Catholic Sense 1

Boxing With the Naysayers

Many people who came to Christianity from the outside can remember the serene confidence with which they refused to believe it. I speak as one of them. We were too smart to believe all that wishful-thinking and all those silly fairy tales.

In this series, I’ll be taking up various criticisms of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. I’ll be writing as one who lived on the other side, and who was brought to Faith in spite of his efforts to avoid it, and eventually brought into the Church in spite of his efforts to avoid it.

Many of us can remember the anticipation with which we would pick up the latest book offering an argument that would put down Christianity forever — and the feeling of disappointment when we found the new Last Word On Religion was pretty much the same as all the earlier Last Words, and no more convincing than they had been.

It was as if our favorite heavy-weight boxer kept getting in the ring with some scrawny little guy, with the odds-makers giving four-to-one odds he’d knock out the poor man in the first round, and when the bell rang at the end of the fifteenth round the scrawny little guy was still there. He was panting and sweating and a little bruised, but our favorite was reeling around the ring and crying for his mom, if not lying flat out on the canvas.

Some of us began to worry that maybe Christianity was not so obviously wrong as we hoped. The highly intelligent men who wrote these Last Words on Religion, who wrote with such confidence, who held important positions in major universities, whose articles appeared in the all the major magazines, should have been able to knock it out cold. If they couldn’t do it, maybe Christianity wasn’t so wrong after all.

When I was young, the Last Word against Christianity was packaged in different ways. One of the most popular was the “Death of God” movement. Time magazine’s editors thought it so important they gave it a cover story.
The argument was that religion evolved because people needed to explain the universe, but modern man had learned so much about the universe he didn’t need God any more. Science gave us facts, and replaced religion, which could only offer us feelings and intuitions and stories.

Ancient man believed in demons because they didn’t understand mental illness. They believed in Jesus because they couldn’t face life on their own. But now man had grown up and could boldly go where no man had gone before.
This made sense to me, but then I found out that all sorts of very smart and learned people disputed it. Some of them argued that modern science developed in the Middle Ages, as a natural expression of the Christian understanding of the creation. Others argued with sophistication that the discoveries of science did not and could not contradict or over-ride the insights of Christianity. Even I could see that science hadn’t replaced our need for a savior.

I didn’t understand all this at the time, but even in my youth I began to feel that the scrawny guy was a lot bigger and tougher than I thought.

But Christianity wasn’t just hard to knock down. It was alarmingly attractive. I found the Christians I started to read more interesting than the writers I thought I preferred.

For one thing, they would argue a point where my favorite anti-religious writers would just assert it. The atheist would accuse them of having a simple-minded faith, yet they took much more seriously the atheist critique of Christianity than the atheist did the possible truth of Christianity.

Later I found that C. S. Lewis had felt the same thing. In his atheist youth, he loved the Christian writers even though he hated their Christianity. Chesterton, he wrote, “had more sense than all the other moderns put together.”

But the great secular writers he liked “all seemed a little thin; what as boys we called ‘tinny.’” They entertained him, but didn’t do much else for him. “There seemed to be no depth in them. They were too simple. The roughness and density of life did not appear in their books.”

The Christians, he concluded, “were all wrong, but all the rest are bores.” Reality is infinitely more interesting than unreality. In particular: Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, and wrong ways, false truths, and death are not nearly so interesting.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First ThingsThis column appeared in the Pittsburgh Catholic on August 3, 2009.