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Socrates at 30,000 Feet

Matt Fradd

How is it that so many people hold contradictory philosophies without their heads exploding?

The same person who claims not to believe in God or heaven may say, regarding the loss of a loved one, “He’s in a better place,” which, for all its warm, fuzzy niceness, finds no basis in the worldview of the person saying it. Or someone who believes that all moral values are relative often bristles with moral outrage at racism or religious intolerance.

A captive audience

I encountered such a person on a recent flight from Philadelphia to San Diego, and I tried out a fruitful way to talk about the Faith to a mixed-bag thinker.

The terrific thing about airplane trips is that we are often assigned to sit next to people with whom we may have little in common. In what other circumstance do we find ourselves strapped to a seat next to a complete stranger with no viable escape route? And sometimes for hours on end.

The woman I was sitting next to—we’ll call her Mary—was 23 years old. Mary was attractive, kind, and sensible. “What do you do?” she asked. Every time I encounter this question from a stranger on an airplane, I usually think to myself before answering, “Well, here goes . . .”

“I’m a Catholic apologist,” I said, “which means I defend the Faith. I speak a lot about the goodness of human sexuality, chastity, etc.”

Now, at this point in the conversation I usually receive one of three responses:

1. A strained smile and an overeager head nod accompanied by, “That’s nice.”

2. A litany of reasons as to why the Church is out of date, bigoted, etc., etc.

3. A genuine fascination and interest.

Mary’s reaction was of the third type. Her face lit up as she said, “How great to be able to do something that affects the lives of people in a positive way. I believe in that stuff, too.”

I offered a silent prayer to the Holy Spirit, asking that if it were his will I could share my faith with Mary.

After a few moments of silence I asked, “You said you believed this stuff, too?”

It turned out that Mary believed her deceased sibling was now an angel in heaven, that karma exists, that Catholicism was true (she was a Catholic), that it’s possible we are reincarnated, and that the mystical “Law of Attraction” (which holds that you can influence reality by positive or negative thinking) is real.

Talk about conflicting philosophies.

Whenever I encounter such a person, I have found that rather than telling her she is wrong—how many minds have you changed with that tactic?— it’s much more productive to ask questions in order to help her see the contradictions in her belief system. This is known as the Socratic Method, a form of inquiry used by the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates in which one questions another in order to demonstrate the logical inconsistencies of the other’s position. In questioning the other person, you are forcing him to think critically about what he believes.

Here are three examples of how I used this method during that long flight to San Diego to try to get through to Mary. Notice how many times I used questions to get her to think about her own beliefs rather than just making statements about mine. Sometimes, even when using this method, you have to make statements to get a concept across, but the focus is still on using questions to help a person clarify her views.

I’m a Catholic, but I don’t believe in hell

One of the first things Mary said to me was that, though she was a Catholic who believed in God, she did not believe in hell.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because I don’t think that a God who is all-good and all-loving would send someone there.”

“Do you think that all will be saved?”

“I do.”

“Do you think that anyone will be saved against his will?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, suppose a person rejects God and does not wish to be with him. Would an all-loving God coerce that person into being saved, or would he respect the person’s free choice?”

“Well, I suppose in that case God would respect his freedom.”

“So you can’t rule out the possibility of hell in light of an all-loving God then, right?”

Once Mary had conceded that the doctrine of hell was not logically inconsistent with an all-loving God, I quoted C. S. Lewis from The Great Divorce: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell chose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”

Bad things and good people

Our conversation was warm and pleasant. It was intermingled with talk about our favorite music artists, why surfing is better than any other sport on the planet—except cricket—and showing photos of loved ones on our phones. Every so often, however, Mary would return to the deeper questions.

“But I don’t understand why bad things happen to good people,” Mary said. “Surely if God loves us, he wouldn’t let that happen.”

“The problem of evil, it seems to me, is the only strong argument that the atheist has against Christian theism,” I said. “Though the problem of evil is indeed a difficult emotional hurdle, I do not think it is a strong intellectual argument against a loving God.”

“I think it’s very strong,” she said. “It’s not right that innocent people should suffer, especially when God is all-powerful and good.”

“I agree. Allow me to state the problem of evil as strongly as I know how. If God is omnipotent (all-powerful), then he has the power to end all evil and suffering. If God is omniscient (all-knowing), then he is aware of all the evil and suffering in the world. And if God is omnibenevolent (all-good), then he would want to end the evil and suffering in the world. But there are evil and suffering in the world. Therefore, either God does not exist, or if he does exist he is not all-powerful, or all-knowing, or all good.”

Mary’s eyes widened. She nodded with surprise that I was able to formulate her argument even more convincingly than she had. She looked at me quizzically, knowing that I did not find it to be a convincing argument. “So-o-o-o?” Mary said.

“Do you think that omnipotence means the ability to do anything?”

“Well, yes.”

“What about the logically impossible? Does God’s omnipotence enable him to act in a way that is contrary with his nature? Can God be God and not be God at the same time?”

“I guess not,” she said.

“Exactly. Now, do you believe in free will?”

“Yes, I believe that.”

“Can you use your freedom to do evil?”

“Well, yes, but if God is omnipotent, surely he could cause us or wire us to choose what’s good.”

“I agree,” I said, “but could God cause or predetermine us to do something freely? Well, obviously not. It’s as contradictory as me causing you to freely drink your coffee. If I cause you, you’re not free. And if you freely choose to drink it, then I didn’t cause you.”

“That makes sense.”

“So perhaps God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, but he has a good reason to allow evil, like protecting our free will. Now, one may not like that premise, one might not even find it convincing, but so long as it is even possible, it shows that God and evil are not logically inconsistent.”

All religions true?

“I suppose when it comes down to it,” Mary said, “the main thing is that people are sincere in what they believe. All religions are equal.”

“What do you mean by equal?” I asked.

“I believe all express the truth, just in different language.”

“If all religions are equally true, then does that mean you would accept everything that all religions teach?”

“Yes. I might express it differently, but I believe that deep down we are all speaking the same language.”

“So you agree with the Christian religion, which says that Christ is the only way to the Father?”

“No.” Mary was unaware of the logical contradiction she had just fallen into. She looked at me as if perhaps I wasn’t paying attention. After all, she had just stated that all religions were equally true. Why would I now ask her if she believed the exact opposite?

“I’m confused,” I said, gently. “You say you believe that all religions are equally true, but you don’t believe that the Christian religion is correct in saying that Jesus Christ is the only objective means of salvation. Doesn’t that mean that you don’t believe that all religions are equally true?”

Mary became uncomfortable when she saw that she had contradicted herself and dismissed what I had said by saying, “I guess I just think it’s arrogant to believe that your worldview is right and that everyone else’s is wrong.”

Not wanting to press too hard, I resisted the temptation to show Mary how her religious indifferentism was itself a worldview that alone claimed to be true while condemning as wrong all opposing beliefs.

“Do you believe in the law of non-contradiction? That something cannot be both true and untrue at the same time.”

“Give me an example.”

“God cannot be the creator of the universe and at the same time not be the creator of the universe.”

“Sure, that makes sense.”

“Okay, so theism—the belief that there is a God who created the universe—and pantheism—the view that God is the universe—cannot both be true. This is one example of why you can’t rationally affirm that all religions are equally true. The law of non-contradiction forbids it. This does not mean that there cannot be elements of truth in all religions but that all are not equally true. I believe that the Catholic Church possesses the fullness of the truth and other religions are wrong inasmuch as they disagree with that fullness.”

I then mentioned the passage in the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim, Christ ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to himself.”

As Mary and I deplaned, I gave her a copy of Catholic Answers Magazine. She seemed genuinely excited to read it, so I would ask you, the reader, to please keep her in your prayers.

A tool for evangelization

The Socratic Method can be a wonderful tool for evangelization. Asking people questions and being genuinely interested in what they have to say usually opens them up. It helps them reflect on what they believe and why they believe it. It also tends to reveal the God-given yearning we all have for truth.

All too often, it seems to me, we as Christians appear to be giving answers to people who never had questions to begin with. The result is a disinterested listener who doesn’t appreciate being force fed.

Preaching Christianity to a person who is unaware he is in need of saving is analogous to trying to convince a person who denies he has cancer to undergo chemotherapy. This is why our Lord said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).

And when you consider those words in light of the fact that none of us are righteous (Rom. 3:10), it would seem that our Lord could just as well have said, “Those who think they are well think they have no need of a physician.” The fact is that all of us are sick. Evangelism is simply one sick person telling another sick person where the physician can be found.

The Socratic Method cuts both ways. If you expect others to question their own beliefs, you should not be afraid to question yours. And be confident.

Truth can handle questioning, and there are lots of resources out there—like catholic.com—to help with the answers.

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