Curiously, it was the death of a committed Christian believer the other day that got me thinking about non-believers.
Bear with me a moment here. The Christian believer to whom I refer was a longtime member of my Episcopal parish in Dallas. His name was -- is, taking account of his recent enlistment in the communion of saints -- Dick Buckingham Granger. He contracted Alzheimer's a few years ago, dying at last at age 90.
A principal reason for remembering Dick, aside from the gentleness of his spirit, is his extraordinary capacity for service to those he encountered in the course of a long life. Mind, I don't mean plain old service: show up where someone's waiting for you, work an hour or two, go home with a glow. I mean Christian service -- the kind that proceeds from theological commitment, not the I-want-to kind of commitment but the I-must-because-I-must kind. Dick's gift and aptitude was for the I-must kind.
Bear with me, I said. I'll tell you in a moment why that kind of service matters so profoundly.
I knew and watched Dick for about 30 years. Couldn't take my eyes off him, actually. If there are such things as Christian dynamos, that is the thing he was. Meeting some poor neighborhood kids one Sunday morning years ago, he tended to their necessities but didn't stop there. He scraped together a kind of personal ministry to the Hispanics of the neighborhood. He went around, got to know the neighbors, got to know their needs, figured out ways to get those needs met, and then met them with the assistance of the parish and members thereof who caught, then latched onto, his vision.
He found neighbors who were sick, neighbors who needed help with bills or food or clothing or the Lord only knew what. Clearly he couldn't do everything. He wasn't God. He understood himself to be answering the call of God. It was enough.
Nor did neighborhood ministry set the bounds of St. Dick's commitment. He coordinated the packing of Christmas baskets for the poor, served food to the homeless, and I don't know what all else. A cyclist and runner, he offered intercessory prayer for others even as he rode or ran. His friends couldn't believe all he did. I used to say, "If you don't want something done, don't ask Dick to do it!" He delivered in spades -- always.
Now, why does all this bring non-believers to mind? In part because the expanding non-belief community has elected lately to get in all our faces with assertions of God as a nullity, a delusion, a joke, a waste of precious time.
You've seen, maybe read, The New York Times bestsellers -- Christopher Hitchens', Richard Dawkins', Sam Harris' -- and their often-sulfurous contempt for religion spilling over from every page. There's even the children's fiction of the God-denying Englishman Philip Pullman. God? Oh, puh-leeze, spare us! Science, my friend, science, numbers, formulas, microscopes -- it's all there is, all that's real.
Yes. Well. One thing I'd been wondering about, nevertheless: Do you get a sharper poke in the direction of faith, hope and love from Dawkins, say, than from Dick? A more convincing nudge from Harris than from the Sermon on the Mount, or the Law and the Prophets, where you tend to find what it's all for -- indeed what everything is for?
No one would deny, I trust, the good works that have flowed from particular agents and carriers of non-belief. Not many, I hope, forget that whereas non-belief scribbles hypotheses and postulates (things not at all bad, in and of themselves), belief marshals the power of the mind and the spirit, building hospitals and orphanages and schools, caring for the dying and the imprisoned, showing mercy and pity in the name of that belief for which non-belief feels such high-minded disdain.
The Age of Dawkins? No way. It's the Age of Dick. It's always indeed the Age of Dick -- and of believers who, from that first instinct to believe in something greater than themselves, go forth to strive and to do.