Yesterday, I and two friends went to Regis College in Toronto to attend a one day seminar entitled “Responding to 21st Century Atheism.”
Professors Scott Lewis, S.J., Gordon Rixon, S.J., and Jeremy Wilkins from the faculty of Regis College will explore responses to the challenges presented by contemporary atheism. This one day seminar will discuss the role of Scripture, tradition, and theology to address the questions about human living posed by today’s culture and climate of disbelief.
I have only one positive response to this
seminar series of lectures: it did not start with a prayer. “Responding to 21st Century Atheism” was not a seminar, nor was it a workshop; it was Catholic apologetics.
The two lectures I attended (I skipped the second) were at best disappointing and at worst, extremely frustrating.
Scott Lewis, S.J., the first lecturer, made a passing reference to atheism, Richard Dawkins, and The God Delusion. The first hint that Lewis was not going “to address the questions about human living posed by today’s . . . climate of disbelief” came when Lewis said, “One does not do battle with atheists.” He did not explain why.
Lewis, after his introductory remarks about religion versus “Darwinian Science,” treated the audience to a PowerPoint presentation of portions of the gospel of John Haught. Lewis’s insistence on reading every word on every slide, with little or no personal commentary was, for me at least, very, very frustrating. About fifteen minutes before the end of Lewis’s lecture, I left because I was tempted to voice my frustration angrily and loudly.
After a long break, which meant I missed the lecture by Gordon Rixon, S.J., I returned to listen to Jeremy Wilkins, a professor of theology. Wilkins posed a series of questions which, for the time I was in attendance, he did not answer. Wilkins then committed what for me is an unpardonable secular sin: he used literature to explain God and religion. He introduced Jane Austen and what he described as “the greatest novel”: Pride and Prejudice to make a connection between how an author creates and knows her characters and how God created the world and the people in it. He used the language of New Criticism to give an unintelligible explanation of the connection.
Wilkins, to his credit, did interrupt his lecture to ask for questions. However, he, probably wisely, ignored my raised hand. This was, most likely, because, earlier, he asked the name of the “guy” who taught at Victoria College and wrote on the bible, and I answered quite loudly “Northrop Frye!” To be fair, Wilkins is not a Canadian and is not, I hope, a literary critic by profession. He does, however, show a confidence in the ability of T. S. Eliot’s overtly religious poetry to explain humanity’s relationship with God:
Men’s curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
Wilkins appeared to take the advice of Eliot’s Prufrock, “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.” It would have been better for Wilkins to use Eliot to realize that religion is a Waste Land, a place where rational thought and reason go to die.
I too can quote Eliot for my own purposes, and Eliot was right: “April is the cruellest month.” As I left Regis College to confront the cold rain of Toronto’s April, I realized that I had compounded the effects of April’s cruelty by attending the workshop on “Responding to 21st Century Atheism”; it was a cruel disappointment.