Friday, April 26, 2013

Not not an atheist?

               After posting a response on twitter about the big bang, I received a series of responses about what atheists claim.  It was a fascinating exchange.  The format is not really conducive to a real conversation, and I admit that I abandoned it after a few efforts to engage the atheists who were posting in response to my tweet.  Confusing, I know, but that was the initial feeling I had in trying to dialog with those who call themselves atheists. 

                The initial tweet, by someone whose twitter handle I don’t remember, was that atheists had to have faith in something as the start of the big bang. What I received was a declaration that atheists don’t claim anything.  It’s a neat mental trick to demand answers without offering anything.  I get the image of a man standing on a corner demanding “answers” or “evidence” of something they do not or will not accept: the existence of God. 

                This is the status of the believer today.  With faith in not only the existence of Almighty God but in His concern for us, we are faced with those who are steeped in skepticism about spiritual realities, metaphysics and the non-material soul of man.  It is a mental and relational struggle that is beyond comfortable parameters of discussion.  If someone accepts no metaphysics, no causality and even no requirement to affirm anything positive, how can one engage in a dialog on what is above and beyond scientific enquiry?  A man who only speaks Greek will not have a fruitful conversation with someone who knows Greek, but suggests that English offers another view point. Language, after all, carries with it not only subtleties of syntax and grammar, but also cultural and intellectual positions that are not easily translated. 

                This barrier of language can be breached, however, in a far more simple manner than a disagreement about first principles and modes of thought. 

                Consider the problem of discussing a work of art with someone whose only point of reference is economics or politics.  Van Gogh produced marvelous works of art.  The one fixated on economics might want to know how much “Starry Night” might be worth on the market.  A person concerned only with politics might want to get into a discussion of Vincent’s struggle with poverty and acceptance.  How much is missed when beauty, aesthetics, form and color are not allowed in the discussion? The path to common ground is quite difficult, and is reminiscent of Plato’s “Cave” analogy. The one who leaves the cave has a difficult time telling those still chained what the real world is all about.

                Getting back to the twitter discussion I mentioned earlier, I made efforts to get my interlocutors to tell me if they accepted any form of metaphysics.  All I received in response was a demand for “evidence”.  Even after admitting that scientific evidence for God’s existence (putting “God” on the table, to be analyzed and dissected) was not possible, the demand continued for such evidence.  Here is a fundamental intellectual disagreement about how we know and what we can know.

                At this point, I tried to get some admission that it is rational to accept as true what someone else proffered as, shall we say, testimony, and received a modicum of agreement.  Yet, the dialog disintegrated back into a rejection of any need to continue the discussion (“What makes you think I want anything from you?”) and a mockery of the very worthiness of metaphysics (“Metaphysics is just more philosophical bulls***.”).  I did not mention that they were the ones who engaged me first.

                The discussion more or less ended with this, as time was not on my side.

                Strangely, about this time I started to re-read Cardinal Ratzinger’s book “Introduction to Christianity”.  This book is based upon lectures that then Father Ratzinger had given in Germany in the 1960s. It’s relevance to this twitter discussion and to recent public conversations about the existence of God was remarkable.  He actually brings up the loss of metaphysics as a common ground of dialog, and the metamorphosis of intellectual discovery from that ancient discipline into scientific and then political language. No longer do men think in terms of what lies beyond physics.  Now it is either simply scientific language, or, worse, the politics of what can be done politically towards a preset plan or desire of social perfection.  Thought has turned from a reflection of what is true to planning for what should be. 

                Then Father Ratzinger expounds upon the difficulties of this discussion, and offers some possible ways out.  But what is disturbing is the unwillingness or inability to move beyond what is verifiable in a predetermined system of proof to an open dialog of what may in fact be true outside of those bounds.

                The believer is one who has made a choice for what is not seen beyond the physical, but the non-believer has also made a choice: that only what satisfies a possibly un-proven ground of physical, political or emotional principles.

                Perhaps there is a way to engage this discussion on those levels.  The difficulty of the believer is finding the mode of engagement that does not do damage to the faith.  At some point, one must shake the dust from one’s feet and move away.  Charity demands that we at least make an effort.  Prudence will guide us to know when to go all in, and when to walk away.