A Conversation with my Grandfather

I love being a theology major...I took a class this semester on the Problem of Belief in Modernity and our final was to write a paper in response to some of the criticisms of religion in light of the course.  I chose to construct my paper in the form of a dialogue between me and my grandfather who is a staunch agnostic, not quite atheist. 

 

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Glenn:   How can someone believe in something that explicitly states that everything we know was created in a week?  It would seem to make religion irrelevant in today’s world of science and knowledge since we can scientifically prove that the world was not created as the Bible sets forth.  Creationism has no place in the current world.  How do you respond to the religious right in this country that maintains the validity of creationism and goes as far as trying to suppress the teaching of evolution in the school system?

Sam:    The point that I would make to those crazy enough to believe that the world was created in 6 days (since God rested on the 7th), is that the purpose of Genesis is not to explain how we were created but rather  to explain why we were created.  Genesis tells us that we were created with a singular purpose in mind, that purpose being one to love.  We are made to love and to be loved.  Did God create the world in 6 days?  In all likelihood, He did not.  Is it important to the Christian faith to believe or not believe in creation as explicitly told in Genesis?  No. Genesis like many other stories in the bible simply stories from which we are supposed to some insight into the nature of creation.

Glenn: Okay, I think you’re correct about our function to love.  I have tried to live my life by the principles of the Golden Rule, service to mankind, and forgiveness, so why do we need religion to impose so many rules in order to make people act with love?   The example Jesus sets forth seems to be one that is self-evident in human nature. There is no place in my value system (as well as Jesus’) for hatred, pettiness, cruelty or vindictiveness.  If one genuinely attempts to live by these values, will he ensure his place in a blissful hereafter?  Probably not, but he should have a much more satisfying and rewarding earthly existence than he would otherwise.  Why then does religion attempt to treat us all like children and impose moral dos and don’ts that restrict the freedom of humanity? 

Sam:    I presume you’re talking of the 10 commandments as well as all sorts of Church documents over the last 2000 years, many of the more controversial ones coming within the past 100 years. 

Glenn:  Yes, the commandments in addition to things like encyclicals on sexual reproduction, homosexuality, and abortion…

Sam:    I think that it all goes back to the singular rule of Love.  While the 10 commandments are handed down to Moses in the Book of Exodus, it is in John’s Gospel where we find the law for a new generation.  In John 13:34-35 Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment: love one another.  As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.  This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  This statement points to the singular rule of Christ to love one another.  The Law of Moses was appropriate for the Israelite, but as society has matured there is a need for the rule to develop further.  We are now capable of understanding our created function in a simpler, more abstract manner.  Moses’ followers, while understanding what love is, may not have been able to conceptualize their duties in the absence of concrete laws to obey.  But as the understanding of God, Faith, and society matured, so did the law.  This is why it is important for the Church to continue teaching today.  Their encyclicals provide guidelines for the majority of the Catholic community so as to help them achieve the singular aim of love.  While these teachings are concrete and the Church expects you to follow them, theologically they are not binding.  Jesus never said anything about condom use or in-vitro-fertilization, the Church attempts to interpret Jesus’ rule of love in a new situation so that the community of faithful can have some guidance.  But with the Hierarchy of Truths in the Church, you are expected to reflect on these teaching within your own life and make a decision that is correct for you.  Millions of Catholics in the United States do not follow the teaching on birth control simply because a family at this time in the United States cannot afford to have eight children as in previous generations.  So in light of their individual circumstances, and after careful discernment, they have chosen to use birth control because it is the right decision for their family. 

Glenn:   So a truly mature Catholic is able to make his own decisions?

Sam:    With regards to many things, yes.  They are able to flow against the Church’s teaching, but still maintain a community of faithful in order to work towards salvation.

Glenn:   Okay, that’s all well and good, but doesn’t religion get in the way of productivity?  If you’re always praying for something to happen, then you’re missing the opportunity to make things happen.  Believers continue to claim that “prayer changes things” despite the fact that there is not a scintilla of evidence that one single prayer has ever been answered.  The whole concept of prayer is, to me, questionable on its face.  If there is an omniscient, omnipotent, and loving God, he knows what our needs are, he has the ability to meet them, and he should have the inclination to do so.  Why does he want us to beg for something he knows we need and that he can provide?  Do people think that through their prayers, they can persuade God to change his will?  If so, they must not have had much faith in his will in the first place. 

Sam:    Prayer is a tough subject for me to answer simply because I am not secure in my own prayerful practices.  Professor Himes explained to us at the conclusion of my class on the problem of belief in modernity that prayer is the intense feeling of agape we have for others.  Praying involves us actively agape-ing.  Taking the time to quietly reflect on and experience these intense feelings of loving someone solely for who they are outside of what they can provide to you.  We, humanity, are the point in creation that gets to actually do what God is.  God is agapic love, and we are called to love others as God is.  Prayer is taking time to work towards loving others as God does. So, I feel that someone who is actively petitioning God for a new computer is missing the point of prayer.  Prayer is meant only to bring us closer to God.

Glenn:  I believe it was Feuerbach that put forth the idea that traits of divinity were really only human characteristics placed on a pedestal.  If you were to remove the divine aspects of God and return them to humanity where they rightfully belong, nothing would change in this world.  People act as they do without the influence of a divine teaching.  And we should bring the aspects of humanity that are naturally ours out from the heavens and place them back within our own humanity. 

Sam:    While you are correct in your understanding of Feuerbach, I think he was wrong.  His understanding placed humanity and divinity in competition with one another.  I think there is more cooperation between the two than competition.  It was Saint Irenaeus who said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”  Only in living our lives in the manner which is set forth for us in Jesus’ teaching of agapic love, can we attain an understanding of the greater glory of God. 

Glenn:  Well Sam, I’ll ask you something important for you to answer.  Not just for me, but for yourself.  You have said that you are in the RCIA process at BC.  Why are you doing this?  What are you looking to gain that you didn’t have before?  You were raised with many of the same principles and values and I thought you’d turned out to be a fine individual.  So why do you want to join the Catholic Church?

Sam:    Well, ultimately it comes down to experience.  I think that there are two ways one gets to know God, with one being better than the other, but both being necessary for a full understanding.  It is necessary for one to know and understand his religion from a factual standpoint; an uneducated believer or any religion can be incredibly frustrating for the others within that religion.  But truly knowing God in a factual manner is impossible.  It is important to know the teachings, writings, and history of the religion, but as David Hume says we cannot know God by an argument.  You cannot be converted, and no one has been converted with a syllogism.  The only way for one to become acquainted with God is through experience.  You must have some experience in the world that proves to you that God exists.  Just as a relationship with a good friend is an invisible bond between the two of you built through mutual experiences, your relationship with God is an invisible bond that you have to trust is there, and build upon it through experiences.

            For me this understanding began its development while I was in Mexico two years ago.  It was that Pedro Arrupe, SJ Immersion program thing I told you about and you donated money to.  I was sitting in the living room of a family that had next to nothing materially.  Their house was about three times the size of my bedroom, and they were a family of eight.  We were dialoging with each other, learning about the different lives we lead.  And I began to realize that our lives were closely intertwined.  We were different, but at the same moment we were the same, and I saw in her a spark that showed me what life was truly about.

            There was an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe hanging on the wall, in fact it was the only thing on the wall, and so we asked the mother of the family what She [Our Lady of Guadalupe] did for her.  Why was her religion important to her?  The gist of her response, since my Spanish is not as good as I would like it to be, was that she had faith because it gave her hope.  She knows that her situation isn’t great, she knows that there are others out there with much more money and influence, but she also knows that there is hope for her and her family.  She feels this hope in her children and in her community.  It comes from love Christ demonstrated to humanity when he laid down his life for the salvation of all mankind. 

            The woman then turned the question back to us and asked us what we each believe in.  It was this point where I had a feeling that there was something missing.  I tried to explain how I had been raised Unitarian and what that meant to me, but there wasn’t any real way for me to conceptualize this religion in Spanish in a manner that would make sense to this woman.  So instead I simply said, “I am not Catholic, but I go to a Catholic University and I believe in many teachings of the Christ.”  She was pleased with my answer and we continued to discuss various other topics.  Throughout our conversation you could see in her eyes the love she had for the complete strangers sitting in her living room.  You could see the joy she had in simply sharing her story with us.  It was truly the sense of agape; fully loving someone else without seeking anything in return.

            I have spent two years reflecting on this experience, and while I am no longer in this woman’s house, she is still with me.  Her profound understanding of the power of having faith, and her knowledge of the gift Christ gave to humanity was powerful.  She lived her life in such a way that faith influenced everything around her.  The example she provided inspired us [the BC group] with hope.  Experiencing this kind of faith in someone else caused me to question my own faith and spirituality.  While I can tell you over and over how profound this experience was with this woman in a squatter settlement, I haven’t been able to fully articulate what it is that changed in me.  I can’t pinpoint what exactly it is that draws me to Catholicism, but I know that my understanding will develop with time and further experiences and that is more than enough for me at this time.