“I am a once again Christian. I wanted to thank you for your love and kindness. You were instrumental to my return to Christianity. God bless you.” These were the words spoken to me on January 15 by my 94-year-old godfather, who had spent most of his adult life as an agnostic. Although I had prayed for this moment for a long time, these beautiful words took me by surprise. I think he may have meant to say “born again” Christian, but nonetheless the message was loud and clear. He had accepted Christ back into his life. The winding and often treacherous roads that led him back to the way, the truth and the life entail a remarkable journey.
A Road Less Travelled
My godfather, who for his own private reasons prefers his name not be used, led quite an eventful life suffused with many poignant moments. He was born in Eastern Europe and became involved in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, where he fought valiantly against the Soviet invasion. In 2006, on the
50th anniversary of the revolution, he was awarded the order of the Hungarian Republic’s Officer’s Cross. Subsequent to the revolution, he immigrated to Canada as a refugee and, in the ensuing years, worked as a neurosurgeon across Canada. He rose to positions of authority and respect in both the clinical and academic worlds, publishing numerous articles, book chapters, and books. He has been recognized as an innovator and has lived a productive life of tremendous self-sacrifice and noble enterprises.
As with all events, connections, friendships and relationships, I came to know him through a series of complex, contingent events. When I think about the events that led to the development of our relationship, I think of the fact that my father was inspired to pursue neurosurgery by Frigyes Karinthy’s work, A Journey Round My Skull. Karinthy was of the same Hungarian nationality as my godfather. This calling eventually led my father to Ottawa to practise neurosurgery at the Children’s Hospital. The man who would become my godfather acted as a valuable mentor in helping to harness my father’s abilities as a clinician, surgeon and academic researcher, which in turn steered him toward a gratifying career in neurosurgery. Additionally, it is interesting to note that Karinthy was the first to expound the concept of six degrees of separation, whereby everyone and everything are connected through six steps or less. All the more intriguing when I ponder the interconnections and synchronicities of our lives comprising the influence of Karinthy’s work on my father.
There could have been one different turn and perhaps everything would have ended much differently. I feel this way when I look back on situations and events that have shaped my academic endeavours in philosophy and theology. My refined philosophical and theological knowledge helped me open my godfather’s heart and mind to the Holy Spirit. Yet despite a series of contingent events, it is God who undergirds the history of being. It is also God who ceaselessly helps shape us through the circumstances of our lives.
Despite a life in large part dedicated to saving innocent children’s lives, my godfather’s was marred with loss, suffering and tragedy. He fathered six children, including two daughters from his first marriage. He lost his first wife after immigrating to Canada. Fortunately he met his second wife not long after. She has been a blessing throughout his difficult life and remains a dedicated wife to this very day. They have coauthored books together and raised six loving children. Unfortunately, two children died from pancreatic cancer: a daughter from his first marriage and a son, just before Christmas 2014. There must be a feeling of abandonment by God for any father who loses a child, but even more so for a surgeon who spends his days saving other children’s lives.
He has had his own share of health issues, including bypass surgery. He was diagnosed with cancer in the late 1970s, but luckily it was caught early, without the need for chemotherapy. He suffered hindrances to his vision, affecting two of his greatest passions: reading and writing. In recent years, he has endured a multitude of other health issues. In December 2014, he was placed in intensive care for a month and has been residing at a retirement home for over a year.
My godfather is quite familiar with suffering and the evils of this broken world. The emotional problem of evil is very vivid and can become overwhelming in the life of the sufferer. Nevertheless, in order to be able to provide a rational explanation to the nonbeliever as to why God permits evil, one must separate the emotional and the logical aspects of the problem of evil. Interestingly, once evil is acknowledged, so must be the good and, consequently, the moral law that provides the ability to discern between the two. Ultimately, it presupposes the existence of a moral lawgiver even though the problem seeks to undermine the very existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving God. I believe it inevitably creates more of a difficulty for the nonbelievers, who assume evil. On the one hand, they must confront the nihilist who denies any objective meaning and value in the absence of God; and on the other, the theist who has coherent grounds for affirming objective meaning and value.
Human evil is ultimately explicable by human free will since all of the evil caused by humans can be traced back to either individuals or collections of them.
There have been many theodicies offered by Christian philosophers and theologians over the centuries. It is important to note that Christianity involves doctrines that strongly suggest the concurrence of God and suffering. Contrary to the beliefs of popular culture, in Christianity the main purpose of life is to know God, not to experience unbridled happiness. God’s purpose is to bring us into eternal salvation so that the sufferings of this world will infinitely pale in comparison to the glory and eternal bliss that await us.
I shared many discussions with my godfather for almost a decade. I provided him with a wealth of resources challenging his agnosticism, including some of my own writings. In 2007, in an email correspondence, he explained his religious upbringing. He told me about his grandfather being a Calvinist minister in a small town in Hungary and how this faith was carried forward from his father to him. He remained a Calvinist until an encounter with a professor of his. This is how he describes his “de-conversion”:
I was brought up in the Calvinist faith and had been religious until I met my teacher of neurology and neurosurgery, an outstanding scientist and a man who followed Christian ethics but was agnostic, whose motto was ‘theories should be built only on evidence.’ The influence of this man weakened my faith, but I remained a Christian agnostic, believing that neither atheism nor the existence of God can be proved on the available evidence.
All my life I have been searching for God, but certain influences — my ancestry, my teacher and seeing too much mindless slaughter of innocent people — shook my faith. Reaching the end of my life today, I cannot state with confidence that being an agnostic is wrong. But I can say that, to me, neither the existence nor the denial of God was proved to me from the available evidence.
I was curious about the conclusions made by a highly intelligent man about the existence of God. Having arrived at an opposite conclusion after examining the available evidence, I thought that I should share my knowledge with him and see where it could lead.
Fast-forward a couple of years to a correspondence in 2009 regarding arguments for God’s existence. My godfather wrote:
Unfortunately, the same arguments [classical theistic arguments such as the cosmological, ontological and teleological] made me an agnostic, which is the only way to remain neutral when the truth is supported only by opposing theories rather than facts; nevertheless, I agree with you to be humble since ultimately to claim anything with absolute certainty is to be arrogant.
The problem, I pointed out, with this reasoning is that theories, although subject to change, are an accumulation of facts. Theories are typically discarded or augmented if they don’t fit the evidence. However, in philosophy, you never want to rely on theories alone in arguments for or against God’s existence since it leads to a god-of-the-gaps. What is most viable is to incorporate the findings of a scientific theory in a premise of philosophical argument in order to avoid such traps.
In September 2012, my godfather made the following statement concerning a series of debates between Christian and non-believing scholars:
The CDs you gave me a long time ago to listen to were interesting but did not change my agnostic leaning, although I realize that [new atheist Richard] Dawkins is very rigid and unfair with agnostics. I am 92 years old, stopped searching, but am upset seeing how much violence is generated by religious bigotry.
His main objections comprised the insufficiency of evidence to conclude God’s existence or non-existence and the amount of seemingly excessive and pointless suffering of humanity. So, over the years, I felt his position would remain fixed despite all of the material and sound argumentation I provided him alongside my many prayers.
Anyone who says apologetics is obsolete or irrelevant in our day and age couldn’t be more mistaken. Countless thinking people want logical responses to difficult questions about the Christian faith. The apostles engaged in such polemics with other Jews, and Saint Paul provided a defence of the faith contra the gentiles. Apologetics is a Biblical mandate, as 1 Peter 3:15-16 instructs us:
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
This is in direct reference to defending the truth of Jesus’ resurrection and the hope of our future one.
While it is true that one of the greatest apologetics for the truth of Christianity is how one lives a life of sincere Christian discipleship, it does not take away the place for arguments and reason. An apologist should avoid being argumentative but rather should provide good reasons for the sake of persuasion and conversion. For a large part of the 19th and the early part of the 20th century, there was a severe anti-intellectualism that pervaded Christianity. Christians tended to rely mostly on feelings and emotions instead of rational grounds for the beliefs that they held. The remnants and sentiments of this persist throughout many Christian churches and individuals to this very day.
Luckily the use of logic was not a point of contention in our discussions. This facilitated his openness to Christian truths. Ultimately, I challenged his assumption that Christianity did not rest on good rational grounds since his professor’s motto helped him doubt his Christian faith.
I challenged his position of agnosticism, which makes a claim about reality just as any other belief does. Standard agnosticism indicates that one comes to a particular metaphysical conclusion, namely that one cannot infer the existence or nonexistence of God based on the current state of knowledge. Yet the agnostic bears the burden of proof just as the theist or atheist does. This is something neglected in these sorts of discussions so that they, too, must provide evidence for their position that there is currently an insufficiency of knowledge pointing to either direction.
I then questioned his assumptions revolving around the problem of evil, suffering and wars, the relationship between science and theology, arguments for God’s existence, the evidence for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection and claims to His divine self-understanding and a host of other issues.
Over the years, I bought my godfather some important books, including There Is a God by the late atheist philosopher Antony Flew, who, on the evidence of modern science, changed his mind about God’s existence before his death. I also bought him Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig, which is one of the most convincing books in Christian apologetics today. There were also many others I bought or recommended.
I have visited my godfather a number of times recently with my daughter. You can see his love and wonder of children because of their purity and innocence. I witnessed his passion for helping others, particularly children, in his interactions with my daughter.
He had spoken significantly about the loss of his only son. I could see in his eyes the hope of resurrection and reunification with his son as he stared at the picture of him on his dresser. A couple of weeks before his announcement of returning to Christ, he remarked that the suffering associated with the loss of his son was almost unbearable for the first two days but that on the third day, he felt an extreme tranquility. It seemed as though he was making an allusion to Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to Heaven. Perhaps it was an inner certainty about a future meeting with his son.
I bought him a Crucifix to provide him comfort. I indicated it was a symbol of God’s unconditional love for him. He now always prays next to it. The Cross is a strong reminder that God humbled Himself to become man and enter into human history.
The death and suffering of Jesus on the Cross and His resurrection was the ultimate triumph over evil. The greatest injustice of history was the death by crucifixion of Christ, a completely blameless and sinless man who died for us. It is this very God who suffers with His creation.