Interview With Father Thomas D. Williams
ROME, 27 MARCH 2007 (ZENIT)
The notion of holiness can seem boring to
modern man, but in reality it is the greatest adventure of human
existence, says a theology dean.
Legionary Father Thomas D. Williams, dean of theology at Rome's Regina
Apostolorum university, makes that point in his new book, "Spiritual
Progress: Becoming the Christian You Want to Be."
He spoke with ZENIT about the state of religion and spirituality in
Q: Several books have come out in the recent past making the case for
atheism and the end of religion. At the same time people seem to be
returning to religious faith in greater numbers. Which is it, an age of
atheism or a new religious revival?
Father Williams: What seems most clear is the heightened interest in all
things spiritual, whether that means theories proposing to debunk
religion, "lite" spirituality, or a more serious exploration of the
The category of spiritual and religious books is the fastest growing
sector of publishing. People seem tired of chasing after a purely
material success and are exploring life's bigger questions. What does it
all mean? Why am I here? Where am I going?
Q: Do books such as Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion," Sam Harris'
"Letter to a Christian Nation," or Daniel Dennett's "Breaking the Spell"
pose a serious threat to Christianity?
Father Williams: They may not pose a serious threat to Christianity as
the Church has faced far more stalwart adversaries
but they do cause confusion and unrest for many Christians, especially
In reality, the atheistic theories these authors propose are centuries
old and resurface anew in every generation. They may appear novel to
those who encounter them for the first time, but they could have been
lifted straight out of texts from Voltaire, or Auguste Comte or any
number of other Enlightenment authors.
The new threat posed by books such as Dawkins' is that they come with a
veneer of "scientific" plausibility, which adds cachet
if not substance
to his arguments.
Q: Is "The God Delusion" an honest inquiry into the nature of religion?
Father Williams: Of course not. That would be like calling "The Da Vinci
Code" an honest inquiry into the history of Christianity.
Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist. We expect scientists to be
objective, impartial and intellectually serious. Unfortunately, with
authors like Dawkins this isn't the case. He studiously avoids all
evidence that would contradict his theories, and his stated intention is
to win over his readers to the atheist crusade. In this book, he is a
proselytizer, not a scientist.
Q: You also work as an analyst and commentator for NBC News. What is
your perception of the attention that religious faith is given in the
Father Williams: To a certain extent the mainline media have picked up
on people's interest in religion and offer occasional stories that touch
on Christianity and the Church.
The fact that NBC/MSNBC brought me aboard and Fox News regularly
features my colleague Father Jonathan Morris testifies to a growing
awareness of the importance of religion and spirituality to the public
The success enjoyed by EWTN, which enthusiastically offers Catholic
doctrine and spirituality, is further proof of people's hunger and
thirst for real spiritual food.
Q: In the later years of his life Pope John Paul II repeatedly asserted
that the third millennium would usher in a new "springtime of faith."
Was this just an expression of his natural optimism, or can we see real
signs of such a springtime?
Father Williams: The Holy Father's words reflected a serious analysis of
the state of society in the wake of the tragedies of the 20th century.
Remember that the first sign of spring is the end of winter. Before we
see pink rose buds and hear twittering songbirds, we will see white snow
turn to ugly brown slush. When winter loses its stranglehold on nature,
that is the true beginning of spring.
We see a parallel to this in human society. This past century saw the
rise and fall of Marxist Communism, Nazism and Fascism, as well as more
subtle versions of ideological materialism promising an earthly
paradise. For a while many put their hopes in these ideologies. One by
one, however, the great secular ideologies have fallen into disrepute,
after causing untold human suffering. As these social experiments have
failed, people have realized that they must look elsewhere for meaning
and the solution of the world's problems.
Q: Does this mean we can expect a spiritual summer to follow?
Father Williams: That depends on whether we take advantage of the
opportunities of the moment. Remember that springtime is a time not of
fulfillment, but of hope and promise. Above all, it is a time of work.
Softer soil is equally open to weeds or good seed. Something will grow,
but there is no guarantee that it will be flowers and good plants.
Spring offers a window of opportunity, a particularly apt moment to sow
new seed when the ground is softening up and ready to receive it. If we
use the opportunity well, all of humankind will reap the benefits.
Q: Your own book "Spiritual Progress" tries to take advantage of this
moment. What do you propose?
Father Williams: This book is a guide for those who wish to advance in
the spiritual life. Many are realizing that being Christian in name only
simply isn't enough. The Christian life is essentially dynamic and
should grow constantly.
Even if we have earnestly cultivated our prayer life and our life of
virtue, Christ always invites us to grow more, and holds out new
challenges to us. This book helps Christians to understand more clearly
where they should be headed in their spiritual lives and how to get
Q: In a nutshell, what is the aim of the spiritual life?
Father Williams: The aim of the spiritual life is holiness and union
with God. Unfortunately the idea of holiness sounds very foreign
and not very attractive
to modern ears. I begin the book unraveling typical misconceptions about
holiness, explaining what it is not, before setting out what it is.
Holiness can seem boring, unreachable, even fanatical. In reality, it is
the greatest adventure of human existence. We often think we know all
about the Christian spiritual life, but we see it only as a caricature.
It is actually much richer, fuller and more exciting than what we
Holiness is found not in seeking to perfect ourselves
picking away at faults and storing up spiritual credit. It is about
forgetting ourselves, discovering how intensely and passionately God
loves us, and in loving God and neighbor as a response.
Q: Where does God's will fit in?
Father Williams: Here, too, we need to sweep away some common
misconceptions. God's will is not simply a blueprint he has made for our
lives, like a well-meaning but overbearing father who desperately wants
his daughter to be a lawyer.
God's will is simply another name for God's love for us. Because he
loves us, he wants only good things
the best things
for us. He asks certain things from us not because he needs them, but
because we need them. He points out the road to true happiness, and
allows us to share in his own life and work.
Q: What does this require from Christians?
Father Williams: Above all, it requires courage and trust. We need
courage to embark on a life of faith, without knowing where it will
lead. We need courage to accept the challenges that our Christian faith
holds out to us. We need courage to leave behind our old securities and
treasures, and to put our confidence in God and his promises.
And we need trust. This is perhaps the greatest challenge for modern
Christians. We often feel betrayed by those closest to us, and would
prefer to rely on our own ingenuity and creativity.
But God wants our trust. He wants us to believe in him, and to know that
he will never let us down. Only the one who trusts finds the strength to
accept the beautiful demands of the Christian life. When we finally
realize that God really is Love, we learn to trust in him
unconditionally and to follow him wherever he leads. ZE07032715