“The Square Root of Eternity”

Fiction by Al Burrelli

     He held the Bible out in front of him and spoke softly. “This jewel of a book, this sine qua non text on how to live the moral life — glorious . . . inspiring . . . dramatic . . . innocence lost . . . redemption . . . salvation . . . is extraordinary in the totality of its vision regarding the journey of the human spirit. Yet, I am here to tell you that this book is nothing more than . . . a pretty poem.”
    He uttered the last three words slowly, almost mockingly. There wasn’t a sound in the lecture hall. He had set the trap. In minutes he would know whether the tactic would work. The professor turned his back to the students and walked toward the blackboard.
     “Professor,” a student called out. “Professor, the question is not whether the Bible is, or isn’t, a pretty poem, but rather whether it is, or isn’t, the word of God!” The professor listened to the remark without turning to look at the student.
    Such a gesture was blatantly discourteous, but he knew the voice, and he had to be careful not to push this little scene too far. The student’s comment was valid and pointed. He knew it, and the other students knew it. A rustle of whispers swept the room. The professor turned and stared at the student, who was still standing.
    “The question is excellent, Mr. DeMasseo, and I commend you for it.” A tension began to fill the room. The professor continued, “I wondered when we would meet formally.” The student was Paul DeMasseo, doctoral candidate for a Ph.D. in religious studies. The professor had heard that he was one of the most brilliant students the university would ever graduate.
     “Perhaps I can deal with your question, Mr. DeMasseo, by making an opening statement regarding the seminar we are about to begin.” He gathered his papers from the table and walked to the lectern. He waited a moment and began. “The seminar you have enrolled in is ‘The Bible as Literature.’ In the course of our studies, it will be critically important for many of you to put a firewall in your mind between reading the Bible as a source of religious belief and moral authority and reading the Bible as a work of literary art. Approached as literature, the Bible will reveal a text rich in all the elements of great writing: myth, metaphor, simile, analogy, struggle, heroism, betrayal, justice, suspense — and that’s just for starters! In short, our purpose in this course will be to enjoy the Bible as a stunning example of human literary artistry. My opening remarks a few moments ago about the Bible as pretty poetry were deliberately designed to provoke just the question that was proposed so insightfully by Mr. DeMasseo. Let me say it again. It is absolutely necessary that we agree to always keep before us the distinction between the Bible as a sacred book and the Bible as a secular one. And so, having agreed, let us begin.”
     Once again, he thought he had resolved the issue that was most likely to challenge the objectivity of his students in their secular journey through this holy book. He always knew his course would stir beliefs and religious feelings that had long been lying dormant. He had to do a balancing act to keep everyone objective and focused. He arranged his notes, looked out over the class, and opened the textbook to Chapter One. He read aloud: “In the beginning was the Word.”
    But before he could start the next sentence, a voice, Mr. DeMasseo’s, cried out, “Professor!” Like a flock of birds all making the same maneuver at the same time, all the students turned their heads simultaneously to the source of the interruption. Standing alone in the back of the room was Paul DeMasseo.  
    The professor looked stunned by the audacity of what had occurred, but before he could issue a rebuke, he heard the student say, “Professor, wouldn’t it be tremendously useful for every student here to clarify his or her position on this question of religious faith and use such clarity as a background to more richly examine Western civilization’s most famous book? Logic and sense tell me that you must agree with me. Therefore, I would like to propose that we, you and I, here and now, have the audacity to hold a debate on the question of the existence of God!”
     The professor was taken aback. Nothing like this had ever happened before in any of his classes. Such a discussion might get out of hand. The school’s Academic Council might not even allow it. Mr. DeMasseo continued, “Professor, you have the reputation of being one of the most liberal and open-minded instructors on this campus. You also have the reputation of being a vigorous advocate of atheism. I repeat my challenge to you, and I ask you to allow any students who do not wish to participate to leave.”
    The professor had heard that DeMasseo had been stalking him to corner him into just such a confrontation ever since the professor’s acceptance of a guest lectureship a year ago. Several students in the back row started to shout the word, “Debate.” More shouts of “debate” came from several other parts of the room. Almost instantly the entire lecture hall was shouting, “Debate! Debate! Debate!”
    Paul and the professor were both standing, eyeing each other across the lecture hall. The professor called for silence. The shouting faded away. Sweeping the hall in one slow glance, he found DeMasseo again at the rear and, looking directly at him, said simply and with a certain sense of inevitability, “I accept.”
     Pandemonium broke loose.  Students went to the open windows and shouted, “Hey, everybody, listen up! Paul DeMasseo and Professor “Atheist” are going to go head-to-head on the existence of Numero Uno! Pass the word and get your tails in here!” Within minutes the lecture hall was packed. Word must have really gotten around, because a number of faculty members had entered and were standing along the back wall. Something special was about to happen and everybody knew it. 
     For many of the students there, this would be their first taste of genuine intellectual disquisition. To many of the others, the event was taking on the aura of a David and Goliath clash of intellects. DeMasseo had taken on numerous students in just such debates and left their intellectual reputations in shreds. For his part, the professor had written extensively on this greatest of philosophical questions and had several books to his credit. The room was pulsing with the din of many voices talking and shouting.
     The professor gestured to DeMasseo to join him on the speaker’s platform, and led a wave of applause to greet the young man as he came to the front of the room. There were shouts of, “Go get him, Paul!” And other shouts of, “Good luck, kid. You’re going to need it!” The professor and DeMasseo shook hands, and DeMasseo led a round of applause directed toward the professor.  The two of them walked to the center of the platform and spent a few minutes talking sotto voce to each other. They agreed to throw away the formal rules of debate — assertion . . . negation . . . rebuttal — and instead revert to the more informal structure of the conversational Socratic Dialogue. They took seats at a table on the speaker’s platform. It fell on DeMasseo to open the debate.
     He got up, strode to the front of the platform, turned to the professor, who was still seated at the table, and asked, “Professor, do you believe in God?”
     The answer was, “No.”
     Can you prove that God does not exist?”
     “You know very well that the answer to that is also no. No one can prove that.”
     “It is possible, then, just possible, that God does exist.”
     “Yes, and it is also just possible that the tooth fairy exists!” There was a burst of laughter. The professor had drawn first blood. 
     “What proof would you require to establish the existence of a God?”
     “Nothing less than the total annihilation of Evil. That would be a good beginning.”
     “Well said. Theodicy, or the question of why Evil exists, is the quintessential problem confronting a belief in God. We will address this topic later, but a different question might be brought in here to lay a premise for the discussion to come. Professor, has there ever been a perfect human being?”
     “The closest actual human beings who have walked this earth and who might fit that description might be Jesus, Buddha, and maybe the Dalai Lama.”
     “For fairness, I thought you might have at least included Mother Teresa, if only for political correctness!” Some titters and clapping. “Professor, are you willing to state that the individuals you have named, or for that matter anyone you have ever known, including yourself, are perfect?” There was a wave of laughter and applause.
     The professor answered, “To paraphrase: Perfection is in the eye of the beholder. As for myself, the answer is a definite not perfect.”  
     DeMasseo continued. “Isn’t it true that the only way you can state that you have never met a perfect person would be if you didn’t carry in your mind the idea of a perfect person? And doesn’t that apply to all of us? We couldn’t judge the perfection of any individual without having a template of individual perfection in our minds? Wouldn’t that be completely logical and irrefutable?”
     “I would have to concede the point.”
     “Does this not imply, then, that in some dimension of reality, a perfect person, or the idea of a perfect person must, of necessity, exist? And does it not also imply that a person of such total perfection, a person of whom there can be no one more perfect, must be God, who by definition is perfection itself? Therefore, the very idea of ‘perfect,’ applied to a person, or for that matter, even to a universe, must imply their existence.”
    There was a burst of applause. DeMasseo had sprung Plato’s realm of perfect forms, the Ontological Argument, on the professor, thus drawing his own first debate blood. He turned and went back to his seat at the table.
TO BE CONTINUED - click to read Part Two-

    Al Burrelli is a retired English teacher. This is the latest of several short stories he has published in The Star.