I went to two interesting events this week that I think lead well into our readings today. The first was a talk by an American sociologist, Mary Eberstadt. She spoke about how much that passes for received wisdom on the decline of religion in the Western World was demonstrably false. For example, the more educated a society is, the more religious it is.
She said that the Western World is coming to the end of a failed social experiment, lasting at least since the 60s. We might debate its genesis, however, Mary Eberstadt noted that that results are in. The ideology we have been pushing in the West has not been good for humans. One sees this in mental health, in family breakdown, in the loss of belief in basic realities like the human body. We are also seeing a failure of politics across many countries.
But, the tide is about to reach its high-water mark. Eberstadt said that elite universities across the Western World have been bullying people into hiding their faith. This has had a trickle-down effect. It starts in the universities and then gradually filters down into governments, bureaucracies and schools. We are unfortunately at the moment dealing with the consequences of its mass acceptance through a concerted push from many parts of society. We can see the upshot of this in the new census.
As with most so-called intellectual movements that run contrary to life, it is doomed to fail. Not without much suffering, but nevertheless, it is doomed to fail. You might remember a few years ago, there was a social phenomenon of the so-called New Atheists. These were people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett. They were the high-priests of the atheism sweeping our countries. Even now their arguments are being laughed out of town as incoherent, and more and more people are beginning to notice. As I said, this move though it has and will cause much suffering, in the end it is doomed to fail.
Why is it doomed to fail? Well, that brings me to the second event I went to this week. I was blessed to score a ticket to the MSO’s performance of Verdi’s Requiem. As you probably know, Verdi uses some texts from a funeral Mass as the basis for his music. And I could not help but be struck by the vision and majesty of the texts and his music, and I could not help but compare it to the poverty of our culture when it comes to trying to describe the dignity and drama of human life and death. The poverty of a society that tries to do this, to express the mystery of life without reference to God.
And we see all this in our readings today.
Our first reading is a beautiful contemplation of the contingency of the world, and so of God’s grace. Think of the most stunning sight you have ever seen. The most wonderful music you have ever heard. The most profound friendship you have experienced. All this is grace. None of this needed to exist. All this is gift. And all of these moments gesture to something still more remarkable. These loud moments point to the quiet truth of every moment. God wills all, sustains all out of love. God wills the good of all. God desires that creation reach its zenith in God; otherwise, God would not have created it in the first place. This alone allows for the possibility of existence. This alone allows us to ask all the profound questions. No other point of departure is coherent.
But our gospel takes it even a step further, a step which is beyond the imagination of all cultures, but for the gift of the revelation of Christ. Many religions are represented in the figure of Zacchaeus. In climbing a tree, a universal symbol of the union of heaven and earth, Zacchaeus represents humanity seeking what is heavenly. He personifies each one of us who seeks to know the meaning of our lives, who seeks the truth of suffering, the truth of relationship, who wonders about the possibility of redemption. Can I be saved from my mistakes? Does my heart dare to believe in the small whispers of life that seem to promise more? Am I really loved?
And the breath-taking truth beyond anything that could have been dreamed is that the one true God comes down to my level, goes below, looks up at me and calls me by name. Not only that, God who created all, who transcends all, nevertheless wants to live in my heart, wants to make his home in me.
Our hearts struggle to believe this. It is beyond anything in human culture, yet all culture can only terminate here. Once Jesus reveals God’s face, nothing else can satisfy us. We are hungry for him. We are thirsty for him.
And so are our neighbours. There are so many people around us sitting in trees, watching us. Watching to see what we will do. Watching to see if we really believe. They think their only option is to spectate. They are all dying, literally dying, to be invited. They want in, and they don’t even know it. Will we follow our Lord? Will we go looking for them? Will we call them by name and invite them to know God’s love for them?