An atheist acquaintance once told me that he respected religion, he identified with its values of reverence, humility and gratitude and its understanding of life and death – but that he didn’t believe the “factual story.” I tried to point out that you can’t separate them; that reverence, humility and gratitude flow from the life of Christ and that our whole attitude towards life and death is profoundly changed by Christian discipleship.
Edward Sri’s book, Into His Likeness: Be Transformed as a Disciple of Christ (Augustine Institute/Ignatius) discusses this very topic: how to cease being merely a Sunday morning Catholic, whose life during the week is probably not so different from that of my atheist acquaintance, and come to recognise that faith is much more than merely assenting to the civilised values that flow from it. As Sri reminds us, it is not enough to describe ourselves as “just a normal Christian”; behind the “factual story” lies our redemption, our salvation, and Christ’s appeal: “Follow me.”
Sri, professor of theology at the Augustine Institute in the US, relates how as a young man he lived with the late, saintly priest, Fr John Hardon SJ, for three months. The priest’s total commitment to Christ made a deep impression on him; Fr Hardon would rise before dawn to pray and offer Mass; he often visited the Blessed Sacrament during the day; like St John Paul II, he prepared for his lectures in the college chapel; he often went to Confession. Indeed, Hardon’s life (his Cause is being put forward) showed the young man what it meant to have “a radiant love for Jesus.”
In his book, Sri frequently reminds readers that, as Christians, they cannot also reflect the values of the world i.e. to be absorbed in the media and the world’s values all week and hope to be different for one hour on Sunday. “Right now” he warns the reader, “There’s a battle going on for your mind – for how you look at reality.” Either we subtly reflect the preoccupations and concerns of the world in which we are immersed – or we see all reality through the lens of faith.
Like all writers who have experienced a personal “conversion” that has brought their habitual faith alive in a new way, Sri has an evangelical zeal in wanting to convert others, reluctant to recognise that Christ’s call is about self-transformation, not conformity to respectable moral behaviour. As he puts it, “Our Faith tells us the most important part of the universe is spiritual reality…the angelic beings that surround us moment by moment, the Holy Spirit who is present to us, the life of grace in our hearts and our own spiritual souls that will last forever…”
This is the “factual story”, straightforward and true. How much do we really believe it?