Talk on a Country Path

“Good morning.”

“Good morning.”

“What brings you out here?”

“Just running a few errands. Care to take a walk with me?”

“Fine, but I have to be back at the hospital in half an hour. Does that work for you?”

“That’s perfect, I was heading that way myself.”

“So let me ask you a question.”


“I was surprised to hear you talking about immortality the other day.”

“Oh really? Why?”

“Well, for one thing, you’re an atheist. Or has that changed?”

“Ha. Not to my knowledge! But I think I see what you mean.”

“Which is what?”

“I think you’re wondering how an atheist can talk about immortality without invoking the notion of a divine or supreme being.”

“Yes. Care to explain?”

“Sure. Let’s find a park bench around here so we can sit down for second.”

“Sounds good.”


“Okay let’s sit down.”

“Fine. What now?”

“Listen quietly. What do you hear?”

“Well, I hear a lot of things. Should I pick one?”


“I hear a bird chirping, which tells me that it’s spring. Finally. A finch, I think.”

“Perfect. Describe exactly what you hear.”

“I hear a chirp, chirp, chirping sound. It’s high-pitched and kind of sweet.”

“You hear intermittent bursts of chirping.”


“How do you know they’re intermittent?”

“Well, because there’s silence in between.”

“Exactly. And would you have noticed the chirping at all if it happened against a background of noise? Especially if or close to the same frequency and intensity?”

“No, not at all.”

“Right. In order for you to perceive any sound at all, it has to exist against a background of silence.”


“Another way to put it is that you hear silence punctuated by a series of sounds that are not the silence. Now we could go just a step further, and say that all sounds are born from silence and die back into silence. But that the silence not only precedes every sound, but makes them possible.”


“No pun intended, but I’m dying to find out where you’re going with this.”

“I’ll wrap it up quickly since we’re almost at the hospital. Let’s just call the sounds individual things, beings, and lives, and let’s call the silence from which they come and into which they die eternal or immortal.”

“Immortal because it never dies.”

“Not quite; immortal because it is neither born nor dies. It plays outside of birth and death. Immortal in the sense of immutable. But far from empty; you could even think of it as eternal presence.”

“But it’s not a person for you.”

“Nope. But it is for you, and that’s fine. You’re in very good company historically.”

“Well. I see the Jesuits had quite an effect on you.”

“Ha! Yes indeed. Now may I scandalize you with one more comment?”

“Sure, why not.”

“There’s a tradition of Zen that refers to the same thing, the undying, as the Unborn.”

“Aha. Okay then.”

“You sure?”

“Yes, yes, that’s fine. This just raises more questions I have for you. You’re not off the hook, you know.”

“I would expect nothing less. How so this time?”

“I still suspect you’re a closet theist.”

“Non-theist. That’s different than being an atheist.”

“Sounds like a perfect place to pick up our next conversation. Next week?”

“Sounds good. Talk soon.”




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