Saturday, July 24, 2010

Apologetics and the Necessity of Good Works

One of the challenges I face in my marriage is our religious divide. I am an ardent Catholic, my husband is an atheist. We have had many conversations over the course of our marriage and some really horrible fights where I said many things I now regret. It's a continuous source of pain for me, and something I pray about daily.

I count myself very blessed in this one fact, however -- my husband fully supports me practicing my faith, even when it impacts his life as well (NFP comes to mind here.)

I've gone back and forth with how much I share with him about my faith and my relationship with God. At times I've refused to answer even his most innocuous questions, like, "How was Mass?," and at other times I have launched, unprompted, into a lengthy defense of Church doctrine or religion in general.

Every conversation we have comes down to the same unanswerable question: "If God really exists, why aren't His people better than the pagans and atheists?"

It doesn't trouble me as much as it seems to trouble my husband, but I simply don't have a good answer for it. "Because we're all human and all sinners," is the truth, but it doesn't provide a very good proof of God's existence. For me, it doesn't disprove God, but I can see very clearly why someone like my husband, with his strong sense of justice and committment to building a community of people where everyone is taken care of and their invididual liberties respected, would have a BIG problem with the concept. After all, if you can be a good person without faith in God, yet faith in God leads many people to do horrible things, then how can faith be good?

It also doesn't help that many Christians in the world do not live as Jesus did, by dedicating their whole selves to love of God and neighbor. My husband likes to point to statistics that indicate places like Norway (populated almost entirely by agnostics) beat places like Brazil (with its large Catholic population) in things like charitable giving. You can make the same comparison between the Northeastern United States and the South. I've pointed out that both those comparisons are also heavily affected by economics; when you have lots of disposable income, you are better able to give to charity, whereas when you're living paycheck to paycheck or scrounging around the poverty level, you simply can't. I also said those statistics don't measure the intangibles, such as helping out a neighbor or providing spiritual or emotional support to those who need it. The Northeastern United States doesn't exactly have the reputation for hospitality and conviviality that you find in the South. My husband is quick to point out that it's the South where you find the most racism, and things like the movement to rewrite history textbooks so they minimize the contributions of a certain American Statesman. He's also quick to point out that throughout history, people who called themselves Christians found a way to justifiy evil actions (slavery, the Holocaust, oppression of women, colonialism) with the Bible. And, getting back to his larger point, if economic prosperity is a better indicator of kindness and tolerance than is faith in God, then why spend so much money and energy spreading the faith?

What, really, is the point of faith? If it doesn't make a positive difference in the world, then why bother with it?

My answer is that it has made a positive difference to me. My faith makes me a better person, hands down. I can tell you firmly, if it were not for my faith I would not have my two beautiful children. My fear of being a parent was so intense that I had decided I wouldn't have children at all, and without faith I could definitely have been one of those women who considered her abortion to be a favor to her child. I also doubt that I would have the personality that I do. I work very, very hard to be a nice person, to show love to those who are around me, to answer rudeness with manners and negativity with cheer. I know that God helps me in these attempts, and that He has made me a better mother than I ever thought I could be. I have a long way to go, but I know I only got here through His help.

I have no explanation for those people who love God and yet treat their neighbor with cruelty, indifference, or disdain. It is a great source of sadness to me that so many people share the mantle of Christian faith, yet diverge sharply on what constitutes the truth. I have no explanation for the crimes against humanity that continue to be committed by thinking, feeling, faithful Catholics. I wish we all acted a lot more like Mary, myself included.

Casting Crowns has a great song titled "If We Are the Body." To me, it emphasises the necessity of good works. No, they will not earn us a place in heaven. But they are the outward sign of God's love on Earth. In a world where so many people look at the evil committed in the name of God and think, "How can God allow this?" it's all the more essential that those of us who believe live out those beliefs in a concrete and active way. We need to be light to the world, shining brighter than any other, because we are lit with the love of God.

I can't convince my husband that God exists, but I can believe. I can't prove that religion is inherently good, but I can practice my faith. I can't explain why some Christians are so hateful, but I can be loving.

I can live my life in a way that points to God. And perhaps that's the best apologetics I can offer.


Ann said...

I was just wondering when you might post again! And, WOW - I am really surprized to learn your husband is an aethist. I have not followed your blog very long, so I don't know if you have talked about this before.

Well, just a few thoughts: you really have in your very own home the divided church - what a mystery. It is not intangelbe "out there" somewhere. I can identify somewhat becuase my dad has lost his faith, but I will pray for you because I know this is a cross.

I know sometimes people say things, but they really don't mean them. And I think for the most part people aren't really convinced of anything just by arguments - but by example, and relationshiops, and experiences, and of course God's Grace. So, I guess there is not too much point in worrying a lot about your husband's arguments, because counter-arguments probably won't win him over anyway.

Is he open to reading your suggestions? My husband loves the book "Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence", it is really great.

Also, I think a lot of aethiests are people who are hurting and who have some anger, especially at God and perhaps their parents.

I would read stories of great converts for inspiration.

Yes, I think you make a great point about the South vs. the North, and I would also point out that the agencies who are calculating these stats are probably from the North, and they are not comparing apples to apples anyway - you make some great points. Also - how can you measure goodness anyway, if you don't conisider abortion and euthenasia harmful to the human spriit? I think these stats devine 'goodness' as comfort and do not consider the soul at all or the big picture - just getting through life with as much comfort and protection as possible - this is boring by any standard.

Very thought provoking post, and again I will pray for God's grace in your marriage! Ann

Sheila said...

"Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter." The actions of supposed Christians (including myself too many times) make me sad, too.

Anonymous said...

Christianity is not about worshiping people, it's about God.God is holy and good and perfect, not people.His logic sounds like God doesn't exist because there are bad people, and that doesn't make any sense.No one is good, not even one, only Jesus.The whole Bible says that very plainly-- how bad we are, and how good Jesus is.
No it doesn't help that many Christians are bad Christians, or that those that profess to be Christian aren't really.The bad actors always get the press and the good ones rarely do.
As far as charitable giving goes, like you mention, it is ridiculous to compare Brazil and Norway.The per capita income for Brazil is something like $9000 a year.Norway is something like $75,000.
Yes, throughout history people used the Bible to justify bad things.They were evil LIARS and sinners.Again, just because people are bad doesn't make God bad. "For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ.And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness.Their end will be what their actions deserve."
2 Cor. 11:13-15
I find it insulting that someone would suggest that rich people are kinder and more tolerant than poor people.I have met plenty of rich people who are evil, ruthless, and hateful to the core and plenty of poor people that will give you all they have.
"Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts.But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins,worth only a fraction of a penny.
Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on." Mark 12:41-44
We spend money and energy to spread the word because that's what Jesus wants us to do, to tell people about him so that they might be saved.
"The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness.He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." 2 Peter 3:9
Faith does make a positive difference in the world. I'm not sure how to talk to that because I can't imagine not having faith. Something for me to pray about.
"Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." Hebrews 11:1
And I'm sorry, but I would argue that Christians that have done crimes against humanity are not faithful Catholics and are not loving God. They need to repent.
"They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good." Titus 1:16
I agree with you to live your life imitating Jesus and be that example. Be such a good and meek and gentle wife. Your actions alone will speak volumes.
I am praying for you and your husband. I am sure you pray for him everyday. This is a difficult path you have chosen. May God bless you.
"Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight."
1 Peter 3:1-4
"Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen." 2 Peter 3:17-18

Rae said...

I think that you have the most beautiful answer that there is. We can't defend the unChrist-like actions of most Christians throughout history. All we can do is to try to live Love ourselves.

My Feminine Mind said...

Thank you for this post. I am a committed Catholic and my husband is agnostic. Though that fact was much more painful to me toward the beginning of our relationship than it is now. He would often go to church with me, because he knew it was important to me, but if he didn't I would bawl all the way to church. But I was always very careful not to let on my hurt to him. I want him to enter the faith freely, not because I guilt-tripped him into it. I also don't want my hurt feelings to cause resentment in him for the Church. (Though I must admit , there are certainly times when I could have done better with this). I try to have patience and show respect for his own journey, and I pray for him. I also remind myself frequently of St Francis's words, "Preach the Gospel always; if necessary, use words."

Jennifer @ Conversion Diary said...

Needless to say, this is such a huge ball of wax that it would take a very long comment to address every point, but I just wanted to offer one quick thought. It's not a direct answer to any of the questions here, but it does touch on the issue of faith and poverty:

One thing I've known from talking to the very poor people I've known (i.e. from rural Mexico, where starvation was a serious threat), is how much of a blessing HOPE is for them. Most of us around here are rich Americans. We have the option of improving our lives through worldly means. We assume we're going to be around for at least another 30+ years.

But we're probably in the top 0.01% of humans who have ever lived. Most people live close to death, with little to no means to improve their circumstances. Burying children is a routine part of their lives.

Of course, aid to improve their circumstances is the best option. But for many of them, the situations they're in are such messes that it would take decades to see any significant improvement. So to know the truth that this life is only a blip on the radar screen of eternity, that all their suffering here will be like the blink of an eye compared to the joy of heaven, is tremendously helpful to them.

If, for example, your husband were diagnosed with an incurable illness tomorrow (God forbid!) that meant that he only had a very short time left, I think he might see this: that sometimes you just can't improve your lot by material means. And that's when Hope can really change your life.

SusanE said...

It's not so much that we believe in Him as to know that He believes in us. It sounds like your husband is a good person sincerely trying to make a better world for his fellow man (and woman). He is an instument of God! That God can use even a nonbeliever to do His work, is very profound evidence of His existance.
I truly believe that God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God. Even those who refuse to acknowledge Him, might abide in Him. But how much more powerful your husband could be if his actions were motivated by faith and strengthened by grace. I will pray that one day he will see what is already within him.
("If God really exists, why aren't His people better than pagans and atheists?"--We are all God's people, even the pagans and athiests.)

Laurie said...

Have you read much C.S. Lewis? He does a wonderful job addressing some of these practical questions about how faith plays out in life and the subtle differences in the heart of a believer versus a kind non-believer. A book like Mere Christianity might prove a quick and insightful read if your husband is willing to take a look. Or (if you haven't already read) such a book might help build some fresh points in your own mind.

Obviously, this argument will keep going round and round with both you and your husband making sincere and powerful points until the Spirit moves in his heart and grants him the repentance that leads to faith. I've heard way too many beautiful testimonies of spouses coming to the Lord based on the living witness of the believing spouse - keep on!

To add to the discussion, I would simply repeat that it is His mercy which leads to repentence which leads to faith. We're not people of faith because of our goodness but because of His. We won't see the full fruit of His goodness until this life is over. The Bible does not tell the story of people made good by their faith but the story of God's strength shown perfect in the lives of weak and sinful people. Their faith is credited to them as righteousness not by their above-average goodness but by the way they hold steadfastly to the promises of the Lord.

Elizabeth K. said...

Just a quick note re: atheists versus Christians: While it is true that an atheist can live a completely virtuous life, it is also the case that entire cultures that embrace atheism or paganism are the most vicious and deadly the world knows. A present-day atheist or agnostic in the forst world is, for the most part, the product of a culture that at one time thoroughly embraced a Judeo-Christian value system. Regardless of belief, your husband is, in many ways, a cultural Judeo-Christian, and practices many of the core values given to us by that system. Whether or not he embraces the religious element is entirely beside the point. People suffer under the delusion that all peoples at all times have embraced kindness and compassion, especially towards the weak. This is simply false. Hitler embraced a neo-pagan doctrine; the Soviets were atheists; acorss the board the most brutal systems seem in the twentieth centruy were not Christian. If we look to the past of paganism, we see systems where the small, weak were routinely eliminated from society, and in many cases where nihilism pervades the worldview.

As for charitable giving, there are many more reputable studies showing that religious conservatives contribute far more to charity than those who identify themsleves as athiests, than studies that show otherwise.

Douglas Naaden said...

Some long-winded comments!

All those questions you listed seem like red-herrings, skirting the issue of truth. Here is a rhetorical question you may ask your husband.

Does proper dieting and exercise help keep weight down, ppl healthy and happier? Many fat people believe that, why don't they do it?

Also, you can't prove something to someone that doesn't want to be convinced. Doesn't matter what the subject matter is. Just do what you can and bide your time.

Douglas Naaden said...

One other thing. Atheists usually use really poor argumentation. It helps to take their questions and turn it to other things. For instance the question:

What, really, is the point of faith? If it doesn't make a positive difference in the world, then why bother with it?

The same can be asked of money, law, etc., but few people do, because the answer is so obvious. It does make a difference and we do bother with that stuff. The fact that the question is asked of religion says more about how an atheist fails to grasp religion more than anything else.
And that is the kicker. These new atheists really don't want to understand.

Elizabeth said...

It is interesting to hear that your husband is an atheist and yet is happy to do NFP, etc. I'm a recent college graduate, and my boyfriend is an atheist as well - I can relate to what you said about not knowing how to dicuss the Church, and I still think I often make the mistake of trying to preach the Gospel with too many words, rather than actions. I was wondering if you have any advice for someone in this situation - most of the faithful Catholics I know (I'm a convert, and my family is very hostile to the Church, so they aren't really very helpful here) have just said flat out that we should only date Catholics and not bother with anyone who isn't. If you had any advice on Catholic/non-Catholic relationships (i.e. discerning whether your differences on religion are an insurmountable obstacle to marriage and raising a family) I would really appreciate it.