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Monday, September 30, 2019

What If Jesus Really Is God, Then What?–Confessions Of A Worried Atheist

Bartley Hammond was brought up as Catholic in the 1950s, a time of unquestioned belief in the Church – Confession, Holy Communion, Mass, and mortal sin.  While practice was often desultory, faith was never doubted – at least in the small New England city where Bartley had been born and raised.  The Church was not only an institution of faith but the institution.  For the residents of New Brighton the Church – or for that matter the churches of the many Protestant denominations, or the Jewish synagogue – was a social anchor and belonging meant probity, rectitude, and belonging to the wider community of the town.

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People were identified quickly and easily by their nationality (Italian, Polish, Jewish, Anglo-Saxon) but especially by their religion.  There was a great degree of religious tolerance in those post-War years in New Brighton perhaps because of the multi-faith platoons of the Army, but because religion before the era of identity politics was never a cause to be defended but simply a faith to be practiced.  Brantley’s parents went to Mass regularly, received the Sacraments, and respected the canon; but their friends were the Lutheran Swansons, the Episcopalian Porters, and the Jewish Bernsteins.

The Hammonds were not only observant Catholics, they accepted the principal tenets of the Church – the divinity of Jesus Christ, the Holy Trinity, transubstantiation, forgiveness, redemption, and good works.  While they might have questioned priests’ interpretation of Catholic teaching, their almost exclusive focus on sin, and only passing reference to the more complex, sophisticated, and rewarding aspects of Church doctrine and theology, their faith was never shaken. 

Brantley’s faith was tested not long after she left home for college in the early years of the Sixties.  Radcliffe, like Harvard, was a very secular place.  Religion was discussed only in the context of Milton, the Renaissance, or the European Popes.  It was contextual and referential rather than central. Religious discussions focused on first principles; Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas; and the institutional history of  the Early Church. – all within an academic, inquiring perspective.  Unilateral devotion to the Church, especially one which she increasingly realized as autocratic, authoritarian, and political, was no longer possible.  The heady intellectual environment of Harvard-Radcliffe and the zeitgeist of the Sixties were more than enough to change her mind.  She matriculated as a good Catholic, but graduated as a committed agnostic.

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While some residual guilt remained for having abandoned the Church, risked excommunication, and denied herself what she once believed was God’s glory, it was concealed by her new social activism.  The Church, according to the Leftist canon, was nothing more than a capitalist, materialist, exploitative institution which had ruled an ignorant peasantry for profit and political gain since the Middle Ages.  In fact, a belief in God was no more than a slavish obeisance to a fictional character, invented by those who had little and who had suffered under the yoke of religious martials for centuries. 

Brantley not only abandoned her faith, but actively fought against it.  She was no longer an agnostic but an atheist and a militant one at that.

As she got older, married, had children, and pursued her career as an academic, her revolutionary fire was banked but never extinguished, for she saw political conservatism and its courting of Protestant fundamentalists as anathema, and a return to pre-Sixties normalcy and social backwardness. 

Her husband, also an academic at a sister institution in Boston, was as hostile to religion as she had become.  Raised in mixed-faith family where neither faith nor social belonging were issues, he came to his radical atheism through political sensibility and awareness. His progressivism, true to the canon, featured secularism, social progress, idealism, and Utopianism. Religion was the enemy as it had always been in radical Socialist states.

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In any case Brantley and her husband were philosophically perfectly aligned.  Not only had they built anti-clericalism into their own worldview; but their lack of faith, their secularism, and especially their atheism became important personal markers.   It was who they were.  Of all their progressive credentials, their rejection of God was the most courageous, noteworthy, and important.

In her late sixties, Brantley’s sister Laura enrolled in a Masters of Divinity program at a Methodist seminary; and when she had exhausted its academic resources (its focus was on ministry and pastoral mission), she audited courses at Catholic University, Georgetown, and Virginia Theological (Episcopal) Seminary.  She had also investigated the possibility at studying at one of the Vatican’s universities.  To her curious friends who wondered why a lifelong secularist would return to religion, she demurred.  Her decision did not imply a return to faith, but only to religious inquiry.  One cannot be an intellectual without a grounding in the Early Church, the Old and New Testaments, and the systematic theology which offered insights into the historical application of religious doctrine to secular societies.

When asked by one of her devoutly Protestant friends whether or not she had found Jesus, she honestly replied, “Not yet”.  Although she had enrolled in the seminary to learn about religion and not to adopt it, she was open to the possibility that she of course might.

This response was the right one for Laura’s fundamentalist friends, but not for her sister for whom Laura’s return to religion was a sign that she, unlike Brantley, had never abandoned the faith of their childhood.  If she, the older sister she had always respected and admired, was returning to religion, then was her own out-and-out dismissal of it premature if not foolish?  Might there actually be truth to the contention that Jesus was God? Was it possible that the universe was not random and coldly indifferent, but the creation of a purposeful Creator?

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If that were the case, then everything from her secular progressivism to her own advancing age would be in play.  If there were a God, then everything would change.  Her life would be turned upside down, she would be adrift from her moorings, lost between faith and unfaith, forced to take sides.  And if God, Christ, and 5000 years of Judeo-Christian history were on one shore, how could she not sail towards it?

She repeatedly called her sister hoping to pick up some clue to what she considered was her volte face.  “You don’t really believe all this Christ nonsense?”, she asked; but never received the unequivocal answer she was hoping for.  Laura continued to insist on possibility, not certainty. 

Nothing could have been more unsettling.  It would have been one thing if Brantley had only been an agnostic; but as a confirmed, committed, and militant atheist whose atheism was an integral part of her political and social progressivism, it was threatening to say the least.

Why, her friends asked, didn’t she dismiss her sister’s interest in religion late in life for what it must be – a dalliance, a time-filler, a pastime of her retirement.  But Laura knew better.  The old saw, ‘Once a Catholic, always a Catholic’, was not to be taken lightly. The indoctrination of the Church in childhood was comprehensive, thorough, and complete; and the environment of the still-obedient Fifties was the idea medium for the Church’s teachings to take root and grow.  It wasn’t so easy to get rid of the Church.

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Brantley leaned on her husband and her university colleagues for support.  They assured her that her sister had gone off the rails, her philosophical immune system compromised by the corrosive influence of the Church, and her mind addled by the zealots teaching at the seminaries she attended.

All well and good, comforting, and calming; but she now woke up at night with niggling doubts.  “What if He is…What if I am wrong…What if my sister is right…?” No matter how hard she tried, she could not dismiss the doubts; and the more they troubled her, the angrier she got, both at her own lack of conviction and resolve and at her sister for having betrayed her.   Worst of all, she wanted to go to Mass.

It took a good while for Brantley to settle things in her own mind and to reach a point where mention of Christ, God, or the Church was no longer troubling; where inquiry was possible, where divinity was possible, and where life between the shores was not unrealistic.  She is less afraid of believing and more tempted by it.  Why reject the Church because of its institutional abuse of power, venal Popes, European wars, or sexual abuse?  The Gospels, the rational exegesis of the theologians of the Early Church, the sophisticated principles of Being, Divinity, and Metaphysics ought to be enough.

This compromise was settling.  Although she could still not fully come to grips with the idea of a Savior, she was willing to admit the possibility of divinity and let it go at that.  She could now have coffee with her sister without thinking of the damnation of her immortal soul.

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