In Easter 1896, the old nun went through a wild change in how she treated atheists. Before then, she had the kind of attitude towards atheists that you might recognise from some Christian circles today. “I could not believe that there really were godless people who had no faith at all,” she said. “It was only by being false to their own inner convictions that someone could deny the existence of heaven.”
She prayed through that Easter, and then God changed her mind. She felt God give her access into what people felt like when they knew He didn’t exist. This insight into how unbelievers saw the world took away her certainty.
I reckon most Christians have an inner atheist in our heads – if you’re not a believer, maybe you’ve come across the opposite, an inner believer, before. For Therese, it was like both suddenly existed side by side.
And after that Easter, she found herself happiest when she was eating meals with atheists, letting their questions shake her beliefs, and hers theirs.
There’s something I recognise in Therese’s story. Not her superheroic mission to connect with atheists by living precariously on the edge of faith. But her movement towards empathy. Probably the closest thing I’ve had to Therese’s experience is when friends have drifted away from faith.
I remember when a friend stopped believing in God. In our first conversation, she quietly – almost apologetically – broke the news. I couldn’t bring myself to argue. Instead I listened while arguing with myself in my head instead. It’s funny how the first impulse is to argue.
I found I was then able to open up about times I’ve doubted God was even there. And we talked for a while about what made us believe in the first place – family, the Bible, a strength of feeling. We came round to why I’d gone back to faith, and why she hadn’t.
Once I let her experience be her experience, there was some shared ground to work from. Because we were both coming from the same place of faith, there wasn’t a need to chat the usual evangelism or apologetics stuff. In fact, it forced me away from those rote discussions.
Almost because of how rare they are, moments like the conversation with my friend feel strangely precious to me.
Arguments or metaphysical debates have their place, but having spent a good amount of time in a university Christian union, they can feel a little like thwonking your head against a wall, after a while.
The way Therese of Liseux discovered was different. And it’s what I’ve learnt from friends who’ve left faith. The empathy our friendship’s built up brushes away the usual wall I put up against unbelief. Instead, I can honestly want friends to know the faith I have, while letting their experience be their experience and not bulldozing the conversation with arguments.
If you’re in a place where a friend’s leaving faith, I guess I’d offer that to you. If you can (both of you, vulnerably) reach that place of ‘hey, we’re both just trying to figure this out’, then I reckon the conversations you’ll have will be much more fruitful than any arguments.
Talking to friends about their faith is one of the key concerns for millennials, according to recent research. Read the latest research from the One People Commission here.