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March 2016

Faith and Reason

Walk of Faith, San Mateo, Rizal
In the movie, “The Bucket List”, starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, the characters of Edward and Carter are having a discussion on an airplane ride home about their beliefs in God. Both of them are terminally ill from cancer. Edward is a self-made billionaire who’s agnostic while Carter is a regular, hard-working mechanic with an old-fashioned belief in God. The conversation goes something like this:
Carter: The stars…It’s really one of God’s good ones.
Edward: So you think some being of some sort did all these?
Carter: You don’t?
Edward: You mean if I look up in the sky and promise this or that, the big…will make this all go away? No.
Carter: Then 95% of the people are wrong.
Edward: If life has taught me any of this, it’s that 95% of the people are always wrong.
Carter: What do you believe in?
Edward: We live, we die, and the wheels on the bus go round and round…Is there something you know that I don’t?
Carter: No. I just have faith.
I share this conversation in the movie because I’ve also had this conversation in my mind as a scientist/engineer and a believer in the Big Bang theory. It’s really difficult to get faith into your head. If you look at all the stars, which are a million lights years away, it’s very difficult to think that there’s someone out there orchestrating all that goes on down here. The nearest neighboring star to our sun, the Proxima Centuari, is 4.37 light years away. Light travels at the speed of 186,000 miles per hour. Even at the speed of light, it would take that light source, 4.37 years to reach us. Just imagining the magnitude of the universe makes it really hard to believe that there was a God that could look after us—small infinitesimal beings in the galaxy of bigger-than-life stars.

Then what if the reason for our belief is because we’re afraid to face our fears? If we remove the fear then all our belief can go away. While being confined in a hospital for 2 weeks after an unsuccessful endoscopy operation, I had this fear of death and suddenly not being able to see my kids grow up. So right then and there, in the darkness of the recovery room after my operation, I had to invent a God, even if I didn’t have one. And I desperately called out to Him to make sure that I had some extended time. But that’s just me. I know of strong personalities who do not fear the great beyond and have lived meaningful lives. And so they have no need to believe in God even to the point of death.
In another scene in “The Bucket List”, while on top of the ancient Egyptian pyramids, Carter explains to Edward that Egyptians believed that they would be asked by guards two questions at the gates of heaven. Their answers to these two questions would determine whether they were admitted or not. These two questions were: 1) Have you found joy in your life? 2) Has your life brought joy to others?

Those questions are quite tough to answer irregardless of what religion (or non-religion) we adhere to. But many life coaches attest to the prospect of death as a defining moment of our lives. When faced with death, we will be forced to answer questions similar to those two just mentioned. Did our life matter? Did we find meaning and purpose in our lives? How did we give meaning and purpose to others? Even Steve Jobs in his famous graduation speech at Stanford said that in the face of death, you’re forced to focus only on what is important.
Towards the end of the movie, “The Bucket List,” Carter writes a moving letter to Edward and mentions that “our lives are streams flowing into the same river towards whatever heaven lies in the mist beyond the falls.” Then he advises Edward to find the joy in his life, close his eyes, and let the waters take him home. I don’t want to give the storyline away but the movie is a good alternative to “The Greatest Story Ever Told” or “The Passion” of Christ.

There were many other questions posed in that movie. I don’t know if it was inspired by the TV program Jeopardy but the other question that the characters in the movie tried to get their heads to was the measure of a life. Morgan Freeman’s character, Carter, at the beginning of the movie believes that “you measure yourself by the people that measure themselves by you.” There’s at least a grain of truth to what he said. When people measure themselves against you, then you must have done something right to merit that.

One of the reasons for my renewed faith in the Catholic Church was a chance pilgrimage in October 2011 with the then Bishop of Imus, Cavite, the current Archbishop of Manila and now Cardinal Chito Tagle. Hearing him speak, learning about his life and works, having a chance to walk with him in the Holy Land changed most of what I knew and believed in about the Catholic faith. From that pilgrimage my image of God literally changed from one that was distant and all-knowing to One that had a more human, unassuming face, One with a humble demeanor willing to walk with us and go our ways. The image of God Cardinal Chito gave was one I was not accustomed to–a kinder, gentler face that was a far cry from the stern and serious figure looking over our shoulder regularly, checking if we went to confession or not. In that pilgrimage, he was the closest image to Christ that I could see in a lifetime. He absolutely had none of the trappings of power, prestige or glory. And everywhere we went in that pilgrimage he was carrying a small bible. It was as if God’s word and his were one. And everytime he opened the bible to read something, we listened to his stories and how they changed him or some other person’s lives. His homilies during that pilgrimage were living proof that Christ and His words was relevant 2000 years ago as they are today.

Then think about it. No other government, corporation or political dynasty has achieved as much. Whatever you think of the Catholic Church today, one thing cannot be denied. Christ’s organization, His words, and His works, with his original ragtag team of 12 followers, has withstood the test of time. No other leader, even with an army of thousands or a financial capital of a billion $, has duplicated that feat. No other movement has inspired 1.2-2.2 Billion followers. (Facebook is close but it still has to withstand the test of time). Christ’s story, with all His stories with real people we could identify with, still remains one of the greatest and most inspiring stories ever told.

The Jewish Rabbi Yeckiel Eckstein wrote in one of his blogs that there are two miracles in the Exodus story. The first miracle is the parting of the Red Sea. The second miracle, he adds, is when the walls of the river did not fall on the Isrealites as they crossed the river. I do think it’s a very appropriate imagery for the times we live in today. It almost feels like walls of water will come crashing in on us, making it even harder to keep our heads above water. But we keep plugging, keep moving, letting the rivers of life take us to where the eternal sea dwells—having faith that when all these things come to pass, we’ll be taken to a heaven that’s just right for us.
How do I know? Just like the character Carter, I don’t know everything. But just like him and the 95%, all we have is faith.

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