Stephen BULLIVANT. Faith and Unbelief. New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2014. Pp. xx + 156. $16.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-8091-4865-3. Reviewed by Benjamin J. BROWN, Lourdes University, Sylvania, OH 43560
Stephen Bullivant’s Faith and Unbelief is a thoughtful treatment of unbelief, primarily atheism of the intentional kind, from a Catholic Christian perspective. He addresses a range of questions, from the obvious to the somewhat surprising in an attempt to help Christians grapple with the complexities of atheism as well as their own Christianity. His answers are well-informed, thoughtfully nuanced, rooted in and faithful to the Christian tradition, and challenging to contemporary believers.
Bullivant begins provocatively with a chapter that shows how much Christianity and atheism actually have in common. Early Christians were accused of atheism and at times accepted the moniker, because they did not believe in the kind of gods that their Roman contemporaries did. Dostoevsky, for one, shows how a certain radical atheism is actually just one step away from radical Christianity. Finally, the greats of Catholic spirituality also carefully remind us that God is beyond our conceptualizations, that Christians can in a sense say that they do not believe in God, and that those who are closest to God often feel abandoned and like they are without faith. All of this is carefully qualified, but it serves as a helpful introduction to breaking down comfortable boundaries that we too often erect between “believers” and “atheists.” One can see here the ecumenical-like tone that Bullivant has throughout the book. He wants Christians to take atheism seriously.
The next two chapters carefully and even-handedly examine the genuinely good reasons for atheism, however erroneous they may be in the end, as well as the contribution that Christianity itself has played in giving rise to atheism. If anything, Bullivant leans in favor of the atheists, because he is writing for Christians and his aim is partly to stir up and challenge them in particular.
The fourth chapter deals with the question of salvation for atheists, though this is bound up the question of salvation for non-Christian believers. Bullivant’s approach is heavily based on Lumen Gentium and thus fairly standard, dealing with questions of ignorance, conscience, God’s will for salvation, hope, apokatastasis in both old and new forms, and baptism, all grounded well in the tradition.
The final two chapters discuss evangelizing unbelievers (chapter six) and somewhat unexpectedly, atheist-Christian dialogue along the lines of ecumenical dialogue (chapter five). These chapters are purposely put adjacent to one another for their contrast as well as similarity. A recurring theme is that the good example of Christians, both in terms of service to others as well as respect for people and for the truth wherever it may be found, is absolutely fundamental for both dialogue and evangelization. However, it was good to see that in terms of evangelization, the author is also clear that Christians must “preach what they practice,” too, in order to give “an explanation of the hope that is within you.”
Bullivant discusses what both Christians and atheists can hope to attain from dialogue with one another, particularly mutual understanding in part through overcoming misconceptions, as well as deeper self-understanding for both sides. For example, the uniqueness and scandal of the crucifixion, which Christians too often take for granted, can be appreciated anew, and thoughtful atheists can make clear distinctions in order to distance themselves from the bad polemics of the so-called New Atheism. Interestingly, unknown to many, Paul VI established a Secretariat for Non-believers in 1965 in order to dialogue with atheists; interest waned after a decade or so of intense discussions, and it was subsumed into the Council for Culture, but Benedict XVI tried to reinvigorate the work.
Bullivant has performed a great service with this book, filling a gap that exists in the field. Most recent texts have been either works of apologetics or extended and complex treatments. Faith and Unbelief, however, is a fairly straightforward, clear, readable, thoughtful, balanced, and theologically sound handling of all the major issues except for apologetics. These features, taken together with its relative brevity, index and recommendations for further reading, lend the text very well to use in undergraduate classes. I strongly recommend it.