A surprising dialogue between an atheist scientist
& an Orthodox priest in Russia –
Fr. Rafael Karelin
LETTERS FROM AN EX 2×2
The priest was sitting in his cell going through his correspondence, when suddenly, without the traditional prayer-request at the door before entering a cell, the sacristan entered and whispered with an intense tone of voice, as though conveying a secret piece of news that no-one else was supposed to hear:
“There’s a certain stranger here, probably a statesman, who wants to speak with you. I have never seen him before, either here at your cell, or at the church. He is probably just a passer-by…”
“Tell him to come in”, said the priest.
A tall, straight-backed figure reminiscent of an ex-military man entered the cell. He was dressed immaculately yet respectably – he looked as though he had been ironed together with his suit before leaving home. The stranger glanced around the room as though trying to fathom the spirit and the character of the resident from the furnishings. He then greeted the priest, took off his hat, and remained standing at the door, waiting for the priest’s invitation to come in and sit down. One could discern the stranger’s aristocratic education – an education that is born and cultivated from generation to generation and inherited – much like a coat of arms. Despite his years, one could say he was handsome, but it was the cold handsomeness of a statue that is not obeisant to Time and the warmth of the sun.
The priest pointed him to the old, faded armchair that was reserved for visitors, and said:
“Please, sit down. How can I be of service to you?”.
The visitor sat down, his hands resting lightly on the arms of the armchair. He didn’t begin to speak immediately, which gave the priest enough time to examine him with his glance. He could sense that this man knew what he was worth, and that he was one who is accustomed to control people “with an iron hand inside a velvet glove”. His manners were refined and sober, and his face betrayed an innate politeness. He was probably of old aristocratic stock, with drops of Rurik blood flowing in his veins. Only his dimmed, glazed eyes were in disharmony with the overall picture – as though they were cloaked by an obscure veil and were hiding a secret of his soul. The visitor’s glance seemed to the priest like the blow of a swift and sudden sword, which however was quickly extinguished and lost its spark, leaving the priest with the impression that he was looking at two hollow eye sockets (of a skull).
-And what is the problem that brought you to my humble cell? asked the priest. It will give me immense joy if I am able to help out.
-I have something far bigger than a problem, replied the visitor; I feel as though I’m in a noose, swinging between life and death. I am tormented by the fear that penetrated my heart many years ago. It’s the fear that perhaps God really does exist. The thought that I may have denied the Living God haunts me like a ghost that seeks vengeance for patricide. I was born into a family where the faith was only a superficial tradition that resembled a hollow, distant sound of a bell tolling way back in time, continued the visitor. The subject of religion never interested me. Even from my youth I believed that the matter was resolved unconditionally and finally… Nietzsche (a blasphemous enemy of God) has a strange narrative about a madman who ran in the streets shouting “God is dead! You killed him!” The madman was mourning God’s death, and no-one was able to console him. That narrative seemed allegorical to me: that the madman was mourning his madness. I never had any such sentiments. I think I must have been born an atheist. However, at one time I did have a nightmare: I dreamt that I was inside an unmanned spaceship, and knew that I would never be able to return; that I was lost in the vastness of outer space, among giant stars of fire and ice. Outer space became a trap of mine – a labyrinth with no escape. I could feel the deadly iciness and the sensation of unending terror, even after I woke up. For a long time after that, I could still remember the image of that spaceship distancing itself from earth, eventually turning into a bright spot… The most important things in my life were advanced mathematics and physics – which became my profession. I enjoyed many and swift successes there. While still at a young age, I had acquired the highest scientific titles and was the head of a very large research institute. My second love was literature – which my parents had instilled in me. Many years passed in that manner, but later on, something unexpected and incomprehensible happened. It was as though the earth began to tremble and agonize under my feet… A persistent thought began to hound me : “What if God does exist after all?” But I couldn’t find the answer anywhere. Equations were voiceless, and literature -whose preoccupation is sentiments and passions- was unable to provide solutions to ontological problems. As soon as the first concerns with regard to God appeared, I began to read anti-religious literature in order to support my faithlessness, but all that did was to disillusion me. I read Bauer, Renan, Kautsky, but I got bored very quickly. They were unable to make any sense – they were merely “spitting upwards at the sky”… I wondered: “How can our intellectual personages swallow such readings?” I wasn’t referring to atheism (because I remain an atheist), but to its pitiful apologetics. Then I got into philosophy, but I didn’t find any answers there either – its logical collages weren’t solid. All those writings seemed to me like towers without foundations, suspended in mid-air… I spent whole nights reading the super complicated books on physics and mathematics, but still couldn’t find any answers. Not rarely, authors would use the term “god”, but it was a god that didn’t begin with a capital letter; rather, it was implying “god” in the sense of the possibilities that numbers possess; it was the original essence of the cosmos; the mental visualization of the universe, the principle of pan-universal harmony; a certain primitive “nous” (mind) and logic of the universe, all of which however remained without proofs. These kinds of writings had carried me away, because I applauded the courage displayed by human thought when striving to grasp the beginning and the end of cosmogony; I enjoyed the outer space scale of the hypotheses that resembled insanity….. I have to confess that I was always bewitched by the beauty of mathematics. To me it was sheer poetry – where numbers sounded like rhythms and rhymes that formed verses and stanzas; where equations sang like the strings of a violin and mathematical calculations sparkled like constellations in the night sky… To me, Einstein was the Dostoevsky of Physics, and Lobachevsky was the Khlebnikov of Geometry. And yet, I caught myself thinking that I was bewitched by a mind game; that I am behind the surface of a mirror and am whirling about in a dance together with the sinister shadows of the truth. I kept thinking that this wonderment might be a kind of intellectual addiction – an attempt to drown the fear in case of the possibility that God actually exists.
-So you came to me, said the priest, in order to make sure once again that there are no proofs when it comes to faith, and thus gain reassurance with my defeat… Well, I will tell you something entirely different: If I were able to prove God’s existence, that would only prove God’s nonexistence – at least for me…
-I don’t understand what your words are implying, said the visitor. Is it an escape from the question, or a strange quote in the style of Oscar Wilde, or a position of Hegel’s dialectics regarding the similarity of opposites ?
The priest replied:
-I would firstly like to point out that the position regarding the similarities between opposites does not belong to the Berlin professor, but in actual fact to the occultist teaching of the priests of Ephesus – their rites and their mysteries. The first one to elevate it to the philosophical arcade from the basement of the temple of Artemis was Heracletus – a descendant of the priests of Ephesus – who swapped the hierophant’s initiation for a philosopher’s cloak. That teaching declared that good and evil, light and darkness, completeness and naught, yes and no, god and devil, are joined together. Marxists claim that this similarity is the soul of “dialectics”. Consequently, we can say that Hegelism and Marxism both have an occult basis and a demonic side to them. The mystery of dialectics is a bloody fire, and the hecatomb of revolutions…. I shall now try to answer your question, said the priest. If my conscious views – which are comprised of the knowledge that I acquired during the space of a few decades – were actually capable of confining, determining and comprehending the Absolute, then how insignificant and pitiful must that Absolute Being be, if He can be contained in such a confined and incomplete ‘nous’ as my own! Just think for a moment, what the term “faith” entails… “Faith” is the sphere of mystery; wherever there are proofs, faith does not exist there. Instead, in Faith’s place, you will find Knowledge; Revelation is replaced by Logic; Dogmas are replaced by Reasoning; the Metaphysical is replaced by Physics, and the mystical with two-dimensional ideas. Thus, the glaringly obvious is no longer faith, but the documenting of facts.
-You claim that faith has no proofs, interjected the visitor; then what should we believe in? In the absolute darkness of skepticism, where the continuous denials reach even the denial of denial itself, as with Sextus Empiricus?
-Faith has clear-cut, indisputable proofs of a different nature, continued the priest. It is the instinctual penetration into the supra-logical, immaterial cosmos; the communion of a human being (as a limited personality) with God (the Absolute Personality); it is the actual, mystical experience that is acquired through direct contact with the spiritual cosmos; it is an inner sensation of the soul – the subjective knowledge which I could even call “familiar” (particular, private). This is a communion with Divine Grace (which in your language is called “energies of a supreme nature”). In one’s communion with God, man himself changes – having being subjected to knowledge – and his spiritual horizon broadens immeasurably. We need to remember that a person’s soul is much more profound than his logic, so knowledge takes up his emotional sphere wherein Diffuse Love is one of the basic powers of understanding that joins the Infinite to the finite – the Living God to the human being.
-I must confess that I was taken by surprise, the visitor remarked. I will think over what you told me, but I will need time for that. I recently had a conversation with a colleague of yours, whom I could call “an intellectual in a cassock”. He started to give me proof of God’s existence, based on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Gainsburg’s quantum mechanics. He had a very enthusiastic and victorious tone of voice and even raised his finger like a teacher. He kept getting confused and made mistakes in his attempt to explain Einstein to me as if I were a student, without suspecting that mathematics and physics are my profession. I truly felt sorry for him… Afterwards I wrote him a letter, in which I made an attempt to explain how badly he was acquainted with the theory of relativity and advised him to no longer preoccupy himself with Einstein, for fear of getting drowned in “relativities”. Soon after, I received his reply in which he thanked me for what he perceived as very edifying observations…
The visitor glanced at his watch and said:
-Allow me to ask you one more question: Why doesn’t God reveal Himself to the world and eliminate whatever doubts there may be about His existence, so that we can see Him as clearly as the sun or the stars? So many problems would have disappeared, and life would have been so much simpler…
-God hides His countenance behind clouds, so that He doesn’t deprive man of the possibility to choose between faith and faithlessness, thus allowing him to solve his existential problem autonomously, replied the priest. If this kind of choice did not exist, then faith as a freely-willed act of the soul wouldn’t exist, and in its place would obviously be the morally indifferent. God did not place us in the unavoidable fact of His existence. He wanted to be the internal factor of the human soul. He wants us to seek Him with our free volition – to be drawn to Him, to thirst for Him. He wants to be the love of our heart, and not the result of any logical analysis of ours. God gave us the potential for a personal contact with Him – the worthiest and loftiest that can exist between the Creator and His creation. We can regard God’s relationship to the world like the relationship between a craftsman and the product. Except that man is not a product; he is the reflection of God on earth. If man didn’t have free will, he wouldn’t have been an image of God. Without free will, good would not have existed – there would have been necessity. Without personal free will there can be no love, and without spiritual love there can be no deification as the union of man with God. I believe you will agree that even the most miserable person wouldn’t want to trade places with a blissful animal.
-Indeed, said the stranger with a smile. In spite of all my troubles, I wouldn’t want to be transformed into a trouble-free donkey that’s content with its life! What advice could you give me ? (although I can’t promise that I will follow that advice).
The priest replied:
-It seems to me that your denial of God is in reality a secret and very deep nostalgia for God, which you sense as a pain whose origin you can’t find. Your heart mourns in its loneliness, like an infant in its cradle that longs for its mother’s warmth. And your mind has become stony in its pride, spellbound by Lucifer’s lifeless glow, and by resisting the heart says to it: “Be still, my heart, and leave me in the hands of the evil demon of my life; I do not desire God or any other power to govern me… What eternal life are you talking about? The future of the universe is a black hole in space, where all the worlds and matter itself will be swallowed up like shadows and Time will also come to an end, but eternity will not come. What will take place is the culmination of the universe – which will be the Big Nothing…”
The visitor stood amazed, and said:
-Do you mean you were eavesdropping on my dialogue with myself? Or were my dreams revealed to you?
-No. I simply have a little knowledge of the eschatology of atheism, replied the priest. It is a satanic mystery of a general chaos. And my advice would be to ask you to disconnect yourself from your flow of thoughts at least once a day, and say with your heart: “God, if You exist, reveal Yourself to me. Without You, I am unable to find You.”
The visitor thanked the priest for the conversation, bade him farewell and went outside. A car appeared out of nowhere, the driver quickly opened the door and respectfully seated the visitor inside it, like a prince inside a chariot. A moment later, the car had disappeared around the corner.
Fr. Raphael Karelin
ORTHODOXY – KYRILLOFF ALEXEI