Earlier this month, a friar reflected on how atheists and believers can find common ground on the feast of Pentecost, which this year was commemorated on June 4. He shares his thoughts below.
From a philosopher’s viewpoint, creation having taken place, nothing is possible without the Holy Spirit’s direction and strength. The Father, in creating the world with and without the Son, made it sustainable through the action of the Spirit throughout the ages. I often conceive of the Spirit as the force that directs us to see beyond our present condition, to envision the world of possibility. Surely honest atheists and equally honest people of religion can join together in the acceptance of the possible. Though our ways of imagining the possible may differ greatly, nevertheless, we share this power and this insight.
The Spirit enlivens us all and whether or not we name him as Spirit, he enables us to share varied imaginings, which are expressed in different theories. Instead of talking about the existence and non-existence of God, atheists and believers alike can stand in awe of the universe in which we live.
We cannot think about reality without forming conceptual models, which, if given too much credence, can make the common awareness of the mystery of possibility. Friends, be they adherents to the most diverse of systems, may recognize in each other’s positions the common note of wonderment and openness to the possibility not totally envisioned in their state of mind. A Christian can follow through on Revelation worship in various ways and be in every sense religious, but at the same time, can converse meaningfully and with great excitement about the general mystery of the world in which we live.
The feast of Pentecost reminds us that the Holy Spirit comes to us all, whether or not we name him in any particular way. The fruits of Pentecost for a Christian include the capability to share with others, an excitement over one’s existence, and the possibilities of action. The presence of the Spirit gives unity to the lives and thoughts of all who think beyond themselves.
Contemporary science certainly demands a greater openness to doubt as almost day-by-day the world, which is the study of science, opens itself so as to require constant adjustment of theoretical structure. The believer, on the other hand, is conscious that his formulations are merely the most apparent description of what is real. When I recite the Creed, I am aware that my words express both the capacity to deal with reality and the equally true condition that the accuracy of expression is infinitely capable of revision. We are, after all, believer or atheist, both agnostics. The scientist who does not believe is still reverent in the presence of reality.
The believer never supposes that the wording of his doctrine ends the evolutionary development of all that he holds dear.
To the believer who is prayerful, there is an awareness that he stands before the mysterious. His message to the world is that mystery is not the absence of knowledge of the truth, but rather a merciful understanding that there is more than there ever seems to be. The believer may justly teach that he has an insight that is peculiar to those who possess the gift of faith, but he can never insist that the Spirit is not present to anyone who is humbly conscious that we live in a magnificent world, a world possessed of the freedom to reveal itself in ways that shake our over confidence that our present system of theory is the final word.
I submit that the honest atheist and the honest believer can converse and even admit that what binds them together is a sharing that forever forbids mutual exclusion.
Pentecost, therefore, is a feast for everyone, in so far as it is the real gift that creates for us a community of shared experience, mutual recognition of mystery, and a final guarantee that we are all brothers and sisters in a world we all seek to understand.
Come Holy Spirit, and move the world to be the place of peace and basic agreement the creator intended it to be.
— Fr. Philip is a resident of Holy Name Friary in Ringwood, N.J. He has written several reflections about life at the skilled nursing home since moving in two years ago, the most recent being “Reflection on the Mission of Ringwood’s House of Prayer.”