Over the years, as I’ve developed an understanding of my faith in God, I have regularly been confronted by fundamental religion as an extreme. Whether it be the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or other faith, orthodoxy has alluded me. The question that regularly rises to my mind is, “How can anyone be so sure of anything?” I now find myself on the other end of the question, “How can anyone be so sure God doesn’t exists?”
A young man, who is like a nephew to me, recently became an atheist chaplain at a major metropolitan teaching hospital. Although this may seem like an oxymoron at first blush, after discussion with him, I, along with the head of the department for chaplains, realized this makes perfect sense. His belief in science and free-thinking is as strong as that of the orthodox individuals I know. The fascinating part for me is that I am now the one with the belief in a god that someone else cannot imagine exists. Agnosticism, at least, allows for the possibility for a god, as long as there is proof that this entity exists. Atheism, however, offers no possibility for the existence of a supreme deity, and thereby a relationship with that deity is not an option. His belief system is not my belief system; however, it is one with which I am extremely familiar. My father was an atheist most of the time, or an agnostic, depending on when you spoke with him. Dad and I had many animated, sometimes vitriolic, conversations about God.
As I look to my nephew, I see a peacefulness about him that I cannot understand. To my spirit, I cannot help but question how it is possible for someone to believe in nothing smaller than a quark or lepton, neither of which I understand at all, and nothing bigger than the universe. The only thing I know is that I love this young fellow and know that if this is the path he’s chosen, then it necessarily must be right for him. Although they never push their belief systems on me, I know my friends look at me with perplexed wonder at how a person reared as a Roman Catholic could have such an omni denominational faith. Inasmuch as my loving fundamental Christian friends would rejoice if I said I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior, I know I would be happy if Noel would find a faith in something larger than space. Perhaps, though, this might not be all together true. Would I want for him what he doesn’t want or feel he needs for himself? No.
The spiritual universe I sense informs my awareness that we are each responsible for our own lives, accountable only to ourselves and to our creator, whomever that may be… if any, given the belief system. So, how could I ask him to believe differently than his ethical and moral system tells him is right? I can’t. What I do know is that as he pursues his chaplaincy, he will encounter other systems of belief and faith that are not consistent with his own. That is why I gave him my thanatological research regarding death and dying in many traditions to supplement his already wide breadth of knowledge. The gifts he has as a vital part of a support system and as loving human being in the benefit of other people will be best illuminated by his knowledge of others’ traditions; even those he doesn’t espouse. He then can speak their language while remaining true to his own convictions. This is compassion. This in intelligence used on a personal level. This is my nephew.
I am very proud of this bright, joyful young man. He is a unique and very funny individual who brings rich laughter and deep thought wherever he goes. I know those he counsels, the individuals who are ill and dying, and their families, will benefit from his presence in unimaginable ways. They will remember his tender heart and brilliant mind, and the comfort he brings, long after their difficult journeys have passed.
Good luck, Noel. I am very proud of you!