christian artists: I wish to remind each of you that, beyond functional considerations, the close alliance that has always existed between the Gospel and art means that you are invited to use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man."

Hitchens may be counted among the victims of the rational and aesthetic impoverishments occurring within Christianity today, but I am praying and hoping that such times are coming to an end. 

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