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Rejecting Christian Atheism

By Fr. Randy Sly
September 29th, 2013
Catholic Online (

How easy it is to attend Mass weekly, have our kids in CCD, render some service in the parish and yet live out most of our daily life as if Christ didn't even exist. Our Christian faith doesn't form the basic essence out of which we define who we are. We simply put on our faith as our "Sunday clothes," which can go back in the closet when not in use.

WASHINGTON DC (Catholic Online) - Many years ago I was participating in a youth retreat when one of the other speakers talked about being a "Christian atheist." My ears perked up when he mentioned that particular phrase. "A Christian atheist," he explained, "is someone who believes in God but then goes on to live as though he does not exist."

With over 35 years of ministry experience, I've seen this condition everywhere, whether Protestant or Catholic; whether Evangelical, Charismatic or in the liturgical-sacramental world. It is easy to slip into a mode of life where Christ becomes a component of life rather than the center, especially in America where affiliation in religion requires no real sacrifice.

How easy it is to attend Mass weekly, have our kids in CCD, render some service in the parish and yet live out most of our daily life as if Christ didn't even exist. Our Christian faith doesn't form the basic essence out of which we define who we are. We simply put on our faith as our "Sunday clothes," which can go back in the closet when not in use.

At a meeting of the Communion and Liberation Movement in Rimini, Italy in August of last year, Pope Benedict stated, "Every fiber of my flesh is made to find its peace, its fulfillment in God. .Man must turn and recognize that he is a creature, dependent on God. The possibility of living a truly free and full life is linked to the acknowledgement of this dependence which in its depths is the joyous discovery of being God's children."

An Identity Crisis
I'm convinced that one of the key problems centers on a major identity crisis. The crisis is not with respect to our identity but that of our Lord. We are facing a situation where there is a lack of understanding of who Jesus is - and I mean really is. How we answer this question will impact how we respond to him.

Today's section from Luke's gospel speaks to this identity crisis, which lies at the heart of our indifference. Jesus asks his followers if they know who he is.

Once when Jesus was praying in solitude, and the disciples were with him, he asked them, "Who do the crowds say that I am?"

They said in reply, "John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, 'One of the ancient prophets has arisen.'"

Then he said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"

Peter said in reply, "The Christ of God."

He rebuked them and directed them not to tell this to anyone.

He said, "The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised."
(Luke 9:18-22)

Several years ago, when I was serving as an archbishop in my Anglican denomination, I was visiting a parish in another part of the country where I wasn't known. Walking into the office, I warmly greeted the secretary who then said, "Hold on just a second. Just stay here and I'll be with you when I can."

After several minutes she returned. "Now I can help you," she said matter-of-factly. "Who are you and who would you like to see?"

When I identified myself, I could see the color drain from her face. She began to apologize profusely, but I assured her there was no problem. I was fine.

Identity changes behavior. Just think how deeply our faith could run when we truly grasp the profound nature of our relationship with Jesus Christ. We are able to have a personal relationship with God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity and Savior of all mankind! It doesn't get much better than that.

An Apathy Epidemic
Each of us, then, has that one key question from Christ to answer: "Who do you say that I am?" When we fail to answer this, is the problem ignorance or apathy? As Jimmy Buffett, of "Margueritaville" fame said when those two options in a question, "I don't know and I don't care."

From a purely rational point of view, I think most of us know, after only minimal religious formation, that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah and Son of God. At this point, however, we fail to act on that understanding to enter into a serious relationship with him.

We go through the motions of liturgy without truly knowing the one for whom this liturgy is offered. This is where apathy enters in.

Do we care that he is the Christ? The response must come through more than simple lip service but life change. We need to see this relationship at the very core of who we are and what we do.

Again this year I'm teaching one of the 8th Grade CCD classes, preparing these young men and women for confirmation. The faces change annually but the looks are the same - boredom, apathy and even some disdain often appear on many of them.

I'm sure that, by the end of the year, they will be able to pass our confirmation exam, having accumulated the necessary knowledge. The concern to me is to see how much of what they have in their mind is transferred to the heart.

The apathy we see among some today in the Church is not new. In Revelation, Jesus addressed the Church of Ephesus with a similar concern. While being faithful to carrying out the proper functioning of a church, he said, "But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first."

He also gave them the solution. "Remember then from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first."

An Activist Calling
So what are the things we did at first? Let's begin with Baptism. Here statements are made for us that we will embrace for ourselves at confirmation. First, we reject Satan and all his works, which includes the glamor of evil.

This is the "repent" part from Jesus' words to the Ephesians. We turn away from the evil one and all that he offers turning toward the Lord. In moving from apathy to an active Christian life, we are leaving apathy and "Christian atheism" behind.

We now have our eyes and heart fixed on Christ and his way of life. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "It is right and just to entrust oneself wholly to God and to believe absolutely what he says."

I suggest that "doing the works you did at first" means a commitment to "internal activism," where we become involved in an all-out campaign to enact change in our inner being.

So what does this look like? St. Paul's instructions for the Colossian Church give us a clue.

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col. 3:15-17)

We receive the peace of Christ as we re-build our lives on a platform of prayer, where we find our hearts touched by him directly. We are also renewed as the word of Christ dwells in us through Scripture reading and other similar pursuits. Then, with our hearts and minds enlivened, we are able to bring Christ into all that we do in life.

Apathy and "Christian atheism" will not go away without proactive strategies for regaining our first love and the results can be spiritually disastrous. Like the proverbial frog-in-the-kettle, we are not aware that the water is heating up and we're in a bit of a bind. It is time to do something about the lethargic condition of our souls and renew our minds and hearts in the love of Christ.

It can all begin with a prayer that will open up the way for our movement forward:

St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts, by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan, and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

Father Randy Sly is the Associate Editor of Catholic Online and a priest with the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter ( established by the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, through the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus. He is currently the chaplain of the St. John Fisher Ordinariate Community, a priest in residence at Our Lady of Hope Catholic Church and Director of Pro-Life Activities for the Ordinariate. He is a popular speaker for parishes, apostolates and organizations.

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