It is easy to become self-righteous, or defensive, when a Christian feels attacked by atheists. However, indignant arrogant rants that bludgeon others with the ‘truth’ treats the unbeliever as an object and not an intelligent person who is also loved by God. When I am secure in the Love of God, I can love and respect everyone, because I do not feel threatened. Then it is possible to encourage respectful dialogue that actually listens to the crux of atheists’ concerns and doubts. Such dialogue opens the door for the Holy Spirit to become the Divine Moderator of the discussion.
1 Corinthians 13:
4 Love is always patient and kind; love is never jealous; love is not boastful or conceited, 5 it is never rude and never seeks its own advantage, it does not take offence or store up grievances. 6Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but finds its joy in the truth…..9For we know only imperfectly… 12 Now we see only reflections in a mirror, mere riddles, but then we shall be seeing face to face.
My words alone will not convince an atheist. Catholics need theology and apologetics, but these disciplines will not convert anybody, because Christianity is not primarily a moral theology or a philosophy, but a relationship of love. By focusing upon the reality of our Christian experiences as they truly are, Christ becomes a living Messiah not only to us, but a visible light to others.
Many believers still cling to a false idea of a God with a white beard on a throne. This image is a finite human creation, not the real, infinite Creator of the universe. Of course, intelligent atheists reject false, naive views of God. My own personal experience of the Holy, Immortal One, is often closer to the mystical apophatic tradition The Christian contemplative is a life of prayer. Such devotion is not one of rigid perfection and certitude, but a life which involves inner struggle, growth and healing, as we journey deeper into the Mystical Body of Christ. The honest life in Christ is rooted in humility not pride, because we are constantly aware of our own sinfulness and wounds.
The contemplative learns about deep trust and complete abandonment to One he knows to be beyond all understanding. The mystic does not have all the answers; he is not afraid to admit that he does not understand everything and he certainly does not berate or belittle those who are searching. The true mystic experiences God as unknowable, not an object nor a thing to be studied. God cannot be boxed in, defined because He is a mystery. Such experiential faith reveals itself in the ground of our being. This is where dialogue with atheists can begin, because God dwells at the core of our selves, atheists and indeed of all life.
Ultimately, it is God who reveals Himself to the atheist.
A brilliant young friend was atheist. He availed himself to understanding Christianity. When I asked what he had read on spirituality or Christianity he simply replied, “The library”. One day, we were in a prayer group, and while praying, my friend relaxed as merely an observer on the margins of the group. Suddenly, he suddenly started to laugh. Our eyes popped open in surprise. The quiet, subdued young man was beaming, and he exclaimed,
“I’m hot all over, especially inside my chest, my heart really. It feels like a glowing, golden mist all around me, inside of me…but it was there all the time; I just couldn’t feel it or see it. All of a sudden I am plugged into a circuit board of power that has been here the entire time. God is real. He exists. I can’t believe it. Why did I not see something all around me, in my face? I feel this energy flowing between everyone in this room and connecting to me as well, like electrical currents, like invisible bands or cords. I want to jump up and down and start yelling on the top of my voice that God exists and He is right here.”
God converts atheists and draws them to the Church while our self-righteous preaching drives them away. What God really needs from us is just one open window, one landing strip, one antenna to perform miraculous conversions.