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A mango is a mango...

They were sitting under the fig tree by the Singapore River when Uncle Loh chanced upon them.

"Arthur," he exclaimed, "well, fancy seeing you here!"

"Come join us," Arthur waved to him. "Meet Bernard, an old school friend and occasional lunch-mate. We ate at the hawker centre before retiring to this haven from the heat."

Bernard shifted to make room on the bench. He shook Uncle Loh’s hand limply.

"I love this spot," remarked Uncle Loh, "you can watch the tide coming in, the boats and riverside life on the other bank. Just think of it - the MRT from Raffles Place to City Hall now lies under all that water."

Arthur grinned, turning to Bernard. "Mr Loh works with a R and D group in pharmaceuticals. He’s what you might call a keen Christian who believes the Bible is God’s Word. We have had interesting chats on matters spiritual and temporal."

"Is that so?" Bernard muttered, folding his arms and arching his eyebrows.

"And what do you do, Bernard?" enquired Uncle Loh.

"I am with a lawyer’s firm. And are you a ‘keen’ Christian as Arthur described you? I must tell you that I am a free-thinker."

"That’s interesting. I have often wondered how a free-thinker thinks," replied Uncle Loh.

"It’s simple, really. We let all ideas, including religious ones, compete freely in the marketplace."

"It must be exciting to hear all sorts of ideas. But don’t you have to make up your mind sometimes as to which ideas you prefer and which you reject?"

"This is where people like you misunderstand us," answered Bernard, a little annoyed. "We think there is good in every religion. We don’t reject any."

"How could this be logically possible, seeing that some of these ideas flatly contradict each other?"

"Why not? Two opposite views may be just aspects of the same truth," retorted Bernard.

"Opposite views cannot be aspects of the same truth unless words have lost their meaning. As a lawyer, you deal with legal right and wrong, truth and falsehood. When two witnesses clearly contradict each other, both can’t be right at the same time about the same thing. Religious truth is no different from any other kind of truth."

Arthur chipped in. "Mr Loh is referring to a law in logic called the law of non-contradiction. A mango is a mango and not an apple also. When you order a plate of guo tiao, you get what you ask and not something else. Sensible conversation depends on this law."

"I am aware of this law," declared Bernard. "What I mean is - different people have different ways of looking at God. I don’t see anything illogical with that statement, frankly."

Uncle Loh nodded. "I agree with you, Bernard. Men and women are limited in their understanding of the Being we call God. As you say, our grasp of God differ somewhat. However, they shouldn’t differ to the point of outright contradiction. When this happens, we have to make a rational decision with every means possible as to the correct view. Would you accept that?"

"That’s easier said than done," retorted Bernard, "or there won’t be so many religions!"

"Why there are so many religions is a separate question. My theory as to why there are many religions is that there is a lack of rational thinking, rather than too much of it. This is so with science as well. When there are many theories it means there needs to be more hard thinking. One thing is clear though. According to the law of non-contradiction, if you believe everything - even contradictory things - it shows you don’t really believe in anything."

"All we have been talking about has to do with a Being whom you and other people call ‘God’. I don’t believe in His existence anyway," said Bernard, smiling wryly.

"If you don’t mind my saying so, Bernard… for a free-thinker who says he allows all religious ideas to compete freely in the marketplace, you do have some definite ideas about God after all. For instance, you are sure He doesn’t exist."

"Okay, let me correct myself. I should say I have really no idea about God. It is absence of belief in God rather than believing there is no God."

Arthur chuckled, wondering how Uncle Loh was going to get out of this one.

Uncle Loh gazed at the backwash from a passing boat for a moment before turning to speak.

"Let me get this straight. You say you have no belief in God because you have no idea about Him?"

"That’s right," Bernard replied.

"If you don’t know what I mean by the word ‘God’ - if the word does not bring any understanding of any sort to your mind - how do you know what I am talking about?"

"I don’t get you," said Bernard with a frown.

"Suppose Arthur tells us that Mr Lam exists. We may not know the details but we know at least two things - he is a man and he is Chinese."

Bernard nodded.

"Suppose I tell you God exists. What comes to your mind?"

Bernard was thoughtful but silent.

"Surely your mind is not a blank. I think it is safe to say that you think of a Supreme Being with powers beyond man’s imagination. You might even think that such a Being could be a Creator and be interested in man."

"Even if such a Being exists, I am not aware of it. That’s my point," persisted Bernard.

"Suppose again that such a Being exists and you are not aware of Him, that will be too bad. Because history records that men and women have claimed to know Him. You must then ask yourself if your continued ignorance is for reasons other than logic or science or whatever. God says in the Bible ‘And you will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.’" (Jeremiah 29:13)

Bernard seemed ill at ease.

"Speaking of logic," he remarked impatiently, "it is the Christians who are illogical and contradictory. They believe in a good God of love. Look at the pain and suffering in this world. How can they go on believing and worshipping their God who makes even them suffer? I will never bow to such a Being!"

Uncle Loh shook his head slowly and patted Bernard on the shoulder.

"I understand how you feel, Bernard. But there are some things you ought to be clear about. Much trauma and misery in this world is directly due to man’s inhumanity to man. You have only to read the newspapers. Since men are always claiming to be free moral agents - and they behave as such - it is hardly fair to blame their immoral acts on a God whom they believe does not exist in the first place.

Now Christians have this quiet joy and assurance - of their sins forgiven and their ultimate destiny in Heaven," continued Uncle Loh. "Yet I tell you they are paying dearly for their faith in Christ in many parts of the world. But I can also tell you of bravery under persecution, fortitude under pain and quiet endurance in sickness - all of which Christians share in common with their fellow men. They cry like everyone else, but they also praise their Lord."

As if some painful memory had stirred his soul, Bernard stared with unseeing eyes. "Why?" His voice was barely audible.

"They cry because, like you, they want so much to understand why a good God has allowed pain in their lives or in that of their loved ones. Don’t you see, Bernard? If they believe their God is both good and evil, suffering would not be such mental anguish. It is because they refuse to hold such a contradictory view - knowing that God who has been so good as to send His Son to die for their sins - that the cry of puzzled anguish has its source. They praise God out of love for the Lord Jesus who has borne more suffering on their behalf than they can ever imagine." (1 Peter 2:21-25)

When Bernard spoke, his eyes glistened.

"I have not revealed this before. My mother was a Christian. She died of cancer when I was seventeen. She was in great pain but cheerful to the last. She trusted God and prayed all the time, telling me not to worry about her. But I was bitter - so bitter I vowed I would reject God for taking my mother away."

He paused.

"So I chose to be a free-thinker. I thought it was a neutral position. I didn’t want to know I was going against my mother’s faith. But I can see it is a meaningless term. My attitude has really been atheistic." He paused again.

"Mr Loh, your words on the Christian attitude to suffering reminded me of my mother’s simple trust in God. She prayed that I would realise that she was safe and secure in God. But I refused. I really wish to have her kind of faith."

There was silence. Uncle Loh cleared his throat and put his arm around Bernard. "Thank you for sharing with Arthur and me something so personal. I’m sure God brought us together this afternoon. He is calling you back to Himself. Your dear mother’s prayers have been answered in a most wonderful way."

If you should ask Muthu, whose mee goreng stall is close to the fig tree, he will tell you he saw three men that afternoon with heads bowed as if in prayer.

One of them was on his knees. Such is the grace of God.


Next chapter: You be the judge