This morning I listened to the opening episode of season three of The Big Conversation, an online discussion program bringing together leading voices, both religious and non-religious, to discuss foundational questions. The topic of this episode is: “Christianity or Atheism: Which makes best sense of who we are?”
I was alerted to this segment because I follow the work of Roman Catholic Bishop Robert Barron, founder of Word On Fire Catholic Ministries, and he is one of the guests on this episode of The Big Conversation. His conversation “partner/opponent” is atheist Alex O’Connor, who himself has a significant online presence with nearly half a million followers. Both men are erudite and eloquent; each is an able champion for his position. Each is my intellectual superior. And, in my assessment, each failed to present a compelling argument for his position. Had I started as an atheist, Bp. Barron would have failed entirely in persuading me that Christianity has clear, rational answers to the questions posed. Starting as a Christian myself, Alex O’Connor persuaded me that atheism has absolutely no answers to the questions posed, even admitting himself that atheism has no explanatory power and bears no burden of proof.
Bp. Barron seemed to me like a man who had glimpsed the Mona Lisa and longed to paint it. But, try as he might he could only manage some poor, paint by number, imitation. Alex O’Connor, not even able to manage that, refused to take up the paint brush at all, but instead resorted to merely criticizing the poor work of the good bishop. One was inadequate for the task; the other was disengaged in his response.
Again, I say — and believe — that both men are learned, articulate, and sincere. It is simply that the task is beyond them or any of us.
It is the damnable 0 – 1 (zero – one) problem.
The creative genius takes us from something that is not, to something that is: from zero to one. The world is content with candles and gas lighting and conceives of nothing better. Then Edison creates something that was not before: the electric light bulb. He takes the world from zero to one. No matter that the first electric light bulb is really no good, certainly inferior in many was to gas lights as the first automobiles were inferior to horses and buggies. It now exists where it did not before. Engineers will follow to take us from one to many, from the feeble prototype to the mass produced superior product. Frankly, that is the easy part. But 0 – 1? That’s the mystery. No one knows how or why it happens when and as it does.
The 0 – 1 problem lies at the heart of faith and it vexes me. How does one make the transition from no faith (0) to the feeble beginnings of faith (1)? How does the evangelist or apologist prompt his hearers to move from zero to one? If you are waiting for me to answer, you will be disappointed. I do not know how I made that transition, and, if fact, it is doubtful that I did. I was raised a Christian and, though there have been moments of doubt about some of the details of the faith, there has never been a time when I found an alternative to it compelling. Much less do I know how to prompt others to make the transition.
Here is the truth: I hear the Gospel and I find it compelling. I don’t know why I do and others do not. It is not a matter of intellect or culture or moral excellence or any of a thousand other factors. It is a mystery. Perhaps Dr. Ashley Null’s summary of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s thought is germane: “What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.” I simply know that I could no more relinquish the faith than I could relinquish breathing. And, from my perspective within the faith, it has an internal logic that makes sense of the world as I see it — both the world within and the world without. Unlike atheism, it has explanatory power, even if many of those explanations are partial, shadowy, and mysterious, falling back on the love and wisdom of God who lies beyond my understanding. As Bishop Barron insists — and here I think he is correct — faith is not infra-rational, but supra-rational.
Programs like The Big Conversation are interesting. They are even helpful for confirmation, I suppose. The atheists who listened to this episode were probably confirmed in their atheism, with the same being true of Christians. But I doubt that many listeners changed their minds — made the transition from 0 – 1.
From what I gather from St. Paul, his evangelistic strategy was not one of rational argument; it was not explanation, but rather proclamation.
1 Corinthians 2:1–5 (ESV): And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Paul proclaimed Christ and him crucified. Some heard the message and were compelled by its truth and beauty to embrace it. For other, it fell flat. Why the difference? Why is 0 – 1 so difficult?
Jesus pointed toward some answers in the Parable of the Sower (Mk 4:1-20): the opposition of Satan, the presence of hardship or persecution, the cares and lures of the world. I don’t think Jesus meant this to be an exhaustive list and it does not eliminate the underlying mystery.
So, I admit my bafflement and my inadequacy. I do not know how to effect the change from 0 – 1. It is, I believe, primarily a matter of faith and not of reason, though reason may play a subsidiary role. I doubt that faith can take root if the proposition before it is clearly unreasonable. Faith may seize on that which transcends reason, but not on that which is inherently opposed to reason.
It is 0 – 1 that poses the great problem. From within a system of thought/belief — and both atheism and Christianity are systems of thought/belief — either system exhibits an internal logic and cohesion that its adherents find compelling. While Christianity may make little or no sense to atheists, it makes perfect sense to the faithful. And I do not say that in a trivial way. Again, as Bp. Barron points out, he is the imperfect modern representative of the greatest Western intellectual tradition known: a two thousand year old tradition incorporating many of the greatest human minds ever to consider the fundamental questions of existence and meaning. By that, he means the Catholic intellectual tradition. He is right. Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm — great intellects all. And the church boasts a body of well considered, logically coherent doctrines and dogmas that have great explanatory power, provided you have made the 0 – 1 transition. That is what Paul expresses in 1 Corinthians:
1 Corinthians 2:6–10 (ESV): 6 Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. 7 But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—
10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.
The issue is simply that the wisdom of the faith must be discerned spiritually: not irrationally, but supra-rationally through the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit. And for that, the 0 – 1 transition is a prerequisite. What the faithful have to say — what we can say — to those who do not (yet) believe will appear to be so much foolishness, even though it also happens to be the wisdom of God.
From my limited vantage point, there seems little separating Robert Barron and Alex O’Connor: both intelligent, both learned, both articulate, both serious, both dedicated to truth, both probably upright human beings. And as much at they try to be good conversation partners in an ongoing debate, they nevertheless talk past each other. It is the damnable 0 – 1 problem, and it remains a mystery.