Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Apathy: Spiritual Cancer

"Hell is not populated mainly by passionate rebels but by nice, bland, indifferent, respectable people who simply never gave a damn." – Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans
A couple of posts ago, I wrote about the concept of doubt, about what it is and the role it plays in the Christian life. In the 2008 film "Doubt," Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a priest named Father Flynn who gives a powerful homily about doubt. He goes so far as to claim that doubt can be as powerful of a motivator in life as certainty. That probably sounds far-fetched and even flaky. However, when considered more deeply, we observe that in ourselves and in others, the times in which we were driven most strongly into a deeper relationship with God were often those in which we had the least certainty. This is evident in human relationships as well. The people whom we find most agreeable and never argue with are usually the ones we are not as close to. Conversely, our closest friends tend to be the ones with whom we have experienced tension and even rough times with. The path to intimacy with and knowledge of any human being is marked by obstacles, and includes difficult terrain. However, whenever we make ourselves vulnerable, whenever we take a chance on another person, we are rarely disappointed. The first step on the path is believing that its end is worth reaching, that the destination is desirable. If you don't believe that true friendship is worth obtaining or even possible to obtain, then you won't be willing to put in the time and effort, and to endure the awkward and uncomfortable situations which are inevitable on the journey. There is a direct parallel to this in our relationship with God. Just as we can be indifferent or apathetic towards other people, we can feel the same way towards God and our faith. This is apathy, which is to the soul what cancer is to the body.

Love's Worst Enemy

"Indifference is more truly the opposite of love than hate is, for we can both love and hate the same person at the same time, but we cannot both love and be indifferent to the same person at the same time." - Peter Kreeft, Prayer for Beginners

To love is to care, but to hate also requires that you care - not necessarily caring about what you're hating, but caring about something else and experiencing the conflict between the two objects. For example, I can't hate sin or vice unless I love virtue; I can't hate illness unless I love health. If I don't first care about something, then it's impossible to either love or hate it. If something or someone simply doesn't matter to me, then it's not worth the energy of my love or my hatred - it's irrelevant. What does this have to do with my relationship with God? To put it plainly, a relationship with anyone, including God, begins with taking interest in that person. Apathy is the absence of that interest. In our culture today, there is a literal epidemic of apathy, especially regarding religious questions. The number of people who actually hate religion or God is extremely small. When faced with eternal questions about God or the meaning of life, the overwhelming majority of non-religious people do not respond with, "I reject that!" or, "No way!" but simply, "I'm not interested." In other words, "...Meh." How is this possible? How can a person be so existentially unconscious? It seems like a spiritual disease, which is why I refer to apathy as "spiritual cancer." It is like cancer in the way it begins as a small, relatively unnoticeable defect in one area of a person's life and then slowly spreads to all the other areas, and by the time the symptoms of it are noticed, it already has a deadly grip on the person. In other ways, apathy is more like a virus, because unlike cancer, it is infectious: it spreads from person to person rapidly. The Catholic philosopher and scientist Blaise Pascal wrote about how bizarre of a phenomenon apathy is in human beings:
"Nothing is so important to man as his own state, nothing is so formidable to him as eternity; and thus it is not natural that there should be men indifferent to the loss of their existence, and to the perils of everlasting suffering. They are quite different with regard to all other things. They are afraid of mere trifles; they foresee them; they feel them. And this same man who spends so many days and nights in rage and despair for the loss of office, or for some imaginary insult to his honour, is the very one who knows without anxiety and without emotion that he will lose all by death. It is a monstrous thing to see in the same heart and at the same time this sensibility to trifles and this strange insensibility to the greatest objects. It is an incomprehensible enchantment, and a supernatural slumber, which indicates as its cause an all-powerful force" (Pensées, #194).
Putting First Things First

We can all relate to being too sensible to "trifles." For example, isn't it strange that the same people who claim to be absolutely convicted in their belief in Christianity talk about the outcome of professional sports' games as if they actually mattered in any real and lasting sense? Every week, we declare, "I believe in the Resurrection of the body, and in life everlasting." Umm...What?! That's a radical and exciting concept! How can we really believe that and at the same time be distressed by the canceling of a TV show or attentive to the personal lives of celebrities? Pascal was right to call this condition an "incomprehensible enchantment," since it makes no logical sense whatsoever. As Kreeft wrote, "It's just as crazy not to be crazy about God as it is to be crazy about anything else" (Jesus Shock). This doesn't mean that there's nothing in this world worth taking interest in, or investing our time and effort into. Rather, it is simply the principle of "first things," of having our priorities straight. The first priority, based on the eternal nature of the question, has to be deciding whether or not we believe in God, and within that belief, how that affects our lives. In modern minds, there is a growing disconnect between the truth of an idea and the practical usefulness of it. C.S. Lewis cut to the heart of this thought pattern:
Man is becoming as narrowly "practical" as the irrational animals. In lecturing to popular audiences I have repeatedly found it almost impossible to make them understand that I recommended Christianity because I thought it's affirmations to be objectively true. They are simply not interested in the question of truth or falsehood. They only want to know if it will be comforting, or "inspiring," or socially useful. Closely connected with this unhuman Practicality is indifference to, in contempt of, dogma. The popular point of view is unconsciously syncretistic; it is widely believed that "all religions really mean the same thing" ("Modern Man and His Categories of Thought").
Do You Want the Bad News or the Good News?

If the guiding question in your investigation of God and religion is not "Is this true?" but "What can this do for me?" then what is being offered to you probably won't appear desirable. It is this self-centered approach that makes the work of evangelization and apologetics so difficult today. Convincing someone of the existence of God or the divinity of Jesus Christ is not an easy task, but harder still is the task of convincing them that such ideas matter in the first place. I've had more productive dialogue with atheists than with people who simply aren't interested in religious questions. It's easier to provide reasonable arguments than it is to instill passion. The reason why the Good News of Christianity doesn't sound good to many people is that they are unaware of the Bad News. Without recognizing and admitting our fallen nature, our brokenness, and our sin, we cannot recognize our need for a Savior. A savior saves you from something, as the words of that song say: "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me." Not a "good person," or even a "decent person," but a "wretch." Christ said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:31-32). Once we see our sickness and wretchedness for what it is, we're immediately in the market for a physician, a savior.

Ignorance ≠ Bliss

Unfortunately, many people might be indifferent to God and religion because of some sort of "ignorance is bliss" mentality. This is dangerously presumptuous. An all-knowing God is perfectly capable of judging not only minds but hearts; not only beliefs but motivations and intentions: “I the LORD search the mind and try the heart, to give to every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings” (Jer 17:10). Christ himself said, "For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened" (Mt 7:8). This means that not asking, not seeking, and not knocking are not excusable. We often think that damnation consists only in hatred, cruelty, vengefulness, greed, and other more obvious vices. However, Christ seems to suggest that the primary determining factor in our salvation is not so much the level of moral perfection or virtue that we attain (we always could have done better), but whether or not we passionately seek God during our life. Pascal summarized this succinctly in his Pensées:
There are only three types of people; those who have found God and serve him; those who have not found God and seek him, and those who live not seeking, or finding him. The first are rational and happy; the second rational and unhappy; and the third foolish and unhappy (Pensées, #257).
Don't Be Content With (A)pathetic Life!

Notice that there is no fourth group consisting of people who find God without seeking him, because that is impossible. Apathy is toxic to faith, and to any rational human endeavor for that matter. It reduces the glory of human nature, which is naturally truth-seeking, to a pathetic, animalistic, pleasure addicted existence. The chemotherapy or radiation for the cancer of apathy is nothing less than a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. This encounter can happen in a variety of ways, but it is most powerful and most tangible in the Sacraments of the Church, and especially in the Eucharist. Consuming the Eucharist is like chemotherapy; adoring the Eucharist is like radiation. That being said, don't have a "wait and see" attitude about your spiritual life and relationship with God––get to the Doctor! May the Lord bless us, protect us from all evil, and bring us to everlasting life, Amen.

Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer


Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994. Print.

Kreeft, Peter. Christianity for Modern Pagans. Ignatius Press, 1993.
                  " . Prayer for Beginners. Ignatius Press, 2000.
                  " . Jesus Shock. St. Augustines Press, 2008.

Lewis, Clive Staples. Present Concerns: Essays. "Modern Man and His Categories of Thought." 1946, p. 65.

Pascal, Blaise. Pensées. E.P. Duton & Co., Inc., 1958.