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On the Areopagus - 2 We have a Gospel to proclaim!

Tuesday, February 03, 2009
On 6 January 2009, the British Humanist Association launched its 'atheist bus advertising campaign'. Originally intended for just a few buses, with a budget of just £5,500, the Association rapidly received over £130,000, enabling 800 buses around the country to carry the slogan: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life". 

What has prompted this campaign? Ariane Sherine, who created the campaign, said that she was moved to respond in this way by certain high-profile Christian campaigns that declared that "failing to believe in Jesus will condemn you to hell". She added: "There's no doubt that advertising can be effective, and religious advertising works particularly well on those who are vulnerable, frightening them into believing."

Much has been made of the slogan's lack of certitude, that there is probably no God, which some say is, technically, agnosticism rather than atheism. However, what bothers me is the second half of the slogan, for it is based on the premise that belief in God, or even the existence of God (however probable), gives rise to anxiety and fear, and is a barrier to enjoying life. If this is true, then the Gospel is bad news rather than good news, and I am in the wrong place! 

Adoration of the Magi (Comper)
On the contrary, those of us who have just celebrated Christmas - the feast of Love incarnate - know that our God is a God of unconditional love and it is He who causes us to enjoy life even more. Ironically, the atheist bus campaign began on the feast of the Epiphany, the day when the Gentile wise men came in search of Love incarnate and found him in the babe of Bethlehem, cradled in the arms of his mother. Those magi who scanned the heavens looking for portents and signs recognized Jesus as the Sign, the sacrament of divine Love. Those who would be wise, who sought meaning and happiness in life, discerned that our humanity was graciously elevated by the coming of Christ, who by his incarnation has joined us to divinity and so assured us eternal life, happiness and peace with God. 

Like those magi, all humanity still seeks to love and be loved. We seek happiness, the enjoyment of life, goodness, truth and beauty. In this we are in agreement with Ms Sherine. And why not? For all human beings are born with this longing for love. However, where we may differ from Ms Sherine is where we find this life-fulfilling love. St Augustine said, "You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you". So, we Christians find love in God. It is He who holds us in being and brings us to perfection, fulfilling our deepest desires. 

In Jesus Christ who is God incarnate, "perfect love made flesh and blood", the wise men sought and found what all humankind seeks. Others who refused to see this truth sought to kill Him or to deny His existence. Why? Rowan Williams says that "in a world of blocked choices, wrong turnings and drastically false accounts of who and what we are, love of this sort is not going to look obvious or natural. It will seem to be against the grain." And so, frightened by such perfect love and goodness, some seek to kill it while others deny it.

The reality of our human condition is that we live in a world of fear, uncertainty and worry. In a time of war and terrorism, famine and drought, climate change and economic volatility, it is somewhat naive and blase to say, 'stop worrying and enjoy your life'. Clearly, we all live with suffering and hardship, human wickedness and fear. In a sense, we already live in 'hell', that is to say, a world where God is absent because sinful humanity excludes Him. The atheist campaign seems to take the proverbial ostrich-like approach in answer to our woes: pretend it is not so, live it up, take refuge in fleeting pleasures and enjoyment. The Christian approach is to acknowledge the reality of God-given life which is essentially good but because of sin is lacking in truth, goodness and beauty. The reality of our estranged human condition is called original sin, and God Himself has come to free us from sin and give us a share in his divine life: this is good news! 

Christians down the ages have all lived in times of upheaval and been persecuted for their faith. It is not so much failure to believe in Christ that condemns one to hell, but often Christians who have faith have suffered 'hell' on account of their faith; many still die for following the Gospel. In doing so, they imitate Jesus Himself who "descended into hell" for our sakes. Moreover, they remained steadfast in faith and knew a deep unshakeable joy that overcame all temporal worries because they knew the love of God for them. St Paul thus said: "I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38f). Therefore, as Herbert McCabe OP puts it, "Christianity is a wisdom concerned with how to love oneself, and how to rejoice in being". We rejoice in being alive and we learn to love ourselves because we recognise that we are first loved into being by God. I repeatedly experienced this joy in the lives of destitute Filipino Catholics living in the most terrible slums of Manila, and their example of love, peace and happiness amazed me and deepened my faith. 

We believe that Christ has come to give us fullness of life. Life itself and all enjoyment, pleasure and the goodness of creation are held in being by God and come from God. Faith in Jesus Christ and knowing Him as our Saviour, our Brother, and our Friend does not threaten our enjoyment of life. On the contrary, Jesus brings our life to perfection, gives us lasting happiness, and fills us with God's goodness. Hence, Aquinas said that the pleasures we experience on earth will be even more pleasureable in heaven: with God, we enjoy life more! 

This, surely, is the Gospel that we believe, and we need to proclaim it. The atheist bus campaign suggests that all too often some Christians have not been preaching good news but scare-mongering. Let us stop doing that, and proclaim a gospel that liberates us from fear, makes us more fully human, offers certain hope and brings true peace and happiness. 

Lawrence Lew OP


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