Geoffrey Berg, author of The Six Ways of Atheism, recently challenged Pope Benedict XVI to a public debate about the existence of God, which Berg hopes will take place during Benedict’s upcoming visit to the U.K. In an open letter to the pope (a copy of which also was sent directly to the Vatican with the salutation “Dear Personal Secretary to the Pope,” according to the press release) Berg names several reasons he believes he deserves some face time with Benedict, including:
a) Atheists have lived, and currently live, in the U.K.
b) Berg is the author a popular book with some new arguments for Atheism.
c) “It is known that the Pope may adjust his timetable to meet victims of sex abuse by priests during his visit to Britain. So he can adjust his timetable to accommodate doing a public debate about the existence of God.”
d) Berg has not called for Benedict's arrest upon arrival in the U.K., as other prominent, British atheists have done.
e) And, by the way, Berg is the author a popular book with some new arguments for Atheism.
Berg’s challenge to Benedict seems like such an obvious P.R. ploy that I hesitated to mention it at all. But his letter did make me think, in general terms, about the question of God’s existence, something with which many people struggle each day; and it brought to mind some of Benedict’s writing on that very subject. If the pope ever sent a letter in reply to Berg, I like to think it might contain a version of the following passage from his book “Introduction to Christianity,” written when he was Cardinal Ratzinger:
It may be appropriate at this point to cite a Jewish story told by Martin Buber; it presents in concrete form the above-mentioned dilemma of being a man.
An adherent of the Enlightenment [writes Buber], a very learned man, who had heard of the Rabbi of Berditchev, paid a visit to him in order to argue, as was his custom, with him too and to shatter his old-fashioned proofs of the truth of his faith. When he entered the Rabbi’s room he found him walking up and down with a book in his hand, wrapped in thought. The Rabbi paid no attention to the new arrival. Suddenly he stopped, looked at him fleetingly and said, “But perhaps it is true after all”. The scholar tried in vain to collect himself—his knees trembled, so terrible was the Rabbi to behold and so terrible his simple utterance to hear. But Rabbi Levi Jizchak now turned to face him and spoke quite calmly: “My son, the great scholars of the Torah with whom you have argued wasted their words on you; as you departed you laughed at them. They were unable to lay God and his Kingdom on the table before you, and nor can I. But think, my son, perhaps it is true.” The exponent of the Enlightenment opposed him with all his strength; but this terrible “perhaps,” which echoed back at him time after time broke his resistance.
Here we have, I believe—in however strange a guise—a very precise description of the situation of man confronted with the question of God. No one can lay God and his Kingdom on the table before another man; even the believer cannot do it for himself. But however strongly unbelief may feel itself thereby justified it cannot forget the eerie feeling induced by the words, “Yet perhaps it is true.” The “perhaps” is the unavoidable temptation which it cannot elude, the temptation in which it too, in the very act of rejection, has to experience the unrejectability of belief. In other words, both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief, if they do not hide away from themselves and from the truth of their being. Neither can quite escape either doubt or belief; for the one, faith is present against doubt, for the other through doubt and in the form of doubt. It is the basic pattern of man’s destiny only to be allowed to find the finality of his existence in this unceasing rivalry between doubt and belief, temptation and certainty. Perhaps in precisely this way doubt, which saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds, could become the avenue of communication. It prevents both from enjoying complete self-satisfaction; it opens up the believer to the doubter and the doubter to the believer; for one it is his share in the fate of the unbeliever, for the other the form in which belief remains nevertheless a challenge to him.