Nonetheless, even when travelling in mufti, and before my earphones are firmly inserted, a chatty traveller sometimes asks, “What do you do?” St Ignatius Loyola was very keen on the art of the spiritual conversation, and so am I, but not in the sky. Ignatius knew nothing about 17 hours in economy!
However, one of my most memorable plane conversations led to this book. I was flying from New York City to Los Angeles. As I settled into row 44, the very friendly young man next to me asked me what I did. I told him. He said he had been a Catholic. I noted his emphasis on the past tense, but said nothing. He wasn’t sure about anything to do with faith and spirituality. I told him I was a Jesuit, which led him to tell me he had recently read two books by a Jesuit priest; Where the Hell is God? and Why Bother Praying? “Do you know them?” he asked. “Yes, I know them very well – I wrote them.” He would not believe me until I showed him my card.
Thomas and I had a long and engaging conversation about the issues the books had raised, for him and for me. And though we were as discreet as we could be, some of our fellow passengers must have longed for an emergency landing because of the advanced theology seminar happening at the back of the plane. Tom, 30, was an Ivy League graduate. He was also a serious humanitarian, working for Habitat for Humanity during summer holidays. His wrestling with belief, theology, prayer and the problem of evil arose from personal experiences. He told me that as much as he found my earlier books accessible and helpful, they did not address a fundamental issue for him and most of his friends − the why of belief. “We just get worn down by the growing chorus of people who say ‘religion is all nuts and you can be a good person and make a difference in the world and not believe anything more than that’….and the Catholic Church has made it very easy to leave in recent years….I guess what I am struggling with is what are we actually doing on earth for Christ’s sake?” As soon as Tom said, “for Christ’s sake” he apologised, fearing he had offended me. Not at all. Everything that every baptised person does is meant to be “for Christ’s sake”.
I left that plane knowing I had a new book to write and a title already!
What are we doing on earth for Christ’s sake? offers gentle and respectful answers to the questions posed by secular culture, and especially by our detractors, whose voices are louder than ever. I want to answer some of the major concerns of some of our young people about faith, religion and the Church. I offer some hopeful ways forward in sobering times.
The first third of the book looks at the belief and unbelief debate:
- common ground between believers and non-believers, most of whom want the same things − kindness, truthfulness, care for the earth, justice, peace and love;
- dialogue with atheists can challenge us to greater clarity in our thinking, demanding rationality, seeking the case for religious groups influencing social policy and law, and asking whether we practise what we preach.
- In our pluralistic democracies Christianity should not only defend religious freedom but the freedom not to believe. Atheists and agnostics have a right to disagree with everything we hold to be true, but our conversations should be marked by dignity and respect.
- Christians are not all the same. Most of the world’s Christians do not, for example, accept the Bible literally.
- Not all atheists are the same. Nick Spencer in Atheists: the Origin of the Species, argues we should talk of “atheisms rather than atheism”. We should know where our critics are coming from. Atheists may not like it but religion’s back.
- We have to choose between religion and science. Science asks how we came to be here. Faith asks why we are here. Science looks at the mechanics. Faith addresses meaning.
- Within the arguments from science for belief in God, I explore balance, detail, complexity and synchronicity. As Eric Metaxas says, “…the odds against the universe existing are so heart-stoppingly astronomical that the notion that it all ‘just happened’ defies common sense”.
- While we have become used to being told we believe in ‘imaginary friends’, religious experience indicates that there are different ways for human beings to know things. Matters spiritual and religious are akin to love, forgiveness, beauty and conscience.
- Believers are not exactly alone. Though appeals to numbers can be a fallacy, of the 7.02 billion people in the world, 31.6% are Christian, 23% Muslim, 15% Hindu, 7% Buddhist Sikh and 18% comprise all other religions, including our Jewish friends. On the world stage, the non-religious and atheist constitute 5.4% of the population. This last group is quickly growing, but the vast majority of the world’s people has some religious belief.
- When many unbelievers reject God, it is sometimes because of the image of God they hear of and see in action. That God can be worth rejecting. As Martin Borg says in The God We Never Knew, “Tell me your image of God and I will tell you your theology.”
The book’s second section is the fruit of a ‘Q&A’ with 30 young adults about their questions about religion, God, Church and belief. I was especially interested in those who had walked away from any belief in God or religion and the questions that saw them depart. So many were easily collated or refined into one question or a few themes.
- Isn’t religion the cause of most wars?
- Even if Christianity no longer has armies, what about Islam? Doesn’t the Qur'an insist on violent aggression?
- How can anyone believe in God or organised religion when the clergy has sexually abused children, and then Church leaders covered it up?
- The Bible: how can anyone base their beliefs on a book filled with such contradictions, incorrect science and time-bound customs?
- Is there any evidence that Jesus actually lived, and, even if he did, isn’t his story just a religious version of the Superman story?
- How could a good and loving God want Jesus to suffer and die?
- Because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, Christians believe eternal life is opened to humanity. But how can anyone believe in a God who can also damn people?
- Given that Jesus was a simple man who advocated for the poor, isn’t the Church’s wealth and power a major stumbling block?
- If Christians don’t have the morality-market cornered, then why follow any religion’s moral code? Why not just have your own?
- I resent Christians imposing their values on me and our country’s laws. If Christians have to believe in their fairytales, can they just do so privately?
- The worst aspect of religion is its moralising. How can such outdated thinking offer anything to modern society?
My brief answers take seriously the dialogue each of these should invite. I hope this book will become a resource for those who want to respond to our critics, an invitation for greater conversation and an arguing partner for those who disagree with everything upon which Christians stand.
Finally, the book argues that the most eloquent argument in support of belief is not what we say, but what we do. Christian people I know have taught me that Christianity is not about pursuing happiness, but about being the most faithful, hopeful and loving person I can be. It never comes down to what we say, but to who we are and what we do.
Rev Dr Richard Leonard sj is an Australian Jesuit. What are we doing on earth for Christ’s sake? is available from www.albanbooks.com Aurora has a copy to give away. Send an envelope with your name and postal address to the editor before 7 May.