One of the greatest achievements of the late Pope John Paul II was the assembling of representatives of many religions at Assisi, to pray for peace. The gatherings — in 1986 and 2002 — offered a compelling image of Man in Search of God, people of all types divided by serious differences but engaged in a common quest, in the hope of a common destiny. The meetings were controversial: Some commentators believed that they represented an erosion of the difference between truth and falsehood (even then-Cardinal Ratzinger was troubled by some of the implications of the 1986 meeting).
Today, Pope Benedict XVI hosted a third Assisi meeting, and used the occasion not just to praise religions, but also, quite forcefully, the work and thought of agnostics:
In addition to the two phenomena of religion and anti-religion, a further basic orientation is found in the growing world of agnosticism: people to whom the gift of faith has not been given, but who are nevertheless on the lookout for truth, searching for God. Such people do not simply assert: “There is no God.” They suffer from his absence and yet are inwardly making their way towards him, inasmuch as they seek truth and goodness. They are “pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace.” They ask questions of both sides. They take away from militant atheists the false certainty by which these claim to know that there is no God and they invite them to leave polemics aside and to become seekers who do not give up hope in the existence of truth and in the possibility and necessity of living by it. But they also challenge the followers of religions not to consider God as their own property, as if he belonged to them, in such a way that they feel vindicated in using force against others.
These people are seeking the truth, they are seeking the true God, whose image is frequently concealed in the religions because of the ways in which they are often practised. Their inability to find God is partly the responsibility of believers with a limited or even falsified image of God. So all their struggling and questioning is in part an appeal to believers to purify their faith, so that God, the true God, becomes accessible. Therefore I have consciously invited delegates of this third group to our meeting in Assisi, which does not simply bring together representatives of religious institutions. Rather it is a case of being together on a journey towards truth, a case of taking a decisive stand for human dignity and a case of common engagement for peace against every form of destructive force.
(I am quoting this text from an e-mail I received from Robert Moynihan of Inside the Vatican; the full text is available here.)
This is a valuable message for a world in which some atheists’ hatred (of religious believers) and some religious believers’ hatred (of atheists and of followers of other religions) is ever more conspicuous. The pluralism of belief is, in some mysterious way, part of God’s plan for mankind; Pope Benedict today offered a helpful analysis of one aspect of that plan. Faith and doubt are both gifts of God, and agnostics therefore have their own special calling, their role to play. And of course, there is no very strict dichotomy here: In believers, there is an element of doubt, and in agnostics, there is an element of faith. Each person has his or her own particular gifts in this regard, and each carries his or her own individualized responsibilities. In my own case, I used to fault God for not giving me more religious faith — and then I came to realize how unreasonable I was being. I have many atheist friends who are more loving, do more for other people, than I; my complaint to God therefore amounted to a declaration that You see how poorly I am doing in meeting my current responsibilities. You are therefore greatly to blame for not giving me more responsibilities. God gives His gifts on His own schedule, in accord with His own inscrutable designs, and the basic attitude we should cultivate is to trust that He knows what He’s doing.
Our wrestlings with God are an attempt to see “through a glass, darkly.” Moments of illumination do come along — and the Pope’s speech today was one of them. (Incidentally, the organizer of today’s Assisi meeting was Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana — the same fellow whose office released the notorious document on economics earlier this week. I hold no particular brief for that document — I think it’s rather naive and unhelpful — but to dismiss Cardinal Turkson as just the leader of “a rather small office in the Roman Curia” and “the lower echelons of the Roman Curia” is to give one’s rhetorical desires rather too free rein. As today’s Assisi conference demonstrates, Cardinal Turkson is more respected by the Pope than those phrases would suggest. And not just by the Pope: Liberal and conservative Catholics alike view him as a serious candidate to succeed Benedict in the papacy. As I said, I’m no fan of that particular document. But to dismiss it as insignificant, as some have done, is wishful thinking.)