A reader puzzles over a nephew's philosophy

A reader writes:

I have a nephew that has been caught up in the secular/relativistic worldview and has apparently lost his faith in Christ.  Here are his comments about his belief structure:

Religion is created as a means to give our lives a greater purpose, for those who can’t come to terms with the finality of death.  Upon death, our consciousness simply ceases to exist and our material bodies are cast back into the environment from which they came from in order to make way for newer life.  You will refuse to believe this because in your eyes, it is a very grim picture.  You would interpret my picture as life becoming meaningless and simply thrown away.  This is why you find comfort in Christianity and are so devout about it.  You want to have an everlasting consciousness and have a greater purpose, not just be thrown away.  That is okay, I have nothing wrong with it as it works for you.  For myself, I don’t see this as a grim reality, instead I see it as something beautiful.  Death is natures way of clearing out the old, and making way for the new.  It is the circle of life; at death I will be able give back to the very Earth that provided me with such joy for everyday living.  My decomposed body will eventually be recycled through other living organisms, which in turn continues the circle of life.  This cycle provides me comfort in living my life, the same comfort that you receive from Christianity.  Hence, I consider ourselves equal, even if we have different opinions.  If we are equal, there’s really no need to try to change that.

He is around 20 years old and was raised Lutheran and is now at college.  My initial take is that there is no way to debate him - we can make our points about differences in worldview, but it is highly unlikely to change his thinking at this point in his life.  What seems to be left is prayer, but we could certainly use your thoughts and ideas.

You are right that prayer is the first, not the last resort here.  What radiates from this note is the sort of placid and provincial smugness and sense of superiority of which the young are especially capable.  My first suggestion for you is not to give up.  Only somebody who has lived a life of sheltered suburban comfiness could serenely pat his elder on the head and utter lines from a Disney movie as though he were Socrates, Aristotle and Plato put together.  It’s insufferably fatuous, I know.  But it is also part of our role as adults in the lives of people transitioning to adulthood to put up with such patronizing foibles.  I had a priest friend who gave the best advice I’ve ever heard when encountering such nails-on-chalkboard behavior: “When I meet somebody who irritates me, I just imagine they are a character from Dickens and that makes it alright.”  Your nephew writes like a character out of Dickens, perhaps Bunble the Beadle in Oliver Twist who confidently proclaims “The law is a ass—a idiot!”

So step back and chuckle for moment and remember warmly what a good and naive boy he is in the hope that some knowledge and life experience will, under the influence of the grace you ask, help him see the suburban shallowness of his Circle of Life philosophy.

Beyond that, it is possible to engage him at the level of ideas as well.  For instance, his provincial notions of “religion” are grist for conversation, starting with the question of what he means by “religion”.  Coming up with a definition that fits what most Americans think of as “religion” is a lot harder than he supposes.  Is “religion” the worship of a god or gods?  Where does that leave Buddhism which worships no god? Is it about the afterlife as your nephew serenely pontificates?  Being a comfy suburbanite kid, his knowledge of “religion” comes entirely from his narrow band of experience in comfy suburban American mainstream Protestantism.  He is almost entirely ignorant of the rest of Christianity and his “knowledge” of what “religion” means in the rest of human experience beyond his immediate culture and throughout history very likely comes to him from comic books, Star Trek, and whatever stray remarks he has picked up in college bull sessions about the Mystic East or the oppressive Church.  The giveaway is his utter certitude that “religion” originates in the hope of an afterlife.

It does not.  For one thing, there are entire religious/philosophical traditions (such as Buddhism) that arise out of the hope of the extinction of the self, not of eternal life.  Secondly, even Christianity springs out of a religious tradition (Judaism) that had no conception of an afterlife for centuries after it arose.  It is not until a century or two before Christ that Jews begin to express a clear faith in life after death (cf. 2 Maccabees 7).  Hints of it appear in Torah (the earliest Israelite traditions), but lots of Israelites (like the author of Ecclesiastes) habitually speak as though this life is our only crack at obeying God since you go down to Sheol (the grave) at death and that’s it.  In early Israelite religion, we never run across a prophet who promises heaven or life after death as a reward for virtue or obedience.  Indeed, an excellent place to begin a discussion with your nephew may well be with a look at Ecclesiastes since the Preacher has a far clearer vision of what life in a world without God really looks like stripped of the shallow Disney philosophy.  What motivates most of the Old Testament writers is not “How do I get to heaven?” but “How do I honor the God who has kept faith with us and what do I do when i live in the midst of a faithless people?  How can God save us when we fight so hard to not be saved?”  And do note that “salvation” does not mean “salvation from hell” but salvation from sin, wrongdoing, dishonor, wickedness.  (And, by the way, if religion is all about a comforting need to believe in survival after death, then why would anybody invent the idea of hell?  Clearly, something besides the mere egotistical need for post-mortem personal survival is at work in the Christian revelation since, if that was the whole story, you would say that Good People Like Me go to Heaven or, worst case scenario, Bad People die and cease to exist.  That Christianity warns of the possibility of an eternity that might be a horror instead of bliss puts the boots on the idea that mere survival after death is all “religion” cares about.)

Your nephew grasps very few of these concepts since our culture labors to keep him from encountering them.  “Sin” for Gen Y generally means “guilt and shame laid on me by people who are trying to manipulate me”. Normal people don’t sin.  Only truly terrible people like Nazis, pedophiles, and racists give content to the word “sin” for most postmoderns, and since we Good People don’t do those things, we are AOK. I didn’t encounter my own capacity for evil in a living way until I was about your nephew’s age and it was a real shock.  I thought I was quite a fine chap.  Then I got a good look at myself and realized, not that somebody was manipulating me with shame, but that I was capable of grave evil.  That realization was only possible for me—as it is for all of us—by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Christianity has little to say to people who have no conception that they require saving.  But there are other ways in which the faith can still speak to us.

One is our hunger for meaning and human dignity.  Your nephew makes it clear that this is a big motivation for him by his telltale remark, “I consider ourselves equal, even if we have different opinions.  If we are equal, there’s really no need to try to change that.”  The universe may be a giant molecule-recycling machine without meaning according to his Disney philosophy, but it’s still very important to him that he feel respected and have “equality”.  The question is, “Why?” If he is just an unusually clever piece of meat temporarily brought into existence by a series of unlikely coincidences and, after a cosmic eyeblink, destined to be dissolved into plant nutrients, then why on earth does he think the particular concatenation of molecules temporarily known as “himself” matters any more than a snowflake or a mayfly?  Sure, he thinks he matters and is equal and has rights and so forth during his brief turn on earth.  So would a housefly if it could talk.  But why should the rest of the universe care what he thinks (or any person powerful enough to toss him into the molecule-recycling machine of nature early if he became inconvenient to the powerful)?  The first rule of nature apart from God is “The strong do as they please and the weak suffer what they must.”  If your nephew is weak why on earth should the strong care about his claims of “equality” or “rights”?

It is unlikely he has given this much thought, just as it is unlikely that he has had a precious daughter, seen her shot to death by gang violence and held her as she died.  Such things give a new perspective on the happy Circle of Life philosophy when your whole world and all you love is shoveled into a pauper’s grave while your sobs go unheeded in a pitiless world ruled by the ruthless and strong.  Indeed, it is worth noting that the Circle of Life philosophy is espoused, in the Disney universe, by characters who are lucky enough to sit at the top of the food chain.  It is the predators (in The Lion King) and the bullying grasshoppers (in A Bug’s Life) who espouse your nephew’s philosophy.  One does not hear it from zebras, toiling ants and other prey.  Similarly, some time spent by your nephew working at a soup kitchen or helping the desperate poor in Africa or doing other corporal and spiritual works of mercy with people who are at the bottom of the food chain might provide that vital contact with reality and suffering that are so conspicuously absent from his antiseptic religion of recycling.  As Rabbi Abraham Heschel once said, “The man who has not suffered: what does he know anyway?”

I suspect what your nephew needs most is time and a lot of life experience.  At present, God is as theoretical to him as a college bull session.  In time, life will press upon him the need to revisit his facile philosophy.  What he will need in that hour will be something only the Holy Spirit can give him: a humble heart.  So prayer (combined with some serious thought and conversation) will be key.  Right now his argument boils down to the second of the only two arguments that exist in the whole history of human thought to buttress atheism: namely that everything seems to work fine without God.  St. Thomas sums up that objection to God’s existence in more technical language this way:

Objection 2. Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God’s existence.

He also, by the way, answers that objection:

Reply to Objection 2. Since nature works for a determinate end under the direction of a higher agent, whatever is done by nature must needs be traced back to God, as to its first cause. So also whatever is done voluntarily must also be traced back to some higher cause other than human reason or will, since these can change or fail; for all things that are changeable and capable of defect must be traced back to an immovable and self-necessary first principle, as was shown in the body of the Article.

Your nephew sort of assumes that “religion” is a human coping mechanism for death and imagines that this theory somehow disproves the existence of God by showing that “religion” is adequately explained by natural phenomena.  But, of course, the human need to cope with death does not lead logically to the non-existence of God in the slightest.  Whether or not I have developed a coping mechanism to deal with death has nothing to do with the question, ““Does God exist?”  It’s like saying the ability to taste proves that food does not exist.  Food may or may not exist whether I can taste it or not.  God’s existence is a separate question from how we think about death (though the two may—not must—be related).  It is quite on the cards that there might be a God who chooses not to let us live forever.  Ancient Israelites seems to have thought so (on the rare occasions when they considered the matter of life after death).  The only reason Christianity affirms the reality of eternal life is not because all humans everywhere began with the assumption of life after death and then created a religion to affirm that, but because Jesus of Nazareth affirmed life after death and then astonished his disciples, not only with preaching about heaven and hell that was far more than they bargained for, but because he actually appeared to them, risen from the dead.  Any dolt could have told a ghost story about Jesus coming back to haunt his disciples.  That would have made Christianity far less complicated.  Indeed, the apostles were exactly the sort of dolts ready for a ghost story when the first reports of the Resurrection came to them.  What they were utterly unprepared for was not the shade of Jesus, but himself gloriously raised from the dead and able to eat fish, break bread, be touched, and yet disappear at will.  The apostles no more expected that than moderns do.  It would have eliminated a lot of problems had they just seen a ghost. But they bore witness to what they saw—the Risen Christ—with their lives, something I doubt a Disney philosopher will do for his easy Circle of Life stuff.