Dialogue With an Agnostic
What follows is a dialogue between an Agnostic (A) and a Catholic Christian (C). Judge for yourself
C - To one who has never heard it before the Christian claim must seem radical or even outrageous. To most in our so called "post Christian" society it is often looked upon with an air of irrelevance or dismissiveness, something to be thrown on the rubbish heap of human misadventures myths and superstitions, that has been tried and has failed. I admire your courage to "look and see" in that sense.
A - Well I am willing to look at this as I am curious to know why many of my friends have accepted this.
C - For sure, yes. I think curiosity in that sense is a great place to start as it reveals a deeper layer of the human person. It starts to touch on the level of desire, to know if there is something "more" over the brow of the hill, just out of reach.
A - Are you talking about the desire to discover more about nature, being, existence and all that?
C - The desire to search out the mysterious does certainly come into it and is connected. Firstly, though, I'm referring to the desire for happiness. It's the one common denominator for every person. I suppose we could agree on that -yes?
A - Yes, but I fail to see where organized religion comes into that. Perhaps it's a fabrication to sort of avoid facing the inevitable end and the shortness of life. Some people would see it as a crutch that is cowardly in a way because it refuses to face reality in the face.
C - I'm certainly familiar with that argument, and I think it is fair to test it. Can we agree though that we have to test these things fully using the faculty of human reason, examining all the data? As science is so revered today, along with the reasoning process that goes behind it. I think it would be fair to demand the same reasoning process when looking at meaning of our existence.
A - I think that's fair. However science has explained many things today that were once taken to be aspects of faith and given religious explanations - as in the God of the gaps.
C - I suppose that depends upon how you look at that. That would be true if science was somehow at variance with religion. But if science is part of God's revelation to humanity it becomes a different story. When I say religion, I mean it in the truest sense of what it means to be human, including the desire to know the mysteries of the universe, and this comes back to the question of desire again.
A - OK we were talking about desire first and I do agree that we all have the desire to be happy. It's what makes us who we are and gives us a reason to live. It could be evolution's way to keep us striving forward and prevent us from falling into extinction through giving in to depression and suicide.
C - Something that is happening more and more today at an alarming rate - due to unhappiness - un-fulfillment - lack of meaning and purpose. On that note I think we might also agree that there is something very wrong with the world. We desire happiness, few achieve it and those who achieve it in abundance still don't have enough since there is no "happy ever after", or so it would appear, since death robs that from us.
A. Science may someday solve the problem of death and aging.
C. Even if it did, it would only be for the rich and could they live with themselves in a dehumanized world like that? Maybe you've heard the story of the "Portrait of Dorian Gray" where he does a deal with the devil and his painting ages instead of him and becomes so ugly because of his personal evil that he lives to hate himself and eventually takes his own life. There's other stories also depicting the "curse" of immortality in this present world. Anyway death comes through war accident and in many ways. We are always mortal.
A. What's the point then about "happy ever after".
C. Well the interesting thing, is that it seems to be in our "spiritual genetic makeup", if I can use that term. We were "coded" for that. The "forever" element, whether implied or otherwise, is in every decent story, fairy tale, movie, romance, or what have you. All these stories in every culture have the messiah element. The hero who saves the day, beats up the "bad guys", the troops coming over the hill at the last minute - and it all end with the suggestion or hope of happy ever after. It was very obvious in movies like the Matrix, explicit almost. It's an eternal need residing within us. bigger than anything in this world can fill.
A. Again it could just be a herd survival instinct developed by the evolutionary process.
C. Do you think so? Yet why would evolution, which concerns the survival of the fittest in very material terms, move us to seek out a transcendent element to complete us.
C. Also the evidence doesn't bear that out because, those persons who have the deepest happiness seem to have to often go against their basic instincts, even the survival instinct. I mean, the man who risks everything, even his own life to save a person from certain death, because of an "inner voice" which urges him beyond himself; the woman who finds the deepest happiness in leaving everything to care for the poor and destitute. In those moments or those life choices it would seem that these are the ones who have come closest to touching the fullness of happiness. The saying that the door to happiness opens outwards does seem to be true. On the other hand those who try to survive for themselves at any cost, hoarding everything and isolating themselves are generally the most miserable. It points to an agent working from the outside, this thing we call conscience, the pull to do good. It's in all of us.
A. Well let's suppose that what your saying is true, it still doesn't touch on the truth of religion let alone Christianity.
C. Well, we are getting to that incrementally. I said earlier that when I used the word religion, I meant it in its truest sense. The sense that it's really an organic part of what it means to be human. What it means in popular media is a gross distortion of that. It is portrayed as a kind of appendage that is stuck on from the outside, that limits freedom and makes us generally idiotic, closed to reality, unhappy and sub-human. In that sense I agree with the popular opinion - "that" portrayal of religion is more of a sickness than a vital part of life.
A. Well isn't true religion, then, what we mean by being a spiritual person. Many people today disavow organized religion but certainly claim to be spiritual and are seeking enlightenment in one way or another.
C. That's very true and it comes back to the main point that we are fundamentally religious creatures. You can call it spiritual or religious at this stage. It's merely an issue of terminology. As for organized religion. I think that's a question that comes a bit later. I think in some sense we are in agreement here. We are all spiritual, or religious creatures seeking happiness in one way or another. trying to fill the hole with that transcendent thing that's just out of sight over the brow of the hill, but which we feel we were really made for.
A. OK I'll go along with that
C. Well in that sense all religions in the world since the dawn of history have that aspect in common and are all true in that regard.
A. In what regard?
C. In regard to the fact they are basically all asking the question, who am? I what am I made for? why do I exist? Who and where is God? Purpose meaning and identity are integral to happiness. Not finding Him of course they invent gods to substitute and fill the "God sized hole" to use a popular term. We still do it we just call it a different name today - addiction. drugs, pornography, binge videos, extreme death defying sports. People are generally on the run, often afraid of silence for fear of having to face that inner emptiness, but don't know where they are really going. We use terms like "upwardly mobile" as if there is really such a thing, since death terminates everything, and in the end we have to face ourselves in the silence of our inner being.
A. Well if all religions ask the same question and fail to find the answer you are talking about what's the purpose of them. You'll just end up more miserable.
C. That's absolutely true, unless God actually answered that question. That's what Christianity claims, that God answered. In that sense Christianity is different from all other religions. All the other religions is the human person trying to cross the infinite gulf to reach God - hopelessly, because we are just finite creatures. Christianity, or rather the person of Jesus Christ is the answer for those who will accept it. Christianity is not so much a religion, in fact, but a historical event the point in history where the eternal burst through into time.
A. I don't know what you mean about the eternal bursting into time. Jesus was just a man like any other, a great leader for sure and a great teacher but why would I choose to follow him as opposed to any other of the great spiritual masters of history.
C. You wouldn't, unless He was something far more than those others. I mentioned at the beginning that Christianity could seem outrageous to one who has never heard of it and has not been conditioned by mass media over half a lifetime. I mean looking at the face of it. A Jewish man arrives in history and claims not just to come from God but to actually BE God also, then he is crucified and his followers claim he rose from the dead - an event, whatever way you take it, which split history in two, as we date our calendar from it. Moreover, it seemed people were willing to go to their death singing hymns because of this, and not only 2020 years ago, but right up to the present time.
A. Who in recent times?
C. Well, for instance Maximilian Kolbe who gave his life in Auschwitz, in place for a married man who pleaded for his life before the Nazi SS guards. Sang hymns with the others to keep their spirits up while they starved to death. He was the last to go and they had to inject him with carbolic acid while he looked the SS guard in the eyes and said "I love you" as he was being executed.
A. I have never heard of him but that is certainly heroic.
C. Not humanly possible really unless you are animated by something greater.
A. You mean by Jesus, as being something more than just a man like other spiritual leaders?
C. I do, and to return to that point of the outrageousness of the claim. If you walk into any Catholic church today you will see a cross with a man crucified on it. What kind of religion is that? If you didn't know the story, it might be like going into a place of worship and seeing an image of a man dying in the electric chair being hauled up above an altar, except far more brutal. It's hardly a religion one would invent if you think about it. Invented gods tend to display things that are an extension of the "needs" of our human brokenness - power, might, wrath and so forth, not meekness, birth into poverty in a dirty cave, and self offering to a death like that.
A. It's all very well and interesting but how do we know it's true?
C. There is never any certain proof such as follows from a rigorous scientific procedure. However, we can test it against human reason, the condition of the human person, and against the backdrop of history. At the end of the day though it comes down to something called faith which opens a window to an encounter with God an a personal but very real level. This faith is in no way contradictory to human reason. It builds on it but goes beyond it. If we are honest we can conclude that nature is intelligently ordered, that we came from somewhere, we can look at the human need for the transcendent, the common denominator of conscience regarding good and evil. Whether or not God worked through evolution we can reasonably conclude their is an intelligent agent involved. To go beyond that level requires faith but it doesn't contradict it. The test on that level is to "ask" for it, to dialogue with "the God who just might be there".
A. Well on the level of history. There have been many people who claimed, maybe not to be God, but to be from God, why should you take one over the other. Should you not just pick the one that helps you most to lead a good life. Maybe that's why God gave us so many spiritual leaders, to fit all the different types of people and culture.
C. If it was a question of leading a "good life" then you might do that. After all the golden rule of treat your neighbor as yourself can be found in quite a number of religions. It's not about that though, it's about the claim that we were lost, that something happened which cut us off from friendship with our Creator, that due to our broken nature we were facing eternal death after death, but that God in his Love opened a trap-door through which we could escape, to eternal life instead. Certainly a good life follows as a consequence of it, but that's down the road a bit. Let's stay on the point of His claiming to be God though. It's such an outrageous claim that to say such a thing either He was a madman, very evil, or, he was telling the truth.
A. If indeed he did make that claim. We only have hearsay.
C. More than that actually. I assume we would both agree that you can't just have anyone striding onto the stage of history and claiming to be God without some sort or sign that verifies He is whom he says he is.
C. Well then we have a number of things we can reasonably look at. The prophetic pre-announcements made about Christ through the history of the people of Israel. There are a lot of these - some in great detail even to the point of describing His crucifixion in detail in the psalms. On the basis of probability alone the odds against these being all fulfilled as they were is astronomically huge, unless they were, genuine pre-announcements. At this level all of the other spiritual leaders have to step back into the shade as, however good they may be, they are witnesses to themselves. Then there are the miraculous signs that Jesus himself worked, and there is His resurrection from the dead, confirming Who He was and is.
A. But we only have writings as to the effect that He worked these miracles and rose from the dead. The resurrection could be a literary or poetic interpretation of his enduring legacy or something like that. I mean there are a lot of strange things claimed on Earth from UFO's to ancient civilizations to visiting aliens. What's so different here?
C. As well demanding credibility and witnesses, It's a question of what fits the invisible part of our nature. The "heart", the desire again. The event of Christ coming to Earth, what we call the incarnation (God assuming a human nature while remaining Divine) was pre-announced and post-announced. It has credible witnesses, an unbroken line down through the ages. These witnesses were not idiots. Some of them were among the greatest intellects ever, like St Thomas Aquinas or others like him. Very many top scientists, chemists , physicists, etc were deeply Christian people also. Now from my point of view I have never been to Antarctica. However, even before I ever saw pictures of it I believed it existed on the evidence of credible and reasonable people. We can't abandon our human faculties in the face of this and we agreed that the data had to be looked at through the same reasoning process as a scientific endeavor would be even though the data is of a different sort. Furthermore what is at stake is so enormous - eternal life- that it would be crazy not to examine it properly.
A. Hmm.. It's interesting if it were true.
C. To continue, there are also about 16000 documents to the effect that the man or the God-man, Jesus Christ, rose from the dead, shot throughout the history of Christianity. There are about 200 or so to the effect that Cicero existed which no historian worth his salt would dispute. Even Atheistic Historians admit that something seismic happened.
A. Do you really expect people to embrace Christianity though on the basis of historical claims. You yourself said that it's about the fulfillment of desire for completeness. Historical knowledge, even if it is certain doesn't do that. I don't think knowledge, even certain knowledge, ever makes for happiness.
C. You know you are so right there. What you say is very true. What in your opinion comes closest to touching the need for human happiness?
A. Having friends, a happy marriage or partner relationship. Good health, knowing that someone cares for you.
C. For the most part then, it's about relationships?
C. This is exactly why Christianity, at it's heart, answers the deepest human need - because it touches exactly that desire for relationship at it's deepest level - the level of how we are assembled and function as human beings, and for what we are created. You have to take a leap of faith here and accept that we were created intentionally along with everything else, and did not just randomly evolve. You can determine that by reason alone, using that faculty honestly in the way we spoke of, if you look at the world and the intelligent way it is made.
A. OK. Let's say we were created intentionally. What for, and why is the world such a mess and so full of suffering and evil. It hardly speaks of a God who cares about us even if he does exist. Would I want a relationship with him for happiness? Seriously??
C. A great question. That is actually the hinge on which many people people finally find their way to Jesus Christ, because only Christianity answers the question of human suffering, which we all experience. All of us cry out in the dark at some stage and ask is this life of pain all there is? However, this touches the heart of who we are - that we have been created in the image and likeness of God, with free will. We have this terrifying capacity to say yes to God or to say no. Let's assume that God is the pure source of all love beauty and peace. Can you really have a world without suffering if there are those who say no to love and yes to hate?
A. But why couldn't God have created us so that we all loved one another?
C. Would that really be love, being programmed without real choice, without something that would "test" our genuineness? You might have seen the movies, the Matrix, which I referred to, or the Truman show in which the characters live in a world which is not real but a simulation. Let's suppose you are offered two choices, a blissful life here with no suffering in which you believe you are "loved" by others and by God and that you in turn loved them back, but that you discover in the end that the whole thing is phony, a Truman show, stage act or a simulation, and that you had been programmed with no real freedom or destiny. The other choice is that you are engaged in the drama of reality, that your eternity is at stake, your have a real choice for heaven or hell, in this life and beyond, and that you have an astonishing dignity that corresponds to this call, but that your life comes with the blows and sufferings of other peoples poor choices. Which life would you choose? I know I would want reality, that I am really made in the image and likeness of God, my creator, and I can choose to love, that my desire is genuine, that my love for God is my journey home. If I discovered that my life had been a phony, I would feel cheated by a despot who played god with his experiments.
A. But God himself didn't have to endure this testing. It's like he just always existed and that's very nice for him that he just happens to always exist as the source of all love and beauty. What does he know about what we have to endure here. Is he not just toying with us in a different way?
C. Well here is the real beauty of Who God is. To know into the heart of God. To know Who He really is, He would have to take the initiative and reveal himself. As I mentioned Christianity claims to be that revelation, that answer. He revealed Himself to be a Community of Three Persons, yet one God with the possibility and call to relationship with Him. The need of the human person for companionship and the love of another, reflects the essence of the communitarian nature of God, reflected in us - made in His image. Only God who is community can be a God of Love who is a self gift of himself to another.
C. There is more though. You may notice at public events, such as sporting games and so on, people flashing posters with the numbers 3:16 on them. This is the heart of the revelation of God to His people and is from the Gospel of John, in the Bible. "God so loved the world that in the fullness of time He sent His only Son, that whoever believes in Him would not perish but would have eternal life - John 3:16". This only Son, who is one of the three, Father son and Holy Spirit, yet fully God himself, who existed from all eternity entered our mortal world, and became one of us to reconcile us with God the Father. This is where the question of suffering is answered. God does not take away suffering, which was something we brought into our fallen world, but He loves us to the degree that He wanted to share in it with us. Even more. He loved us to the degree that He desired to endure it - all of it - Himself, with us, to walk with us in it, so that we might be freed from it. This is what Jesus Christ revealed to us. Those Christians who truly entered into this mystery, the saints, found themselves suffering with Jesus, and He suffering in them, as, like a brother, and a lover, he accompanied them to eternal life. He suffered more than all of us put together and embraced it for love of us, so much does He desire to bring us home, to the place prepared for us where we will live in eternal happiness and blessedness. They truly discovered that He is the way the truth and the life and that no-one comes into heaven except through him, whether they know him explicitly as a Christian, or implicitly through the choices they make if they have never heard of Him.
A. But why did He have to suffer.
C. He freely choose it. The only thing God can't do is love by measure. He loves to excess. He is drunk with love for humanity, and showed this by the way he bore our brokenness, our transgressions and reconciled us to God the Father. Because we had separated ourselves from God, eternal Love, the offense was infinite. Only God could repair it. However since the rupture was instigated by man, a man in some way had to repair this. Only one who was both God and man could bridge this gap. I speak here of great mysteries. There is only so much that words can express of this. On the one hand the requirement of Divine Justice, and on the other the overarching answer of Divine Mercy. That is Who Jesus is - Divine Mercy.
A. You keep talking of Him bringing us back. Like there was a before time.
C. This truth is revealed in the part of the bible called the book of Genesis and the story which you are probably familiar with involving Adam and Eve, our first parents (interestingly geneticists have found a common piece of mitochondrial DNA common to all humanity pointing to a common mother which they have aptly named "Eve"). It recalls how God created us for friendship with him, that in our free choice we rejected Him, and wound up in this broken and fallen world, where we can see this original wound, or as we call it "original sin" played out in society every day. One of its terrible effects was that it distorted our image of a loving God into a threatening monster whom we fear and want to hide from, who counts all our wrongdoings like an evil accountant. He had to reveal himself to us to set the record straight. The fall of humanity involves other agents also called demons, fallen angels who said a permanent and irrevocable NO to God. The chief of these, commonly known as the devil, tricked humanity's first parents into separating themselves from God. It's part of the story for another day. However, for anyone who would doubt their existence they need but read the many accounts today published by exorcists of the Church. We should not be surprised though. We are very eager to discover extra-terrestrial life. It's been here all along. God also created angels, unique spiritual beings, each of them.
A. Of course I have heard of angels. They are generally treated as mythical creatures. But how do people follow Christ then? what do they do to call themselves Christian.
C. They do more than just follow him in the ordinary sense, they become a part of him by this astonishing gift called grace (though it is beyond mortal understanding). It's a sharing in His very life by pure gratuitous gift. We are not God as pantheism would claim but are called to share in His nature as creatures. As the great church father St Augustine said (quoting another - St Ambrose) God became man so that man could become God. This comes about by these 7 firehoses of God's action called sacraments. These are signs through which God is actually present without point to something else. The most important which reconciles us to God is baptism. I spoke of prophecies and pre-announcements earlier. These waters of baptism are predicted and foreshadowed in the history of the Jewish people for thousands of years along with the announcement of a Savior, Jesus Christ. Through this simple rite with water and the invoking of the Holy Spirit, Christians receive the inner life of Jesus. They live His life from the inside through the power of the Holy Spirit, who is also God, the Love of God poured out in us. Through baptism we share in the divine nature by sharing in everything of Jesus life. His life his suffering death, and his resurrection. That means his bodily resurrection also which is brought about when He will return at the end of history, a second time. It is this power and love of the Holy Spirit that enabled Saints like Maximilian Kolbe to die the way that they did, and enabled the first Christians to happily go to their death, devoured by Lions in the Roman Coliseum. You have but to go into the catacombs under the Vatican to see for yourself the writing of these Martyrs scratched in to the rock walls. This is no myth. It is solid history.
A. I will read more about this. But why something as simple as just water. Shouldn't it be something of a divine spectacle?
C. God is as simple and as humble as a child. Everything about Christianity defies what we would imagine God to be. It's but one of it's signs of authenticity. God loves his creation and works through the simplest things which we can understand, like water, bread, wine and the workings of nature. He meets us at our level. Even Jesus used mud and spit to cure a man of blindness in one case, and nearly always used simple human touch.
C. As a Christian I deeply respect the freedom of each person God has created and will not force anything. You must choose. There is so much at stake though, I am very happy that you wish to explore this and am confident you will be surprised by joy. I cannot finish though without mentioning a central aspect of God's Love around which He wove the entire Church - his people, like a cocoon. This is called Eucharist. God so loved the world that he became a man, a baby. But in the excess of His love, this wasn't enough. He desired to get even closer to us by becoming food for us by making His resurrected body present to us, in the form of bread, that we could eat. Another of the sacraments, food for the journey to heaven, that makes us like Him. I would need weeks to say everything about this. It has to be experienced and lived. It is made present in what you might commonly know as the "mass" celebrated in Catholic (and Orthodox) churches, which is re-entering into the last supper, which you may heard of, on the night before Christ died. There have been many many miracles in which, among other things, this Eucharistic bread has turned to flesh and blood in the hands of the priests, (http://www.miracolieucaristici.org/en/Liste/list.html). These can be seen today in various locations. You wont hear about it in the media, because the world is at war with God, again our fallen nature and the demonic powers.
C. I would go even further to say that God gives himself to us in as intimate a degree as we are open to receiving. The sexual union of a man and woman is a shadow of the unfathomable sharing that God desires to give of Himself to each one of us - personally. You have but to read the prayer life of the Saints to see this. This Christian mysticism is poorly understood by the world. It is not some technique like Zen or Yoga to achieve an inner bodily calm. It is the living out of a dynamic relationship with the living God, in intimacy, manifested in outward love and goodness shown for our brothers and sisters, culminating in a transformation of the whole person so that God shines through them radiantly (the origin of the halo in medieval art). The world is so hungry for the mystical but people go to fortune tellers and other forms of the occult that lead them into slavery to fear. All we need and desire is present only in God.
A. Thank you for taking the time to share this with me. I will ponder it deeply. There are many things about Christianity that I never knew.
C. And I will pray for you. Be assured of that. One day I hope to see you in heaven where we can rejoice over all these things. God has already redeemed us, we just have to surrender like children. “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face shine upon you, And be gracious to you. The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, And give you peace.” May you come to know Jesus, true God and true man as your personal savior, your redeemer and lover of your whole person, mind body and soul - beginning in this life and enduring for eternity.