Arguing Religion and the Search Engine of the Soul

I used to teach the art of argument to college freshmen. We read classic texts on the great questions of the centuries and debated our views in passionate discussion laced with laughter and an occasional angry flare.

Students then constructed written arguments clarifying their thought and defending their positions. Essay by essay, they honed their ability to offer cogent support, address opposing views and avoid logical fallacies.

This was before Twitter was a twinkle in the internet’s eye, so it didn’t take much reminding for students to accept that we were using the word argument in the rhetorical sense. Rather than a venomous venting of hostility, the term meant a line of reasoning. Skill in persuasion and respect for opponents were givens.

So was openness to the possibility that none of us knew everything about a topic, so it was important to be a respectful listener.

I recalled those discussions with fondness as I read and re-read a little book with a big idea intriguingly titled Arguing Religion: A Bishop Speaks at Facebook and Google. It’s 112 pages of pure public square possibility.

Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron is one of the most articulate voices in the culture today, and the invitation to speak in Silicon Valley is a testimony to his ability to appeal to a wide audience. Arguing Religion, the follow-up volume to those speaking engagements, contains an introduction and updated versions of each talk. It’s a short read intended to appeal particularly to intelligent atheists, agnostics or spiritual seekers unaffiliated with a particular faith.

Barron is erudite, respecting the intelligence of his listeners by refusing to dumb down his content. He ranges about the history of philosphy and theology, noting the contributions of Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Anselm, Descartes and Leibniz. He often circles back to his hero, Thomas Aquinas.

Barron’s signature strengths are in full force as he speaks to those who showed up to hear him at Facebook and Google. One of the most followed Catholics on social media (he even has a Youtube Silver Play Award), he is engaging and kind, showing genuine love for his listeners.

In the first talk, delivered at Facebook’s headquarters in 2017, Barron opens with the concept of rhetorical argument before lining out reasons for Jesus Christ as worthy of a person’s trust, noting that trust is a reasonable translation of the Greek word pistis, often translated as faith.

Wait! Isn’t faith just belief in something for which there is no evidence?

Not at all, Barron insists, acknowledging that sometimes Christians fail to recognize and address the fallacy behind the accusation. Understanding faith as trust can clear up the misconception.

When considering any proposition, intelligence often works along lines of trust as one moves from empirical facts about things, events, or people while considering data that cannot be empirically verified but can be reasonably believed.

Barron, who often recommends the work of Dr. Brandt Pitre for those wanting to review evidence for the reliability of the gospels, asks us to consider Christ’s invitation, to take the available evidence as reason to remain open.

When Jesus tells the Apostles, “You believe in God, believe also in Me,” he is saying:

Have the courage to trust in me and in what I am telling you and showing you. The life-changing, storm-calming, sight-restoring, purpose-giving truth that I embody is on offer.

No sacrifice of the intellect is required here, “for critical intelligence takes in what faith has accepted, turns it over, analyzes it, meditates upon it, draws conclusions from it,” just as critical intelligence does with all information it encounters.

It’s silly to charge religious believers with accepting things without evidence, Barron adds, since so much of all our knowing is a combination of rational and nonrational moves. Serious believers engage their faith the same way intelligent people engage any of the ideas they’ve come to accept.

An obvious lover of the sciences, Barron refutes the scientistic fallacy that has limited so many in our culture from pursuing ultimate truth. The assertion that the only things that are true are things can be measured with the instruments of science cannot itself be verified scientifcally. The argument is circular and therefore invalid on its face.

So too is the fallacy of voluntarism, or the commonly held belief that truth is a matter of individual choice without reference to objective reality. Voluntarism is a convenience which allows us to avoid conflict rather submit beliefs to reason.

Instead of succumbing to the irrational position that all ideas, religions and philosophical positions are equally valid as long as one holds one of them as true for him or herself, each of us should be curious enough to engage others in rational discussions about what is reasonable and what is not.

Thomas Aquinas is a great model for this way of arguing religion. The philosopher/theologian whose “energetic, free-wheeling discussions” as a magister (master or professor) of theology at the University of Paris led him on a pursuit of truth was so open-minded that his opponents often quoted his summaries of their views. (Barron’s book Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master is a very accessible introduction to this essential thinker).

Aquinas’ familiarity not only with Scripture and the early Church Fathers, but with Greek and Roman philosophers, Islamic thinkers and the Jewish scholar Maimonides prove him to be the polar opposite of a narrow-minded believer, uneducated and unaware of outside possibilities to his religion.

The discussion here is rich and hope-filled, for at our core, we all desire freedom to pursue the highest good, however we may be attempting to fill the vacuum at the moment (I’m reminded of Jennifer Fulwieler’s conversion story told in her memoir Something Other than God–whose title is a nod to C.S. Lewis‘ famous journey from atheism to Christianity).

Engaging his listeners at Facebook, Barron models exactly the kind of respectful religious reasoning he’s encouraging us to adopt.

And that’s only the first talk. Barron’s talk at Google lifts us even higher.

About a year after his talk at Facebook, Barron was invited to speak at Google headquarters. Appropriately, Barron choose the concept of the search engine as his organizing theme. Human beings are searching beings, he notes, and our search is for far more than the satisfaction of basic instinctual drives:

A human being wants to know any number of completely impractical and useless things: philosophical truths, the aesthetic dimension of reality, purely abstract mathematics, etc.

We want to know “everything about everything,” he says, quoting Bernard Longeran, the Jesuit philosopher/theologian whom many consider one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century.

So there’s an interesting connection between search engines and religion, Barron suggests: they’re both in their own way “functions of the unrestricted desire to know.”

Atheism and secularism involve the shutting down of the mind by categorically dismissing some of the most interesting questions humans have ever entertained. The world view here rules out the unmeasurable without giving the speculative logic of probability a hearing. On the other hand:

Religion at its best always represents the opening up of the mind, the full engagement of the intellectus agens, and the liberation of the spirit….The restless mind finds its ultimate purpose not in the contemplation of contingent events but in the quest for ultimate reality.

Drawing once more on Aquinas, Barron asks us to follow his thinking as he argues for the existence of God, “the unconditioned act being itself.” The search for this unconditioned act of being is beyond the scope of science which is, like everything else in the physical world, is conditioned by many other things:

Physicists, chemists, biologists, can define finite, empirically verifiable causes as thoroughly as they want, but they will never reach the dimension of being we have identified as unconditioned…it is qualitatively beyond what scientific methods are suited to explore.

Indebted as we all are to scientific discovery, fascinating as all scientific exploration is, philosophy and religion also provide quests essential for human flourishing. They “do not represent a reversion to superstition, but rather an opening of the relentlessly inquiring mind.”

The Bible offers us a “physics of the soul”; its stories are pictures of who we are in our restless searches for “something other than God,” and they also offer pictures of who we are meant to become as we draw nearer to the ultimate reality that God is love.

Russian icon of the prophet Elijah

Barron offers the the Old Testament showdown between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al as an illustration.

After summarizing the story with its powerful message about the confused way we often misdirect our energies, Barron again takes us to Thomas Aquinas, whose theology doesn’t begin with moralizing but with human happiness, “that good which everyone, consciously or unconsciously, is ultimately seeking all the time.”

What self-imposed deserts we inhabit as we curve in on our selves! How sadly our dances around the idols of pleasure, honor and all the rest end! Aquinas finds that God alone satisfies the hunger of the human heart because God is infinite and God is love. “To be filled with God is to be filled with love…the willingness to empty oneself for the sake of the other.”

Happiness is found in self-gift?

Absolutely. As a counselor, I would add that the findings of positive psychology continue to corroborate the medieval theologian’s claim.

Augustine, that relentless searcher-turned-saint, put it so simply in The Confessions:

“Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

“Everything else in the psychological and spiritual life,” says Barron, “is essentially a footnote to that statement.”

Arguing Religion is a book for our times. It’s small enough to engage the most reluctant reader and rich enough for the most inquiring mind. It’s far from a collection of pious platitudes, it’s an invitation to a quest, to allow the search engine of the heart its right to consider the highest options possible.

In the end, what’s on offer is no less than beatitude, the infinite satisfaction of the soul.

If you know a searching secularist, Arguing Religion may be the perfect book to share and discuss, one hungry heart to another.

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Reading Bishop Barron has helped me see the fallacy of case-closed certitude when defending my religious faith. Barron, who often refers to St. John Henry Newman’s work on this subject, prefers to lead us along paths of evidential probabilities, leaving the door open and respecting the heart of the seeker. Have you made the mistake of the certitude frame as I have? Or experienced shutdown when someone’s persuasion unnecessarily was pushed as certitude? Does Barron’s approach appeal to you?

Previous posts on Bishop Barron: Dialog in a Divisive Time: Dave Rubin, Bishop Barron and the Space Between and The Word on Fire Show and the Bishop Who Refuses to Dumb Down the Faith.

Photos by Josh Boot and Andrew Neel on Unsplash. Art courtesy of Wikipedia.

6 thoughts on “Arguing Religion and the Search Engine of the Soul

  1. Peggy, you should be writing for the National Catholic Register! Or good heavens, at least the dioscesan newspaper/magazine – this is a million times better than anything else I’ve ever read in that. Please submit your materials to them. Your writing should not be squandered on so few.

    1. Maria, thanks for the encouragement; it really means a lot! God bless you for reaching out. I was in the National Catholic Register this spring, a piece on some famous Catholic women included in the naming of craters on Venus. Sigrid Undset topped my list!

      1. Oh, darn – I missed that one. But we just renewed our subscription after a long hiatus, so I will look forward to seeing articles in there by you in the future! Thanks for writing. This blog has been immensely helpful to me.

        1. Thanks, from the bottom of my heart! The piece is still online if you google it: “Seven Catholic Women Whose Names Appear on the Map of Venus.” Your feedback really made my day Maria!

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