It’s a good day to be thinking about the Christian mission, this Day of the Conversion of Saint Paul. Today is also the close of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an observation that has, regrettably, become more anemic in the last decade or so. In 1990, John Paul the Great issued the encyclical Redemptoris Missio ¯the Mission of the Redeemer. There he expressed his intuition, his hope, his prayer, that the beginning of the Third Millennium would be a “springtime of world evangelization.”

Something like that may be happening. Consider the explosive growth of Christianity, especially in the Global South. And who knows what will happen when¯and surely it is a question of when rather than if¯China opens up? Redemptoris Missio tied together Christian mission and Christian unity. And, of course, the tie between mission and unity was the dynamic that launched what is called the modern ecumenical movement at Edinburgh in 1910. Not for nothing was that meeting called the World Missionary Conference. Unity is in the service of mission, which reflects Our Lord’s prayer in John 17 that his disciples may be one so that the world may believe that he is sent by the Father.

Today the connection between mission and unity is not so evident. There are approximately 2.2 billion Christians in the world; about 1.2 billion Catholic, 400 million Orthodox, 150 million “classical” Reformation (Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, etc.), and the rest an assortment, especially in the Global South, of evangelical, Pentecostal, and indigenous movements, the last often being strange amalgamations of Christian and other religious cultures. Anything approximating ecclesial unity in this wild mix of ways of being Christian seems increasingly remote. That is the reality that informs the admirable article by Avery Cardinal Dulles in the December 2007 issue of First Things , “Saving Ecumenism From Itself.” (The points made by Dulles are reflected also in the report on the state of ecumenism by Walter Cardinal Kasper, head of the pontifical council on Christian unity, given to the consistory of cardinals in Rome last fall.)

Yet the mission/unity nexus is of abiding importance. Our Lord’s prayer of John 17 must continue to be our prayer. Nor can the ecclesiological significance of the conversion of Saint Paul be repressed. On the road to Damascus: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” To persecute his Church is to persecute him, for the Church is his body.

Through his body, the Church, Christ is engaged in a universal mission. So today we recall Paul preaching in the Areopagus of Athens. By conventional calculations, that was something of a bust. “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ So Paul went out from among them” (Acts 17). The resurrection of the dead did not strike his hearers as good news but as bad news. After all, the aim of their religion and philosophy was to escape the body and the cosmos, and now Paul was telling them that the stuff of creation, restored in Christ, is forever.

The spiritualities of today’s Areopagus are not so very different. The last couple of years have seen a great deal of attention devoted to militant and depressingly vulgar atheisms promoted by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. A somewhat different position is advanced by André Comte-Sponville, who teaches philosophy at the Sorbonne and has adopted the role of “theologian” for contemporary atheistic humanism. His book, published by Viking, carries the unfortunate Hallmark-like title: The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality .

Unlike recent books by angry atheist polemicists, this one is marked by a humane spirit. True, he occasionally drops into clichés connecting faith with childish immaturity, and unbelief with a courageous, adult willingness to confront reality. In the main, however, he is more interested in setting forth a positive account of a life of unbelief than in sniping at the lives of believers.

He says that life should be governed by love and truth. Love, he says, gives expression to the motives sustaining Western humanism. The lives of others matter, and we should commit ourselves to the dignity of the human person. Truth, however, pushes in another direction. Drawing on ancient philosophy, Comte-Sponville wants us to cultivate a deep sense of the impersonal vastness of the universe. Germs mutate in their endless evolutionary struggle to survive, and child, spouse, and friend will die. The sun will eventually burn out, a fact utterly indifferent to the destiny of the human race.

Our goal, he says, should be to affirm both the intimately human and the impersonally cosmic. We should value those we love¯and accept the complete irrelevance of the personal in the larger scheme of things. His proposal is not without interest. If one subscribes to his view of the universe, and many do, it might be a good thing if cosmic coldness could be joined to human warmth.

In the Christian intellectual tradition, the Church Fathers engaged that problem of the particular and the universal. How could the particular man, Jesus of Nazareth, have such universal significance? They worked out the question by way of the doctrines of Incarnation and Trinity. Centuries later, their way of thinking through these questions made possible the emergence of both the impersonal, universal project of modern science and the modern humanism that gives pride of place to the individual human person.

If we follow Comte-Sponville and reject the theological rationale for the unity of the universal and personal, can both survive? “All truth is universal,” he writes. Fair enough. But then the question follows immediately: “How can a truth belong to me personally?” His answer: “Things do not matter in and of themselves but only through the attention we bring to them and the love we bear them.” It’s a familiar and modern existentialist solution: Truth is truth, but then there is meaning, which is quite another matter. We serve truth but we make meaning. “We do not love an object because it is valuable; rather, our love confers value upon what we love.”

Perhaps Comte-Sponville will succeed in convincing his fellow atheists that humanity is to be loved even though our lives have no value. But one may be forgiven for entertaining doubts. The heyday of the modern existentialist approach was the 1930s, the decade before millions were killed in death camps, gulags, carpet bombing, and other horrors continuing into our time. It is not only in the horrors of history, however, but in the dark knowledge of our own hearts and in the irrepressible demands of reason that thoughtful people will find it implausible that the humanity we are to venerate is worthy of being venerated only because of our veneration. Andre Comte-Sponville’s “atheist spirituality” betrays a very large measure of the wishful thinking that he attributes to Christian faith.

Comte-Sponville reminds us, however, that there is atheism and then there is atheism. This is a truth underscored by Father Ranier Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household, in a recent essay:

“The world of today knows a new category of people: the atheists in good faith, those who live painfully the situation of the silence of God, who do not believe in God but do not boast about it; rather they experience the existential anguish and the lack of meaning of everything: They too, in their own way, live in the dark night of the spirit. Albert Camus called them “the saints without God.” The mystics exist above all for them; they are their travel and table companions. Like Jesus, they “sat down at the table of sinners and ate with them” (see Luke 15:2). This explains the passion with which certain atheists, once converted, pore over the writings of the mystics: Claudel, Bernanos, the two Maritains, L. Bloy, the writer J.K. Huysmans and so many others over the writings of Angela of Foligno; T.S. Eliot over those of Julian of Norwich. There they find again the same scenery that they had left, but this time illuminated by the sun . . . . The word “atheist” can have an active and a passive meaning. It can indicate someone who rejects God, but also one who¯at least so it seems to him¯is rejected by God. In the first case, it is a blameworthy atheism (when it is not in good faith), in the second an atheism of sorrow or of expiation.”

The Conversion of Saint Paul, the ecclesial import of his call and its unbreakable tie to Christian unity, the universal mission entailing an engagement with the Areopagus of all times. These are the inescapable themes of this day, and all of them illuminated by the vision of John Paul the Great that we may be on the edge of, or already caught up in, “the springtime of world evangelization.”

Articles by Richard John Neuhaus

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