Saturday, January 20, 2007

Letters to a teenage skeptic, #1

#1 of a multi-part of a series of related blogs.  See also Letters to a teenage skeptic, #2#3#4, and #5.

When we were young children, we placed much trust in our parents. Young children tend to believe what their parents tell them is true. We seem to have an almost innate influence within ourselves which calls upon us to trust our parents, as if it were a built-in survival mechanism, as if something inside is telling us that whether we comprehend the reasons or not, we should trust that our parents love us and have our best interests in mind, and so we should believe them.

So, when mom says don't play in the busy boulevard, we may not fully understand why, but there's something inside us that tells us that we should probably do what mom asks, because she loves us and what she says is for our own good.

Consequently, as young children, without even putting hardly any thought to the contrary, we tend to respect what our parents tell us because they are speaking as one who has lived and experienced many more things than we have experienced as young children. Their capacity to reason is greater, their experiences our more plentiful, and they have been given a greater variety of testimony from others about what constitutes the truth. While young children may not give this trust to their parents based upon any sort of deliberate reasoning, it does indeed seem reasonable, generally speaking, for young children to believe their parents.

However, when children grow older, they seem to grow more and more skeptical of the veracity of the things their parents teach them. Why is that? I suspect it is because they start to gain more experience, they grow in their own capacity to reason, and they too begin to draw from a wider variety of the testimony from others, all of which may conflict with what their parents have taught them. With all the conflicting evidence, it may become difficult to discern the truth.

I am a father to teenagers, and like other fathers before me, I am having to now deal with teenage skepticism. The following comes from letters and discussions between my son and I about God. I've edited some parts and re-written others for clarity. My hope is that these discussions may help others who may be dealing with teenage skepticism too.

My Beloved Son,

I've been thinking and praying about how to respond to your statements made Sunday Morning, regarding doubts about God's existence and the value of religion. And after racking my brain, I thought it best to respond in writing. I have chosen to respond in writing for three reasons:

1) I put more thought into written responses. This way I'm less likely to blurt out something stupid.

2) God is the most important thing to me in my life. Discussions about God, his revealed will for us, and our duty toward Him can tend to be emotional, and the beauty of written responses is that I can use the backspace button if I think what I say lacks charity in any way.

3) I know that you are not the only skeptical teenager that ever walked the planet. Consequently, I thought that I would eventually place much of what we discuss, or at least portions of it, in my blog, as a presentation for others who may have skeptical teenagers of their own.

I ask that you write back to me, even if all that you say is "I concur." I hope to keep my letters to you brief, but as your Mom knows, brevity is not my best quality when it comes to theology. ;) If you don't understand what I write, or you don't concur, I'd like you to tell me, so that we may discuss it further. Perhaps I can explain it in a different way that will make more sense.
My hope is that you come to understand why I believe in the Creed as taught by the Holy Catholic Church. Keep in mind, understanding is not the same as agreement. In the final analysis, I don't believe I have the power to make anybody else believe as I do. My goal is less lofty than that. I merely hope you come to doubt your doubts, so that you continue to prayerfully seek to know and understand God's will, and strive to obey it.

I also want you to know that you are still my beloved Son, no matter what.

Now on to the discussion....

You said to your Mom on Sunday, "I don't believe in God...religion is a bunch of crap." I think some ground rules are in order...

The most important things to me are God, family, & country... in that specific order. I believe I have a serious obligation to all three, but you should know that my obligations to God are more important to me than anything else. Disrespect for my religion, my family or my country will be understood by me as a lack of charity. You certainly don't have to agree with me, but when you disagree, I ask that you respectfully disagree. I will strive to do the same.

You already apologized to me and your mother for your remarks made Sunday, and I accept your apology. However, throughout our discussion, let's always keep in mind what St. Thomas Aquinas taught many centuries ago..."Lord, in my zeal for the love of truth, let me not forget the truth about love."

You said to me later on Sunday that you don't necessarily believe God does not exist, but instead you are not sure of God's existence. You also stated that you didn't think it was that important. I will strive to address these doubts. But before doing so, I want to tell you about me and the doubts I have had in my life with regard to religion. Next, I need to define some terms and make some introductory remarks about logical reasoning and epistemology. After which, we will get to the business of discussing the existence of God and the truth taught by the Catholic Church.

About me and my journey of faith...

When I was your age, I stopped going to Mass. I belonged to a parish that seemed to be withering away. It seemed to me that Church was where old people went to pray before they died. When I was a teenager, my parish didn't have the wonderful youth ministries that our current parish has. I never doubted the existence of God, nor did I ever doubt that Jesus was the Divine Son of God. However, I seriously doubted that the Catholic Church was the authoritative teaching voice of God on earth. I also had doubts as to what the Bible had to say on the matter.
During college, I wasn't what I would call "morally depraved," but I wasn't very good either. I was kind of selfish. I neglected to pray. I didn't have an active relationship with God, and it showed in the bad decisions I was making. Nonetheless, at Gonzaga University, it was mandatory to take philosophy and theology. It was there that I learned about all sorts of conflicting theologies and philosophies, both Catholic and non-Catholic. I became very interested in learning more, even though I still did not practice any religion or pray to God.

The reason I'm telling you this is so you understand that doubt is not uncommon. It would be decades later before I returned to the Catholic Church and became serious about my duty to God. In those decades, I never stopped seeking to better understand more about God and what he had in store for me. I've been seriously studying theology since I was 17 years old. I've read works by atheist authors. I studied all the major world religions. I can assure you that I'm not Catholic by accident. I've studied all the major explanations about God and truth, and found all of them to be unconvincing, excepting one...Catholicism.


The biggest mistake I made in my journey of faith is that I neglected prayer. Even if you have doubts, I recommend you never stop praying. Pray when you get up in the morning. Pray during the day. Pray before going to bed at night. You don't have to pray long, nor do you have to pray a specific prayer. Simply take a moment to praise God for what you have been given, tell Him your worries, ask God for help, and listen to what He tells you in your conscience. If there is no God, you will have lost nothing. If there is a God, you will have gained so much. My understanding was hindered by a lack of prayer. Once I resolved to pray everyday, I was able to better understand what had never been very clear to me before.

That's enough for now. Let me know your thoughts. Perhaps you can tell me what might have led you to doubt the existence of God. Next letter I will described some terms and discuss epistemology.

I love you and God bless,