Sunday, August 11, 2013

To Live a Fully Human Life You Need Faith—Even if you’re an Atheist!

An act of faith

(Nineteenth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on August 11, 2013 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Hebrews 11: 1-2, 11-19.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Nineteenth Sunday 2013]

There once was a poor boy who had no shoes.  A neighbor of his who was an atheist saw him praying one day and immediately made fun of him.  He said to the boy, “You pray so much.  If God really existed, he would tell somebody to buy you a pair of shoes.”  The boy replied, “I’m sure God does—but they don’t listen.”

That little boy, in some ways at least, demonstrated a very mature, adult faith in his response to that atheist!  He obviously believes that there is a God; but he also believes that God always hears—and always responds to—his prayers.  He has faith that when he turns to the Lord with a request, the Lord answers him by pouring forth his grace.  He’s convinced that whenever he prays God always does something, even if it’s not exactly what he wants the Lord to do.  He also understands that we human beings can say no to God’s grace—and sometimes do—such that God’s will is not accomplished in every situation of life.

Now I’m sure that the atheist neighbor thought this boy was foolish for believing all these things, since the boy couldn’t demonstrate them empirically or prove them scientifically.

Of course, neither could the atheist do that for most of what he believes in his life!  He probably wouldn’t admit this—most atheists probably wouldn’t—but it’s true nonetheless.

You see, my brothers and sisters, as ironic as it might sound, every atheist is actually a person of faith.  Deep faith!  He can’t scientifically prove that there isn’t a God any more than a believer can scientifically demonstrate that there is.  He can only have FAITH that God does not exist—which actually presents him with a major problem, namely, explaining how something can come from nothing!  Matter exists; I exist; the world exists—and all of this constitutes “something”.  As a religious believer, I say that this “something” came from something else—really Someone else—namely, God.

But an atheist says that there is no God.  So where did this “something” come from?  I’ve never seen something—anything—come from nothing.  Yet that’s what an atheist ultimately believes about creation. 

And if he says he believes in the Big Bang Theory of the origin of the universe that doesn’t solve his problem, even though he might think it does.  The Big Bang Theory says that 12-14 billion years ago the universe as we know it expanded from a tiny speck of matter after a huge cosmic explosion.  Okay.  So where did that “tiny speck of matter” come from?  If that speck was like a bomb, then who or what made it?  And who or what lit the fuse?  And who or what designed the blueprint for the explosion?

Did it come from nothing?  But how does something come from nothing?  Where is the scientific evidence that such a thing could—and actually did—happen?

But the faith of an atheist even goes beyond this.  In fact, it touches almost every area of his life.  Today’s second reading from Hebrews 11, which we heard a few moments ago, is all about faith (specifically about the faith of Old Testament saints like Abraham and Sarah), and it begins with these famous words: “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for, and evidence of things not seen.”

Now what’s interesting about that definition is that it applies to every human person, not just to religious believers like you and me!

Every single human person has things that they hope for; and every single human person has things in their life that they believe in but do not see.

And that includes atheists!

Atheists and religious skeptics often talk about faith as if it were something that’s totally foreign to them, something that they completely reject in their lives.

But the truth of the matter is that they live by faith every day!

And so do we.

Those of you, for example, who are parents of young children—when you put your children on a bus in the morning to send them to school, you exercise faith.  You exercise faith whether you believe in God or not!  You have faith that your children will be safe in the hands of the bus driver.  You have faith that they will be well taken care of by the faculty and administration at the school.  You have faith that the teachers will teach them the right things in their classes.

You don’t know with absolute certitude that they’ll be safe, or well taken care of, or taught the truth; you can’t scientifically demonstrate any of those things.  But you put your children on the bus anyway, because you trust and have faith in all the people I just mentioned who are associated with the school.

Or how about eating at a restaurant (something that many of us do quite frequently—including atheists!)?  How do you know with absolute certitude that the food the waitress brings you on a given day is good and fresh and healthy?  How do you know that it’s not laced with arsenic or some other poison?  Unless you bring some kind of “food testing machine” into the place—and test everything on your plate—you don’t know those things.  Once again, you have to exercise faith.

Ever sit in a history class at school?  How do you know that all those historical figures you hear about really existed?  How do you know that they really did the things your history book says they did?  Did you know all these people?  Did you ever have a personal conversation, for example, with George Washington or Julius Caesar?  I know I never have!  But when I took history courses I do know I had faith: faith that at least most of what I was hearing and reading about these people was accurate.

Or how about science?  Scientists who are atheists will tell you that they only believe what they empirically verify for themselves.  But every scientist I’ve ever known has accepted as true the discoveries of other scientists—things that they themselves have not experimentally verified.  They put their faith in what those other scientists have written and said—and they do that without giving it a second thought. 

Most of you will leave church today in a car.  As you drive down Elm St. or Cross St. after Mass, I ask you to notice the cars coming toward you in the opposite direction.  Do you know with absolute certitude that none of those cars will swerve into your lane and hit you head-on?

No, you don’t.  The fact is it could happen.

But you have faith that it won’t!  And if you don’t have that kind of faith, you won’t go anywhere after Mass today (at least you won’t go anywhere in a motorized vehicle!).  You’ll leave your car out there in the parking lot until it rots, or until I get tired of looking at it and have it towed away.

Even in our relationships of love, we operate, for the most part, on faith.  Is there someone in your life who has said to you the beautiful words, “I love you”?

I hope so.

Well, how did you know with absolute certitude that what they said to you was true?

The answer is you didn’t!

They could have been lying; they could have said those words, “I love you,” in order to manipulate you in some way (that kind of thing happens all the time, unfortunately).

If you believed what they said, then you had faith that the person was actually telling you with his or her lips what was truly in his or her heart.

My point in this homily is simple: to live a fully human life, you need faith—even if you’re an atheist.  But your life will be incomplete and without ultimate meaning if you don’t have faith in the one, true God.  As St. Augustine put it, “Oh Lord, you made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

So the next time you’re having a conversation with an atheist (and, if you believe the news polls, that’s an experience which is becoming more and more common for believers these days), try to get him to recognize the fact that he already lives his life by a certain kind faith.  Then share with him the reasons for your faith in the one, true God and his Son, Jesus Christ.  Just as we have reasons for our faith in the school bus driver and the restaurant cook and the people who say they love us, so too we should have reasons—good, rational, solid reasons—for our belief in God.

And then pray: pray that your unbelieving friend will be touched by God’s grace and take your words to heart, so that his life of faith will expand to include religious faith: faith in the God worshipped by Abraham, and by Sarah—and by us!