A Priest and an Atheist Walk into a Bar. (A Story about Faith.)

Andrew Marx/freeimages.com

Andrew Marx/ freeimages.com

What is the nature of faith? Why do some of us believe that there is a God that watches over us and impacts our lives, while others believe we are alone in the world and left to our own devices?

These are questions I have been pondering since I wrote my last Patheos story on “The Third Man” phenomena. In a nutshell, it was about how certain people in life-threatening situations detect a “presence” around them that they perceive as a guardian angel. I received a few reader comments questioning this assertion, some siding with neuroscientists who believe the effect is not supernatural, but is a function of the brain.

But what does it really come down to? Faith. You either have it or you don’t, and I recently came across an anecdote that cleverly illustrates the issue. It comes the late-author David Foster Wallace in a commencement speech he gave titled This is Water. In it, Foster Wallace tells the tale of two men chatting in a bar, and their different takes on the role God plays in our lives. I’ve paraphrased the story below:

There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. While they’re old friends, they have very different ideas on God—one is a priest and the other is an atheist. They begin arguing about the existence of God.

The atheist says, “Look, it’s not like I haven’t given God a chance. I even tried the prayer thing. It didn’t work.”

The priest asks with some incredulity, “Did you really pray? When did this happen?”

“Just last month,” replies the atheist. “I got caught away from the camp in a terrible blizzard. I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing. It was 50 below, and so I prayed. I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m going to die if you don’t help me’.”

The priest looks at the atheist with a puzzled expression and exclaims, “Well then you must believe in God now. After all, here you are, alive!”

The atheist rolls his eyes and says, “No way, that’s not how it happened. A couple of Eskimos came wandering by and they showed me the way back to camp.”

The same story. Two different perspectives. The priest sees the man’s rescue as an act of divine intervention, while the atheist sees it as sheer happenstance, his own good fortune. Is one point-of-view correct and the other misguided? Or is it possible they both men are correct and that God’s existence is dependent on our belief—if you’re a non-believer, God ceases to exist?

I turned to my spiritual mentor, the late businessman-turned-philosopher John Templeton, for guidance on this issue and found a passage in one of his books that may provide an answer. Templeton believes that spirituality is a personal issue, based on “the unique divine experiences of the individual believer.” He wonders if there isn’t a reason why some believe in a higher power:

Can a person’s consciousness become activated through spiritual practices such as prayer? And can this activation in a person’s consciousness generate greater expressions of spirituality? Could this be what some people describe as “living the spiritual life,” rather than being “religious”?

Perhaps faith is not something we are born with, but something we activate by engaging in practices like prayer and meditation. And those who do these activities on a regular basis find that they are better able to connect with something greater than themselves, a life force that many identify as God.

The atheist did not believe it, but perhaps prayer was the key to his survival in the Alaskan wilderness. Yet, if Templeton’s adage is true, he would need to continue his practice of prayer to make his sense of faith come to life, to become fully receptive to the idea that his encounter with his rescuers on that night was more than just a stroke of good luck.

This story previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, July 29, 2015.

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