30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Fr. Victor Feltes
Prior to his passing in 2011, the British author and journalist Christopher Hitchens was famously an atheist. In a June 2007 speech he said, “…I have a wager that I put to the religious… And you may be interested to know that I’ve tried it with everyone from the guy who founded Bush’s faith-based initiative… to various Baptist pastors, a Buddhist nun, a rabbi, a Charismatic Catholic, various pastors on radio and television, all up-and-down the country, no-not yet an answer from them. It’s simple: you have to name or cite a moral action performed or a moral statement made by a believer that could not have been made by an atheist. That’s all you have to do, and it cannot be done.” What moral thing can a Christian do that an atheist cannot?
Pastor Mike Winger is an Evangelical Christian in California who was watching footage of Christopher Hitchens and heard him pose this question in a debate, as he often would. Pastor Mike paused the video, sat and thought, “How would I answer that? …What is a moral thing a Christian could do that an atheist can’t do?” “And then,” he says, “it hit me—the most important moral thing that anybody can do: loving God. Like it doesn’t occur to the atheist, or even many Christians that were debating Christopher Hitchens, that loving God—the most important moral imperative of the universe—is something an atheist cannot do. So the atheist is deprived of the highest moral imperative that a Christian or a human is made for. That’s a big deal.”
Indeed, Jesus cites this as the greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” God is worthy and deserving of such love. He is our Creator, the source of our life and of every good thing we enjoy. And he not only deserves our gratitude but is worthy of our praise, for God is not merely good but the very essence of Goodness and Love. This divine love and goodness for us is best revealed to us through Jesus Christ.
The modern world neglects the love and worship of God. Many disregard the greatest commandment yet attempt to keep the second, which is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But what is authentic love and the genuine good? Many lust and call it love. Many steal and call it justice. Many murder and call it mercy. Not all loves are love, and without God love and goodness are harder to know and fulfill.
Many assume that God is unnecessary, that we can get on fine without him. Yet, in the words of the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes on the Church in the modern world, “Without the Creator, the creature vanishes.” This is true in two ways. First it is literally true, because without God, whose essence is Existence (or Being), none of us creatures could continue existing. It is also true in another sense, since without our Good Creator who loves us, the objective value and importance of the human race vanishes.
The atheist scientist Carl Sagan once observed, “We’re made of star stuff.” Indeed, natural science indicates that the carbon atoms and all the other heavy elements inside our bodies were formed long ago inside of stars. It might at first feel inspiring to hear we are made from “stardust,” but Carl Sagan also said “there are maybe 100 billion galaxies and 10 billion trillion stars.” Does the material universe care when a trillion stars fizzle out? Natural science forecast the eventual, permanent death of every star. Apart from ourselves as a part of the universe, does the universe care what we do or what happens to us? Even if we are stardust, we are still dust which returns to dust through death. However, nature is not all there is.
Our supernatural God—who is above all, before all, behind and beyond all—loves and treasures each of us. Good and evil are not merely opinions from human preference, but objectively grounded eternally in him. And God would have us live with him forever, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Much of the modern world enjoys the fruits of Christianity without acknowledging its Tree. But how is this sustainable? What becomes of human dignity if we are insignificant cosmic accidents? What becomes of human rights if nothing is really right or wrong? What becomes of human meaning and purpose if nothing survives death? Christianity’s blessed fruits, our dignity, rights, meaning and purpose, come from Christianity’s Holy Tree. This Tree is Christ and his Holy Cross.
Jesus Christ and his Cross are not mere myths but revealed in actual history. They bridge heaven and earth, east and west — uniting humanity with God and human beings with each other. They teach and enable us to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to truly love our neighbors and ourselves. In Jesus Christ we have real hope and love which does not pass away. So let us worship God, for this is our highest calling, our greatest moral act, the source and the summit of our Christian life.