Friday, August 27, 2010

Christianity & Science: Are they Compatible?

It seems that most of my on-line conversations now happen on facebook pages. From time to time, I may republish some of those conversations here to reach my blog readers.

The following is an exchange which occurred when a friend posted a link to an article which posed the question,

"Can You Believe in Christianity and Evolution?"

"Josh" gave his answer,
christianity and science can be reconciled... but it has to be good, true science for the reconciliation to work! :-)
... to which I replied,
I found Josh's earlier comment interesting:
Josh, would you also agree with me if I rephrased that?
"Christianity and science can be reconciled... but it has to be good, true Christianity for the reconciliation to work"
From my perspective as a follower of Jesus and a follower of science, science is more often "true and good" than many versions of christianity. Conclusive, objective, and empirical evidence should not be asked to bend to align with subjective, debatable interpretations of the Bible. Would you agree?
When apparent conflicts appear between hard science and our version of Christianity, which should give way?

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Forty-two thousand. The number of retreating warriors of the Israelite tribe of Ephraim slain because they couldn’t pronounce the S-word. Well, not that S-word. But it might have worked just the same. Thirty-four hundred years ago (or so), the in-fighting between Israelite tribes came to blows, and the Ephraimites invaded the lands of their brother tribes living across the Jordan River in Gilead. They lost the war, and the surviving troops, forty-two thousand of them, retreated. But the Gileadites cut them off, securing all the river crossing fords. But a Jew is a Jew, and they could not tell an Ephraimite from a Gadite or a Manassehite; they all look the same! How could they determine whether a traveller was a member of the retreating invasion force? Well, it just so happened that Ephramites were afflicted with a mass speech impediment, and they could not say sh*t worth sh*t. So the Gileadites picked a word, any word, starting with SH. They happened to choose “shibboleth”, a word which means nothing particularly interesting, but was impossible for the poor tongue-tied Ephraimites to pronounce. They used the word as a password, a test for any would-be west-bound crossers at the fords. When anyone attempting to cross the river answered the password request, “sibboleth,” he was put to the sword then and there!

There may be a lesson here about teaching diction to our children. But more to the point, this word, “shibboleth,” has been passed down and still to this day it refers to those group-think words or phrases, those passwords of practice and speech, which distinguish the insiders from the outsiders. Shibboleths are like badges of belonging. Pronounce them just right, and you are “one of us!” Mispronounce them, and watch out.

Funny thing about shibboleths. Their usefulness in identifying insiders often outlives any connection to the veracity, or the importance of the actual identifying issue. That is, the shibboleth functions to maintain group-think, despite overwhelming evidence that the shibboleth is a based on mistaken, or false assumptions.

The insidious power of the shibboleths of American evangelicalism is something that many free-thinking, analytical, and informed Christians experience first-hand. Those who have encountered (whether by choice or not) the irresistibly compelling evidence behind the science of evolution, or who have encountered (whether by choice or not) the insurmountable logical and evidential problems with Biblical inerrancy, find it increasingly difficult to go on pronouncing their shibboleths correctly.

I’ve been corresponding on the web with a Christian, a wife and a mother of young children, who just so happens to hold a PhD in science. Put simply, she just knows way too much to go on pronouncing all her shibboleths in the accepted form. Many of the things she knows with clarity are at odds with the beliefs of her church leaders and friends. That she struggles with doubt is not surprising. I know of few evolutionary evangelicals who do not. And many of us who have come to understand that the Bible is not the magical word-perfect book it is hyped to be, deal with doubt, at times heavy and oppressive. This is not the fault of our acceptance of evolution, or good textual study. It is the result of the false dilemmas created by the stark contrasts between the group-think of our evangelical friends, and reality as we have come to see it. Nevertheless, we are evangelical! We seek to follow and obey Jesus. We choose to remain with those believers with whom we identify. We just cannot seem to get our shibboleths to come out right anymore.

So my friend is in the violent throes of painful doubt. At a time when she most needs the support of her faith community, when she needs to be embraced and accepted by her pastors and friends, she is instead “preached at”, she is told that her doubts must be the result of some secret moral failure. She is haunted by the pulpit finger-pointing which identifies doubt as sin. She fears being punished for her doubt. She is told by her Calvinist friends that faith is a gift, and those who doubt incessantly must not have the gift; in which case there is little hope for her. She finds herself increasingly isolated, turned out, because group-thinking Christians are taught to fear, as part of an invading force of evil, those unable to pronounce “shibboleth”. How can my friend, or my other evolutionary friends, be accepted in a community which is currently being assured by that trusted source, Focus on the Family, that evolution is lie from the pit of hell?

My experience is similar to my friend’s. As I take a few steps back from the accepted traditional theology of the evangelical church to which I belong, that very church keeps nudging me to step further away. I am asked to keep my concerns to myself. When I try to warn my friends that the edifice of Christianity is supported by pillars of styrofoam, I am told things would go better for me if I would just keep it to myself. I am told that the personal rejection I endure on so many fronts is my own fault. I come on “too strong”, they tell me. The fact is, I haven’t found any polite way to tell people that the survival of evangelical faith will require the shedding of many cherished shibboleths.

I recently wrote the following words of encouragement to my friend:

Please, do not be deterred by the many Christians whose faith is based upon illusion, and blatantly false suppositions. Who wants that kind of faith, anyway? You seek a faith that can stand up along side volumes of data, data which most believers have never encountered, and from which (sad to say) they are sheltered by their Christian leaders. You didn't ask for the evidence for evolution. You didn't desire an understanding of the historicity issue surrounding the books of the Bible. These are empirical data, brute facts, of which but a small minority of Christians are even remotely aware. You and I are aware ... and this leaves us with the huge challenge, but also the wonderful opportunity, to build a faith that is truly durable, robust, and reality-based. My friend, this challenge is not insurmountable.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

What is Heaven like?

I apologize to the many readers who keep checking back at OutsideTheBox only to find the well still dry! It has been difficult for me these last several weeks. I miss my lovely wife more now than ever. I thought it would get easier by now. Not so. And so, writing has taken a back seat to other personal business. However, my friend, Regina, recently asked me to describe my current thoughts about Heaven (obviously, I would be motivated to think about Heaven and the after-life!). I answered her earlier this week in an email. That portion of the email is reproduced below.

Re. Heaven:

Of course, I think about this often. But not so much in the terms Christians typically use. It is one thing to glibly recite our standard beliefs about heaven, the afterlife, etc., when it is all theoretical and distant. But when someone as analytical as me is dealing with these questions up close, and so utterly personally, directly impacting the most significant of relationships, it is a little harder to maintain a simple belief. My thoughts have been all across the spectrum, to be honest.

Whether we like it or not, the state of evolutionary psychology today tells us that those things we once attributed to the soul (or spirit, or any immaterial part of man) are increasingly finding material explanations. That is, where we once thought that our own experience as a human necessitated some immaterial part of us, the "real me", the executive director of the mind, emotions and will, we now understand that no such immaterial reality is necessary to explain human behavior, thought, altruism, guilt, love, etc. We understand things like memory: our memory is stored in the massively complex meshwork of cells in our brain via electronic charges, not at all unlike the memory storage on our computers. The scary (really scary) thing for me was looking down at the sweet face of Ginger after she died, and thinking that, when she breathed her last breath, all of her memory literally ceased to exist. No need for a soul to "depart" her body. Even if such a soul did go somewhere, it left behind all those cells, all those strategically placed electrons, all that patchwork of axons and dendrites, all those synaptic interfaces. I began then to construct in my mind a picture of the human built upon the computer model ... one involving duplicate ROM and RAM memories, one in which the actual soul mirrors the material aspects of "soul-like" functions. More recently, I think of it in different terms.

Now, I conceive of God "recreating", if you will, Ginger (or any of us) based upon our unique genetic code, and with a stored (or resurrected) ROM memory. My faith in the resurrection, now, is built more upon God's love for me. If he really loves me (as we presume) and if he really wants relationship with me (as we presume), then he will not just let my body rot and my personhood cease to exist. He will resurrect me! If, alternatively, we were mistaken, and God (if he exists at all) doesn't really care for me or about me on the level we had assumed, I have no wish to be resurrected. I won't be resurrected, and I'd just as soon never be conscious again.

Does that make sense? I don't want you to think that I doubt the resurrection, or the after-life. I believe. But the reasoning has changed. It is not based upon some immortal part of me, an immortal soul. Rather, I believe (first of all) in the character of and the inherent goodness of God. (If we're wrong on that count, who wants everlasting life anyway?) And believing that about him, and believing in the extreme value of every unique human being, I am convinced such a God will call us to himself at some point after our death.

As to what Heaven is like, I'm sure I have no clue. It is beyond our imaginative scope to even come close. I don't mean this in terms of the gushy "Oh, Heaven will surpass all our wildest, most wonderful dreams! It will be better than anything we can imagine." Rather, I mean that the dimensionality of Heaven (or God's reality) is so multi-faceted with facets for which we have no calculus, that Heaven is unimaginable. Not unimaginably good. Just unimaginable.

For example, when we speak of Heaven as a place of unremitting joy, we only fool ourselves if we think of joy in the terms we now experience it. Joy, as we know it, is related to things like conquest, overcoming resistance, winning the battle, success (which implies resistance.) Life itself for us, in our current condition, contains potential for joy precisely because it also contains potential for sorrow. Take away suffering, resistance, struggle, pain, sorrow, and I submit that "joy" has no meaning. And yet, for most believers, Heaven is a place devoid of those things, but full of eternal bliss. Within our current frame of reference, that is craziness ... but most Christians never give it much thought.

More than anything you can possibly imagine, I hope to see my Ginger again.

Thanks for asking,
~ Cliff