There is spreading in every part of the world a sort of practical and existential atheism ... The individual person, all bound up in himself, finds himself ever more bereft of that "supplement of soul" which is necessary for him ... There is no longer a need to fight against God; the individual feels he is simply able to do without Him. (Pastores Dabo Vobis, #7)
These words of Pope John Paul are among the most relevant and insightful of his pontificate. They describe, in a concise and clear fashion, one of the primary characteristics of the world today. It is a-theistic, a world without God. It's not a formal atheism, however, in which people declare their belief that God doesn't exist. On the contrary, the Pope explains, it's a practical atheism. People just ignore God. They go about their daily lives without any reference to Him at all.
The manifestations of this "practical and existential atheism" are everywhere.
In government, we find an exaggerated application of the doctrine of the "separation of church and state" to the point that any references to things spiritual or religious are banished from public life.
In common culture, our movies, music, television and recreation have become vulgar, hedonistic, even pagan, reminiscent of the moral decline of the Roman Empire immediately before its demise and fall.
We see the thoroughly secular nature of many public school systems, scrubbed clean of Christian influences, to the point that secularism itself has become a type of religion.
In the corporate and business world, ethical standards are stretched to the breaking point with a view only to the bottom line, often ignoring the common good and the welfare of employees.
We witness the inexorable march of social trends and political movements that relativize the traditional concept of marriage and family life, imposing a variety of other lifestyles as equal options in law and practice.
Even Christmas has been de-Christianized by the Grinch of atheism. Nativity scenes have been removed from the public square, "Merry Christmas" has been replaced by "happy holidays" and it's no longer politically correct to mention the name of Jesus whose birth we celebrate.
It seems that the "practical and existential atheism" of which the Pope wrote has triumphed!
The consequences of this a-theistic world are obvious. We find ourselves "bereft of that supplement of soul," the spiritual component in each one of us that makes us whole, that makes us complete as human beings. Without God, our lives are empty and meaningless. Without God, our world is a sad and arid wasteland.
Not all is lost, however, for the secular context in which we live offers a challenge and an opportunity for Christians. Our faith in God and our hope for the future are our gifts to the world. We believe that God is present and active in the world and that we can experience the power and beauty of His presence every day. We believe that even when we don't believe in God, God believes in us and that His never-failing love imparts meaning and hope to a fallen race. We believe that spiritual and moral values are important to the progress of society, promoting the common good and preserving the rights of every person. And we believe that Christians are called to be the "salt of the earth" and the "light of the world," transforming the secular order into the Kingdom of God, making the world a better place, a brighter place in which to live.
Thank goodness, then, for Advent, the season that helps us focus on the reality of God's presence in the world.
In Advent, we find hope in the promise that "a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall name Him Emmanuel," a name that means "God is with us." (Is 7:14)
In Advent, we anticipate the coming of God's Kingdom, a time of universal harmony and peace when, "they will beat their swords into plowshares" (Is 2:4) and "the wolf shall be the guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them." (Is 11:6)
In Advent, we are lifted-up by the words of St. Paul, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I say it again: rejoice! The Lord is near." (Phil 4:4-5)
And in the Advent liturgy, we pray with sincerity, "God of power and mercy, open our hearts in welcome. Remove the things that hinder us from receiving Christ with joy."
I hope that in this Season of Advent, you will take a few moments of quiet prayer to recognize the reality of God's presence in your life and to understand how good and important that is.
(This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)