Father Bruno and Father Paul, two Dominican friars ministering to the spiritual needs of the Catholic students at the University of Texas, shared an apartment near the campus. They were halfway through their evening meal of boiled crab legs and spaghetti with sauce, when the fairly rotund Father Bruno stretched his arm across the table to retrieve the bottle of Chianti. But Father Paul’s reach was faster and he poured the other priest’s glass only half full, concerned about his recent weight gain.
“More,” Father Bruno said.
Father Paul returned the bottle to the glass, gingerly poured in a bit more and pulled it away to fill his own.
“More!” Father Bruno gestured by flourishing his hand above the glass. This is a game they have played before.
Father Paul poured in just a little more and stopped. The other bowed his head and clenched his fists, as if struggling to resist.
“Good grief, Paul, what part of the word more do you not understand? Give me that!” He seized the bottle and emptied it into his glass. Grinning peevishly, Father Paul stood and brought his plate and utensils to the kitchen sink. The other priest watched his brother friar’s tall, lank figure move about. After a moment, he took his napkin and wiped his mouth and hands. “Paul, you should eat more. By the looks of you, one would think there was a famine in the land.”
“And by the looks of you, one would think you were the cause of it,” Father Paul replied quite seriously.
“What can I say? Leave the dishes, I’ll do them later.” Father Paul hesitated at the sink. “Come now, you are giving a talk at the student center aren’t you? Take a little break and relax … go over your notes … whatever. What is your talk about tonight at the student hall?”
“St. Anselm’s ontological proof for the existence of God.” Father Paul replied.
“Won’t that be fun?” the other priest answered. “I wager you’ll have them rolling in the aisles.”
“That’s if anyone shows up. Will you be hearing confessions tonight?”
“Only one is scheduled, Thomas Morrill.” The university senior had asked for a special appointment as he wanted not just confession, but also counseling. Unaccountably, an image of thirty year ago flashed in the priest’s mind, that of hearing his first confession by a young nun. The experience was somewhat like being pelted unmercifully with popcorn. Thomas Morrill was sure to be a more interesting confession as he had all about him the look of a doubting Thomas.
“Anyway, enjoy yourself. I’d rather be teaching Pascal than Anselm any day.” The priest suddenly recollected Pascal’s view that there would be more Protestant conversions if it weren’t for the Catholic requirement of confession. The general abandonment of the confessional by so many Catholics had always puzzled the priest. Not that the Church hadn’t made that more likely by removing the old confessional box that used to envelope the confessor’s shame in dark anonymity.
Father Paul wiped his hands on a towel. “Pascal I leave for you and the Jesuits to wrangle over. So I’ll be off.” After the priest had gone, Father Bruno patted his full stomach, sighed, and moved to the easy chair. He drifted into semi-consciousness when he was startled awake by rather a loud a rap on the apartment door. The priest glanced at his watch, got up and yawned, then went to the door and opened it.
Thomas Morrill had made this appointment to confess his sins several days earlier with the understanding that his doubts would be addressed by the Dominican friar who had a reputation for deep insights in his sermons. Thomas had stopped going to Mass in his freshman year. The effect of this was soon evident. Right off he began to mock the Eucharist as a Catholic “cookie.” His then ( but now no longer) Catholic girl friend asked him why he felt compelled to such impudence, to attack so virulently the religion of his parents who had raised him to revere Jesus with all his heart and mind. Why did he feel obliged to adopt the usual atheist taunts? At the time he had no direct answer to give her. But over the next several years he noticed a pattern among his liberal professors of dropping insolent remarks pertaining to Catholic Church history, and he noticed that they seemed confident their remarks would not be challenged by any Catholic students. In this their supposition was correct. It finally occurred to him to ask himself whether atheism had made him happier than he was four years ago. To which question he could not give an affirmative answer. Perhaps allying himself with his brilliant professors, he was made to feel superior in his unbelief, but certainly not happier.
Thomas would not have said he was an angry man, though he would never run from the offer of a good fight. In Texas it is not difficult to acquire a handgun, which he did as soon as he could raise four hundred dollars. Why did he do that? Was there some underlying rage that had never been addressed, or was it merely caving in to a Texan’s typical fantasy? Was it violence on the campus that he feared, which was common enough these days. Or was it an even more deadly itch needing to be scratched?
On a surprising whim one day, Thomas decided to go to Mass, where he first discovered Father Bruno, following which he made this appointment with the friar. As he knocked on the priest’s door he put his other hand in his pocket and suddenly realized that he had the Smith & Wesson revolver in his jacket. This could be, he knew, a very big mistake that might not be well received by the priest should it be detected. He was about to turn and flee the scene when the door opened upon rather a large and bald-headed man cloaked in the loose black and white robes of a Dominican friar.
“Welcome to our inner sanctum, Thomas,” Father Bruno said. Motioning to a chair in the corner the priest smiled warmly and said, “Please sit. You came for confession, right?” Before Thomas could answer the priest remarked casually, “I see by the bulge in your pocket that you are carrying a pistol of some sort. May I see it?” Thomas clumsily removed it from his pocket and handed it over. “When I was about your age I had one of these,” the priest said with a sigh.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring it to our meeting,” Thomas apologized with a blush.
“Quite all right with me, Thomas. I’m familiar with fire arms. In my early life I was in the Army’s military police. We were trained to spot revolvers bulging beneath jackets. There are all kinds of reasons to carry one, I’m sure yours is legitimate. One of my favorite authors, the poet G.K. Chesterton, on his honeymoon carried one in his pocket he said for the reason of protecting his bride from possible harm. Just so you know, the Church has never preached against self defense. Had it done so, we might be Muslims today if Charles Martel had not repelled the invaders of Europe in the the 8th century.”
Already Thomas was starting to like this priest and his casual, confiding manner. If a confession was forthcoming, he realized he could tell anything and everything without the burden of excessive blame or shame. “Actually, I’m not quite sure that I came here for confession,” Thomas replied to the priest’s first question. “The fact is, I haven’t confessed in several years.”
“May I interrupt you there?” the priest asked in a friendly manner. Would I be correct in supposing that you are majoring in philosophy?”
“As a matter of fact, I am.” Thomas was stunned to be so immediately sized-up.
“I understand, “the priest said. “It is not at all uncommon today for young men at college to begin a deep study of philosophy, and not long after lose the study of their faith before it could truly begin.” There was an awkward pause before the priest resumed. “Let’s see now, you … are studying for your Masters in Philosophy?”
“Four courses and a Master’s thesis yet to go.”
“And have you picked a subject for your thesis?”
“Not sure yet. I’ve been told I must select a topic that’s not been done to death.”
“Father Bruno: I’m sure you’ll find a good one. If I can be of any help, do let me know. How about a glass of red wine? It will relax us both.”
“Yes, I think that would be … helpful.”
“Helpful?” The priest asked. “I would say mandatory.” He went to the kitchen sink, picked up two glasses and poured them full. “So young man, what are you here for other than confession?”
“It’s complicated,” Thomas said. “I guess I need to ask you a really big favor. I’ve gotten myself into sort of a hole.”
The priest handed Thomas his glass and took the chair opposite him. “A hole? Hmm. I’ve had some experience climbing out of a few holes. Maybe we can climb out of this one together. Well then, tell me about your hole.”
“I’ve been asked to do an independent study project for credit … and … it requires being a player on the university debating team.”
“You should be flattered. Somebody thinks you’re worthy and up to the challenge.”
“I’m not sure about that … being worthy. I accepted the challenge before the topic of the debate was decided.”
“Does Religion Have a Future?” Thomas replied.
Father Bruno sat up in his chair. “Now I’m impressed!” he said, slapping his knee. “About time that question was debated.”
“I’ve started making notes, but the subject simply overwhelms me. On top of that, they have recruited two great debaters for the atheist side.”
“Then I’m sure you know,” said the priest, “that to prepare yourself properly, you need to know the other side better than you know your own.”
“That’s what scares me. I’ve been doing some research. It’s downright perplexing what few points I’ve readied to parry some fairly solid thrusts from the other side.”
The friar scowled. “What atheists have you been reading?”
“Frederick Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Jean Paul Sartre, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens. Those are just a few at the top of my reading list for several years now.”
“You find them intimidating?” the priest asked politely. “Well then, we must train you to make their followers think you are intimidating.”
“That’s why I’m here … I need serious training in apologetics.”
Father Bruno smiled and gave a thumbs-up sign. “If you like, you can play the Devil’s Advocate. I’ll play God’s. Remember what Mark Twain said: Satan has not one salaried helper; the Church employs a million. So we have a leg up on him, don’t we? Let’s get started. Fire away!”
Thomas suddenly felt very warmly toward the priest and confident that this was going to be rather an interesting evening. “Well … the most common attack I’ve encountered against belief in God is that the existence of God cannot be proven. Isn’t the attack on the future of religion likely to begin there?”
The priest rubbed his hands together in anticipation of great intellectual sport, for which the Dominicans had always been famous. “To begin, must a thing be proven to exist in order to exist? So right off the antagonists of religion have to admit the possibility of God, and at the same time they cannot prove God does not exist.”
“But shouldn’t God as a reality lie within the province of the provable. And doesn’t the Church insist that God is provable?”
“That depends on what you mean by provable,” the priest replied. “What is more likely is that the Church insists that the proofs for God are plausible. The people you are going to go up against in your debate are likely to fall back on the premise of scientism, which insists that scientific evidence, not speculation, must bring us to true knowledge. But that’s scientism. Obviously, God by definition cannot be found through a microscope or a telescope. But neither can science be found through a microscope or a telescope. You know what I mean … the very principle of science, that a thing cannot be true unless it is found through a microscope or a telescope … that very principle is a matter of faith, not of proof. Nowhere in the known universe can you find that principle using a microscope or a telescope. The principle is a mental construct inside our heads. But that doesn’t mean we cannot believe in it as a true scientific device, so long as we confine the device to science and do not try to apply it to everything that may exist. By everything I mean everything outside the known universe, such as God. But even within the known universe we can find instances of truth that are difficult to prove even using the scientific method. The ancient philosopher Democritus theorized about the existence of atoms, particles so small that we cannot see them. Others in his day thought he was crazy. So the notion went underground for several thousand years and surfaced again in modern times. Today we know that atoms truly do exist, even if we cannot see them. Why couldn’t the same be true of God?” The priest paused for a moment to let Thomas register a thought in reply.
“Well, perhaps the atheist could say there is no way we can prove God in the way that scientists can prove atoms. For example, scientists can see the existence of atoms by splitting them and releasing enormous energy in doing so.”
The priest paused a moment to consider the point. “But then we already have it as a given in the mystery of faith that God is split into three Persons, and has released the infinite energy of Creation through Himself.”
Thomas replied, “Your point would be well taken but only if you first concede the truthfulness of Scripture, which is that God created everything that is. The atheist makes no such concession.”
“Then the atheist has to explain how the universe came to be if not through God as revealed in Scripture. And he has to do it in a scientific way. I don’t know of any science that can prove the universe created itself, which is absurd on the face of it. Some theories I know have speculated that the universe is eternal, but the Big Bang, which is certainly a scientific hypothesis, seems to discredit that notion. Moreover, all five of the speculative proofs of Thomas Aquinas for God are coincidentally consistent with a created universe rather than the eternal one that Einstein preferred. Then there is the fact that another priest, the Belgian mathematician Georges Lemaître , pioneered the Big Bang theory. But then comes along the multi-verse theory, which is that that are an infinite number of universes giving birth to other universes, such as our own which we have detected in the Big Bang. But that’s very weak, isn’t it? How would you scientifically prove the existence of the multiverse without getting outside our own universe to do so? You could only speculate, which is the way we logically prove the existence of a creator God. When God said in the Book of Genesis, “Let there be light,” what else could that sentence be pointing to if not the Big Bang and the burst of light that scientists now tell us flooded the universe following the Bang?
“So you think science is on the side of religion rather than irreligion?” Thomas asked, looking slightly perplexed.
“I didn’t quite say that, did I? No, science by definition will not choose to be on the side of religion because its methodology forbids it from doing so. But science is built upon very rational principles. Philosophy is also built upon rational principles. Blaise Pascal was a mathematician, scientist, and philosopher who did not shy away from reasoning along philosophical lines that lead us to God. So the way to find God is admittedly not the business of science, but rather the business of philosophy and theology. Human beings always have all kinds of questions that need all kinds of answers. Why is there a universe? What am I here for? Do I have a soul, and will that soul survive my body? Is there a God who made me? What can I know about this God, or what can I not know? Does this God have a plan for my life? Surely this God would not have created me without a plan. Has this God planted in me certain desires and expectations for my present and final destiny? And what religion other than our own offers answers to all these questions, and offers these answers under the authority of the One who established his divinity by the working of miracles? So, you see, we need to explore these questions but cannot rely on science to help us much with the answers. Does religion have a future? I should think so if religion is the only thing that will help us find the answers to all these questions.”
“Let me play the Devil’s Advocate again,” Thomas replied. “Suppose the atheist says that religion pretends to deal with questions that should not be asked in the first place. Perhaps these questions are nonsensical, and if we stop asking them we can pilot our way through life just fine. Doesn’t the atheist have a right to take that position?”
“Of course he does,” the priest said. But how does the atheist know he is not avoiding questions that it is part of his human nature to ask? This brings us to considering the question Pascal asked. Do we really want to risk the destiny of our immortal souls by assuming we have no immortal soul? The instinct to believe that the soul is immortal is so powerful that it is far more universal than the avoidance of that instinct. In fact, the avoidance of that instinct is attended by too many side effects that are deadly to our human nature. When you look closely at any society that seems dominantly atheistic, you find that the people who rule such societies have usurped the role of deity, and they tend to be unusually nasty deities who will do whatever they can get away with to discourage, discredit, and persecute those who prefer the supernatural Deity over the counterfeit ones. The history of the world proves that, but especially the history of the last hundred years which has not proved favorable to collective atheism. Personal atheism is another matter.”
“What are the side effects of personal atheism?” Thomas asked.
“They are many and fatal, don’t you think?” the priest said. “Most of them decidedly negative. For one, the sense of being loved and cared about by a Being supremely greater than ourselves is lost. For another, the moral laws we adopt become very much subjective and relativistic because there is no acknowledged Lawgiver who gives these laws with decisive authority. Each of us invents our own moral laws, or rather there is a malevolent spirit who helps us invent them. Another side effect of atheism is the sense of final doom that overshadows everything, even when it is not self evident because we have found a way to distract ourselves with pleasures and activities that consume all our attention. I could go on and on along this line, but I think Pascal summed it up best. The heart has reasons that reason cannot know when it comes to our need for God and the religion that God has endowed us with. It’s a truism I have heard and witnessed at many a deathbed. The consolations of religion are real. No believer gives them up on his deathbed, but many an atheist at the approach of death reaches out for them. My own grandfather was an atheist who begged me to pray for him as he lay dying. So it’s necessary for the atheist to not only deny God, but deny our own innermost need to believe in God and be ennobled by our beliefs. The actual and vital need of men to believe in God and love God vastly outweighs any need to prove that God does not exist.”
“Why then,” Thomas said, “do so many people feel the need to reject God?”
The priest seemed slightly disconcerted by the question and mulled it over for a minute. “I suppose there are many reasons, Thomas. We get the first reason suggested in the story of Adam and Eve. It is a great temptation for people to substitute their own will for the will of the Creator. God forbade the fruit, so Eve desired it just because her will fulfilled would make her equal to God. We know how that turned out for the rest of us, carrying the stain of that original sin in our own souls. As I suggested earlier, the great tyrants of history have always had the urge to have magnificent paintings and statues of themselves replace the churches and temples dedicated to God. So they have, especially in the last century with the advance of media technology, used that technology to make themselves bigger and the old religion smaller. They truly do not want Christ worshiped as they are. Instead of the crucifix in every home, they want idealized wall hangings of themselves. And they will encourage physical or spiritual assaults against anyone who does not go along with worshiping them.”
Thomas, needing to get everything he could get out of the priest to help him with his debate preparation, blurted out his next question. “Then there is the argument of Bertrand Russell, to the effect that any God worth his salt could do better than to create the universe we know, which is full of suffering and disappointment everywhere you look.”
“I’ve noticed,” the priest replied, “that where I hear this argument it is from the mouths of those who have suffered greatly in life. Russell lost his parents when he was very young. He was married four times and involved with a number of mistresses, which suggests he was disappointed over and over in his love life. Though very successful in his professional accomplishments as a mathematician and philosopher, I think most of his writing is colored gray or even dark because of his emotional emptiness. I believe one of his daughters remarked in her autobiography that her father had a spiritual emptiness that originated in his decision to reject God. But Russell liked very much the old problem of evil as a proof against God. He was wrong. God is not malevolent. He gives us the gift to choose between good and evil. He also gives us the knowledge and common sense to know which is which. We can refuse that knowledge, we can pretend we don’t “get it,” we can even turn the definitions of good and evil upside down to suit our purpose. One thing we cannot do, though, is to deny that life is something we hold on to with all our might because it is good. Even with intense suffering, we desperately hold onto life in the belief that it is good. If God were malevolent, if He wished us to suffer, why would He give us such a passion to live? Why would he not create every device to make of life nothing but a living hell? This mere fact, the preponderance of regular pleasure over occasional pain, is enough to prove that we know in our hearts life is worth living. The only people who deny the fact, those who choose suicide, are those who have given up on God altogether. It’s a well-known fact established by statistical studies, and should not be a surprise to anyone, that the suicide rate among atheists is higher than among religious people. This is because, at bottom, atheism is the denial of our ultimate hope for everlasting life. Yes, I would say that some people find the universe to be indifferent about the fate of humankind, but that indifference is not in God. Rather, we find a hatred of the self for the self … and this hatred is rooted in the embrace of what some suppose to be an indifferent and purely materialistic universe.”
Thomas mulled this over a moment and decided to go on the attack. “Christopher Hitchens talked about the destructive history of religions, about religious wars and persecutions.”
To which the priest retorted, “But what does that have to do with whether God exists? I don’t say there haven’t been such wars. Men have used religion positively to great effect, and they have abused it to great effect. But then you have to ask, is the world better off with or without religion? In the last hundred years we have seen several once great civilizations fail because their leaders became godless men who either denied God openly, or who denied Him while pretending to be his champion. The last century was the only one in history of which it may be said that organized atheism had a chance to prove its worth. You can point to the Crusades and the Inquisition, but then you have to point that finger in the other direction … to the tens of millions of victims of Stalin, Mao, and Hitler … none of whom, by any stretch of logic, can be said to have been friends of God.” The priest stood up, went to the table and poured himself another glass of wine. “Imagine this. You are walking down a street and two groups of men approach you, one on either side of the street. You take a good look at the two groups. One is made up of men in black leather jackets who tote chains, knives, and clubs. The group on the other side of the street consists of people in normal dress, and the only thing black about them is the bibles they carry. Now Thomas, when you pass these two groups, which side of the street do you want to be on? The side on which people are heading toward their church, or the side on which the people would not likely be caught dead in a church?”
Thomas raised a finger to object. “I doubt even the atheist would want to be on the side of the street with thugs. But we have to be fair. Not all atheists brandish knives, chains, and clubs.”
“Quite true,” the priest replied. “But that is another dilemma of atheism. All atheism says is that there is no God. It offers nothing else but that one fact. Any other fact that you derive from atheism is the product of invention. The first thing you would have to invent is your own system of morality. Imagine every man, woman, and child inventing his own system of morality on the premise that, without God, everything or anything might be permitted, including knives, chains, and clubs.”
Thomas tried to imagine how an atheist would answer the priest. “But the atheist might reply that Reason alone should be the true and reliable guide to right living.”
“Have you ever noticed that one man’s Reason might be another man’s Insanity? The Marquis de Sade, one of the most famous atheists in history, was also a cruel madman who had to be locked up the better part of his adult life.”
“But then you have atheists who are very proper and decent with their morals, Thomas objected. “They certainly aren’t sadistic types like the Marquis de Sade. These kinds of atheists don’t like the idea of fearing hell as a necessary mechanism for getting them to do good and avoid evil. They are willing to do good just for the sake of doing good. So what good is the fear of hell as a deterrent to evil actions if you want to do good actions just because they are good?”
“I grant you that, Thomas, and a fair point it is,” the priest said. “Western civilization is still living off the accrued capital of virtue that has been the legacy of Christianity for two thousand years. Atheists have benefited from this along with Christians. You will hardly find an atheist who does not agree with Christ that we should treat others as we would like to be treated. That said, the Christian capital is being used up at a rapid pace. As the influence of Christianity wanes, do you think righteous actions will increase or decrease? If they decrease, and especially if they decrease at an alarming rate, what do you think is going to have to be done by the institutions of government and law enforcement? The first thing I imagine will be done is that, very literally, all hell will break loose. Or rather, I should say, the fear of hell will break loose. Not the hell promised by Christ, but the hell promised by the courts, the prisons, and the executioners … who will bend themselves to every device to instill fear and obedience. Society, I am convinced, will use the fear of punishment to induce the swing of the pendulum back from sin to virtue. So, I think it is delusional to say that people will always act rightly without fear of consequences, hellish or otherwise. And dire consequences will be introduced into human affairs one way or another, with or without Christ as the leavening agent for the mercy that will balance justice. Now the alternative to everlasting hell is everlasting heaven. The true Christian doesn’t even have to work much at fearing hell if he is wholeheartedly bent for heaven.”
“I was having coffee in the student lounge several days ago,” Thomas said, “when a student in one of my classes joined me. Turns out he is an atheist. So I started to pick his brain. He made one rather interesting point. He asked how he would fair if he decided to believe in God and then it turned out he believed in the wrong God among the thousands that have existed since the dawn of human history. When he passed into the next world, would he be rewarded or punished by having chosen the wrong God?”
The priest chuckled. “He was taunting you. And how did you answer him?”
“I told him, facetiously I suppose, that I would not likely have chosen the wrong God.”
“Good answer,” the priest said. “Having surveyed the field of candidates for the one true God, how could the God willing to die for our sins be anything but the best of all possible gods? But think about it, if there is a God, the atheist would be in the worst possible position, no matter which of the gods to choose from turned out to be the one true God … after all, he wants to flaunt them all.”
“This same fellow I was having coffee with also argued that, even if there is a God, the sincere atheist would have to be exempt from the wrath of God since he was following his conscience by not believing in any of the gods.”
“That’s not a tenable proposition at all, is it? As somebody once said, the path to hell is paved with the best of intentions. In other words, when a man persuades himself there is no god, and there really is a God, then how can the man who persuades himself there is no god be anything but one who has told himself a lie and believed it?”
“I’m not sure I follow that,” Thomas said.
Father Bruno resumed. “Well, if there is a God, wouldn’t it stand to reason that this God had made us to have some kind of a relationship with Him? Wouldn’t this God have planted in us the desire to know Him, and to grow in that knowledge toward the love of Him? Haven’t we seen that phenomenon everywhere in the world … in every civilization throughout history… the reaching out for divinity? Even when the reaching out was in the wrong direction, men have always believed there was Someone there to reach for. Every civilization has bowed itself to one Almighty or another, and the great censure in every civilization was reserved for those who reached out to Nogod. So I think atheism goes against our human nature. Who doesn’t want there to be life everlasting in the presence of a benevolent God? The man who denies this to himself needs to examine well his motive for denying it. Is he sincere, or is covering a desire for something other than God … I will not say what exactly, since the what may be different from one person to another. In any case, a psychologist or theologian will tell you that people do lie to themselves, and that they can believe their own lies … and that any subject can be lied about … even the need to know and love God. Ask the devil. He loves the lie that God does not exist. Maybe the only lie he likes more than that one is the lie that the devil also doesn’t exist. After all, how do we combat the Enemy if we don’t even believe the enemy exists?”
“I’ve also heard the argument that religions are all lies. They are all man made, slight-of-hand tricks of logic and fantasy all combined to make us think things that are not true, things that were made up by clever tricksters to give control to the elite and manage obedience of the sheep.”
“There may well be some of that in history,” the priest conceded. “Religion has had a history of charlatans. But so have politics, and art, and economics, and … dare I say it … even science? Have scientists never feathered their nest at the cost of truth? What are nuclear weapons but the result of a collective decision of the physicists to prefer folly to wisdom? Didn’t Einstein himself later regret the control he handed to the military and the politicians when he sent letters to President Roosevelt urging the development of atom bombs?”
“I didn’t know that. Are these Einstein letters available online?”
“I should think anyone can find them typing in the key words – Einstein, letters, Roosevelt,” the priest said.
“I expect that someone on the atheist side of this upcoming debate will challenge me to produce one iota of evidence that science has ever confirmed or agreed with any articles of our Christian faith.”
“Ah, on that score you are lucky to be living in the world we now live in. A hundred years ago such a challenge would have been harder to meet. Fortunately, the science of astronomy has handed us a very interesting discovery.”
“A hundred years ago, when Einstein was in his youth, little was known for a fact about the history of the universe. Einstein himself, as I mentioned earlier, thought the universe was eternal and infinite. But astronomers have developed greater insight into the universe through Hubbell’s telescope in the 1930s. Scientists now talk about the Big Bang as an explanation for the history of the universe that requires a moment of creation, much as Genesis talks about that moment of creation when God said, ‘Let there be light!’ We cannot assume God was talking about the light of the sun, because the sun was not created until later. Astronomers tell us the early universe was filled with light long before the creation of the galaxies along with their stars and planets. This is a truly remarkable moment in the history of the relations between religion and science. How is it that three thousand years ago the author of Genesis knew about the creation of light when there was no science at that time comparable to modern times? Was the author of Genesis guessing? Was he merely, if you’ll excuse the pun, firing a shot in the dark?”
“Hardly seems likely, Thomas said. “Yes, I think that is a good answer you have just given to the argument that religion and science can never find a place to overlap their claims. But if I make this point, don’t you think the other side will have an answer ready?”
Father Bruno replied, “If they do, how persuasive can their answer be? They will be questioning the science of the Big Bang, because the Big Bang is fairly settled science. The primal burst of light itself, I am told by a scientific friend, is more demonstrable than the theory of evolution, since the Big Bang is still reverberating throughout the universe as the galaxies continue to fly away from each other at accelerating velocities. But of course, I am only speaking as a layman of science. You might want to confirm what I have just said by checking it out with someone in the university science department. It’s always best, when debating, to be able to refer to someone who is more of an authority than you are.”
“I’ll do that, because there is certain to be somebody on the other side itching to use science against religion. You know … the case of Galileo and all that.”
“Yes …all that” the priest said scowling. It’s always interesting to me that Galileo is thrown in our face, but you hardly ever hear of any other scientist being thrown in our face. I think it’s really quite remarkable, the great to-do made about Galileo, as if the treatment of Galileo was the chronic treatment the Vatican has given science throughout history. If anything, the Church has been the champion, not the enemy, of science. It has only questioned science when science sought to rid the world of God … as many of Darwin’s followers did when they thought the theory of evolution made atheism intellectually respectable. It did nothing of the sort. There is as much evolution as there is Big Bang in the book of Genesis.”
Thomas frowned. “I don’t recall reading about evolution in Genesis.”
“I’m speaking as much of the poetry of Genesis as of the science. Notice that the paramount point of interest in the Creation story is that Creation did not occur all at once. Rather, it is divided into several days. It’s a simple equation to make, that a day should equal a period of time, rather than twenty-four hours, since the Sun and the Earth were not created until several days after the initial creation of light. Notice too, that the account of Creation first has the earth separated from the sea, then the creation of life in the sea, after which life appears in the sky and on the earth. This is pretty much the order of creation described by the theory of evolution, with Man appearing last on the scene on the last day. Now, there being no science among the Jews approximating the science of biology in modern times, how was the author of Genesis three thousand years ago able to come so nearly close to the modern theory of evolution as he did? Much of the Genesis account is pure poetry, to be sure, rather than factual science. But would anyone expect, given the advantage of hindsight, that Genesis would come anywhere near as close as it did to the way we now perceive the origin of the universe and life itself? After all, if you look at the Creation myths of any of the world’s great religions, there is no comparison with Genesis. Buddhism, for example, has no conception of a start to the universe or the movement of life from the sea to the land. Nor does the ancient Hindu account of an Elephant resting upon a Turtle conform very much to ‘Let there be light’ and the seven days of creative evolution. So while it is true that many great religions might have a quarrel with science as to the origins of the universe, I think that is certainly less true of the Judaeo-Christian tradition than of the others.
“But all we’ve said so far doesn’t seem to move forward any case for the existence of God.”
“That depends on how open one can be to the idea of a Being of whom no being greater can be conceived. The atheist thinks he is reasonable to live as though God does not exist. But he can never be absolutely certain of that. So if God does exist, what is really unreasonable is to live as though He does not. As I think I said earlier, citing Pascal, I’m afraid there is no air-tight case of logic to be made for God that an atheist will not manage to explain away somehow. You see, Thomas, the human mind is not pure intellect. It is also imagination and will. If a man does not want to find God, he will instruct both his intellect and his imagination to find ways to annihilate God, both in his head and in his heart. His head and his heart obey his will. But you may notice that head and heart will not obey will forever. I have never known an atheist not to have a lifelong obsession with repudiating God. This is because, as the poet Francis Thompson noted, there is a Hound of Heaven that has every man’s scent, and is on every man’s track, and will give constant chase. See if I can remember some of that poem.”
The priest recited, haltingly at first, then caught the rhythm.
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vista-ed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat–and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet–
“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”
“I’ve never heard that poem.”
“It has gone out of fashion, I’m afraid. In high school Sister Mary Paraclete made us learn those few lines by heart. We can flee the Hound of Heaven, but He always has our scent.”
The two fell silent, both staring into space. Awkwardly, Thomas broke the silence. “In the course of the debate, we are supposed not only to defend our position, but to attack the other side. Father, how does one go about attacking atheism?”
“Well, I have believe that one of the strongest arguments for theism is the weakness of the case for atheism.”
“I’ve heard atheists argue that they can no more believe in God than they can believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. Is that what you mean by a weak argument?”
“Of course that kind of remark is meant to be an insult to religion. Except for small children, nobody in the world believes in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, and sooner or later all children cease to believe in them as well. Nor does it matter whether we believe in them. But the vast majority of adults worldwide have always believed in one god or another, and they have always held that this belief mattered a great deal so far as the fate of their immortal souls is concerned. So the trivializing of God by comparing Him with childish fantasies is not a new argument, but it is certainly a very weak one. Theoretically, it is possible to invent a machine that could search every corner of the earth and find no evidence whatever for the existence of the Easter Bunny. But one could never, even theoretically, invent a machine that could scour the universe and find no evidence of God, and for the simple reason that the search would be absurd to begin with. How can the Creator in His very essence be subject to detection and inspection by means of a human invention? Is God to be located in a petri-dish at a science laboratory? It is really a juvenile sort of logic that pits God against Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Anyway, I would bring you back to the point that is most relevant to your concern. To the man who says he would believe in God if he found sufficient evidence, I would reply: What exactly do you mean by sufficient evidence? I suspect that if God actually entered the world and appeared to any such person as proof that He exists, that person would claim to have had a delusional episode. Some atheists might say they know absolutely that God does not exist. How they know this is anybody’s guess. The atheist who concedes just a bit might say he is 99% certain that God does not exist. I have yet to learn how he arrives at 99% as opposed to 79% or 49% or 29% or 9%.”
“Why is it that atheists complain so much about religion?”
“I think,” the priest said, “atheism needs to find some positive merit in itself, rather than engaging in the mere practice of complaining about God and religion. Atheism is fundamentally not attractive, which means it is not going to appeal to anyone because it has more negatives going against it than positives going for it. If it is worth while to seek truth, which the atheist thinks he has done, the truth we are seeking must be worthwhile. And if it is the major guiding truth of our lives, it should be all the more worthwhile.”
“So should I challenge the atheist to produce the ‘merits’ of atheism?”
“Why not? Aren’t you going to produce the merits of our living faith and how it has been practiced down through the centuries? You will hardly find an atheist who will concede that the Church has done any good, or who will concede that the Church was a bulwark against the barbarism that descended upon Europe in the Dark Ages; or that throughout history hundreds of millions of Christians have given their lives to good works; or that the Church has been a great and constant teacher of morals for the young; or that it has given hope to the old and dying; or that it has been more often the transmitter of social order than of social strife; or that it has consoled and uplifted the lives of the downtrodden and those in despair; or that it has built great hospitals and universities; or that from the time of Roger Bacon it has actually promoted scientific research rather than retarded it; or that from the start the Church has taught the ignorant, comforted the lonely, tended the sick, visited the imprisoned, clothed the naked, housed the poor, and fed the hungry. Does atheism have a comparable record? I don’t see one. Atheism does nothing but deny the God who has inspired all the achievements of Christianity. It was Christianity that ended infanticide, and that abolished gladiators fighting to the death and people being fed to animals for public amusement. Slowly but surely, through the centuries it was Christianity that abolished slavery. It was the Catholic Church, not atheists, who led Europe’s resistance to the many tribal assaults from the North and from the East. It was Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, who engineered the signing of the Magna Carta, which gave a more democratic government to England and earned for Langton the everlasting hatred of the tyrannical King John. And it was Catholic bishops, not a cadre of atheists, who invented and built the Medieval university system that slowly spearheaded Europe into the Renaissance. And today it was the Catholic bishops of America who successfully pleaded for a moratorium on building nuclear weapons. But then … don’t we have an obligation to ask atheism what it has done for the world? What is the record? There isn’t any, so far as I can see. Or rather, the record of atheism is to dismiss God and religion as retarding and suppressing forces in the history of the race. But that is a negative record, not a positive one. And what are the two principle targets of this so-called negative record? The Crusades and the Inquisition? As if either event defines Christianity. When was the last time a Crusader charged into battle, or a heretic was burned at the stake? Yet, to hear the enemies of the Church today, any minute now that is what the modern world has most to fear from Christianity. But as Chesterton liked to remind us, the Dark Ages of which historians speak were by no means caused by the Church; if anything is demonstrably true, it is that the Church alone guided us out of the Dark Ages.”
Thomas seemed a little impatient with this line of reasoning. “Perhaps we are getting away from the fundamental question: Does God Exist? That has to be answered before we can argue that religion has a future. I think it was Christopher Hitchens who said that what can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof. How would you answer that?”
The priest raised an eyebrow, as if not certain he had heard correctly. “If God does not exist, it stands to reason that a record of God’s positive impact on the human race, on the hopes and dreams of the human race, would be hard to substantiate. But the record is there for all to see. Despite all the failings of people who aspire to know and love God, many are uplifted and ennobled by their religion. How can a Being that is supposed not to exist exert such a profound desire on so many humans to connect in some tangible and meaningful way with that very Being? By the same token, as I remarked earlier …excuse me for repeating myself but it bears repeating … if one is an atheist, why does one, as an atheist, become obsessed with convincing himself and others that God does not exist? What was Shakespeare’s expression … ‘He doth protest too much’? It is because atheism is an unnatural dismissal of the supernatural that the atheist obsesses so much about God. Indeed, why does atheism become for many atheists a very fervent, one might even say virulent sort of anti–religious religion?”
“Religion? Atheism is a religion?” Thomas queried.
“I’m calling it a religion in the loosest way,” the priest explained. It has central doctrines, prophets and pundits who talk about how wonderful the world will be without religion (how they would know, I have no idea since the world has never been without religion). Nietzsche was the foremost among those prophets. He preached the coming of the Superman, denying that the Superman had already come from another world long ago in the person of Jesus Christ. Then there are the atheist missionaries who carry the gospel of death and nothingness to the entire world. The French have been especially good at that, as you can see in the morbid fiction of Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Then there are scientific atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking who practice the sneers of scientism. Let’s not forget the ‘papal bulls’ of that old supreme pontiff of psychology, Sigmund Freud, who on his own started a cottage industry of books debunking the future of religion.”
“I had no idea Freud was an atheist.”
“Perhaps the most famous one of his day, I should think. Very likely Freud believed God was invented so that we might think of ourselves as something special. It never seems to have occurred to him that we are special because God invented us. You might read Paul Vitz’s Faith of the Fatherless. Vitz is a psychologist who has analyzed the lives of many famous atheists and agnostics over the past few centuries. He has found a common thread in their upbringing. They had either no father or a weak or dysfunctional father. This includes characters like Bertrand Russell and Freud himself. Vitz’s book should be required reading for seminary students who will gain insight from it as to why many young people turn away from God … because they tend to have an inadequate or empty notion of what a loving Father he is.”
“ Just as you were speaking about absent fathers, it occurred to me that the exploding divorce rate, so much greater now than it used to be, might alone account for the increase in the atheist population throughout Europe and North America.”
“Yes, not only divorce but also children out of wedlock who will grow up with hardly any father figure to speak of. Or perhaps I should say the omnipotent welfare state becomes the surrogate Father, so who needs a spiritual one? If you recall from your history lessons, it was the Communists and the Nazis of the early 20th Century who sought to smash the integrity of the family and to supplant the authority of the father with the dictatorship of Big Brother. In order to accomplish this in Germany there had to be instituted anti-religious forces such as the Hitler Youth movement, who were encouraged to turn on their own family members, especially their fathers, if they did not Heil Hitler! When the Soviet Union was founded in 1922, atheism was a cornerstone of that foundation, and Communist Youth Groups were designated for every stage of youth. Back then they were talking about the future of atheism, which must have seemed bright indeed compared to the future of religion. However, seventy years later, it had dimmed considerably with the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Many of the Orthodox churches have been restored to their former glory, and religious persecution has pretty much ceased throughout the former countries that were behind what Churchill called the Iron Curtain.”
“But how can we argue that the future of religion is any brighter now than it was for atheism in 1922? Look at all the empty churches in Europe, and the decline of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life all over the world. Look at all the students who enter college as Christians and graduate having lost their faith. I have come perilously close to that myself.”
The priest scratched his head and frowned. “You look at one side of the coin. Look at the other side. Look at Christ dead on the cross, his disciples scattered in flight. What a horrific moment of seeming defeat … Christianity strangled in its cradle. Look at Paul beheaded, Peter crucified, and Christians fed to the lions. Then look at Europe everywhere a thousand years later and you will search in vain for a religion other than the Catholic Church. Look at Popes Leo the Great and Gregory the Great defending the gates of Rome from the barbarians. Look at pagan Rome in utter defeat and Charlemagne resurrecting the empire under the Christian flag. Look at the Crusaders bravely defending Spain and Europe from the sweeping hordes of Islam. Look at the retreat and the taming of the Viking tribes by Christian missionaries. All … all of these achievements were the result of the grace of God at work even when colossal defeat seemed to some the most inevitable course of the future. We have a better chance today than it must have seemed possible to the early Christians to bring Christ not only to the Roman Empire, but to the entire world. There is an old Japanese proverb: fear is only as deep as the mind allows. I would add … fear is the devil’s friend. The early Christians are said to have sung hymns on their way to execution. They were surely singing hymns of hope … not hymns of grief or fear.”
Thomas bowed his head in thought. “How do you love a thing you cannot see?”
The priest saw the bowed head and waited a moment to reply. “We only love things we cannot see. We never love a thing we can see, like a diamond. We can desire a diamond. We can crave it. But we cannot love it because it cannot love us back. When a man loves a woman, he does not love her body, which he can see, but her soul, which he cannot see. When a man and woman have loved each other all their lives, and one of them dies and is buried, the other goes to the grave and visits. But the survivor is not visiting the cold corpse in the ground. That is only the physical remains that once housed a spirit that loved for all it was worth. That is how we can know God and love Him. Not because he is a physical thing that we can desire to possess, but because He is Spirit who can love us back. It is the mistake of atheism to suppose that we cannot love pure, disembodied Spirit, and it is the mistake of atheism that there is no pure disembodied Spirit who loves the things He has created.”
“It is difficult, even so, to be optimistic about converting the modern world. The devil seems to have his hand in everything.”
“Yes, the devil has many hands, but he has no hands in heaven. God’s hand is everywhere because we are His creation, not the devil’s. I do not know why any man chooses not to believe in God. As I said before, perhaps it is an act of will that seems necessary to justify a certain life style; or perhaps it is a form of youthful rebellion against authority; or even a type of pride that reaches toward adoration of the self above all else. The reason doesn’t really matter so much as the way to overcome willful reasoning against God. In the end only humility brings us back to God. And the most humbling experience is death. That is why we hear of so many deathbed conversions. At last the Ego knows that it is going down to defeat in this world. But can it rise up again in another world? Faith never has such bright prospects as at the hour of death. There is nothing bright about the prospect of death and nothingness, and this is why atheism has no future, even when it has become so popular as it is today. This debate you are involved in at the university is a place where God has put you to do His work. I have no doubt you will defend your faith well, and that you will do it with charity.” The priest tapped his forefinger on the side of his head, as if calculating something, and then spoke.
“I think you will do well, son, in your debate,” he remarked. “The college dean or professor who nominated you to speak for the future of religion saw something in you that I too detect … signs of the courage needed to pick up what St. Paul called the sword of the spirit and the helmet of salvation. I offer you a final thought. Someone said there is nothing that so strikes men and women with fear as the saying that we are all the sons of God. Perhaps this is a reason that people shy away from God … they don’t want the challenge to be His child … to be perfect … even as their heavenly Father is perfect. After all, Christianity is the hardest religion in the world to practice …and practice well. It begins with humility … from which the Church has never shirked … with the humility of confessing our sins to one another. Thomas, are you ready to confess?” the priest asked.
“Go right ahead then,” the priest said, making the sign of the cross over the young man.
“Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been three years since my last confession.” Then, after a long pause, “I have had doubts … about my faith.”
But Father Bruno quickly interrupted him. “Before we continue, Thomas, let me tell you that those are the exact words I use at the start of my own confessions. Do remember that doubt is not a sin … it is only an invitation … to know up close and personal the Prince of Darkness. Let us together decline that invitation.” The priest motioned for Thomas to continue.
Thomas said, “These are my sins ….”
But it’s hardly polite to eavesdrop on a confession.
The absolved and renewed young man felt a jubilant bounce to his step as he moved out of the friar’s apartment into the street and the suddenly cool breeze of night. Had some great guardian spirit moved him to visit this humble friar? The priest had inspired in him that most fragile of virtues, hope itself. Just one brief visit had brought him back to life in Jesus Christ, and he knew now that worthy mission he might have for the rest of his life.
Putting one hand into his pocket he felt the smooth steel of the revolver and realized at last which universal instinct had driven him to purchase the weapon. It was not because of campus shootings raging across the nation. It was not because of some past insidious anger welling up inside him for an obscure reason. It was not for a juvenile Texas cowboy fantasy of wild west heroics. It was purely and simply, with a poet’s instinct, to follow the deepest yearning of the heart. He did not know yet who she was, God bless her, but some day he would need to protect from all possible harm the beautiful bride he forever would cherish and serve with all of manhood’s might and main. Yes, at the very least, a Smith & Wesson 38 could well serve the purpose. His hand closed on the gun’s grip and a finger curled around the trigger. “Yes indeed, I will protect her,” he whispered to himself. Then he reflected that he would have to put the weapon in a safe place until the day a wonderful girl would enter his life, and with tender loving care begin nursing him to salvation.