Tuesday, August 16, 2005

What if God Were One of Us?

an·thro·po·mor·phism n. Attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena.

Christian fundamentalists hold that the Bible is consistently and literally true, an assumption easily dismissed upon comparing the first two chapters of Genesis, contradictory accounts of how Saul met David, and irreconcilable timelines of Christ's life in the Gospels, among other passages. For them, the suggestion that Genesis is not literally true carries with it the implication that the message of the Gospel is also not true; secular fundamentalists often perceive the same implication.

I confess that while I think I understand Christian fundamentalist thinking, I don't empathize. For me, scientific discovery proclaims God's surpassing genius and majesty. Evolution appears to me miraculous, not heretical. To me, Christianity is a values system, a way of life that holds patience, compassion and forgiveness as ultimate virtues, all of which have little if anything to do with the timeline in which the world was created or whether I share some genetic relationship to chimpanzees.

When I think of "Intelligent Design," I think of the staggering beauty of something like a rose in bloom, or the atmospheric conditions that make spectacular sunsets possible. When I think of "Intelligent Design," I think of the way our bodies produce sweat to cool us when we are hot (also a system for expelling toxins) and the way our circulatory system kicks in to overdrive to warm us when we are cold. I think of the way wounds heal or the symbiosis between plants and animals -- they breathe what we exhale, and vice versa.

Unfortunately, "Intelligent Design" does not mean the same thing to everyone. Many Christians do not feel the easy compatibility of science and religion that I do. Skeptical of the theory of natural selection, they seek to undermine science with selective research and shoddy theology by using Scripture to explain away existing gaps in the theory of evolution.

To me, Christianity is a values system, a way of life that holds patience, compassion and forgiveness as ultimate virtues, all of which have little if anything to do with the timeline in which the world was created or whether I share some genetic relationship to chimpanzees.

As biology professor Kenneth Miller of Brown University so eloquently wrote in his essay Finding Darwin's God, "the creationists have sought God in darkness. What we have not found and do not yet understand becomes their best - indeed their only - evidence for the divine. The trouble is that science, given enough time, generally explains even the most baffling things. As a matter of strategy, creationists would be well-advised to avoid telling scientists what they will never be able to figure out. History is against them. If God is real, we should be able to find him somewhere else - in the bright light of human knowledge, spiritual and scientific."

Or, as Jerry Coyne, a professor of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, echoed in a recent article in The New Republic, "If the history of science shows us anything, it is that we get nowhere by labeling our ignorance 'God.'"

Intelligent Design ought to be the search for God using scientific evidence, not the search for scientific evidence using the Bible.

Sadly, secularists attempt to refute Intelligent Design with shoddy theology of their own, namely by pointing out supposed flaws in the blueprints. It boils down to the assumption that God thinks like we do, resulting in Coyne's conclusion that if Intelligent Design reflects "the exertions of an intelligent designer, he was apparently dissatisfied with nearly all his creations, repeatedly destroying them and creating a new set of species that just happened to resemble descendants of those that he had destroyed."

Critics especially like to point to the human appendix, which they consider a vestigial organ left over from our ancestors who required it for their particular diet. Coyne calls it "an injurious organ." It's true that appendicitis is a killer; but so are heart disease, cirrhosis, and strokes caused by blood clots, and no one is suggesting that perhaps we'd be better off without livers. Moreover, this argument is predicated on the presumption that mortality is a flaw in God's design.

It also assumes that the appendix is on its way out. What if God left it there because He knows our descendants will need it again?

The Gospel ought to be sufficient evidence that God's logic is not human logic. We're told Jesus had a humble birth -- even if a multitude of angels appeared to shepherds in their fields and three Magi showed up to present Him with gifts, it was nearly three decades before his ministry began in earnest. Then He traveled the length of the Holy Land, homeless, harrassed by religious authorities, was betrayed, beaten and executed in a brutal fashion.

Is that how you would have chosen to reveal yourself to mankind?

Yet skeptics persist in trying to deny the role of God in creation by insisting they could have done it better. Coyne complains that the human eye "is like a car in which all the wires to the dashboard hang inside the driver's compartment instead of being tucked safely out of sight."

Admittedly there is cause for concern with regard to Christians who push Intelligent Design on public school curricula. "This country wasn't founded on Muslim beliefs or evolution. This country was founded on Christianity and our students should be taught as such," proclaimed William Buckingham, chair of the curriculum board of the Dover, Pennsylvania school district.

Intelligent Design ought to be the search for God using scientific evidence, not the search for scientific evidence using the Bible.

But if secularists intend to hold people of faith to high standards for keeping ideology out of science classes, they have to be careful to maintain the same standards for themselves. Evolution disproves a literal interpretation of Genesis, but it does not remotely disprove the existence of God. As Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna wisely wrote in a recent New York Times Op-Ed, "Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science."

Many secularists assume, as Coyne does, that the ultimate goal of all Christians "is to replace naturalist science with spiritualist thinking." As evidence of this sinister plot, Coyne quotes Jon Buell, President of the Foundation for Thought and Ethics (which holds the copyright on the prominent I.D. textbook Of Pandas and People): "We have to inundate [young Americans] with a rational, defensible, well argued Judeo-Christian world view."

The Christian worldview, as I read it in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, includes beliefs like this:

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

What the heck is wrong with that?

Credit, or blame, for this post goes to him, who sent me the TNR article today, and him, who helped me organize my thoughts.


Matthew said...

I know I should really comment on the actual substance of your post, but I'm just blown away by the elaborate formatting. Font mixing? Pull quotes? Illustrations?

Very impressive.

Anyway, I'm intrigued by your description of your beliefs. As I pretty much agree with you on the intelligent design issue, I'd like to ask about your description of how you see Christianity in this whole debate. I'm pretty clear on the value structure you're going for, but I'm curious as to how much else you adopt. What about immaculate conception, literal resurrection, Christ as the divine intercessor for your sins and ultimate judge? These aspects of Christianity definitely cross the line from “a way of life that holds patience, compassion and forgiveness as ultimate virtues”. It seems to me that any secularist could also agree to the same values you are describing here. Do you see Christianity as the philosophical ideals represented by the teachings of Christ, or do you also include concepts like performing of miracles, atonement for sins, etc. etc. ?

Andy said...

Matthew, thanks for your question, and, as always, your readership. : )

I do, absolutely, believe in the immaculate conception and the literal resurrection, the forgiveness of sins and judgment before God.

But my point in de-emphasizing those aspects for now is twofold: one, I believe that the people who function as the "public voice" of Christianity these days have gotten the Gospel wrong; the "Gospel" literally means "good news," but you don't hear "good news" coming from James Dobson or Jerry Falwell. George W. Bush claimed his "faith" guided him to blame a country for an atrocity it did not commit and invade it for weapons it did not have. I think it's of vital importance to correct that and show that the Gospel contains a message of hope, encouragement and deliverance.

Secondly, I am at sea in a world of skeptics who believe that atheism is an enlightened state of being, as well as people who've been seriously damaged by religion. I want to show them that Christianity is often not what they think it is, that it is nothing to be afraid of, and that in fact they already agree with most of the message. I think helping people get to that point will prepare them spiritually to begin to recognize God in their daily surroundings. Purely from a strategic point, it's better to present Christianity as non-threatening and already familiar, rather than bombarding those who have closed their eyes with stories of miracles that they are not ready to accept yet anyway.

Julia said...

The unfortunate hallmark of Christianity, American Style, is its ethos of fear -- the fear of learning and discovery, the fear of dissenting viewpoints that threaten its tightly-constructed worldview. However, secularists counter that fear with another, opposing fear -- the fear that the universe contains mysteries that cannot be grasped, seen, or explained. For the fundamentalists and the secularists alike, the introduction of what they fear -- whether that is new scientific knowledge, or the acknowledgement of divine mysteries such as miracles or Christ's bodily resurrection -- introduces a frightening instability into a world that is made safe by their respective belief systems. I think the hostility to science from the fundamentalists and to religion from the secularists shows the fragility of our whole social psyche. Is everyone afraid that the world they have worked out in their heads, the world that is controllable and rationally explained by their belief systems (for fundamentalism and secularism are both inspired by a misguided rationalism), will turn frightening and unpredictable if they admit that there are things outside the purview of those narrow systems? Perhaps the world is really full of mystery that cannot be explained by either faith or reason alone.

As a Catholic (who believes in the Immaculate Conception, literal resurrection, Christ's divine intercession and all kinds of other things I could never explain), I am grateful for our centuries-long tradition of being at the forefront of learning and scientific discovery (the suppression of Galileo is something I may address in a later comment). I appreciated Cardinal Schoenbron's op-ed piece, because it marries faith and reason, an approach John Paul II, and now Benedict XVI, both endorsed.

bohica said...

Very well written. My only comment would be that Religion, in all its many forms, has never been about Christianity, at least not primarily. It has been about power. It still is about power. Julia is right when she talks about the ethos of fear. That is how Religionists get their power. Making you afraid of God gives them the ability to control your life. So belief that Jesus Christ literally died so you can have eternal life(the basis of Christianity), and the desire to live a life that follows the path of Christ's is a long way from what the "fundamentalist" Christians are teaching and preaching. Which begs the question, are they Christians at all? Or does the idea of Intelligent Design actually reinforce the belief in a Savior, and show that there is a Plan for our stay here?

Tin Man said...

Damn - your writing always blows me away, Andy.

Okay, so I think I have a clearer idea of your views now. I am assuming that you believe in natural selection, but that God created the conditions for natural selection to lead to humanity. If that's the case, then (as I said in an earlier comment) I think it would be inaccurate to say that you believe in "intelligent design," because "intelligent design" conjures up a very particular worldview today.

And I think you're picking the wrong battle. The most relevant debate today isn't between religious people and secularists, but between fundamentalists and everyone else. Secularists and religious non-fundamentalists share so much common ground; it's fundamentalists who are the outliers today. It doesn't really matter, at least in political terms, whether evolution proves or disproves the existence of God.

Finally, you're just not going to be able to convince us secularists of God's existence by arguing your way there scientifically. This is not to say that you are wrong to hold those beliefs, but merely that the presence or absence of God is not testable by science. "What if God left [the appendix] there because He knows our descendants will need it again?" That's not testable. And the assertion that God's logic is not human logic ("Is that how you would have chosen to reveal yourself to mankind?") just assumes what it's trying to prove.

A vast majority of us share your moral views, most succintly encapsulated in the Golden Rule. But one doesn't have to be religious to hold those beliefs. That's why I think you're picking the wrong battle.

Again, though, very well done (as usual).

Andy said...

Tin buddy: no, I'd have to say I reject "natural selection." Yes, I accept that as creatures evolve, mutations occasionally give them advantages over previous populations that allow them to become dominant. However, "natural selection" is precisely the ideology that Cardinal Schoenborn warns against; it seeks to explain away God's role in nature through unscientific, untestable hypothesis that evolution through adapation and genetic mutation is random and undirected.

With regard to the appendix, you fell right into the rhetorical trap. Of course suggesting that the appendix may serve a future purpose isn't testable -- but so is declaring it obsolete.

And no, I respectfully disagree: I think I'm picking exactly the right battle. Christians need to be shown that, far from threatening our beliefs, science enhances our understanding of and respect for God, and secularists need to see that being a person of faith does not mean willfully ignoring obvious truths. Quite the opposite, in fact.

It's not about whether the existence of God can be proven, because if it could it would negate the necessity of faith. You don't have faith in the existence of oranges, you can hold them in your hand. The point is not to let secularists get away with saying that because science can't prove God's existence, it proves his non-existence. I know that's not your position, but it is for many.

Thanks for your compliments! : )

Paul said...

I've started reading a book called, "Open Christianity," and very much agree with what the author states so succinctly early on: that with regard to Christianity, we "pick our myth."

What he means is something I've realized for some time now, but hadn't found such a quick way to put it.

In brief, we know next to nothing as to matters of fact concerning the historical Jesus. The New Testament itself is a densely layered interpretation of a life that was authored mainly or entirely by persons who never met Jesus. They set down into writing oral traditions that had been circulating between 30 and 70 years after his death.

So this multi-authored accretion of stories about Jesus is far from a model of consistency and clarity. It makes us responsible, to use a favorite conservative term, for what we choose to emphasize in that good book, and what sort of interpretation we put on the life of Jesus.

There is nothing "fundamental" about fundamentalism. It's one take. There are others that I, for one, find more compelling.