THE PRIEST AND THE RABBI
Monsignor Tom Hartman and Rabbi Mark Gellman
IMUS in the Morning Program
December 17, 1999
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IMUS: I had Andy Rooney on the program a while back. You know he's an agnostic. And I said to him, "Well, isn't faith enough? Because it even says in the introduction to the New Testament that you have to accept all of this stuff on faith. You know you can't intellectualize most of this stuff." And Andy Rooney's point is that ordinarily very sharp people, you know, Wall Street types, who demand precise answers to everything, accept a belief in God and Jesus with no explanation whatsoever. There ought to be some explanation, but there's not, is there?
HARTMAN: You know, when my brother was dying, a couple months before, my niece was walking with him through a park and she turned to him and asked him, "Do you believe there is a life after death?" And he said he wasn't sure. And she looked at him and she said, "Let's sit down". And then she said a very profound thing to him. She said, Jerry, I'm not going to leave here until we've really talked this through. I don't want to live in a world in which, after you die, I'll never see you again. I love you and I believe love is eternal. And he said, "Well, it's not that I don't believe in God, but if somebody says to me, 'Does Chuck exist?' and I've met Chuck I will say 'yes'. If I've never met him I'll say 'no', because I don't want to tell you that there is something that I don't know. I've never met God. I have every hope that there would be a God, but I've never met God so I can't tell you that there is a God." And my niece looked at him and she said, "Jerry, that's the weakest form of logic I've ever heard in my life. Are you saying that to believe in something, you have to see it? She said, "You had a very good friend, Gordy. You loved him. Can you show me love? You are a person who loves art. Can you show me beauty? You are a person who weighs the words you use. Can you show me the truth?" The most important things are intangible. For me, at least, faith is very much in the heart. But it isn't to me a crutch. It is the very source of my meaning. That my heart wants to be connected with God and with people. And I believe that I was created not by myself. I look out into the world and I see an intelligence, an order that is so profound, that I would not be the same without God. Not that I disparage people who don't believe. I just believe it's a much harder existence if you say you that think you can do this all by yourself.
IMUS: Do you have any doubts, have you ever had any doubts? You must have. You know, have you ever just sat around and thought to yourself, Man I should have done something else.
HARTMAN: Honestly? I've never had any doubts about God.
HARTMAN: Never. Now, there have been some hard circumstances, like when I look at the pictures of Wyatt, I remember a 3 year old boy named Georgie who had leukemia. And I used to visit him every week. And I would go and my heart would break because I knew this boy was going to die and that was hard. But do you know what's interesting? Ever there, that little boy had more courage. He was "the OK kid". I would ask him how his tests were and he would say "Oh OK, Oh OK". And as sad as so many moments in life are, they would much sadder to me if I didn't believe that someone wasn't going to wipe away the tears. There's a 95 year-old man who, on his birthday, said, "My hands are still to the tiller, my hands have been warmed by the fire of life. The future is ever before me. I'm getting ready to go to the home of comfort." I believe that in the midst of all of the difficulties of life, some people see that the future is really ahead of us. I look forward to going to God.
IMUS: I really need Andy Rooney here. He's a lot smarter than I am. Where did God come from. That's what Andy would ask.
GELLMAN: It always surprises me, astounds me really, and it surprised me when I taught kids, how people who are really smart about other things, can't see the reality of God. I teach kids all the time. I take out my watch and I say, "Do you know there's a watchmaker when I show you this watch?" And they say, "Yeah sure, of course there's a watchmaker." And I say, "Are you just sort of sure or are you absolutely sure there's a watchmaker? And they say, "We're absolutely sure." And I say, "Why?" And they say, "'Cause, something like that couldn't just happen. And it works so good". So then I say, "Well, hello? Look at the world. Look at the human brain. Look at the eye. Look at the way the planets move. Look at the way the laws of nature are infallible and perfect. And the way birds fly south when it's cold and fly back when it's warm. And the way our most advanced computers are nothing compared to the human brain. It's so much better than a watch. It works so much more perfectly than a watch. Now, if you're sure, and you accept, without ever seeing him, that there was a watchmaker because you see a watch, you absolutely should accept that there's a God when you see the world.
IMUS: But where did God come from?
IMUS: What was there before God?
GELLMAN: Nothing. God made everything.
IMUS: Yeah, but who made God?
GELLMAN: No one. And you have to have someone that was not made by someone else to prevent an infinite regress. You see, if there was an infinite amount of time before this time, you'd have to go through an infinite series to get to now. And you can't go through an infinite series. That's proof that there was a beginning. And that beginning had to happen by something that was itself not begun. Otherwise, you just keep going back and back. You know, "Who made that? Then who made that? Then who made that?" That's one of the proofs that there had to be a beginning in time and that the beginner of that time was itself not created.
IMUS: We've been talking about stuff like this for as long as I've known you guys, which has probably been ten years. You know, like why do bad things happen to people. And you were talking about little children. And Deirdre and I talk about it every day. If you had to lead your kid over there to the Hackensack Medical Center for Children and they tell you he has leukemia. I mean, how do you explain something like that? Why do bad things happen?
HARTMAN: For me, one of the most profound moments was a woman that I knew, Cookie. She was married at 18, had a child at 19. The child developed a brain tumor at 2 ½ and she watched the child die over a period of six years. A teacher in a classroom said to Cookie, "Please don't send your child to school. She just threw up and I don't want to clean it up." A neighbor called and said "Your child is wearing braces. Please don't send you child to play with mine because I don't want my kid to see your kid with braces." It was a very lonely journey. After she died, I looked at Cookie and I asked her, "Did you ever get angry with God?" And she surprised me by saying, "No." And I said, "You didn't?" She said, "No. When my child was born, I looked my child and I said, 'I can't promise you health, I can't promise you wealth. I can't even promise you that you'll have enough friends. But I can promise you that I'll always love you. And when my child got sick, I didn't think it was my fault. It was just my invitation to love my child who just happened to have a brain tumor.' And it was then that I began to understand who God was. God is a God of compassion. God suffers with us. And, yes, there are some miracles that do occur, people who do turn things around. But, interestingly, from my perspective, having gone through illness in my family, I would say that my family became better and my brother became better as a result of going through that illness. When my brother was dying, he looked at my niece, in that same conversation and he said, " I am only now beginning to understand that the suffering I went through, I wouldn't trade it for one moment. I wouldn't trade the moment I got AIDS, I wouldn't trade the moment I found out I was gay, because through the hardship of all of that, I became a better person." I see it over and over again. Now, I don't think we go out looking for hardship or suffering, but no one's character comes to the depth it's meant to be without suffering something. And I think that what suffering does is it's an invitation for us to use our intelligence and to develop compassion and love within ourselves. So that, rather than walking around and saying, "Why did God do this to me, as though I'm the only person in the world who has to go through difficulties, you say, "How can I love this person? How can I walk through this illness with this person?
IMUS: Yeah, but there ought to be another way to get to that.
HARTMAN: I don't know whether there's is another way.
GELLMAN: I don't think there is. When you think of people you know who have lived lucky, blessed lives -- they're wealthy, good looking, never had any problems, never had any trouble. Most of these people are fairly shallow, to be honest about it. The people that I know that have the most depth and scope and sensitivity, are always people who have overcome something. Imagine if you had never overcome alcoholism. I mean, no one hopes that you would be an alcoholic. It was a horrible thing for you to overcome. But there is absolutely no question that much of the way that you see the world and your ability to empathize with other people comes from your experience in overcoming that. It's actually true that you're a better person because you went through that.
IMUS: Yeah, but I mean there ought to be a better way to make better people than making them go through all of that.
HARTMAN: I would say this - I pray every day that people don't have to go through catastrophic illness
IMUS: Yeah, but I mean, if God can fix all of this stuff, then he ought to fix it. We don't need people suffering. Look at these little children in the Sudan or still in Ethiopia and all over the world.
GELLMAN: Yeah, but Don, a lot of that suffering comes from something that is completely understandable and absolutely rational and it's absolutely horrible. And that is the bad choices we make. When we make bad choices to put crud in the air, to put crud in the water, crud in the land and that crud gives us cancer, you can't then turn around and say, "God, why did you kill this person?" God didn't kill that person - we killed that person. Because we aren't willing to create a world that's clean, as clean as the one that God gave us. Like when people smoke and die. I've had eulogies that I've written for people - of course, I never gave them where the family is all worked up because someone has died from smoking cigarettes and I want give a eulogy that says, "What, are you kidding me? Of course he died because he was a smoker." The fact is that a lot of the bad stuff that happens is stuff we bring upon ourselves.
IMUS: We've been talking to the priest and the rabbi about the existence or non-existence of God and why God keeps fooling around with folks and causing bad things happen to people and they don't have any explanation for it. I know Andy Rooney is listening and he doesn't have any explanation either. (To Hartman) It would be great to hear a discussion between you and Andy because he's a smart guy. But, I don't know. I wouldn't speculate as to what's in Andy's heart, but he's a good person. I don't know if it's a tormented life he's living or what. I don't think so - he doesn't seem tormented to me.
HARTMAN: The thing I see is when I go to hospitals and I see two people in a room - ostensibly the same illness. One person believing in something, the other believing in nothing. And I got to tell you, the person who believes in something is going to do a lot better. And when I talk to people as they're dying, I think everyone wants to know that they're going to something, that they want to continue living. And those people who have loved God point out to me different things that, as a result of loving God, they became better for, that they enjoyed praying. When their kids had problems, they felt as though they could pray. And someone else would help -- the grace of God. When hey looked out at happiness, happiness was not just what they could amass in life, but that sense that they wanted to do good with their lives. My life is better because I've read the Gospel. I try to look at the way Jesus lived and I try to live that way.
IMUS: You know, what makes me feel better is not what I believe but what I do. I feel better if I have helped someone, as opposed to sitting around trying to decide if I believe in something.
GELLMAN: Yeah, but what you do can only come from what you believe. You do it because you believe things. You believe you should have compassion for these kids. You believe you should do something to give back after you've lived a very blessed life. But, you know, there is another possibility. That's what I would tell Andy. I would say, "Look, if this makes you feel better, consider the possibility that you've arisen out of nothingness and you return into nothingness. Consider the possibility that absolutely nothing in the entire universe is responsive to human need or love. Consider that when you die, the worms just eat you up and that's the end of everything. Consider the possibility that there is absolutely nothing that supports life over death, nothing that supports hope over despair. Can you live like that? Could you live your life believing that the world is just complete empty chaos? And I think that people have to face the fact that a life of total nihilism is not possible. It leads to just -- madness.
HARTMAN: Sometimes what happens is that people feel as though "I have to buy the whole thing of religion, or I don't buy any of it." I think most of us mature over time. Early in our lives we have certain things that are pretty self-absorbed. We want to achieve certain things. Then, after a while, we step back and we say, " I didn't come here by myself." And we're ready to give the glory someplace else. You know, I'd love to talk to Andy Rooney. I'm sure he is a very smart person. The one issue that I would say to him is, "Does this make you a better person? If you can tell me that it makes you a better person by not believing in God, and that sustains you, I think when you die, you're going to be surprised because you're going to see that God has loved you all along.
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