I was sitting there on my lunch break the other day when a man, a complete stranger to me, approached on a bicycle. He was around retirement age and the repair and accessories of his bicycle as well as his dress suggested a man of modest means and likely a more solitary existence, but not an unpleasant sort of person.
As for me, my moment before the encounter was spent realizing that I had 10 more minutes of my lunch break and only 3 more pages left before I completed the chapter I was reading. I was inclined towards finishing the chapter before I had to return from my break.
The man said, "How's the reading?"
I said, "Great as always."
He said, "What are you reading?"
I said, "Mr. Charles Darwin."
He screeched to a halt. I think he actually said, "Uh oh." I knew exactly what was going through his head and what was about to happen. The man, in his head, thought that this was the moment where he meets the secular humanist on the road and evangelizes him, or at least does intellectual battle with him. What went on in my head was, "Great. Now I'm going to have to listen to this guy and not get to finish my chapter."
It was a source of great amazement to me how reading Darwin in public inspires more strangers to feel compelled to talk to you about religion than does reading the Bible in public.
I felt a little cheap after I thought, "This guy is looking for a great story to tell his church group. He wants to tell the story of the atheist he met on the path and either he stood his ground for the truth of the Gospel or, even better, he preached at the atheist until the atheist got down on his knees a-weeping and repenting." Immediately followed by the humbling thought, "Wait a minute, Paul. Aren't you already planning to use this story on your blog?"
I did not say much. I mainly didn't say much because he didn't ask much. He lectured and I silently prayed, "God help him if he ever meets the person he currently thinks he is meeting. He'll be eaten alive." He began to speak in such a way that I could not break out of the conversation without compromising my standing as a gentleman. I felt a little like I did when Mormons came to my door the other day. I felt a little cheated because I would love to have an intelligent conversation about ideas, but that was not on the table here. What was on the table was for some guy I don't know to tell me what he thinks and then leave, feeling good about himself and feeling no requirement to give me another thought so long as he lives.
How did this come to be?
I also felt a little bad that he was not about to obtain the narrative from his encounter with me that he was expecting. He started out with the unsolicited advice that I should balance reading Darwin with also reading the New Testament. I said, "I fully anticipate that I shall" although, in all honesty, I am currently studying through the book of Ruth and, frankly, am not doing so to "balance" anything.
He asked me if I knew why there was so much evil in the world. I said, "Yes. Because of sin." And at that moment I had the distinct impression that he realized that he was not talking to "the enemy." He talked for a while about his view of science and religion and about how he lives in a low income apartment complex for the elderly and about the CMA church that he attends. I then got the sense that he didn't really have all that much interest in speaking to me as a fellow human being now that he felt to his satisfaction that I wasn't someone that he needed to correct and, just as he arrived, he left.
I had this moment as he started to ride away where I had a vision, a moment where my internal camera pulled away into the third person, and I saw this lonely old poor man on a bicycle, riding away from a neurotic middle-aged poor man in a path in a neighborhood where wealthier people dwell. Two infinitesimal growths on the thin layer of scum covering a small rock hurtling through a dark void. It's only by the grace of God that an asteroid doesn't slam into the Earth, or Mount Lassen erupts, or the poles shift, or the coming antibiotic resistant plague doesn't arrive to wipe us all out of our strutting and fretting existence. While both of us owe our lives to the myriad shoulders of ancestors on which we stand, neither of us are exactly the sort of mover and shaker whose bold personality is going to insure top-feeding for us and our kin.
And I called out after him, probably out of his range of hearing, "You know, both can be true."