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Age of Atheism or Religious Revival?

Interview With Father Thomas D. Williams

ROME, MARCH 29, 2007 (Zenit) - The notion of holiness can seem boring to modern man, but in reality it is the greatest adventure of human existence, says a theology dean.

Legionary Father Thomas D. Williams, dean of theology at Rome's Regina Apostolorum university, makes that point in his new book, "Spiritual Progress: Becoming the Christian You Want to Be."

He spoke with us about the state of religion and spirituality in Western society.

Q: Several books have come out in the recent past making the case for atheism and the end of religion. At the same time people seem to be returning to religious faith in greater numbers. Which is it, an age of atheism or a new religious revival?

Father Williams: What seems most clear is the heightened interest in all things spiritual, whether that means theories proposing to debunk religion, "lite" spirituality, or a more serious exploration of the Christian faith.

The category of spiritual and religious books is the fastest growing sector of publishing. People seem tired of chasing after a purely material success and are exploring life's bigger questions. What does it all mean? Why am I here? Where am I going?

Q: Do books such as Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion," Sam Harris' "Letter to a Christian Nation," or Daniel Dennett's "Breaking the Spell" pose a serious threat to Christianity?

Father Williams: They may not pose a serious threat to Christianity as such -- the Church has faced far more stalwart adversaries -- but they do cause confusion and unrest for many Christians, especially the uncatechized.

In reality, the atheistic theories these authors propose are centuries old and resurface anew in every generation. They may appear novel to those who encounter them for the first time, but they could have been lifted straight out of texts from Voltaire, or Auguste Comte or any number of other Enlightenment authors.

The new threat posed by books such as Dawkins' is that they come with a veneer of "scientific" plausibility, which adds cachet -- if not substance -- to his arguments.

Q: Is "The God Delusion" an honest inquiry into the nature of religion?

Father Williams: Of course not. That would be like calling "The Da Vinci Code" an honest inquiry into the history of Christianity.

Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist. We expect scientists to be objective, impartial and intellectually serious. Unfortunately, with authors like Dawkins this isn't the case. He studiously avoids all evidence that would contradict his theories, and his stated intention is to win over his readers to the atheist crusade. In this book, he is a proselytizer, not a scientist.

Q: You also work as an analyst and commentator for NBC News. What is your perception of the attention that religious faith is given in the media?

Father Williams: To a certain extent the mainline media have picked up on people's interest in religion and offer occasional stories that touch on Christianity and the Church.

The fact that NBC/MSNBC brought me aboard and Fox News regularly features my colleague Father Jonathan Morris testifies to a growing awareness of the importance of religion and spirituality to the public at large.

The success enjoyed by EWTN, which enthusiastically offers Catholic doctrine and spirituality, is further proof of people's hunger and thirst for real spiritual food.

Q: In the later years of his life Pope John Paul II repeatedly asserted that the third millennium would usher in a new "springtime of faith." Was this just an expression of his natural optimism, or can we see real signs of such a springtime?

Father Williams: The Holy Father's words reflected a serious analysis of the state of society in the wake of the tragedies of the 20th century.

Remember that the first sign of spring is the end of winter. Before we see pink rose buds and hear twittering songbirds, we will see white snow turn to ugly brown slush. When winter loses its stranglehold on nature, that is the true beginning of spring.

We see a parallel to this in human society. This past century saw the rise and fall of Marxist Communism, Nazism and Fascism, as well as more subtle versions of ideological materialism promising an earthly paradise. For a while many put their hopes in these ideologies. One by one, however, the great secular ideologies have fallen into disrepute, after causing untold human suffering. As these social experiments have failed, people have realized that they must look elsewhere for meaning and the solution of the world's problems.

Q: Does this mean we can expect a spiritual summer to follow?

Father Williams: That depends on whether we take advantage of the opportunities of the moment. Remember that springtime is a time not of fulfillment, but of hope and promise. Above all, it is a time of work.

Softer soil is equally open to weeds or good seed. Something will grow, but there is no guarantee that it will be flowers and good plants. Spring offers a window of opportunity, a particularly apt moment to sow new seed when the ground is softening up and ready to receive it. If we use the opportunity well, all of humankind will reap the benefits.

Q: Your own book "Spiritual Progress" tries to take advantage of this moment. What do you propose?

Father Williams: This book is a guide for those who wish to advance in the spiritual life. Many are realizing that being Christian in name only simply isn't enough. The Christian life is essentially dynamic and should grow constantly.

Even if we have earnestly cultivated our prayer life and our life of virtue, Christ always invites us to grow more, and holds out new challenges to us. This book helps Christians to understand more clearly where they should be headed in their spiritual lives and how to get there.

Q: In a nutshell, what is the aim of the spiritual life?

Father Williams: The aim of the spiritual life is holiness and union with God. Unfortunately the idea of holiness sounds very foreign -- and not very attractive -- to modern ears. I begin the book unraveling typical misconceptions about holiness, explaining what it is not, before setting out what it is.

Holiness can seem boring, unreachable, even fanatical. In reality, it is the greatest adventure of human existence. We often think we know all about the Christian spiritual life, but we see it only as a caricature. It is actually much richer, fuller and more exciting than what we imagine.

Holiness is found not in seeking to perfect ourselves -- picking away at faults and storing up spiritual credit. It is about forgetting ourselves, discovering how intensely and passionately God loves us, and in loving God and neighbor as a response.

Q: Where does God's will fit in?

Father Williams: Here, too, we need to sweep away some common misconceptions. God's will is not simply a blueprint he has made for our lives, like a well-meaning but overbearing father who desperately wants his daughter to be a lawyer.

God's will is simply another name for God's love for us. Because he loves us, he wants only good things -- the best things -- for us. He asks certain things from us not because he needs them, but because we need them. He points out the road to true happiness, and allows us to share in his own life and work.

Q: What does this require from Christians?

Father Williams: Above all, it requires courage and trust. We need courage to embark on a life of faith, without knowing where it will lead. We need courage to accept the challenges that our Christian faith holds out to us. We need courage to leave behind our old securities and treasures, and to put our confidence in God and his promises.

And we need trust. This is perhaps the greatest challenge for modern Christians. We often feel betrayed by those closest to us, and would prefer to rely on our own ingenuity and creativity.

But God wants our trust. He wants us to believe in him, and to know that he will never let us down. Only the one who trusts finds the strength to accept the beautiful demands of the Christian life. When we finally realize that God really is Love, we learn to trust in him unconditionally and to follow him wherever he leads.

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Keywords

Atheism, Williams, Theology, Religion, Spiritual

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