|The Wedding Feast at Cana|
Tonight, after supper at the rectory, I walked down to one of the local pubs for a good IPA. As it happens, I struck up a conversation with two of the people sitting beside me. We talked about various breweries and their IPA's. Eventually, the guy sitting next to me asked, "So, what do you do for work?" Ah, that's the question. Admittedly, I took a moment's pause before giving the answer. "I'm a priest."
He nodded and asked, "Any specific religion?" That cracked me up. I've lived most of my life in places where people presumed that "priest" meant Catholic. But for this fellow, I could have been anything. So, I told him that I was Catholic. There began a most wonderful conversation. He told me that he had been raised atheist. That made me laugh. I told him that I meant no disrespect, but that usually I was told by someone that they were "raised Catholic and became Atheist." It was unusual for me to hear that someone was raised atheist.
For the next hour or so, we had a wonderful discussion. He's an academic and studies questions of human psychology and morality. His opinions, questions, and knowledge were really interesting to me. He shared with me his experience of working among those in the scientific community, their opinions on religion and the Catholic Church, and their (very favorable) opinions about Pope Francis.
I found the whole discussion educative. More than that, I found in front of me a human being; a man who was interested in life, the meaning of life, and the profound questions that are asked by every human being. I felt privileged to be engaged in this conversation. This man who lives life from an atheistic perspective and who desires to understand humanity and the meaning of life, had something to teach me. He wasn't a believer in Jesus Christ at the end of our conversation. And, you will be pleased to know that I am not an atheist now!
But, this conversation was very beautiful for me. I was really struck by the way in which he did not see religion as the enemy to the human. He articulated ways in which his own experience shows that religiosity is important to the human person. His atheism was not--if this makes sense--anti-religious. In the same way, I hope that I articulated my appreciation for his scientific knowledge. For me, his scientific knowledge in no way gave me pause about the Catholic Faith. But, it educated me and made me desire to deepen my faith and to grow in my humanity. This guy's life is not dedicated to destroying the "religious." It is about building up the human. He was not attempting to impose his atheism on me. I was not attempting to impose my Catholicism on him. We were both attempting, I think, to understand the human person and to become more human ourselves.
Encounters like this are very beautiful in my life. I feel like they break down the barriers which exist between persons. We were not two ideologues attempting to outperform each other in a debate. Instead, we were two men seeking to deepen our relationship with the Truth. All of us have room to grow in the truth. All of us can learn something. Some would dismiss a Catholic believer and priest as some purely superstitious and uneducated dolt who seeks to oppress the masses. And many believers would dismiss an atheist scientist as the personification of evil.
But there we were, two men--one an atheist and a scientist and the other a Catholic and a priest--respectfully, humbly, and enthusiastically engaging in profound existential and moral questions. I believe all that the Catholic Church teaches (even though I daily fail to live accordingly)! At the same time, I need to grow every day and this encounter was an opportunity for such growth. This encounter was something beautiful to me. It educated me and helped me to grow in my humanity. I left our conversation feeling grateful for what had been given to me.
One of the benefits for me in living in an environment of academic inquiry is the the privilege of encountering men and women who are asking serious questions about life and its meaning. These people awaken within me a desire to be more serious about engaging in these questions and to pursue the truth with a greater sincerity and with a greater humanity.
Jesus became human. This fact is unavoidable for Christians. Again and again, I discover that our humanity is the place where we encounter Christ. Tonight, I encountered Christ over an IPA and in conversation with an atheist. I came away all the better for it.