Jesus, the Easter Bunny, and My Friend, the Atheist

So, while I wasn’t looking, a friend of mine has become a somewhat notable neo-atheist (I’m not sure if it’s fair to call him that, but that’s how he’s being perceived, at least).  He’s a philosopher, and we both met while teaching philosophy, and sharing an office.  We live on opposite coasts now, so I don’t see him very much.  I don’t think he was exactly a believer when we were in the same city (New Orleans), but his ideas have certainly gotten more radical—and more public—since then.  He’s always been a provocative teacher, and that’s one of the things that I like about him.  I like that he challenges students to make reasonable arguments.  After all, in many ways that’s what philosophy is all about.  And I know from my own teaching how hard it can be to get students to risk making any argument sometimes!

From what he’s been saying lately, it seems he’s coming down quite hard on students who make arguments based on faith (though precisely what he means by faith, I can’t be sure).  I don’t object to that.  I have done the same myself, not in a dismissive way, but in a way that I hope helps them make more coherent arguments.  After all, Christianity has long held that faith and reason are by no means incompatible.  I suspect my friend would agree (or at least he would have in the past).  What I fear, though, is that those who listen to him will get the impression that this is not the case.  And that is a disservice to them.  The Letter to the Hebrews says that faith is “the substance of things hoped for.”  Do we really want to rob people of hope, in the name of truth?  And, can I really rid my life of what might be called “reason informed by faith”?  It would certainly make life more difficult.

I would have to stop introducing my parents as my mother and father, since I have never seen a DNA test proving that I’m even related to them.  Barring that, I can only offer faith-based arguments that they are, indeed, my biological parents.  Indeed, I might need to go so far as the philosopher David Hume to contend that I really have no way of knowing, despite the fact that it has always been my experience, that if I drop something heavy it will fall down instead of up.  For isn’t there a “faith” involved in assuming things simply because we have never experienced things otherwise?  Yes, we might find ourselves escaping Plato’s cave one day and finding that things are far different than we ever thought.  But does that mean that I should live my life in constant anxiety that my experience of it may not be what it seems to be?

But one might object.  That after all is “trust,” not faith.  A rose by any other name?  And, besides, what is objectionable is not that kind of faith (if you want to call it that), but religious faith.  How is it different, as my friend put it in a recent talk, than believing in the Easter Bunny?  Well, for one thing, I know now that the things the Easter Bunny was once credited with doing were actually being done by the people I call my parents.  But were they?  Why should I believe that what they have told me is true, and that they are not just trying to protect me from the reality that there is indeed an Easter Bunny?  But I have never seen the Easter Bunny, and I have seen and learned to trust those who claim to be my parents, so the truth of their assertion is at least more probable.

But here’s where they’ve got me!  Since I have never seen God, isn’t he just as ridiculous a notion as the Easter Bunny.  Well, it depends again whether you are willing to trust what people have told you.  I come from a tradition that descends from the historical encounter of a people called Israel with a real God.  I come from a tradition that believes that God also entered history in another way in the person of Jesus Christ, a human person who lived, whom other people experienced, who died, and who, according to their accounts, visited some of those very same people after his death and rising from the dead.  I have to take their word for it.  I also have to take the word of the millions of people who have also experienced God in a variety of ways over the centuries.  Sure, some of them were probably crazy.  But even crazy people can argue from experience.  I may be one of them.

But I don’t just have to take their word for it.  I have experienced God for myself.  Anyone can say that I’m just making it all up, that I’m delusional.  Certainly, if there is no God, I have made a joke of my life.  I can say that.  But, interestingly, I’m pretty sure that’s something my friend would never say to me, or even believe of me.  He has experienced the concrete effect that my belief in God has on who I am, what I do and why I do it.  He knows that much of my life is based on reason, informed by faith, and that some of my life rests on faith alone.  He objects to what a lot of “faithful” people do—and so do I.  But that doesn’t make faith objectionable to me, it just means that people can mistaken conclusions based on faith, as they can commensurately so based on reason.  And life is a mixture of mistakes and successes based on both.

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It’s Holy Week.  And this week that is the story we remember.  A story of mistakes and successes, of friendship and betrayal, and a love that expresses itself in a way that is both reasonable and which transcends reason.  It’s a story that we know really happened—people experienced it, history records it.  Yet it is also a story that for those of us who believe, who have faith in Jesus Christ, happened once and for all time.  It is no less real today than it was on the historical date that it happened.  And it demands something of us that is not reasonable.  It demands that we give our lives to over to the mission and the person of Jesus Christ—completely.  In doing this, we do not ignore the fact that people have and continue to do hateful things in the name of Jesus Christ (which is one of the atheists’ favorite bludgeons), or that peopledo amazing, loving and heroic things also in the name of Jesus Christ.  Or that people do both, without believing in Jesus or God.  They can be as heroic or fallible as those of us who do have faith.

I’m not offended by the offense they take at my faith.  I am, however, concerned that in championing the truth, they might, even if unwittingly, take people’s hope away.  Especially because I suspect that, ultimately, they are looking for “the substance of things hoped for” too.  Their substance is just different than mine.  Mine is Jesus Christ, who I have experienced, and who calls me, guides me, lives in me and loves through me.  Theirs is, well, I’m not sure.  Hope in Jesus may be as ridiculous to some as the Easter Bunny, but it is everything to me, and the community of faith to which I belong.  It’s just how we roll . . . (if we can say for sure that anything, in fact, rolls.)

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Today’s Discussion

You can stream today’s discussion of Already There here, or download it by clicking on “hour 2” here.

They were very nice, and I love the New Orleans accent.  Sister Bridget sounds just like one of my good friends from New Orleans, who also loves to talk about “Mama”!

Much thanks to Fr. Albert & Sister Bridget!

On Being At Home, part 3: The Home I Keep Coming Back To

 

My first trip to New Orleans was last-minute and unplanned.  I’d received a call just weeks before from the area coordinator for the Loyola Institute for Ministry’s extension program (LIMEX).  I was due to begin study with them in a local learning group in Columbia, SC that Fall.  The facilitator who was supposed to work with the group had backed out, would I be willing to take his place? If so, I was told, you’ll have to go to New Orleans for training in just a couple of weeks.  I agreed, and was soon on a plane to New Orleans!

Besides the training, I went to “White Linen Night,” now a yearly New Orleans event, but which I think was new that year.  I had red beans and rice for the first time at College Inn, where Butch, our trainer—and still a good friend—had taken us for lunch.  I had a good look around the city, and visited Loyola University, which was just down the street from we were staying.  I’d been long-interested in the Jesuits, so I wandered over to the campus ministry office, and picked up a pamphlet on the Jesuits from their pamphlet rack.  Since at the time I was doing graduate studies in English at the University of South Carolina, I even tracked down the chair of the English department and spoke with her about possible job opportunities.

There was something about the place.  I thought for sure I’d be back.  I even got the feeling that it might have some role in my future plans.  Really.  Little did I know . . .

Some six months or so later, I was well into my duties as facilitator, and enjoying our learning group, and the courses, very much.  That’s when I received a little nudge from God to start thinking more seriously about priesthood or religious life.  I dug out that pamphlet, which I’d save, and called the number, a number in New Orleans.  Soon I was in regular contact with the vocation director for the New Orleans province.  I wondered if perhaps I should apply to another province.  Maybe New England, where I was from.  But after some regular direction with a New Orleans province Jesuit in South Carolina, and a couple visits to New Orleans, it didn’t make sense to apply somewhere else.  I liked the Jesuits from the New Orleans province very much, I realized I really liked New Orleans too and, well, I didn’t know any Jesuits up there!

So, in 1997, I entered the Jesuit novitiate in Grand Coteau, LA, and Louisiana, especially New Orleans, has been part of my life ever since.  Most years since 1997, I’ve made at least two trips to New Orleans in the course of year for meetings, ordinations, etc.  Even if they are in Mobile or Grand Coteau, I usually manage to spend some time in New Orleans before or after.  I quickly got to know New Orleans as well as any other city I’ve ever lived in, and always looked forward to getting back.

What really made New Orleans my home, though, was going to teach at Loyola University in New Orleans for two years from 2003 to 2005.  I’d just had a miserable year working—or trying to—at our high school in Tampa, at a job I just wasn’t suited for.  It was a rough year, one that had raised some questions with my superiors about my future as a Jesuit.  While the year, as hard as it had been, hadn’t shaken my surety about my Jesuit vocation, others weren’t so sure.  In the meantime, I had received an invitation to go teach at Loyola.  So, I was sent there, to the place where I had first met New Orleans, to start fresh.

I was just thrilled to move to New Orleans, especially because I hadn’t liked Tampa very much.  What moved me most was that no one there welcomed me like I was under a cloud or anything.  On the contrary, they told me sincerely that they were happy that I was there!  What a balm that was after the experience of the past year.  It wasn’t long before I fell in love with the Jesuits, the people and the students at Loyola, and just living in the city itself.  It’s a friendly city.  It’s one of those cities that feels more like a big town than a city.  And it’s got character.  Lots of character.  It’s one of those places that I have felt and continue to feel very much at home.  When my two years were up, it was hard to leave there to go to Boston, even though Boston in some ways is also my home (I grew up about 50 miles away).

I moved about 2 weeks before hurricane Katrina.  Experiencing that from afar just affirmed my affection for the city and my friends there.  I kind of felt like I was betraying them by not being there, and I scrambled to make sure everything was OK with the many people I love there (and this, really, is what makes it most home).  And, indeed, in the eyes of my teachers and fellow students in Boston I became the de facto representative of New Orleans, being from that province and having just lived there.  The question was constant and a little painful, “How are things in New Orleans?”  My answers were often somber but always hopeful.  Hopeful for all my friends and former students in New Orleans; and hopeful for me, because I know that no matter what the future holds, New Orleans is a home I will go back to over and over again.