I TOOK TWO folding chairs and walked with my wife to the park near Sapienza University of Rome, Europe's largest university. Students dotted the large field on this warm spring morning, eating their lunches, smoking, lying in the sun.
My heart beat faster as we unfolded the chairs and surveyed the scene. I had debated an atheist two days before, but that was in a cafe next to Roma Tre, another university in central Rome. To debate in the open air seemed more daunting.
These debates had been arranged by a university ministry named the Gruppi Biblici Universitari, which had invited the Italian Union of Atheists and Agnostics to provide a speaker. The union's director had debated with me two days before. Now I was going to debate Roberto Sabatini, who teaches sociology at Sapienza.
I used my 15 minutes to present some classic arguments for why belief in God is credible: as the cause of the universe, as the designer behind its beauty and detail, as the author of the morality we carry in our hearts, as the historical explanation for Jesus' resurrection, as the one I and so many others have met personally.
Professor Sabatini responded by laying out some classic objections or counterarguments: the God hypothesis is not necessary to explain the universe or to make us behave morally; God is a human projection, and religion is a cultural production; religions have claimed that women are inferior to men.
One claim of Sabatini's revealed how faith is usually seen in Italy: "Belief is something antithetical to thought. When I believe, I have to stop thinking, suspend judgment. When I believe, I don't function rationally, with arguments." He cited Tertullian's (widely misunderstood) remark, "I believe because it is absurd," and pointed to the church's condemnation of Galileo and other cases that, at least to the average Italian, make faith and reason seem like they are at war.
The crowd grew as the debate went on. We responded to each other and then fielded questions from students. The questions were poignant, informed, sincere. What about other religions? Suffering? Christianity's often dark history?
A circle of students lingered after we finished, continuing the conversation. One of them looked especially troubled and said, "You know, it was great to hear all this, but I don't think I really believe. I have all these questions I can't answer. How can I be a Christian if I have doubts? I don't think I can do it."
I told him, "I don't think it is a problem that you have these doubts. The doubts show that you're thinking, that the faith you want is not a blind faith. And that's how it should be. I don't want a blind faith that sticks your head in the ground. I want an intelligent faith, one that wrestles with doubts and seeks good answers for them. Being a Christian is not about not having doubts. I have lots of questions too. It's about believing because you're thinking, doing both."
From his surprised look, I figured that he had not heard this message before. It seemed to me that a new path toward faith, a thoughtful kind of faith, might be opening for him. Or maybe not. Who knows?
In any case, I left the debate feeling thrilled, wondering why such encounters happen so rarely. Students were so interested, their questions so thoughtful. It was an hour pregnant with meaning for me, and I hope for others too.
Why do Christians rarely engage nonbelievers in dialogue? Do we assume that the younger generation is apathetic? That the Christian faith is unappealing to them and therefore dialogue is not worth it? The culture's relegation of religion to private discourse makes even the most ardent of believers inclined to keep quiet, or at most whisper, about the faith. It's as if we hear the glass exploding at the very mention of "Jesus" in a bar or shopping mall.
Instead of having meetings where people come to different conclusions, letting both sides be heard, we often resort to throwing rhetorical bombs at the other side--those we consider ignorant and obstinate people who just don't get it. …