I spend the occasional part of my waking hours on a University campus, a very minimal but nevertheless important portion of time. From time to time, when I am not so rushed, I sit outside of the building where my office is eight stories up, barely populated and very quiet by the time I arrive. The same routine awaited: elevator up the many floors, a quick check into the mailroom to see if I had any campus mail, and then off to the classroom. I only had about ten minutes to myself before I had to be in a classroom, but I decided to delay outside as long as possible because something about the bustling university, even under cover of dark, brings life to me. Scholars shuffling here and there, books in hand, speaking to one another about assignments and professors, some studying, some doing homework, others merely enjoying the communal nature of campus.
I sat on a low half wall thumbing through a volume that I teach from, passing through chapters of progressive economic policy and war with disinterest. Merely passing the time, but too unused to idle time to not pursue something academic, even if it was only with my eyes and not my mind.
It was in this short span of time that two young women approached me. I only noticed their arrival when the leader of the pair, a short blonde girl, greeted me and asked in a quick breath if I had any time to spare to help them with a school project. It was all done so quickly that it disarmed me, which I think was the unintentional intent. I informed them that I had only a few minutes to spare but I would help them as much as I could. It was at this point that I could sense how nervous they both were, unused to approaching strangers to ask for anything. It appealed to the sweetness in me, and so I had the leader write down my mobile phone number to contact me if, when I was done with my classroom engagement, they wished to meet somewhere so that I could help them with whatever they needed for their school project. And oh yes, the project is about God, would I mind that too terribly?
Absolutely not. I find God to be a fascinating socio-cultural construct. I did not say that, of course, I only consented that the subject was not too sensitive for me, and then I took my leave with the promise that if they so wished, I would return later.
Sure enough 15 minutes before class was to end I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket, a message from one of the young women that they both wanted to meet again where we had first met.
As I had nothing pressing for the evening, I decided that to keep my promise that I would help them with their project, even if it is about God, would be worth my while. We met precisely where we had parted and I took a seat on an elevated bench as they sat lower than me. One girl, clearly the dominate personality, had a paper in her hand, boxed and ready for my responses. She took out a stack of perspective cards, which she sectioned off into their appropriate categories. Very amusing.
The questions were predictable and a bit perplexing at time.
They asked me how important the Bible is, and if I believe that the Bible should be taken as the literal word of God. I try always to be respectful and to not let my cynicism show through. Perhaps I would not be so careful if I were speaking to intellectuals or fellow scholars, but with two young student girls I had to be kind and personable. I spoke to them then as an historian, that of course the Bible is not the literal word of God. It isn’t even the literal word of Jesus Christ. It is also a wonderful historical source. And, to ease their minds a bit, I conceded that there are many beautiful messages in the Bible.
They asked me if I believed that people were born more good or more bad. I had to admit that I am in no way an optimist and believe people are born of pure spirits and hearts, but neither do I believe as men such as Hobbes do that men are born inherently bad or beastly. If anything, man is born empty, though with a certain biological pre-disposition to living and working within a community, as that is necessary for survival of the species.
At the end of it, they asked me what I feel it would take for me to believe in God.
I had to confess that I would have to have my doubt satisfied, and to do so I would have to have real and tangible proof that God is real. To be fair to Christians throughout the world, I respect that they believe as they do, truly, and I keep my judgements largely to myself. They clearly feel as if they have had substantial and significant proof to believe in an invisible, all knowing deity in the sky. If their criteria is that they need no proof at all, good for them, though I would like to avoid any conversation with people like that. As for myself, I require my doubt be laid to rest with something I can identify.
I made it clear to them that I don’t expect God to come down from the sky and say, “Marius, I am real, believe in me.” I think proof is subjective. It doesn’t have to be something so obvious, it can be something more subtle, but still unquestionable.
I do remember years ago I was posed this question by a young man named John. My answer was the same. He pointed to the trees and the sky and everything around me and said, “This is your proof.”
It was charming enough that I smiled, just as I smiled at these two young girls, because I do find their faith very sweet. Even if I have none. In fact, if my years have taught me anything, it is that I must believe in nothing. Believing in nothing but the self is safe. It ensures, if anything, nothing can betray you or break your heart.
But am I missing out? Does my doubt, rather than protect me, keep me from experiencing a more fulfilling and beautiful life? Should I take the world as it is? Stop questioning everything, or looking for reasons and proof? Should I just take some things at face value, or believe what I wish simply because I want to and not because I have proof or validity to fall back on? Because anyway, who must I justify myself to?