The Villages, Florida is a city designed for and entirely inhabited by people who are 55-85 years old at this time in America. Everything there reflects their customs and values. The major activities consist of exercise–mainly golf, swimming, walking–and conversation, often around the tables of restaurants and cafes.
Visiting family during Christmas vacation, I had parked myself at Starbucks to work on an essay. An elderly gentleman sitting alone at the table next to me asked very politely if he could ask what I was studying. As our conversation unfolded, I learned that he had served on a team of economists at the World Bank who had pioneered a microcredit program in Indonesia in the 1970’s. His work had improved the lives of thousands of people. With sophisticated technical expertise, he and his colleagues spent years developing and refining a financial program that loaned small amounts of money to poor workers.
Displaying an insight into human behavior as well as economics, he explained that those workers succeeded because they knew better than anyone else what others in their community needed and how to provide it. They repaid their loans almost without fail not only because they understood the value of the money loaned to them and ran viable businesses but also because they formed a community of people who depended upon each other and who knew each other, and therefore who would know all the whys and wherefores if a business failed, or worse, if a business owner failed to repay the loan.
The conversation turned to my work as a professor of theology. Imagine my surprise when this highly intelligent person with a lifetime of experience explained to me that he believed in God–and that was true for him–while others do not believe–and that was true for them. I had to disagree with my fellow believer. I suggested that the answer to the question about God’s existence does not depend on anyone’s beliefs. The reality is either that God exists or not, and either theists or atheists must be mistaken. His look of bewilderment told me that if he had ever considered this thought, then it had been a long time ago and had been dismissed. This man had at least an undergraduate education. Had no one raised this question for him before? Had no one helped him think through it in a way that the contours of the question became a permanent fixture of this thinking?
I think this man recoiled more against the idea that he must hold his atheist neighbors to be mistaken than the idea that the reality about God depends upon whatever that reality is. The urge to get along and work together is a powerful one, and it allows neighbors to enjoy the good things of the world and their lives together. The Villages is all about getting along and enjoying the last decades of one’s life. Not a bad thing.
Yet there is also this desire to think about and discuss the reality. At the end of the conversation, the gentleman admitted that he had enjoyed talking about these things and asked if I lived in The Villages. No I didn’t … I was just visiting … as he suspected. He thanked me for the conversation and very politely allowed me to return to my work. I hope that he will find the conversation he seeks.