CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 13 July 2019

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Rediscovering the faith

William Nee
 
“Are you wasting time again on Facebook?”
 
How many times have we heard our wives or husbands scold us for using social media too much?
 
Sure, Facebook and other social media can be massive time killers and distractions, but there’s also a positive side. 
 
Recently, through the power of Facebook, I was able to reconnect with an old long-lost friend of mine, Scott. During the academic year of 1999-2000, I was an exchange student at the University of Chile and the Catholic University of Chile: the two best academic institutions in the relatively prosperous country in South America. 
 
Scott had the infectious positive energy typical of the Californian surfer that he was, and we explored the new country together. I remember buying empanadas, a delicious pastry filled with cheese meat and spices, and having fun chasing pigeons in the historic, stone-walled campus of the Catholic University of Chile while waiting for Spanish literature classes to begin. 
 
Scott was a talented musician who could play the guitar, the ukulele, and loved to sing. Together with a few other young Americans, we travelled down south to mysterious island of Chiloe in the south, and we hiked the majestic, glacier-filled peaks in Torres del Paine, at the southern tip of South America. On countless nights, we went out to local bars and cafes, and explored the nightlife.
 
And so, it was with a degree of surprise that I found out that after all these years, Scott had actually become an Episcopalian priest. I hadn’t remembered speaking much, if any, about religion or spiritual issues with him at the time.
 
However, his unlikely career path made me want to share my path not taken. I wrote to him saying that, indeed, in my teenage years, for a brief while, the idea of becoming a priest or pastor had once entered my mind. I remember my grandmother saying she would be so happy if one of her children eventually became a pastor.
 
I grew up attending a non-denominational Protestant Church and as a teenager, for a while, I took the Bible seriously. On my own accord, I read the four gospels, as well as Genesis and Exodus, before getting bogged down in Leviticus. I even went to a few Bible study sessions.
 
But by the time I had met Scott, in my early 20s at a big university, I had all but become an agnostic: not really believing in God, but not dismissing God either.
 
What had happened?
 
This is a question I often ask myself. At the end of the day, I was a young person searching for answers. What was the meaning of life? What did scripture say? What did the Bible have to say on society, politics, and science? How should I live my life? These were all questions I was looking for.
 
The reverend of our Church was an intelligent and nice man. The youth pastor was intensely passionate and was an incredible witness to Jesus Christ. But, our youth group activities often consisted of going ice skating or seeing an Amy Grant concert: activities that provided harmless fun and an opportunity to bond with other Christians, but didn’t tackle any serious issues.
 
My experience, however, was far from unique. As America’s most prominent Catholic evangeliser, Bishop Robert Barron, has noted, according to Pew Research of young people in the United States young people leave the Church because of common objections: 1) science disproves religion; 2) religion is just a wish fulfillment fantasy and, 3) religion is behind most of the violence in the world.
 
In fact, when I was an agnostic, I shared many of these concerns. 
 
It was only until much later—in my mid-30s—that I discovered Christian apologetics and philosophy, including how quantum physics actually helps bolster traditional philosophical arguments for a theological view. I learned that, despite what popular culture claims, science and religion have never been seen as competing in the Catholic tradition. 
 
Reading the Bible carefully and coming to appreciate a Biblical worldview, one easily gets rid of the simplistic, Marxist version of religion as “wish fulfillment” or “the opiate of the masses.” Instead, one finds important concepts of free will, the non-competitive transcendence of God, the importance of love—willing the good of the other as other—and even the necessity of suffering. 
 
While it is true that religion has been used to justify war, international relations scholars have shown that religion is the major cause of only a tiny percentage of conflicts. 
 
Perhaps most importantly, I learned that there is a strong historical and scholarly case for the resurrection of Jesus. The implications of the Resurrection, that the Son of God lived on this earth and has conquered death—is truly remarkable. 
 
I wanted to write to my friend Scott and say that had I known all of this, my life could have taken a very different direction.
 
Pope Francis has reminded us recently that the Church must listen, and especially listen to young people. “A Church that does not listen… cannot be credible, especially for the young who will inevitably turn away rather than approach,” Pope Francis said. 
 
Here, it seems, the Church needs to do several things at once: listen to young people, and their particular needs, questions and hopes, while at the same time, pro-actively head off most of the common objections that young people cite for leaving the Church. 
 
This can be done by re-discovering and Catholic intellectual tradition and more freshly presenting Catholic social justice principles and the saints who practiced them. 
 
Young people are in a unique position to learn from—and even lead this new apologetics, this new movement.  
 
And perhaps this new movement will even be on Facebook. 
 
 
William Nee is a China researcher for Amnesty International and an executive committee member of PEN Hong Kong.
He has been published in the Diplomat, the Hong Kong Free Press and Open Democracy,
and is often quoted in The Guardian, the Washington Post, Reuters and the New York Times.