Christopher Hitchens, a journalist who died several years ago, became of a vocal proponent of atheism during his writing career. Although he was raised in a religious household, and practiced Christianity as an adult, he came to the conclusion that religion was the cause of all injustice, including poverty and war.
Hitchens had very strong ethical convictions and lamented the lack of morality in some individuals and groups associated with organized religion. He came to believe that if religion was banned completely, then humanity would at last enjoy peace and prosperity on a global scale. He longed to see that day when “there shall be no harm or ruin” (Isa. 11:9), but believed it could be possible only on the basis of institutional atheism.
One has to admire Hitchens’ ethics and compassion. It is also necessary to point out that the most cruel and unjust political regimes in the modern world are ones which enforce institutional atheism. Hitchens was correct in his observations that social ills such as poverty and war are affronts to human dignity, but he was mistaken about the origins of such issues.
In today’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist tells the crowds, “produce good fruit as a sign of your repentance.” (Mt. 3:8) The order of causality is important to note. John describes virtuous acts as the result of repentance. This is, in fact, the way in which faith works. Authentic faith in God leads one to perform virtuous actions. The reverse order, however, is not possible; it is not possible to come to faith by performing virtuous acts. Augustine of Hippo expressed this succinctly when he wrote that the virtues of non-believers do not lead to reconciliation with God.
This distinction is worthy of our attention. John the Baptist admonished his hearers to “produce good fruit as a sign of your repentance.” (Mt. 3:8) His admonition rested completely on the call to conversion he had preached beforehand. How many Catholics believe that holiness of life can be achieved solely by going through the motions of religious activity? While virtuous acts are always the right things to do, they never can lead to faith. In order to be in a right relationship to God and one’s neighbor, one must first repent of one’s injustice.
Last Sunday, I suggested that we reclaim the original, penitential nature of the Advent season by fasting from worry. If that is to happen, it will depend on a prior commitment. If one wants to give up worry in favor of faith, then repentance must come first.
Faith without prior repentance is little more than putting one’s faith in one’s own opinions; such faith always leads to gross injustice. The faith proclaimed in the Scriptures is one based on a lifelong habit of repentance and reform; such faith is the only possibility for a just and righteous life.
Catholicism has numerous devout practices; some of the more endearing ones are seen during the Advent season. Devotional practices, however, are religiously and morally neutral acts: they can be expressions of faithlessness as easily as they can be expressions of faith.
In the absence of prior and on-going repentance, devotional practices, performing religious acts, avoidance of rule-breaking, and the like have no redeeming value. All of these things last only during the course of one’s life; after one’s death, there are no further opportunities for going through the motions of religion or avoiding moral failures. While actions eventually will cease, a trust relationship with God lasts forever.
If you’re willing to accept my invitation to fast from worry during this Advent season, your fast will “produce good fruit” only if it is grounded in a prior and on-going repentance from all injustice, dishonesty, and selfishness. If you truly long to enter the Kingdom where “there shall be no harm or ruin” (Isa. 11:9), it is necessary to repent now of the harm and ruin in your life.