You hear it all the time: the old beliefs aren't believable any more. But what if you've never even learned what the old beliefs are?
"Thee — ahh — fill — uss."
"Now you've got it. Have a seat."
"Thanks. My name's easier. Russell Esau." He was a reddish, hirsute sort of fellow; the name suited him.
"I recognize you from my 9:30 class. Good morning."
"Hi," he replied.
"What's on your mind?"
"I don't exactly have a question," he said. "I just like to get to know my professors. My next class doesn't meet for a little while, so I thought I'd drop in."
"Coffee?" I indicated the pot.
"No, thanks." He watched as I filled my own mug. "Your course is really different from others I've taken so far."
"How is it different?" I returned to my chair.
"For one thing, all those old books you make us read. I took the required ancient history course, but that was different. We read about those old guys, but we didn't read them, if you follow me."
"I follow you."
"It's a lot more interesting than I thought it would be."
"Yeah. But kind of weird."
"Take that guy we're reading now. The Confessions guy."
"That's the one. Except that you say aw-GUSS-tin. I've been saying AW-guss-teen."
"You can place the accent on either syllable. Do you mean that Augustine is weird, or that his book is weird?"
"It's sort of like an autobiography, but it's sort of not. It's more like a prayer, isn't it?"
I smiled. "It isn't like a prayer. It is one."
"That's what I mean. I thought the guy would be telling me about his life. Instead he's telling God about it. I'm just getting to listen in."
"So what's the weird part?"
"That's the weird part."
"That you're getting to listen in?"
"No — that he takes a whole book to say one prayer!"
"You find it surprising that someone would have that much to talk about with God?"
"I'm not knocking prayer."
"I didn't think you were."
"Actually I'm a very spiritual person."
"Sure. My Mom was Mentalist and my Dad was Pretzelterian, so when they married, they compromised, and I was brought up in the Prunitarian church."
"Interesting family history."
"Mom and Dad always say that God is an important part of life."
"Ah, now there's a difference. Augustine wouldn't have said that God is a part of life."
"What would he have said?"
"That God is what life is all about. He wanted his whole life to be a prayer. To him, God was everything."
"The minister at University Prunitarian Church said something like that a couple of weeks ago. I go there sometimes."
"What did he say?"
"That everything is God."
I winced. "I'm afraid that's not the same idea. Augustine is very sure that God is distinct from His creation. What else did the minister say?"
"That every sincere act is a prayer."
"Every sincere act?"
"Sure. Having a quiet cup of coffee. Going to see a movie with a friend. A kiss."
"Suppose I assassinated someone."
Russell hesitated. "Well — if you sincerely assassinated him —"
I laughed. "For Augustine, the important question isn't whether you mean something sincerely, but whether it conforms to God's truth."
"But doesn't everybody have his own truth?"
"Everybody has his own beliefs, but that doesn't make them true. I may sincerely believe that the tuna fish is fresh, but that doesn't mean it doesn't stink."
"Yeah, but that's tuna fish. God — isn't that different?"
"God is sort of vague."
"Don't you mean that your thoughts about God are vague?"
"Maybe my thoughts about Him are vague because He's vague."
"Augustine wouldn't think so."
"God is the Creator. The only reason tuna fish even exist is that He made them. Their very being is derivative. He's different. Nothing created Him. He has being in Himself. Does that make Him less real than tuna fish?"
"No, I see your point. It would have to be the other way around. He'd be more real than tuna fish."
"In fact He would be the realest thing there is."
"I guess that's right."
"That's what Augustine thought too."
He ruminated on the idea. "But how can we know any truth about God?"
I replied, "What does Augustine say?"
"From the Bible?"
"Who does Augustine think the Bible points to?"
"Did you say 'who' or 'what'?"
"I said 'who.'"
"But there have been lots of holy men in history, haven't there?"
"Of course, but Augustine doesn't think Jesus is just another holy man."
"No, he views Him as the God-man."
"I've heard that expression. What does it mean?"
"It means that Jesus is how God revealed Himself. God became man — truly man, but still truly God as well."
"Did Jesus actually say that?"
"Yes, He said 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no man comes to the Father, but by Me.' Another time He said 'He who has seen Me has seen the Father.'"
"And Augustine believed that was true?"
"Oh, well. That was a long time ago, wasn't it?"
"When he wrote his Confessions."
"Yes, about sixteen centuries ago."
"We've come a long way since then, haven't we?"
"What do you mean?"
"We're more scientific now."
"I still don't follow you."
"We don't believe in things like a 'God-man' any more."
"None of my professors do."
"I know at least one of your professors who does."
"Who?" I raised an eyebrow. "You?" I nodded. "How can you? Most Christians don't believe that stuff any more, do they?"
"What makes you think a thing like that?"
"That's what the minister at University Prunitarian Church says.”
"What else does he say?"
"'The mythical phase of Christianity is all over.' 'The old myths aren't believable any more.' 'We have to update eternity.' 'Christianity must change or die.'"
"I see. And what is Christianity supposed to change into?"
"What do you mean?"
"What will the members of this altered Christianity believe?"
"Um — in justice, and in progress, and in treating people equally, and things like that."
"Salvation through being nice, is that it?"
"Yes, but it sounded better the way he said it."
"How did he say it?"
"'We have to save ourselves.'"
"I guess you're more pessimistic than he is,” Russell said.
"Depends. I'm more pessimistic about the power of man, but I'm a raving optimist about the power of God."
"This is getting interesting.” He glanced at his watch. “But I've only got a few minutes before I’ve got to run. Just tell me this. How can you deny the social trend?"
"What social trend?"
"Away from religious faith."
"In the first place, social trends aren't the test of truth," I said. "But in the second place, there is no trend away from religious faith."
That caught him up short. "There isn't?"
"No. By and large, churches that have walked away from the ancient Christian teachings are shrinking, but churches that have held onto them are growing. So when your minister says 'Christianity must change or die,' he has it exactly backward."
"That amazes me."
"But it's true."
He scanned his watch again, started to rise, hesitated, and sat back down. "Just tell me this," he said again. "What is it that people are getting from these churches? What's the attraction of a God-man and cross and resurrection and all that?"
"The attraction is what Christians call the Gospel. That means 'good news.'"
"Is there a bad news?"
"I think everyone knows the bad news already."
"People are messed up, if that's what you mean."
"Yes, and we can't fix ourselves. We can make some things better, and that's good — but we can't get to the root of the problem, which is separation from God."
"So what are you calling the good news?"
"That there is a way to get back."
"But you just said —"
"Not through our power. Through His. The way back is through Jesus Christ. All the rest of Christian teaching is about how that works."
“I’ve never heard this.”
“Nevertheless, that’s the Gospel.”
He stood up and moved toward the door. "I've got more questions, but now I've really gotta go. I'm going to be late as it is. Is there someone else I can ask about this — someone who isn't — you know —" He looked apologetic.
"Someone who isn't your teacher?" He nodded. "Of course. I can —"
At that moment Don poked his head around the door. "You in, Prof? Oh, sorry — didn't know you were with someone." He withdrew.
"Don!" I commanded. He reappeared. "Exchange email addresses with this man."
"What? But —"
"Quickly. He has to go."
Russell was amused. Don was bewildered, but obeyed. They both scribbled like madmen, then shoved slips of paper into each others' hands. Russell vanished.
"What was that all about?" asked Don.
"Ask him," I grinned. "He'll tell you."
Copyright 2005 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.