A few days ago, news sites reported the results of a new poll indicating that, for the first time, Americans claiming to have “no religion” are now as numerous as Catholics. These atheists, agnostics, “spiritual-but-not-religious,” self-identified “nones,” and other persons dissociated from organized religion make up about 23 percent of the populace—roughly double their number of just two decades ago.
After reading that article, I went for a walk, pondering what the causes of this might be. Based on my interactions with such people, I thought, it couldn’t be that they have thoroughly studied the case for religious faith and found it lacking.
My mind then drifted to an image found in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, the sixteenth-century soldier-turned-spiritual master who started the Society of Jesus. Ignatius offers a thought experiment that involves imagining two great cities engaged in battle against each other. One, Jerusalem, is ruled by the humble and good Christ. The other, Babylon, is ruled by the arrogant and evil Lucifer.
The two cities are at war with each other, though their battlefield is not clearly marked. They both send their emissaries throughout the world, with Lucifer’s trying to find their enemies’ weak spots, relentlessly assaulting them until they have destroyed them or until their tactics are no longer effective. Ignatius’s images set before us the battle both within our souls and throughout the world that is always raging, even—or especially—when we think it is not.
These thoughts led me a question: What strategies would I use if I were fighting for God—or for Lucifer?
For God’s strategy, I thought about what might seem like an unlikely factor: the experience of boredom.
Boredom reveals a longing or ache that is especially pronounced when we lack distractions or activities that pull us away from our emptiness. Boredom shows that we are incomplete when considered all alone. The experience of emptiness and pain is most acute when we lose those closest to us. These overwhelming and disorienting pains scream the loudest to us: “This world is not the answer to your heart’s aches and emptiness!” We are made for union with God and the emptiness within us, especially when we live without hope in God, is a constant reminder of that fact.
How do we experience the beauty of Christ for which we were made? For me, the most successful path has been the one we follow this week: spending time with the story of his sufferings, death, and resurrection. On the one hand, we see in the ugliness of death and suffering the beauty of Christ’s self-offering. On the other, the resurrection reveals the divine seal of approval on Christ and sets him apart from all other religious leaders and imposters.
Similarly, how do we encounter the beauty of the Church, to which our boredom with the things of the world likewise points us? For me it has been to glimpse the beauty of the tradition that has been passed along, admittedly through frail human beings, over twenty centuries. The wealth of compelling, elegant, insightful theological and spiritual writings, the extraordinary lives of the saints and martyrs, the art and architecture, and the witness of good Christian people today, all combine to show the beauty of being a part of a religious faith that is much larger than myself. It is a Tradition that provides a context and community for the journeys of life and death; a context and community that I need.
Now, what if I were Lucifer? I settled on three corresponding methods of attack.
First, I would do everything in my power to fill the void that gives rise to boredom. My goal would be to immerse the lives of people, especially the young, with artificial means of distraction. Because experiencing natural beauty (even just the wildflowers in our backyard) confronts our minds with a world we did not engineer or cause, we are pulled beyond ourselves to a world that is “given,” not manufactured. A world that is entirely artificial enhances the illusion that we are authors of everything. And that keeps us safe from seeking out the true Author.
Second, I would assault the story of Christ with the goal of diminishing his uniqueness. I would encourage a multiplicity of speculative methodologies along with encouraging general pessimism and agnosticism regarding knowledge of the past. I would also intensely promote caricatures of the Christian story. I would foster the illusions of intelligence, studied reflection, and confidence so as to confuse those who know little about the Faith and deter others from a genuine encounter with the story of God’s love revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. I would use the power of media and art to recreate an image of Jesus that is less like what is reported in the Bible and the Tradition and more reflective of the spirit of our time.
Finally, I would do everything in my power to highlight the hypocrisy and imperfection of Christians. The corruption that often accompanies positions of power and the massive influence of our culture that works against the development of virtuous dispositions makes the examples of moral failure all the more common. If I can promote the illusion that Christian faith is powerless and makes no difference in a person’s life, I will be much further along in my efforts to keep people from looking beyond inevitable failure and disappointment to the loving Father who welcomes his prodigal children home.
So the battle rages on. And the latest casualty analysis is discouraging. But Christ’s forces still have time for a counter-attack, promoting:
- opportunities for silence and boredom to make people more deeply aware of the never-ending cry of the human heart for its God;
- a powerful, faithful, fearless, informed and dynamic proclamation of Jesus Christ; and
- the compelling contents of the Faith that, once understood and received, are known to be the “answers at the back of the book” of life and eternity.
A final essential effort would involve showing the beauty and life-transforming power of our faith by our own lives. Perhaps this is what the “no religion” persons in our world are most waiting for.