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Courting the Gentiles

by Edwin Faust
February 22, 2011

Our modern world has unfolded in such a manner as to make the late Catholic luminary Hilaire Belloc appear not only perspicacious but prophetic. As many as 80 years ago, between the two great wars of the last century, Belloc observed that we were witnessing the beginning of something we had never before seen. He called it the new paganism.

Why not regard it as a resurgence of the old paganism? Because it represented, in Belloc’s estimation, the very antithesis of the old paganism, which was fundamentally conservative. In the world of antiquity, men looked to their fathers for the manners and mores in which they grounded their lives. In the world he saw taking shape, it was taken for granted that fathers were necessarily fools.

Belloc retained the term paganism, which he broadly defined as natural religion that had not been supplemented by Revelation. Natural religion may be based on truth, but it is a partial truth insufficient to satisfy the need for a unified vision of life that not only gives order to our actions, but imbues them with transcendental meaning.

Paganism grew old and decayed because it could not take men beyond the grave. Suffering from this limitation, Belloc notes, paganism inevitably led to despair, despite however many earthly glories it may have achieved. The poet has even the great Achilles, inhabiting the shadowland of Hades after his demise, saying that it would be better to be the meanest slave among the living than the greatest hero among the dead.

It was Christianity, with its revealed truth, that rescued paganism from despair. Respect for one’s fathers became more than a matter of custom; it became a Divine command. Power was transferred, so to speak, from man to God. And the reward for virtue became more than an honored memory among the living while one wandered among the shades in a dreary afterlife. Men were sustained here by the hope of the hereafter in Heaven.

Christendom took shape when Revelation infused paganism with a genuine sense of the supernatural. Greek philosophy, long divorced from the mythology of the gods, found its fulfillment in the new religion, which confirmed its most hopeful speculations about a lasting and ideal world beyond the transient one we inhabit so briefly.

There have been many internal conflicts in the history of Christendom. Heresies were with us from the beginning, culminating in the Protestant revolt that split Europe into warring camps. But even those wars were, as Belloc puts it, a quarrel about the value and meaning of a joint patrimony. What he saw in embryo was the total rejection of that patrimony. In Survivals and New Arrivals, he wrote:

“We are approaching unknown forms in the conflict between the Church and the world. We are about to meet — or our children are — not the assault of rebels, men of our own speech and manner, but the assault of aliens. Hitherto it has been Civil War: it is soon to be Invasion.”

One can say now the invasion is complete, and we who would keep the Faith of our fathers are an ever dwindling minority. Increasingly, the raison d’etre of ecumenical dialogue is not so much unity as mutual defense. Doctrinal differences are considered of less importance than erecting barriers against those who deny all doctrine based on Revelation.

Belloc would not have been surprised by the recent rise of militant atheism. He would have seen it as the inevitable progress of a mindset that not only rejects the heritage of Christendom, but regards it with contempt.

For a long time, religion has been yielding more and more territory to the claims of science. No longer widely regarded as a reliable guide to cosmology, still bearing the stigma of the trial of Galileo as an emblem of her supposed repressive ignorance, the Church has been largely restricted in the popular imagination to the realm of morals, and even this reduced role is severely criticized and questioned. And those who see religion as a force that retards the progress of science — and morals — have gone on the attack.

To the extent that the Church has responded to this attack, she has pointed out the inadequacy of humanism, that is, of what might be called natural religion not supplemented by Revelation. But as Belloc pointed out, the new paganism is radically different from the old. The areas of convergence are ever receding. The Church, until now, proceeded as though it were dealing with a resurgence of the old paganism, whose virtues it could accept and supernaturalize.

The new paganism has this characteristic: that its virtues are precisely those beliefs and behaviors the Church calls vices. What common ground can Christian morals find with those who countenance homosexual marriage, abortion, euthanasia, pornography? So long as the Church does not recognize how great is this divide, it will be unable to confront it with any hope of reversing the trend.

Pope Benedict has initiated what, to some minds, appears a fantastic enterprise: dialogue with atheists. He is calling this attempt to establish a goodwill rapport with unbelievers the “courtyard of the Gentiles.” The phrase refers to that outer part of the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem where non-Jews were permitted to enter.

Those who regard this initiative with doubt, if not derision, point out that dialogue about differences is only possible with those with whom one shares some common ground. What do Catholics share with atheists, they ask? Especially with militant atheists?

I think the answer may be: a desire to know the truth.

Most people who doubt or disregard the faith in which they were raised come to call themselves agnostics. Few go so far as to declare themselves atheists. Why? Because few care enough about the truth as to stand on one or another side of the great divide between those who believe in God and those who don’t.

If a man cares enough about the truth to ponder it, even if he decides against belief in God, one has reason to hope for his conversion. If a man keeps looking for the truth, a moment of grace may arrive at which he is offered it. There is little hope for the conversion of the agnostic, who has adopted the indifference of Pontius Pilate. “What is truth?” the Roman procurator asked rhetorically with a shrug. “What is truth?” asks the militant atheist, with genuine curiosity and fiery zeal.

What will be the outcome of the “courtyard of the Gentiles”? Who can say at this point? But the Pope is trying to come to terms with the modern world without surrendering the ancient Faith. He has shown himself unafraid to expose that Faith to the severest scrutiny. If we believe, as does the Holy Father, that truth will prevail among men of good will, we should pray for the success of this initiative. We cannot convert the world unless we engage the world.

And dialogue with atheists is not all that novel. In 1948, the BBC aired a series of radio debates about the existence of God between the Jesuit scholar Father Frederick Copleston and the celebrated mathematician, philosopher and atheist, Bertrand Russell. It may be argued that both sides in the debate were preaching to their respective choirs, but it is also probable that among the listeners were those as yet uncommitted to one side or another.

The courage and candor of a Catholic apologist subjecting his faith to the scrutiny of so formidable an opponent as Russell must have been impressive. Perhaps, Father Copleston won some converts, or at least opened some minds to truths they had not previously considered tenable. Did Russell cause anyone to lose the faith? It seems unlikely, as Father Copleston held his own, demonstrating the intellectual respectability of his position, and that of the Church. (A recording of the debate can be heard at: http://www.bringyou.to/apologetics/p20.htm)

So when the “courtyard of the Gentiles” is thrown open in a series of colloquia in Paris in March 2011, Pope Benedict will have demonstrated that the Church’s detractors — those militant atheists who claim she is incapable of defending her doctrine — are wrong. The Pope will have proved the falsehood of the charge that the Church can only answer a challenge by hurling anathemas or launching inquisitions.

The best way to show that reason and faith are compatible is to reason with others about it. Will any unbelievers move from the “courtyard of the Gentiles” into the inner sanctum? That remains to be seen, but at least they will have stepped into the sacred precincts where grace may begin to work upon men of good will.



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