The Atheists' Pope
The beginning of my religious conversion was a lonely time for me.
I'd spent my whole life as an outsider to Christian circles, and it was hard to imagine that I could ever be comfortable being one of them, the Christians, the people whom I had firmly categorized in my mind as "Other." I'd come to believe in God on an intellectual level, yet I felt stuck, unable to move forward from there.
Years of looking down on the entire concept of religion left me with a lingering impression that Christians and Christian culture were different from anything I'd ever known. In my childhood home, the climate was one of a love of learning and reason, of amazement at the universe based on science and facts. As early as elementary school, my dad would read books to me by Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking; when Halley's Comet was visible, we packed up the Celestron C-8, drove ten hours to find the best viewing spot, and stood in the cold for hours, gazing in awe at the night sky; we'd visit our astronomer friend and examine each item in his extensive meteorite collection, and then have animated discussions about the mysteries of the universe over long dinners. There was a distinct culture of wonder, a kind of wonder rooted in the firm foundation of reason. On the rare occasions that the topic of religion came up, it was only to note that it was a shame that people let superstition hold them back from the fearless pursuit of truth. They were missing out on so much wonder, we thought.
Ironically, it was this very idea of fearlessly pursuing truth that led me to Christianity. I didn't initially have a personal encounter with Jesus, nor did I feel the presence of God in any noticeable way. I simply did a bunch of research and found the Catholic Christian worldview to be more reasonable than the atheist worldview. But this process left me in a strange position: I had no idea what it meant to live Christianity. Many of the Christians I encountered online and in popular culture seemed to approach their faith from a feelings-based, deeply emotional perspective. While I knew I could learn a lot from their close relationships with Jesus, I also knew that that particular brand of faith was never going to be an exact fit for me. So what would a lively faith life look like for someone of my background?
Many of the great Christian authors helped me navigate this tricky territory, but one stood out from the rest. There was one author whose writing had a very familiar ring to it, whose way of thinking reminded me of the people I knew growing up, who built a bridge to unite in my mind the intellectual culture of atheism and the intellectual culture of Christianity: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI.
Once I made the decision to become Catholic, I figured I might as well find out more about our current Pope. I was aware that he was an academic who'd published many books, so I started to explore his writing, and it didn't take long to feel a sense of connection to him. I would read things like this, an excerpt from a speech he gave in 2005, and feel like I had finally found a believer who could explain the Faith in a way that was on my wavelength:
From the beginning, Christianity has understood itself as the religion of the Logos, as the religion according to reason...Today, this should be precisely [Christianity's] philosophical strength, in so far as the problem is whether the world comes from the irrational, and reason is not other than a 'sub-product,' on occasion even harmful of its development -- or whether the world comes from reason, and is, as a consequence, its criterion and goal...In the so necessary dialogue between secularists and Catholics, we Christians must be very careful to remain faithful to this fundamental line: to live a faith that comes from the Logos, from creative reason, and that, because of this, is also open to all that is truly rational.
Though I'd read work by other Christians who laid out compelling cases for their beliefs, there was something about Pope Benedict's particular style that reminded me of the people I knew growing up. Many times I thought that if my father and his scientist friends were to become believers and explain why they believed, this is what it would look like. When I read the Holy Father's encyclicals, speeches, and books, I didn't feel so lost in the Christian world anymore. I learned what it means to have faith, and I saw anew that faith and reason are two sides of the same coin. I learned that the zeal for knowledge and truth that I'd seen in my nonreligious upbringing could not only be found in Christianity, but was in fact one of its defining characteristics. Thanks to this great pastor at the head of the Church, my new home started to feel as comfortable as my old home.
Now that I've come to know many other atheist-to-Catholic converts, I often hear others tell a similar story. We've affectionately come to call Benedict XVI "the atheists' Pope," a faith-filled leader who can speak the language of people who have never known faith, a wise guide who can act as a translator to unite the sacred and the secular. It's hard to imagine that there is another man in the world who could have been a better shepherd for these times. Just when moral relativism and godlessness began to grip the world with new vigor, God sent us someone perfectly suited to combat those very issues. I'm excited to see whom the Holy Spirit will guide the cardinals to choose to be St. Peter's next successor, but I and many others will always feel a profound debt of gratitude to the atheists' pope.