January 5, 2014 (My Birthday, by the by)
“Who is this?”
When I was a child I was an avid collector of stones. It commenced early. My mother said that as soon as I could walk I started picking up rocks and stuffing them into my pockets, and from then on I was never—night or day–without at least one stone on my person at any time. I suppose there must have been some deep psychological significance to my compulsive rock collecting. Who cares? All I know is that there was something in the beauty and the solidity of stones that I found comforting as a kid. They are dependable and companionable—in their own reserved fashion. And since mine was a solitary childhood—we lived miles away from our nearest neighbors–they became my silent playmates.
The badlands of western North Dakota were silent, empty place back then–the oil boom that has changed all that, and not altogether for the good. But back then McKenzie County where my father’s ranch was located was rapidly hemorrhaging population. There were few people—and every year fewer—but there were lots of stones everywhere. Wonderful stones. My father’s pasture with its deep gorges and coulees was rich in fossil life. There were petrified stumps taller than the tallest man and sandstone slabs printed with the most beautiful, delicate falls of Paleocene leaves.
We didn’t see other people that often, out there back then, and when visitors did come to the ranch I always wanted to show them my fossil collection. “Don’t bring out those old stones, Billy,” my mother would beg, but I did anyway. The stones were part of me–the most interesting part, I thought. Most people were kind and pretended to show as interest, even if they didn’t feel it. But then once when I was ten years old or so my great uncle Dwight came to see my father on some matter or other, and I brought out my fossil collection to show him.
That was a big mistake. I really should have known better. Everyone knew what Uncle Dwight was like. To say he was zealously religious is the grossest understatement possible. Dwight was besotted with religion. He was God-intoxicated. A twice-born fundamentalist, an ardent adversary of “demon rum,” a fanatical puritan in every sense, he was the author of several religious tracts which he published at his own expense condemning women for wearing pants and “scent,” and putting forth the idea that if they ran around seductively dressed and smelling like harlots, it was their own fault if they got themselves raped. Shameless seducers, it was they and not their attackers who should be put in jail. You get the idea. It is hardly worth saying that he never married. He lived alone and devoted his spare time to the study of the Book of Revelation. He was as thick as two boards nailed together and just as rigid.
And it was to this zealous old Pharisee that I presented my fossil collection for inspection. As I said, I should have known better. It gave him the perfect opening. He stood up like an Old Testament prophet and denounced my lovely, innocent stones in no uncertain terms as satanic imposters. They weren’t millions of years old as they pretended to be; they were lately forged by the devil himself in an attempt to mislead people into believing in the hell-inspired theory of evolution—which he persisted in mispronouncing “evil-ution.” The world was created in six days only five thousand years ago and loose change. The Holy Bible (KJV) said so.
I can see him yet, glowering down on me and my fossil collection with unmasked hatred, his eyes burning like coals of hungry fire. He looked as if he would have cheerfully stoned me to death with my own rocks, if he had been able. I was ten years old—no more—a lonely, backward kid in thick glasses. And of course I could find nothing to say in reply to his tirade. Children didn’t “sass” their elders as much back then, and when stirred up great Uncle Dwight was indeed a very intimidating sight. For one thing, he turned a succession of nasty colors, one after another, his eyes bugged out, and the veins in his forehead stood out like sash cords. Sometimes in the heat of passion he would stamp his feet and do a sort of war dance. It was enough to frighten anyone.
So I just stood there, holding my box of fossils, and took it. I feel sure that in heaven I will forget Dwight completely for what he did to me that day, but I’m not there yet. No child needs to be humiliated like that—I certainly didn’t. It wounded me where I was most vulnerable, at the heart of myself. But even though I stood there mute before his tirade, I knew Uncle Dwight was full of it.
At ten years of age I already knew that the world wasn’t just five thousand and some odd years old. I knew my fossils weren’t the works of the devil intended to deceive anyone. They were the imprints left by ancient life forms laid down in sedimentary rocks millions and millions of years ago. I had a book with wonderful pictures that explained it all. The book compared those layered sedimentary stones to a book of wonders, its pages recording the epic story of life on our planet, how it evolved to greater and greater levels of complexity and awareness. And I believed what the book of stones said about the evolution of life on earth. I believed it instinctually, as one is drawn to the truth.
I believed in the Bible too, the ultimate book of wonders. I grew up in a household saturated with the Bible. My parents were both enlightened and devout. As a child I heard the Bible read and quoted constantly. It ordered our existence in this world, and drew us steadily toward the next with the monofilament line of grace. We knew the risen Lord was with us, even in our obscure corner of the world, and his presence brought light into our wintery darkness and spoke peace to our loneliness. As a child I couldn’t see any real conflict between those two books, the Bible and the book of stones.
I still can’t. Both are books of great mystery and beauty, and what binds them together is a sense of awe and wonder at our world—that it is—that we are in it—and that there is a Real Presence hidden in all things, like the bread and wine of Holy Communion. And that our world is so very, very old—so many millions of years that only God can count them—was a source of admiration and wonder to me as a child. And it came to me as a profound shock to discover that not everyone felt the same way. It still does.
Here in Florida my wife and I usually worship at the Greek Orthodox cathedral up the street. But this Christmas our kids were with us and everyone felt the need to hear the familiar carols. So we celebrated Christmas Eve at a Lutheran church near where we live. I won’t burden you with its synod affiliation—some of you will guess it anyway. And the congregation made no bones about what they believe and teach. In the bulletin I found a list of affirmations under the title “OUR FAITH,” outlining what they believe and teach. And there is nothing wrong with that. They should know what they confess, and everyone else should too. But among their espoused doctrines, together with the redemptive suffering and death of Jesus Christ and his resurrection, I found this statement—“We believe and teach that man is not the product of evolutionary development but was created by Divine design in the image of God.” And suddenly through the candlelight, I saw the face of Uncle Dwight glaring down at me, his eyes still burning with hatred for the hell-inspired theory of “evil-ution.”
My Uncle Dwight is long dead, but his point of view lives on in churches and flourishes. According to a recent Gallup poll, 46% of Americans believe that God created human beings in pretty much their present form at one moment in time, less than 10,000 years ago. And in the face of the efforts of scientists and educators to convince them otherwise, the percentage of Americans who believe in what has come to called “creationism” has increased by 2% in the last thirty years. Uncle Dwight hasn’t won his battle with the devil, but he certainly hasn’t lost it either.
Of course, we Americans are free to believe anything they jolly well want to. The right to be contrary is enshrined among all the others. I read the other day that there are people out there who believe America is 2014 years old. The Constitution protects stupidity as well as wisdom. So here in America churches can believe and teach that the world is flat and the moon is made of gorgonzola—and some of them do pretty much just that. But here in America I also have a right to speak my little piece—thank God. And it is a sad thing for a fervent believer like myself who loves Jesus very much—and I do, each day more–to see something that is demonstrably untrue as creationism affirmed together with the Lordship of Jesus, as if one must accept the first affirmation in order to embrace the second.
Which, of course, you do not. According to the same Gallup Poll, thirty-two percent of Americans subscribe to what the pollsters call “theistic evolution,” a belief that human beings evolved over millions of years, but that God was present to guide that process. But those moderate souls, who believe in the Bible and the book of stones, make up a fairly small minority of those who attend church regularly—only about 25%. Virtually everyone else who goes to church believes that God created the world in six days in the not too distant past and that fossils are creatures that drowned in Noah’s flood, or other such nonsense.
And of course they are free to believe that. This is America, after all. Who cares? I do, actually, because when they believe and teach something that is demonstrably false and lift it to the level of revealed truth, they call the whole Creed into question. That is the kind of willful ignorance is what gives our Christian faith such a bad name among those whom Friedrich Schleiermacher called “the cultured despisers of religion.” They like to style themselves champions of the truth. But in fact such incorrigible ignorance arises not from courage but to cowardice. People who hide behind the wall of fundamentalism are afraid to face the facts. Now facing the facts is often tough. I know, because I have struggled to do it most of my life. It forces us to acknowledge that we don’t know the answers to the greatest questions—and never will. It forces humility upon us, and humility runs counter to our human nature. But as Albert Camus wrote somewhere–“The most incorrigible vice [is] that of ignorance which fancies it knows everything.”
In the Old Testament book that bears his name, a man called Job learns the painful lesson of humility. By the end of the book the Lord has lost patience with prideful humankind in general, and in particular with Job’s presumptuous questioning of his ways. In chapter 38 comes the showdown. God addresses Job out of the vortex of a desert whirlwind and demands- “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up you loins like man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” (38:1-7)
Where? Who? The questions keep on coming and coming, with no space for an answer. And no space is necessary because the answer to every question is the same—nowhere and nothing. We were nowhere when God created us. We are nothing compared with such majesty and power. But the grilling continues relentlessly through the next four chapters of the book, until finally poor Job, who represents us all, exhausted by so much close interrogation, cries out, “I know that you can do all things, and no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you will declare to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:1-6)
And that is essentially where the book ends, with Job crushed by the magnificence of the created universe and reduced to his proper place in it, to dust and ashes. He is humiliated, but at the same time he is exalted. It is the paradox that runs through all of scripture. The mighty are pulled down and the lowly are lifted up. Pride and the pretense of understanding makes fools of us. But humility restores to what we intended to be, the creatures through whom God experiences his creation.
And as for all the answers to the questions we ask about that creation—Where did it come from? Where is it going? What came before and what follows after?–revealed religion doesn’t have them all. It can’t explain how the world came to be, only celebrate the Creator in poetry and song and in service that imitates his faithfulness and love.
Science doesn’t have all the answers either. In certain realms it can lead us to the truth, but its method simply does not work when it is applied to the question of, say, what is beautiful? Or what is good? Or why is there anything at all? Religious fundamentalism simplifies things that cannot be made simple, but science often does the same thing. It “murders to dissect.” It persists in asking the wrong questions, as if when confronting the “Birth of Venus” by Botticelli, we could explain its effect upon us by analyzing the chemical composition of its pigments.
The truth is that no one understands how the things that are came to be or why they are, not the atheistic scientist or the literalist believer. What makes us what we are is a mystery that goes beyond us all. Anyone who pretends to grasp that mystery, whatever his or her faith or lack thereof, is pathetically deluded. The best we can do is get close enough to that mystery to feel its warmth. In one of the apocryphal gospels Jesus is reported to say—“Whoever is close to me is close to the fire.” Did he really say that? Who cares? It is true. And it is also true that nothing becomes us better in the presence of the mystery of What Is than to adopt an attitude of humility and there is nothing wiser we say about it than—I don’t know.