Before he was elected Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio spent fourteen years as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina. During that time he built a strong friendship with Abraham Skorka, an Argentinian rabbi and biophysicist. Together they promoted interreligious dialogue on faith and reason, seeking to build bridges among Catholicism, Judaism, and the world at large.
Last month, Image Books released the English translation of On Heaven and Earth, originally published in Argentina in 2010. The book contains several conversations between both men where they discuss various theological and worldly issues, including God, fundamentalism, abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and globalization. From these personal and accessible talks comes a first-hand view of the man who would become pope to 1.2 billion Catholics around the world in March 2013. In the excerpt below, the two men share their thoughts on modern atheism and agnosticism.
Cardinal Bergoglio (Pope Francis):
When I speak with atheists, I will sometimes discuss social concerns, but I do not propose the problem of God as a starting point, except in the case that they propose it to me. If this occurs, I tell them why I believe. But that which is human is so rich to share and to work at that very easily we can mutually complement our richness. As I am a believer, I know that these riches are a gift from God. I also know that the other person, the atheist, does not know that. I do not approach the relationship in order to proselytize, or convert the atheist; I respect him and I show myself as I am. Where there is knowledge, there begins to appear esteem, affection, and friendship. I do not have any type of reluctance, nor would I say that his life is condemned, because I am convinced that I do not have the right to make a judgment about the honesty of that person; even less, if he shows me those human virtues that exalt others and do me good.
At any rate, I know more agnostic people than atheists; the first are more uncertain, the second are more convinced. We have to be coherent with the message that we receive from the Bible: every man is the image of God, whether he is a believer or not. For that reason alone everyone has a series of virtues, qualities, and a greatness of his own. If he has some vileness, as I do, we can share that in order to mutually help one another and overcome it.
Rabbi Abraham Skorka:
I agree with what you have said; the first step is respecting your fellow man. But I would add one more point of view. When a person says, “I am an atheist,” I believe he or she is taking an arrogant position. He who doubts has a more nuanced position. An agnostic thinks that he or she has not yet found the answer, but an atheist is 100 percent convinced that G-d does not exist. It is the same arrogance that leads some to assert that G-d definitely exists, just like the chair I am sitting on.
Religious people are believers, but we do not know for certain that He exists. We can perceive Him in an extremely profound sense, but we never see Him. We receive subtle replies from Him. According to the Torah, Moses was the only person to have spoken directly, face to face, with G-d. As for everyone else—Jacob, Isaac, etc.—the presence of G-d appeared to them in dreams or by some messenger. Even though I personally believe that G-d exists, it is arrogant to say that He exists as if it were just another certainty in life. I would not casually affirm His existence because I need to live the same humility that I demand of the atheist. The right thing to do would be to point out—as Maimonides did in his thirteen principals of faith—that “I believe with complete faith that G-d is the creator.”
Following Maimonides’ line of thought, we can say what G-d is not, but we can never be sure of what G-d is. We can talk about His qualities and attributes, but in no way can we describe His form. I would remind the atheist that the perfection of the natural world is sending us a message. We can gain an understanding of how it works, but not its essence.