The most remarkable thing happened this past Saturday night; too remarkable to make into a cartoon. Fr. Pfeiffer and I went to go see a play in downtown Cleveland and when the play finished, we found ourselves in one of the very scenes of the play, unstaged, out on the street.
To get the incident, I’ll give you a quick rundown of the pertinent parts of the play. It was a staged production of C. S. Lewis’s book, “The Great Divorce.” The story is a Dante-esque journey of a bus load of people from hell getting the chance to see heaven and even stay there if they chose so, but who ultimately chose to stay in hell. One man feels that his rights were violated by the mercy of heaven, a woman cannot let go of her control of others, one wants fame more than glory, one wants her version of love rather than God’s, and the list goes on. In the end, these people chose hell as a favored place to be.
When the play let out, it was apparent that at least one other play had ended at the same time and so I suggested that we go across the street and get coffee and desert while we waited for the traffic to thin out. We debated the play and the points made and then headed out.
Crossing the street there was a young man, (mid-twenties?) who turned to us and said, “Are you two priests?”
“Yes,” I replied, and took off my glove and extended a hand. “Hello, my name is Father Valencheck.”
He recoiled as if I were handing him a snake. “No way!” he said, turned and kept on his way to the other side of the street.
Things such as this happen occasionally. It is the sometimes blessing/sometimes curse of wearing one’s collar in public. One learns to let it roll off.
As we gained the sidewalk however the young man turned back toward us and said, “You guys know, of course, there is no God.”
“Actually, I don’t quite know that at all.” I responded.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. There is no God. I know it.”
“And I would respond that there is one. And I know Him.”
“You know what I believe? Science. Facts. Not stories in a book. Not people walking on water. Not having to do good works that a God tells me I have to do to get into heaven. It’s all silly.”
I will give this much to the young man. He may have been willing to throw out comments such as this, but he was also willing to engage and have a conversation. Many, if not most people like to throw a comment-bomb and run it seems. I admire him that he would be willing to have a debate in the middle of the sidewalk in downtown Cleveland, late on a cold, cold night.
Everything in the objections-to-faith-including-the-kitchen-sink arsenal was hauled out and thrown at us. It was like a game of dodge ball but instead of the two of us playing against one person, he was like a team against two! Question from left field, point from the right, beaming ball right between the eyes.
The most interesting part of the conversation for me was toward the end. “How do you determine the good?”
“We, each of us, get to decide for ourselves.”
Fr. Pfeiffer, “And what if I thought it was right to take your life?”
Young man: “That would be wrong.”
Me: “Good. Then how is it determined that your good is better than mine?”
Young man: “Look, if a guy killed five people robbing a bank, how could you say that that was right?”
“The crook would think it just fine. He would have money he never had before and if not caught might have a lot more stuff than he did before.”
Eventually we got to this point: there is no ultimate good, no truth (unsubstantiated by facts) and no real purpose or point to life. It is simply what you make of it and decide that it is. And when death comes, its game over – end of existence.
“That being said,” added the young man, “You have to admit that religion is what causes all the wars and violence in the world. Religion is what is wrong.”
“I would have to strongly disagree with you. As a matter of fact, I would say quite the opposite in most cases.”
“It is religion that breads hatred,” he countered, “and violence.”
“And yet,” I replied, “when we were crossing the street, which of us took off his glove, extended a hand, said good evening and introduced himself, and who refused?”
At that, he broke out with a great smile, he shoulders relaxed, and he extended his hand. “Sorry about that. I think I needed to vent and you were here.”
We learned then that his name was Mike and he turned out to be quite a likable fellow. We parted on friendly terms and Fr. Pfeiffer could not resist turning back to him and saying, “Good night and God bless!” to which he threw up his hands and with a big smile shot back, “No, no no!”