Patrick -- Not the Saint -- the Agnostic
Patrick is a big, pie-faced Irish man who prefers the look of life viewed through slightly inebriated lenses. The fact that I’ve known him more than half of his life allows me to add that he is one of the most sincerely big-hearted people I’ve ever met – a guy who wants to do the right thing because it’s the right thing. I’m not saying he always actually does the right thing, but he wants to.
We met at a sports bar one night to catch up on life after having not seen each other in a very long time. We laughed. We told stories. We cleared up misconceptions. We filled in gaps. And then life interrupted our good time.
Patrick’s an agnostic. He doesn’t know. He’s pretty certain there’s got to be something more to things than what appears on the surface. Life, the universe, is too complex for it all to be random. Time plus chance will not produce the intricacies we see when we peer through either a microscope or a telescope.
But, in his words, “the idea of there being one dude behind it all…that’s…I can’t really buy into that.”
So, he knows, but he also knows that there’s lots he doesn’t know. That’s a pretty good definition of agnosticism for me.
“I gotta say,” he said to me, “having known you before, when I first heard you were a preacher, I wondered if it was all some kind of act. I don’t want to question your motives or suggest that you’re one of those guys who’s just in it for the money or anything. But you were a party guy, a…well…not really a churchy kind of guy. Life is weird, huh?”
I told him there was a lot I could say in response. Things change, and other things refuse to change. And, in the end, we all have to figure out how to adapt the way we operate. We have to figure out the best way to navigate the world in which we live. I’m following the way that has proven to be the way that makes the most sense to me.
“Hey,” he said, “we’ve all gotta make life work.”
But life’s not working really well for Patrick. He’s mid-30s, not married, in a dead-end job, with a live-in girlfriend he’s not sure he even likes anymore. Life has happened to Patrick. He hasn’t really been proactive.
“She’s [the woman he lives with] got a little girl. And I really feel sorry for her. Her dad’s a total loser, and her mom is a really great woman who keeps getting dumped on. Life is hard for her, so I try to be the guy she can count on. I try to do the right thing by her,” he said.
“Wow, that’s rough,” I said. “How do you know what that is?”
Patrick has something called a conscience. Perhaps you’ve heard of this. But his, like mine, doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to. Sometimes it goes out, on the fritz.
“Well, how do you do it,” he asked me. “You have three kids now, and you’re Mr. SuperDad, if your Facebook is to be believed. How’d you figure it out?”
I told him that I haven’t got it all figured out, but that I find reading that old book that’s all dusty on his shelf really helps me. “It’s not just rules in there,” I said. “There’s actual wisdom – wise sayings from people who lived a long time ago.”
“Yeah” Patrick said. “I read the Old Testament when I was a kid, but it was a bunch of begats, and it was hard to follow the story. It’s all out of sequence.”
I agreed, “The folks who edited the Bible didn’t do anyone any favors by putting it in the order it’s in. There’s a story in there, but you have to really pay attention to figure it out. But there are other parts, especially the poetry parts, where there’s some really golden information.”
“I do remember liking Ecclesiastes,” Patrick said.
“Pippin,” I said,
“Huh?” said Patrick.
“The musical ‘Pippin’.”
“Didn’t you do that show?”
“Yeah. It’s pretty much the story of the Book of Ecclesiastes.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“Young, rich guy seeks pleasure and fulfillment in every way imaginable…comes up empty in the end. Finally realizes that it’s all pointless if there’s just what happens on the stage. There’s got to be something more after the final curtain, or it won’t mean anything at all.”
“Geez, where were you when I was slogging my way through Leviticus?”
The Bible is big and bulky and difficult to get all the way through. Its onion-skin pages turn in clumps. It’s eight-point font forces me to squint my 41-year-old eyes. And, honestly…columns? It’s as if the editors want to make it as difficult as possible. I have on my bookshelf an “easy-to-read” version that may be the hardest-to-read book imaginable.
But, without a doubt, the thing that really makes the Bible so unreadable for so many people is the baggage they have associated with it.
“At some point in time, Patrick, you begin to realize that some of the underlying premises of the Bible are undeniably true. Human beings have this incredible capacity for messing things up and shooting themselves in the foot. Assuming there is a God, we certainly aren’t him.”
“Again, though,” said Patrick, “the idea of one dude up there watching passively while we run around and screw each other over. That’s too much of a stretch for me.”
“Smarter people than the two of us have tried to figure that one out,” I said.
“I just see too much bad stuff to believe like you do.”
Patrick didn’t realize it, but he’s already admitted to believing a lot like I do. To begin with, he believes there’s such thing as bad stuff. I believe that, too. And he believes something should be done about it, that if someone had the power to reverse the bad stuff – at least prevent it – they’d be under some sort of moral obligation to do so.
I wanted to talk about how the very concept of “good” and “bad” mean there has to be some sort of transcendent standard or “right” and “wrong.” I wanted to ask him if there’s anything wrong with anything, and, if so, who gets to say. I wanted to mention that most of what we call “good” and “bad” is borrowed from what is known as the Judeo-Christian ethic and can be traced right back to those books he found so boring when he was a kid.
I wanted to say a lot of things, but I never got the chance. Our conversation was interrupted by a phone call from Patrick’s girlfriend. Her father had recently had surgery, and his body was reacting badly. His fever was spiked, and he had to be rushed to the hospital.
Sometimes life gets in the way of a good conversation. Sometimes you don’t have time to say everything you want to say.