Sunday, April 22, 2007

Paul and Atheism

Paul the apostle has unexpectedly appeared on a 21st century university campus. What will happen when a philosophical atheist confronts him in a classroom?

Fred (A philosophy student): Paul, or whatever your name is. This is a fun exercise—and well done, even to your accent— but you can forget the pretense. I know that you are not Paul the apostle, and the professor, here, I am sure is not fooled, and perhaps he hired you to promote his Christian philosophy, as interesting as it is. In the end, you have no proof that you are Paul, you have no proof that you have ever “met” Jesus, as you claim—as certainly the original Saul of Tarsus never did. And you have no proof that anything supernatural ever occurred, ever!
Don: Now, Fred, don’t start up with one of your arguments, here…
Fred: Don, how could you perpetuate such a fraud…
Paul: (Quietly) Excuse me, perhaps I might say a word?
Fred: …knowing that your foolish Christian friends could very well be taken in by it!
Paul: Excuse me, Fred. But I would like to say something.
Fred: Yes… well… I suppose it is your forum.
Paul: Quite right. And I would like to speak to your assumptions…
Fred: MY assumptions? What about yours? You claim that Jesus rose from the dead with no evidence. You claim that you have come back from the dead, with not even a scar on your neck! You claim that you have spoken to Jesus, who has been dead two thousand years. You claim that a God exists without any proof…
Don: Fred! You are out of control! Let Paul have a chance to speak!
Fred: I’m sorry, but it seems that this foolishness has gone far enough. It is no longer a stage performance, but a class, and although I have no love for the Christians in the university, I don’t think anyone should use the university campus as a forum to perpetuate superstition.
Paul: Nevertheless, I will perpetuate my foolishness a while longer because I was asked to. Trust me, Fred, I am in complete agreement with you. This whole forum is foolish. The idea that I have suddenly reappeared after two thousand years is idiotic. Makes no sense at all. Jesus rising from the dead is impossible—especially after he died as a sinner and a traitor to the people of God. It is all unthinkable.
Fred: So why do you teach it? Why stand here and perpetuate the idiocy that has been touted and forced down people’s throats for two thousand years?
Paul: It all comes down to what we know. What do any of us know? What can we be sure of?
Fred: It depends on whether you are Socratic or Carteian or Hume or existentialist…
Paul: Hold on… let’s just talk about what you and I know. Neither Socrates nor Kierkegaard are here. How do you know what you know?
Fred: I don’t know that I know anything. All is based on assumptions and likelihoods.
Paul: Is that so? Then why storm in this classroom and demand we stop our activity based on that which you claim you do not know?
Fred: Well, I know that what you are saying isn’t true.
Paul: Why? Based on what?
Fred: Based on my own experience. People don’t rise from the dead. The supernatural doesn’t exist. God doesn’t exist.
Paul: You base this on your experience of it? How can you experience the negative of something?
Fred: Well, I prayed when I was younger and it didn’t happen.
Paul: So you are assuming that something isn’t true because you didn’t experience it. Does a non-experience equate the non-existence of something?
Fred: What do you mean?
Paul: Well, let’s say, for instance, that you denied the existence of the president of the United States. Sure, every newspaper speaks of him, and you could hear his voice on the television, but perhaps it is all a hoax, or simple confusion. So you set up a test—you call the White House and demand to meet the president so you can be sure he really exists. But you never meet the president—you never even receive a call back. Can you non-experience of the president then drive you logically to the conclusion that the president doesn’t exist?
Fred: Well, no, not by itself.
Paul: If you have never seen a Gila monster, does that mean they don’t exist? If you have never seen a ghost, does that mean they don’t exist?
Fred: Well, I’ve never even seen a picture of a ghost, I don’t see…
Paul: But you’ve seen a picture of Godzilla—does that give you confirmation?
Fred: Of course not. That is in the context of fiction.
Paul: Correct. The context communicates truth. And one’s experience often determines what we know or don’t know. That doesn’t mean that our knowledge—the interpretation of our experience— is correct. But our experience is all we have. And we have to accept what we have experienced. A non-experience doesn’t necessarily communicate anything. But an experience is something we must explain to ourselves, if no one else.
Fred: True. But what does this have to do with this forum or your ridiculous assertions about yourself or Jesus or God?
Paul: You are so firm in your assumptions that you must deny the obvious truth of what I am saying. I agree with you that everything I have affirmed is ridiculous. Foolish to even speak of. But it is what I have experienced. I am not speaking of conceptual truths. I am speaking of my personal experience—my memory, my life, all that I have. I remember being raised in Tarsus, and having my first education there. I remember hearing about Jesus and having the same feelings about him that you just expressed—ridiculous, impossible to any thinking person. All that changed when I met Jesus.
Fred: What? You had a vision? You woke up and presumed it real?
Paul: No, I saw him face to face, body before body. I could feel the heat from his body, I could hear his voice. I could see the details of his flesh—pores and scars. If it was my imagination, then it more active than it ever has been or will be. He appeared before me and said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Fred: How can you still say that you are Paul the apostle? That his experiences are yours?
Paul: Because I have nothing else! I don’t remember hearing English before I arrived, just outside this door. I know ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. In none of these languages that I knew was there a word for television or factory. I had to learn these concepts from Professor Don. I had to learn English from him, which is why my accent is so heavy. I experienced Jesus blinding me and healing me. I experienced laying on hands of hundreds of people and they were healed. I experienced commanding spirits to go and the person became sane. I remember writing the letters that you now have in Christian Scriptures. I experienced arriving here on this campus and meeting Don and living in his house. I remember learning English and history and contemporary issues over the last three years. And you can tell me that I am an idiot—but it is the only experience I have!
Fred: (Subdued, realizing Paul is sincere) Perhaps you are schizophrenic…?
Paul: Yes, I thought of that as well. But I do not hear voices, except the voice of the Spirit. I do not have compulsions to do anything others would call insane—except to speak about that which I have personally experience. And that is no different from anyone else. Except, perhaps you.
Fred: Why do you say that I am different?
Paul: Because you are compelled to speak and insist upon that which you have NOT experienced. Because you have not experienced people rising from the dead, you say the dead cannot be raised. Because you say that you have not experienced God, you say that God cannot exist. Because you say that you have never experience the supernatural, you say the spirit world does not exist. So I wonder, then. Which is more foolish—a forum here based on what I did experience or a lecture founded on a philosophy on what cannot be experienced? Let me ask a question of the audience here. I would suppose that there is about a hundred people here. How many of you have had an experience of God? Not just the idea of Him, or a belief in Him, but God or Jesus actually changed your life? How many of you have experienced a miracle, an answer to prayer, God speaking to you? Please raise your hands if you have had an experience like this.
(The far majority of the room raises their hands.)
Fred: (Shaking his head) This isn’t proof of God. You can’t prove something by a survey. And their experiences doesn’t mean that it is anything more than delusion.
Paul: I agree. Just as my whole life may be a delusion. Just as your whole life may be a delusion. What I am saying is this: You cannot tell them that they did not experience what they did experience. It is like believing that the president exists. You can deny it, and say that everyone is deluded. But the majority of people have some experience of him—and you will not convince them otherwise. And why should you? The burden of proof is on you. We should be demanding of you some proof that our experiences need to be interpreted differently than we do. And since you have offered nothing but assertions and assumptions, I—and I am sure most of the people in this room—choose to assert that our experiences are true. Unless you can prove otherwise.
Fred: How can I deny a fool the choice to persist in his foolishness? (He walks out.)
Paul: I must agree.

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