The Joe and Lenny Paradox
Father Joe is a Jesuit priest. Lenny, his brother, is an Atheist. I met them at a presentation about the Shroud of Turin I gave at a Catholic Church. Joe, the Catholic priest, does not think the shroud is genuine, though he readily admits that proof of that is illusive. Lenny, the atheist, thinks it is “the real deal, the actual burial cloth of the historical Jesus.” He went on to say, “Obviously, I don’t think the images are miraculous. They are probably some natural phenomenon that we don’t understand. Clearly, they are not manmade. You simply can’t ignore the evidence like my brother does.”
“Why do you think it is fake?” I asked of Father Joe.
“It doesn’t work in my stew,” he replied. “Lenny might be right. But he thinks it is irrelevant. I would be okay with that, if I could really see it that way.”
Stew for Father Joe, who teaches biology, was a metaphor for how he approached faith. Throw in evolution, the Big Bang, everything that science might yet discover, history, philosophy, theology, scripture, and everything the church teaches. Mix it, cook it and let it simmer. If it tastes good then Joe has a faith he can live with. “The shroud,” he said, “is too overpowering a flavor. If real, it is too close to saying something certain. Faith is trust in the absence of certainty. Certainty spoils the stew.”
I’m an Episcopalian. In the Anglican Communion we have long had a way of explaining that faith, and indeed how we act on our faith, rests upon a three-legged stool. The legs are scripture, reason and tradition. Remove any one leg and the stool will not stand. Sometimes, with a bit too much pride, we call this metaphorical stool the genius of Anglicanism. Perhaps stew is a better metaphor. But the idea is the same.
I agree with Lenny, who also teaches science, that the shroud is probably real. I agree, too, that it is irrelevant, at least in the sense that he means. It doesn’t matter to me if the shroud is real or not. I don’t see it as an essential ingredient for my stew or my three-legged stool. But in another sense it is very relevant. Think of it like a dash of salt or a pinch of pepper that doesn’t overpower the taste of the stew. A decade of studying the Shroud has enhanced my reasoning skills, given me greater appreciation for tradition, and focused my thinking about scriptural meaning and possibilities. The shroud, be it real or fake, does not affect my faith. But the study of it has.
“My brother is afraid of certainty,” said Lenny.
“My brother is afraid of faith,” said Father Joe.
They both laughed and walked away to mentally torture someone else. I walked away very much liking both brothers and wishing that we could have talked more.
“Work on your brother,” I called out to Lenny.