Trevor Pennington, minister at the First Baptist Church in Weslington, Pennsylvania, climbed out of his car and strode up the walkway toward the building before him. A sign out front read "Merrimac Research Laboratories."
Pennington had received an unusual summons a few weeks ago- an invitation to some sort of party held at the science center. He hadn't known the name of the host, and he had called the science center to ask if there was some mistake and the invitation was intended for someone else, but the person on the other line had assured him that the invitation was intended for Minister Pennington.
He reached the front doors, and saw a man dressed as an Orthodox Jew standing outside them. When Pennington drew near, the Jew said, "Oh, Sir! These doors are locked! Could you let me in, please, and tell me where I might find Conference Room C?"
The other man's words startled Pennington, for he knew the party he was to attend was in Conference Room C. He held his hands up as if to demonstrate that he was helpless, then announced, "I don't work here; I don't have a key. Sorry."
Pennington tried the doors once himself, although he was certain the Jew was correct in his assertion that they were locked. As the two waited for someone to let them in, Pennington decided to be friendly and extended a hand in greeting. "My name is Trevor Pennington," he introduced himself.
The Jew shook his hand and replied, "I'm Rabbi Hassid."
Pennington smiled, then said, "A Rabbi and a Baptist Minister are locked outside a science center before a party. I don't know about you, but to me this sounds like some sort of joke."
"Maybe someone's just having a good time watching the two of us standing around and waiting for the door to open," Rabbi Hassid replied. "Why would the front doors be locked anyway?"
Pennington shrugged, then said, "Well, the main building is basically open to the public, but the Merrimac building is reserved for research. Maybe whoever works here doesn't want all the people touring the main buildings to wander over here and interrupt his work."
"Well, if he didn't want his work interrupted, he shouldn't have held a party." Rabbi Hassid complained. "I'm assuming that this party is why you are here."
"That's right," Pennington agreed. "I don't suppose you know who this Michael Blaine is, do you?"
"The host? No, never heard of him," Rabbi Hassid replied.
A hollow silence fell over the pair as each contemplated the situation. Pennington wondered why he'd come to a party hosted by a man he didn't know. He'd been curious to find out why a complete stranger would invite him to a party at the science center, but now his better judgement determined that this was all a joke, and Pennington had wasted his time.
After a few minutes, a woman in a business suit approached. Pennington heard the click of her high heels on the pavement long before he saw her.
When the woman reached the front door, she looked questioningly at the men standing there, then reached for the handle. As she started to tug on it, and her brow furrowed in confusion when the door didn't open, Pennington explained, "The doors are locked."
"I don't suppose you have a key?" Rabbi Hassid added.
The woman shook her head, then said, "No, I don't have a key. I'm only here for some party."
Pennington looked from Rabbi Hassid to the woman, then asked, "I don't suppose you're the leader of a religious group, are you?"
The question only seemed to further confuse the woman as she answered, "No, I'm a teacher."
A few more minutes passed, then another man appeared. He seemed to be all about business as he marched to the front doors, looked at each of the partiers who had already assembled, then asked, "What are you all doing here? This building isn't open to the public."
"We were invited here," the woman declared, spinning on the other man and pulling an invitation out of her purse. "We're supposed to be in Conference Room C right now, but the front doors are locked."
The man blinked in surprise, then said, "I'm going to the same party. I thought it was just an office sort of thing."
"What?" Rabbi Hassid asked.
"Well, I work here," the man explained. "For the past month, I've been doing psychological experiments, trying to find what effects faith can have on depression. Mike and I never really got along, so when I got the invitation to the party, I figured everyone in the office was invited."
With each new arrival, the situation seemed to get more and more mysterious. At least Pennington suspected he had found the solution to one of his problems. "If you work here, you must have a key to the front door, right?" he asked.
"Yes," the man replied. "But it's at home. Usually, the doors are open during the day; whoever is the last to leave at night locks them. I figured, with an office party, people would just leave the doors unlocked."
The woman sighed loudly, as if to demonstrate her frustration, then glanced at her watch. "I give this party ten minutes," she declared. "If someone doesn't unlock that door by then, I'm going home."
"That sounds like a good plan," Pennington agreed.
Luckily, they didn't have to wait ten minutes. After a very short while, Rabbi Hassid proclaimed, "I see someone in there!" He pounded on the door a couple of times in an attempt to capture the attention of whoever waited inside, then declared, "He's coming."
Sure enough, a few seconds later, a man pushed the door open. Apparently, the scientist recognized him, for he cried, "Mike, what's the big idea? You throw a party then lock your guests outside?"
Mike grinned, then said, "I wanted my guests to have a chance to mingle and get to know one another before dinner. Do you all know each other now?"
"Not really," the woman answered.
Mike looked a bit crestfallen as he led the partiers down the hallways and toward Conference Room C, but he announced, "Well, you can't blame me for trying, anyway. I guess we'll just have to wait and I'll introduce everyone over dinner."
"Dinner? You're serving dinner?" Pennington asked in surprise. The invitation hadn't said anything about dinner, and he wasn't very hungry after eating most of a frozen pizza before coming to the party.
"Of course I'm serving dinner," Mike declared. "What sort of host would I be if I didn't?"
To punctuate his words, Pennington threw the doors open, and Pennington's jaw dropped at the sight of the long candlelit dinner laden with a variety of foods. The aromas made even his mouth water.
"Go ahead, take your seats," Mike called. "Help yourself, and I'll see to it that everyone gets to know who everyone else is."
Pennington moved toward the table, and pulled out a chair near the end. Rabbi Hassid strode forward, pointed toward the roasted chicken that was clearly a main course, and demanded, "Is this Kosher?"
"Yes, it is," Mike assured him. "None of you have any reason to worry, I have taken into account your dietary restrictions, and I made sure that there are dishes everyone can eat. Professor Lindberg, the soup to your left is vegetarian."
The woman nodded and reached for her bowl, and Mike proclaimed, "Now, this is all a bit informal, but I had really believed you all would have discussed your work amongst yourselves while locked outside. You'll excuse me if my introductions are a bit rushed."
Mike strode around the table, and came to stand behind the scientist. "This is my coworker, Mr. Tyler Porter. He works here in the Merrimac building with me, although he's only been here about a month, whereas I have devoted nearly two decades of my life to the project I am working on now."
Mike's tone seemed a little bit condescending, but he quickly pressed on, declaring, "Mike is now studying the effects of faith on the psyche. He's trying to approve that religious faith- any religious faith in any God- is good for a person's mental health."
Porter smiled, and Pennington suspected he was a little bit shy under all the attention he received. Mike, however, had already moved on to Rabbi Hassid, who sat beside Porter and ate a healthy portion of chicken.
"This man is Rabbi Hassid," Mike announced. "He may very well be one of the most prominent Jewish leaders in our community. Some of you may recognize him from his prayer broadcasts that ran on television every evening during Hanukkah."
Rabbi Hassid nodded once, and Mike moved on to Pennington. "This man is the Minister of the First Baptist Church, quite possibly the largest church in the county," Mike declared. "Pennington is also author of the book Living Your Life for Christ, which was greatly praised in a good number of Christian magazines."
Pennington felt a bit of color rise to his cheeks. He was proud of his work, of course, but he rarely bragged about it. His book had been published five long years ago, and he was amazed that this Mike fellow had thought it worthy of mention.
Mike now stood behind his final guest, the woman. "Professor Natasha Lindberg is the professor of philosophy and theology at Northern Community College," Mike announced. "Last year, she was given an award for effective teaching styles. She has been recognized nationally for her accomplishments in the classroom."
The introductions finished, all those at dinner looked around at everyone else. Mike took a seat for himself, then said, "I am Michael Blaine, and I will be your host for this evening."
Apparently finished with his monologue, Blaine sat down and drank a glass full of wine or juice, Pennington wasn't quite certain what it was. Porter spoke up to ask, "What's this all about? Why did you invite all of us?"
Blaine smiled as if he had been waiting for someone to ask this question. After a moment, he asked, "Haven't you figured out the common trait among you all yet? Each of you works a job that depends on the existence of God. Some of you lead people in faith and religious services, while others you try to study God's presence in ordinary people's lives.
Now, it was Pennington's turn to speak up. "What's your point?" he asked, just a little bit agitated by the sarcastic tone in Blaine's voice.
Blaine folded his hands, then asked, "What if I were to ask each of you now to provide evidence that God exists? What would you say?"
"God exists because people need him to exist," Porter declared. "People are incomplete without God."
"His works are great, and there is evidence of a Creator in the beauty of the world," Rabbi Hassid proclaimed.
"We don't need proof," Pennington added. "Faith means a person can believe without evidence."
Lindberg shook her head, then mumbled, "I can't think of any conclusive evidence. Lots of people believe in God, though, and that many people can't all be wrong."
Blaine's smile grew, and he said, "Let's all talk about the lots of people who believe in God. Let's be honest now. Yes, many people believe in God, but not the same God. Nobody here can try to claim that the Christian Trinity is the same as the Jewish Jehovah, and the Jewish God is certainly not the pantheon worshiped by the ancients, and the pantheon cannot be the animal spirits of pagans, nor are animal spirits the ancestors worshipped by the Chinese."
Lindberg spoke up, "Maybe they are all the same God, but different people perceive it in different day."
"Now, my dear professor, how likely do you think that really is?" Blaine asked. "If there were such a thing as God, wouldn't He want everyone to see Him in the same way? Besides, claiming that God must exist because so many people believe in Him doesn't hold water when one takes into account the vast number of atheists such as myself in the world."
Once more, Pennington wished he hadn't come. Somehow, he suspected he would spend the rest of the night defending himself and his beliefs. "Why did you bring us all here if you just wanted to insult us?" he asked.
"Oh, I'm not here to insult you," Blaine assured Pennington. "Your role in all this will be clear soon enough, but first, I need to further explain my theories."
Rabbi Hassid made offended noises, which Blaine ignored. "Now, if God was real, everyone would feel the same thing about morality, wouldn't they?" he asked.
Professor Lindberg started to interrupt with some explanation concerning free will, but Blaine cut her off. "Oh, I'm sure that God might allow some differences. Some people might have different opinions of culture and so forth, but let's talk about major questions of morality. If God existed, wouldn't you agree that everyone would think murder is wrong?"
"Everyone does think murder is wrong," Porter protested.
"You're confused," Blaine countered. "The majority of people think murder is wrong, but some people don't, and some of those people commit murder. The same is true of rape, incest, thievery, adultery, and any other crime you might be able to think of. There is no crime that is universally considered wrong, for you will always be able to find at least one person, and most likely more people, who not thinks that crime isn't bad, but who actually committed it."
"The existence of crime doesn't disprove God's existence by any means," Rabbi Hassid protested.
"Of course not," Blaine agreed. "It did give me the idea for this experiment, though. I wondered what would happen if I raised a child and shut him off from all outside contact. Without the contaminating factors of society to teach him right from wrong, would he develop a moral code, or would he prove that humans are, by nature, relativist creatures and thus not creatures of any God?"
"That sort of experiment would be terrible!" Lindberg gasped. "Unconscionable!"
"Only if you believe terrible, unconscionable things exist," Blaine replied. "If all our actions are relative, however, and there's no such thing as good or bad, who's to say there's anything wrong with this experiment?"
"What did you do, exactly?" Porter asked.
"I adopted a young orphan boy as an infant," Blaine answered. "Some of the nurses around here call him Jasper. Anyway, Jaspers contact with people has been very limited. He is constantly monitored, and his teachers, who taught him to read and write and speak, have been careful never to introduce him to concepts like good and bad, right and wrong. I hope to prove that without society's influence, nobody would develop a conscience, and codes of morality are unnatural."
"You can't prove anything with only one boy," Porter protested. "This isn't even a real experiment. You need a control group, measurable quantities, scientific measurements!"
"OK, perhaps it's wrong of me to call this an experiment," Blaine conceded. "It's more of a test, and exploration of how much society influences our youths. I brought you all here because I suspect you will be the greatest protestors- the religious element. I wanted you to see my experiment for yourself, and to determine that I haven't influenced the results in any way. This experiment- this test, if you will- is entirely unbiased."
Pennington felt bad about the matter, but he set aside his fork and knife, no longer hungry, and said, "I'll take a look at this experiment of yours."
"I will, too," Porter proclaimed, and all around the table, everyone agreed to take a look at Jasper.
Soon, Blaine led his guests toward his own research labs. A giant window in one of the rooms showed Jasper sitting alone in an entirely bare white room. "This is Jasper," Blaine proclaimed.
Pennington approached the window to gape at the boy, who sat on the floor staring at the blank white wall before him. "Why isn't he moving?" Pennington asked.
"Where's he supposed to move to?" Blaine countered. "Young Jasper here doesn't have all the diversions of modern life. We don't let him watch television or play video games or read books because too many of those sorts of things contain morals and lessons. He works out for an hour every day for health reasons, and sometimes he can read carefully screened excepts from Encyclopedias, but other than that, there isn't much for Jasper to do with his time."
His fellows joined him, peering at Jasper through the two-way mirror. "Doesn't he get bored?" Rabbi Hassid asked.
"Probably," Blaine replied with a shrug. "He doesn't know of any way of life any different, though. This is the only way of life ever known."
Pennington's stomach turned itself in knots as he wondered if what Jasper lived could even be considered life.
"So," Blaine asked from behind him. "What do you think of my experiment?"