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Category Archives: Religion & Spirituality

Faith and Science

I had to decompress today with a few colleagues, after the two strange biology classes I had. Same students, attentive and courteous, but we approached, a little too close for comfort, the idea that humans and chimps could be related. The question was (how could I be so naive?), What do you think humans and chimpanzees share so many similarities? They were to talk in groups and all they came up with was variations on because God made them that way. Either God made them that way, period, or God gave them some of the same characteristics because they were good adaptations for a similar lifestyle. One boy did offer the possibility that they might have a common ancestor, so I added that to their ideas. No one thought of genetics, but when I mentioned that genetically the two species are very similar, there was a pause, and “that doesn’t prove anything, though.”

I feel like these are just ordinary, evidence-based ideas, and that I don’t need, in fact should not–in the name of providing a science education–avoid them or couch them n creationist terms. Plus there’s so much that could be discussed about the reasons for the religious reservations there are to seeing connections between species, and especially to seemingly undermine the special status of humans in creation in any way. But I don’t think I’m really supposed to bring up what I know about biblical teaching on creation or how there need not be such a sense of threat at all. I wish I could talk with the parents away from the school, tell them I believe in God, have great respect for the Hebrew Bible, and can read it pretty well in the original. We have an entire library of commentaries (in storage), and are not godless pagans. The reason I thought God was so awesome as a kid was because of the wonderful things made by the Creator, and how much great design I recognize in both the big picture and fine detail. The theologians call this “general revelation,” which is available to all (as opposed to “special revelation,” available only to those to whom it revealed throughout history).

Instead, I fell I am coming across as anti-religion. I want to counter that, subtly but somehow, but it might not be possible. Can I direct those who are interested to sources from within the Christian community that have a more evidence-based view of biology, and a more literary, this-is-not-a-science-text view of the Bible? Maybe the best approach is, if it seems like there are barriers to learning growing, or that it seems to families that I am not respecting their majority culture, to ask questions. I could even offer the option that they research any biology and science-related passages in the Bible, and see how it relates to scientific evidence. Which passages of Genesis, for example, run parallel to science’s view on the origins of the planet and its life, and which seem to run contrary? How have theologians tried to work this out?

But time is short, and they still have to learn about cellular processes, ecology, homeostasis, inheritance, and physiology. But first we have to get through the evolution chapter with some semblance of integrity and harmony.

Here’s the piece I wrote to try to address parents on the issue:

In several of our discussions in biology class, it has come up that a majority of students in the classes consider faith in God, belief in the soul, and the special status of the humans species as very important. This was in the context of a discussion about how humans are unique, and the characteristics they share with other primates, based on their observations. The way I addressed this is to say that there are different ways of knowing, some accessible and testable by science, and others not, but known or believed very deeply in other ways.

Sometimes the scientific evidence presented in class may conflict with religious views of students and/or parents, and I am very aware of the need to be mindful of my role as public school teacher delegated by this community. Off and on I’ve had good conversations about this with parents, staff, and others as I work out the best way to proceed. I have really appreciated the opportunity to better understand views of both students and parents here in the area. I have also appreciated the openness of both to learn and converse in a respectful and thoughtful way.

Okay, so I’m in ——-, and I knew what I was getting into when I took on this job. I homeschooled my own four children for many of the same reasons our ——– families do, and have had reservations about the way a public school must by law provide a religion-free education, and so, by default, appear to communicate a low value for faith perspectives, while trying to respect all citizens’ religious, or non-religious, views.

In science classes, I must refrain from engaging in teaching even about religion, although it is permissible by law in social studies or history classes. The ACLU’s interpretation of the law is that “[I] may present only genuinely scientific critiques of, or evidence for, any explanation of life on earth, but not religious critiques (beliefs unverifiable by scientific methodology). Schools may not refuse to teach evolutionary theory in order to avoid giving offense to religion nor may they circumvent these rules by labeling as science an article of religious faith. Public schools must not teach as scientific fact or theory any religious doctrine, including “creationism,” although any genuinely scientific evidence for or against any explanation of life may be taught. Just as they may neither advance nor inhibit any religious doctrine, teachers should not ridicule, for example, a student’s religious explanation for life on earth.”

This respect for the law about my duty as a public school teacher has made me reluctant to directly address any of the faith-based views I have encountered in class. On the other hand, discussing the apparent conflict between religious and scientific views is very interesting to me personally. I also wish I could provide resources that could help families to understand the ways in which scientific scholars of the Judeo-Christian faith have tackled these areas of conflict. But once again, I hesitate due to the constraints of the law. I also realize that other than asking questions to help students develop their own thinking as related to biology, it’s not my role to address about religious views about science.

I will be teaching evolutionary theory in the next month or so. This will include presenting the scientific evidence that has accumulated from many sources for the theory of common ancestry, as well as teaching about the biochemical drivers of evolution on short, medium, and long time scales. I will do my best to continue to nurture a respectful forum for discussion and individual interpretive work (in writing and projects), where that can lead to a greater understanding of high school level biology. I appreciate parents’ and students’ patience as we go through this sometimes uncomfortable process.

I also want to communicate here some of the things I have said in class about the value and limits of science. I have said that science is a great tool and way of knowing, but that there are other ways of knowing and being sure of things. Science attempts to be objective and relies on evidence–lots of it, to develop theories. I point out that although a theory, as the term is used in science, is well supported by evidence, all theories are subject to testing, revision, and falsification if there is enough contradictory evidence. No theory ought to be spoken of as “true” or “proven” in science. Science is also not useful for verifying or disproving any type of knowledge for which observable or measurable evidence cannot be gathered, and so can never be used to disprove, for example, ideas about God, or whether there is a divine force behind both evolution and the day-to-day life of molecules and cells.

The only area I see a direct conflict between faith and science is in the view that the Bible, Hebrew or Greek testaments, are sources of reliable, sufficient empirical evidence to counter scientific views about the age and history of the Earth. I cannot present the young Earth view as a viable alternative theory, simply because there isn’t enough evidence for it. That said, there are many alternative faith-based ways to view biblical teaching relating to creation, and there are good books, lectures, and websites that offer guidance for those who want to inquire. I hope that students in conflict will seek these out rather than either simply refusing to consider scientific evidence on the one hand, or, on the other hand, doubting their faith because they believe it is incompatible with scientific evidence. Mostly, I hope that they will gain an appreciation of how amazing, intricate, and interesting the world of living things is, and as much knowledge about how it works as possible.

 

 
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Posted by on October 24, 2016 in Religion & Spirituality

 

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But I didn’t ask them, Do chimps have souls?

I’m still on the fence about whether I could be content teaching at this school for the long term. Still not sure if helping open up a certain percentage of minds to valuing scientific methods and evidenced based conclusions is important enough, compared to maybe working with marginalized students.

My biology classes are in the midst a unit for which a key question is “What makes humans unique?” I had the students watch “Among the Wild Chimpanzees,” about the work of Jane Goodall, and gave reflection questions as homework. Back in class, I asked them to share their answers to the last question, “Has watching this film changed your views about the uniqueness of humans or our relationship with other animals in any way?” I expected a few different responses, but instead, got a resounding, “No!” from a chorus of voices, accompanied by smiles of what looked a little like triumph, though more impish than defiant. I was actually taken aback, and said, “That’s okay.! You don’t have to.” They are definitely on their guard, those conservative Christian youth, in case I might relativize their truth in some way.

In the prior small group discussion in which students were challenged to come to consensus about what makes humans unique, and then to narrow these things down to what was scientifically testable and verifiable, it came out that there was a strong consensus that humans have a soul. I said, okay, the fact that you all believe that is because you live in a community full of families that have brought you up that way. I asked what it might be like for someone who publicly declared that they disagreed. They started a bit at that idea. So, I said, you believe that, you know that, as have most people from all over the world, in various ways, for thousands of years. But the reason you know it is outside of the tools of science, in a different way of knowing. This type of knowledge is not discoverable by science.

The idea here is that humans are unique in their ability to use symbolic language, pass on cultural traditions, and develop complex technologies, and in an extended childhood through rites of passage, but that they also share lots of characteristics with other animals, especially chimps. They all saw how the chimps use intelligence to solve problems, made and used tools, educated their young, and maintained close emotional bonds with members of the community. They also made war and sometimes engaged in cannibalism and other kinds of nastiness not generally acceptable in the community, but also present in human society. I sent them home this time with the question, WHY do you think we have so much in common with chimps? Most of the students (maybe all) believe, that scientists will tell them that humans descended from apes, and that’s not okay. Will they say really, we aren’t similar to chimps, it only looks that way because of scientists’ bias? Or that God created the chimps the way they are just like he created us the way we are?

And so then we’ll move on to interpretations of human culture, to the way human communities foster children through a long childhood, and then, all bets are off as we move to identifying the characteristics of all living things, and then evolution and Earth’s history, both hot potato topics. Stay tuned.

 

 
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Posted by on October 22, 2016 in Education, Religion & Spirituality

 

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In which the teacher wonders whether she will be able to fit in at her new school

More on the job search; new development: I got a full time position. Nice to know a month before starting–lots of time to plan, but maybe too much time to brood. Now there’s just a week, and I’m still feeling unsure.

I had hoped to be called by my district–the one I live in and which gave me the job I finished in June–about a middle school science or high school biology job. I thought I had a pretty good shot at it, with experience, good references, a few connections. But the weeks went by after my application was in, and no calls, no emails, and then “position filled” on the jobs website, same as last year. Also hoped to be able to bike to work, was poised to buy the bike, set up the storage rack inside the garage, now to be vacated by college age child. But no response to the applications I put in.

Six nearby districts had no relevant postings at all. The seventh had a maybe–a posting for high school math and science at an alternative school I’d never heard of, serving homeschooled students. I read the requirements, and I was a one hundred percent match, and more. So I applied, and got a call the next week, had my interview set up for that Friday. I should have been pumped– full time, alternative, fully qualified. The forty minute commute was regrettable, but we had been looking around for properties, and could easily settle closer if things worked out in that district.

But it was in that very religiously conservative town that I’ve written of before, the one I’ve never been interested in living in, never felt I fit in culturally. Even when I was more religious I was never conservative enough in the right ways, felt too edgy, likely to offend or be judged. On paper I looked like a good fit, but deep down I wondered if I would fit in. The school served homeschool families exclusively in a parent partnership model, which meant I needed to bridge those worlds and be super flexible about the different ways families approached education, which working within the public education professional paradigm.

I didn’t prepare much–just refreshed my mind with notes I’d taken for previous interviews, and wrote down my questions for them. My goal was to find out if this job would keep me on track for working with some of the “tougher” kids in the system, preferably back in the city, and maybe even in the school I worked in last year, after it had its new, larger building and needed more science teachers. I interviewed with the principal, who also teaches part time, and a teacher leader who was serving as a kind of assistant principal.

The school uses part of a building shared by a church and several other Christian ministries, including health services (free pregnancy tests) and a clothing distribution center. The principal and teacher were sharing a joke when I walked in the outer door, warmly asked me to wait a few minutes, then I was invited into the office. They asked me to tell about myself, nodded with appreciation at the places in my narrative that indicated a fit to the position. Asked me what was the worst lesson I ever taught. I said I couldn’t think of a specific one, but in general I mostly regretted times when I talked too much and listened too little, or where I was not relaxed enough to be myself and teach in my natural way. The teacher asked me whether I had used a particular curriculum as a homeschooler. I was prepared for this, having resolved not to let on that I had raised my children in Christianity, feeling that this information had no legitimate place in a public school teacher interview. I said I had used various things, and a literature rich approach. She pressed, which approach was that? I confessed that I had used Sonlight Curriculum. Ah, they both sighed in satisfaction–that was a good one. So the cat was partially out of the bag.

I asked them what they felt were the strengths of their school, and the challenges. Strengths were the tight knit team and close community of the student body, challenges included dealing with strong willed parents. Tied to that, I asked them if in the course of teaching some aspects of biology to children of conservative Christians, there sometimes arose conflicts over certain scientific ideas such as evolution. Because although I was brought up a believer, I only became familiar with creationism later, I said. I was interested in others’ viewpoints, indeed had sought out creationist books at a homeschool book fair to see what the most educated creationists had to say. Yes, sometimes, the principal said, there were sometimes parents who objected, but he would be there to help deal with that, and besides, he said, you don’t have to teach everything. This got my attention, as it implied that it might be best to sidestep such conflicts by cutting out science content. For example, he continued, once he worked at a school where the librarian wanted to have Harry Potter books in the library, and he had said to her that he had nothing against having books like that, but why did she have to have them?

By this I understood that, at the very least, this was a principal of the Golden Retriever personality type, a peacemaker who doesn’t stand up for principles where that brings interpersonal conflict. That’s a red flag for me, as I enjoy bringing up and discussing controversial issues in order to learn and teach, and do try to adhere to principles of truth even when that brings on some heat. Not that peace making isn’t an important principle also, and it could be a great thing to work with an administrator who prioritizes mutual good feeling. It all makes me wonder about the balance between teaching from who I am, which includes teaching about evolution, sex ed, whatever, because these are important science, and the need to respect local community values and parental authority over children’s education. That last was big for me as a homeschooling parent–I didn’t appreciate a paternalistic attitude in school personnel, as I viewed them as having only delegated authority and only over a certain aspects of children’s lives. But I do have values to inculcate as a teacher, too, and that includes a respect for reason, logic, and empirical evidence.

I got a call from the principal as I was pulling into the fabric store on the way home. He offered me the job, said he had already spoken to my references, and would be please to hear my answer that Monday, if that worked for me. I thanked him and said I would give it careful thought. I accepted the job on Monday, not having been able to give the final word to my red flags, glad to have a full time opportunity, and knowing I would benefit from the need to learn the curricula for all six courses I would be teaching. Six is a lot, but only Mondays and Wednesdays and heavily supported by home assignments supervised by parents.

My other source of discontent is that I don’t really feel that homeschool kids need the kind of support I want to give. The have supportive families, are economically stable enough to be homeschooled, and are mostly independent, self- motivated learners. I really wanted to get back into serving the tough kids, the kids who didn’t fit, the kids who had something that needed to be discovered and busted out in a special supportive setting, who were the ones mostly driving the best efforts of education leaders and making schools a more authentic place of learning and growth. I missed my school from last year.

There is one way in which I could see these homeschool students, the ones from the religiously conservative families, needing, at least in my mind, what I had to give. I could maybe get some of them them hooked on biology/ecology, more knowledgeable about the natural/created world, help them understand the value of rational scientific thinking about it and see it as a powerful aid to growth and developing purpose rather than a tool of the enemy. I grew up on the hymn “This is My Father’s World,” my earthly father reinforced the Bible’s teaching on stewardship, and I enjoyed and still enjoy reading the Psalms for the way they celebrate the beauty and power of the creation. Later my conservative Christian teachers emphasized, in reaction to New Age religion, that we are to worship the Creator rather than creation, which I had though was a no-brainer, but whatever. The only people with whom I shared the values of living lightly, recycling, cutting down on energy use and preserving biodiversity, besides my father, one Regent College professor, and several friends who I was able to influence, were decidedly non-religious. Inter-Varsity Press, NavPress and Multnomah Press books on how to live the Christian life, think critically and biblically about the issues, were light on stewardship. I was aware that liberal Christians were more into environmental conservation, but they were not very helpful in the struggle with personal morality and purity of thought life.

I’m planning my biology and environmental science classes now, and intend to do what I can to support critical thinking, evidence-based reasoning, and the development of an environmental ethic rooted in a value for sustainability. In other words, let’s understand natural systems, lets’ understand how humans depend on and affect them, and let’s not promote the destruction of human society. Valuing all other life forms will have to stem from long term self interest with a primal drive rooted in our selfish genes. There is no conservative without conservation, no religion without human society, no traditional values without sustainable traditions. There is no intelligent design of humans in God’s image if those humans don’t know how to design intelligently.

 

 

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Survival of the fittest, moving cheese, and losing my religion

Let me just say first that this is all coming from a sense of failure as a parent, as a family member in general, and a feeling that I have inherited a way of life from my culture that is dooming us all to failure. Also an undying sense of hope that there might…just…be…a..way, if only… Putting this and that piece of understanding together into a picture, dim but somewhat coherent.

First, I’ve been leading my high school students through Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. My thoughts on this have been turbocharged by reading Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene. Upshot being only those types of individuals who successfully pass on their types of genes will inherit the Earth, all others go extinct. By definition, I tell them, the only species alive now are those that proved that ability to pass on genes over the long term and in given environmental conditions. Dawkins goes further to argue that the unit of successful survival isn’t even the species, but the genes within, and these aren’t picky about the bodies they use–whatever works for the replicators gets continued into the new line.

Those are the basics, which we might say (no other species being able to join the debate) have favored the pinnacle of creation, humankind. A stupid thought, really, but perhaps born out of wonder at what we see when we step out into self-consciousness–hey, that’s me? No way!

But what about when environmental conditions change, either by acts of God in the abiotic spheres, or the evolution of entire ecosystems in the biosphere? The forest grows up and getting light is a new challenge, so the shorty plants die out. Owls’ hearing gets even better so only mice with genes that give new survival strategies survive. Humans cause mass destruction of ecosystems, disrupt environmental cycling and equilibrium, so begins the sixth massive extinction, and then what? It’s early yet, for real evolutionary change in humans to show, but what’s the trend? Or, is it all too fast for us more complex, slower evolving species and only the bacteria will survive and the whole march will start over, toward what end? The idea of an end being a Western bias, for sure, because in terms of evolution, I suppose there is no end. Even if our planet becomes uninhabitable and we don’t get off onto another one in time, some passing asteroid will  catch the microbial drift somehow.

There are some interesting trends in the human species, for sure, that seem to go against the survival of the fittest rule. One is the tendency of more technologically advanced, educated, less religious people to breed less. Unless those folks simultaneously suppress the higher reproductive success of fundamentalists and the less “educated,” can we predict that natural selection will favor the latter, all other things being equal? Maybe that’s always been the case, and the real reason for the falls of Indus, Rome, and Atlantis.

But there are density-dependent factors too, such as competition for resources, and the requirement that we llive within our means. So quietly living indigenous people, who carry very old surviving genes from people who lived that way for eons, or slipped back into the jungle when past civilizations came to similar crises, will be the means of humanity outliving this crisis, too. Most of them, I hear, practice reproductive self restraint, even without careers and luxury urban apartments. All the reproductive restraint without the economic growth that destroys the habitat. Not so nasty and brutish after all.

A few weeks ago heard a piece on CBC Ideas about the evolutionary advantage for humans of story telling (http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/vestigial-tale-part-1-1.3086744). We can assume that up until now there has been a real advantage in most populations, or we wouldn’t be still telling them. A big part of those stories are the mythologies that help people understand their place in the world and what is to be valued, feared, sought, expected.

Tying that to my own experience of losing a grip on the mythology I inherited, thanks to the Age of Reason and Science, combined with a sense of intellectual dishonesty I have frequently encountered in the religious community. Started out with Our Lord Jesus and His body the Church, prayer and sacraments and Sunday school and Resurrection Day, God made the sun, moon, and stars and the purpose of our lives is to worship God and enjoy him forever. Not without a study of molecules, other galaxies, and evolutionary marvels, and an emphasis on stewardship. What I was trying to pass on was that we are to be a blessing to the world. I had occasional real mystic experiences, and most of the time accepted that my spiritual gifts and God-given personality made me prone to listening to my head more than my heart, to nature more than preacher.

It was so easy to stop going to church, once we stopped home schooling. Our public school system, which does such a fine job here up north separating Church and State, has also, by default, conveyed the idea that religion, with its God talk, morality, and exclusivity, is a primitive, private, and personal pastime awkwardly  appended to one’s 145 hour a week push for college and career readiness. That the essence of living is success in the competitive economy, pluralism, and peer socialization. Going to church felt like an anachronism, with its emphasis on discipleship, sacrifice, and worship of the Unseen One. Formal studies in the faith had its pros and cons. Over the years my spouse and I have always openly critiqued every oversimplification of religious ideas, dogmas, and interpretations, so our kids didn’t get any sense of uncritical loyalty that might have kept them attached to church life. They found they didn’t fit in well with the youth group summer mission trip crowd, and couldn’t sign the statements of faith required to be a blessing through youth leadership or working at summer camp. We went to one of those urban, young professional type churches without a strong sense of community (and with a respect for privacy), so when we drifted off weekly attendance, no one noticed.

In homeschooling I had good friends–we all did, but only a few. We never really fit into the religious subculture there that availed itself of its right to educate its own from cradle to loose ends, all under the umbrella of the church, which provided its own sanitized version of biology and the scientific method.

Now we are at loose ends at home, without a community to come alongside and share the pain of bringing up teens to love God and enjoy him forever, without any ritual and tradition–of seasons, coming of age, or divine sacraments. It feels like we’ve lost our way, but the usual road signs offered are outdated brands. I find myself thinking, what is it we have to pass on? What was that blessing we were supposed to be offering to the world?

Is that lack of grounding in myth, in addition to the cultural angst we have absorbed, signs that our genes are not all that fit? None of my kids expresses any strong desire to be a parent. Although the traditional view is for me to look forward to being a grandparent, I’m starting to think it wouldn’t be responsible to pass these exploiter genes on. Maybe the fading of parental longings in so many moderns is a result of the signals coming back from the ecosystems we have wrecked, the zoos and Sea Worlds we have created, but which can’t give us food, shelter, and clothing enough for the propagation of the genes we house.

I do get excited about the possibility of my kids fostering and adopting, though, which seems a more just expression of parenting that adding more feet to the sun baked ground. Would have done that myself, if I could have won over the camp.

At the high school where I teach, I’ve brought up the idea of a survival skills elective (elective!) class that could be offered, and there has been universal interest among the students. Seems like the proper thing to do. I noticed that the idea is trending–there is a display of titles on the topic at the library. One ought to be able to slip off into the woods, live off the land, leaving only organic fertilizer, and footprints, and re-establishing a culture of harmony. I feel it in my genes.

 

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Borrowed meaning

Meet me at the bus stop, Jesus. And if you have anything for me to add to my luggage, make it your own home brew.
I don’t want to consume that ready-made any more, though I’ll keep that fact to myself a little longer.
Just like depression, most people don’t want to know when you’re losing your religion.
Borrowed that story about you for so many years, and it wasn’t even yours. Second hand from some other emperor, maybe a tribal chieftain too.
Mistranslated, double switched meanings (literally!). Not your fault, as usual.

It’s true the more you learn, the less you can admit to knowing.
Then why don’t learned people teach less and less, instead of more and more?
Hoping to tie things up for the next generation, fix a temporary stake, to slow the backsliding they felt in their times of midlife crisis

Dark and light, equinox and blazing glory, peach and good will (now to all genders).
I always knew about the glory.
But no need to light up a tree or ring them bells for that–just look out the window at those chickadees,
And that’s on the darkest day of the year, all in shades of gray,
Tiny beetles under delicately curling bark, pupae asleep in the mud, lilies already pushing up points of green.
All those selfish gene propagation machines can’t hide the glory.

Still, is it to be avians and asteriods only on the tree, felted and embroidered, from now on?
Are we keeping the manger and decorated camels for old time’s sake?
Must have the lights, at the very least–starved for light I am, these days.
And of course, one must have the balls.

 

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Not quite

I can be very critical of certain views and practices in which I nevertheless see immense value. In hindsight I often realize I have come across as disapproving and judgmental, when I am taking issue with that five to ten percent I see as problematic. I think it’s because that which is closest to the truth needs to be most carefully probed, to identify, if one can, the few imperfections there may be, the ways in which something is not quite truth or reality but only a reflection. It is a bad habit to neglect to accentuate the positive, though–I really do need to work on that, especially when it comes to the people, practices and traditions I value. Sometimes I give the wrong impression to those both inside and outside my way of thinking.

For example, I am apt to be hard on religion and religious people, especially of my own tradition, because I want their authentic beauty and worth to be distinguishable from unexamined traditions, superstitions, oversimplifications, sentimentalism, and idiosyncratic, personality-based preferred styles of expression that attach themselves to religion. I challenge especially those who have “inherited” their religion. I stand as a skeptic, sound like a skeptic, a critic, a scoffer, but inside I feel drawn to the center of the idea and long to find an authentic, unaffected, unselfconscious expression of my own, and draw nearer the divine, become more like what I am meant to be all in that fire dance of love. Which, I realize, is not achieved by hypercritical analysis. Or if it was, I wouldn’t know for sure because that too would be part of my unselfconscious expression. At which I could cry, woe is me, or Eureka!

I was listening to some folks talk about supernatural or paranormal experiences a while back, accounts which I considered credible enough, though not necessarily empirically verifiable. Reminded me of other accounts I have heard of kids speaking of past lives, sightings of and communications with bodiless spirits and so on. I think things like these are most reliably communicated one to another, not through book agents to ghost writers to publishers and then news networks and viral tweets. Even if some of the stories told this way are true, who can tell that it wasn’t all just for money or fame or entertainment, those three great idols of our age? But while I listen, it’s like I’m standing behind myself and a little off to the side, observing, and the observer says, hmm, Toes–you are usually so skeptical, yet you’re accepting these paranormal possibilities pretty much at face value, or at least not feeling concerned about whether they are true in the usual sense of the world. Seemingly more credulous in the realm of the incredible. And more so outside my culture as well, believing that the trances of the ancient Togolese woman in that village were a sign of demonic bondage, but those on the televangelist channel were faked to increase viewership or donations.

One woman described a conflict with a Native woman who accused her of stealing her name. She sketched an outline of ceremonial and supernatural occurrences that followed as part of the process to claim the right to the name. No reason to doubt her–her manner showed her to be reluctant to bare it all in case someone discounted what she had experienced.

The other woman described the way she had been given a kind of dream-like view into what she believed were the past lives of others, and also her own. She saw this as a door by which she could enter and assist folks in healing and understanding themselves and their relationships. And while I’m open to that possibility, still seems like there’s a real possibility of going astray, to just follow and believe everything that comes along in the realm of what I’d call the subconscious, including where it intersects with the spirit world. Some disembodied spirits, I believe, like some embodied ones, deceive others for their own ends. There are lies and deceptions in the realm of the supernatural, and why wouldn’t there be?

And truth matters, right? I mean, it’s not enough to say, well, if people want to believe something and it comforts them, so be it, and let’s just hope for the best that the purveyors of those comforting fictions won’t be exposed , bringing hurtful disillusionment. At least not before they sign up for automatic credit card payments. Illusion, comforting illusion, say those atheists who kindly tolerate the faith of the faithful, is a kind of pragmatism for those who can’t face the godless universe. Speaking of things like Heaven is Real and such like. Though just because the little boy’s accounts have been denounced as fakes doesn’t mean we should automatically believe they are fake, because the denouncers also increased viewership and got a line on a series of well-paying journal articles.

And another thing: why would supernatural or uncanny or apparently miraculous (not for profit) events be exempt from shades of quality or worth, any more than the empirically verifiable or commonly accepted “facts” that surround us? That car has four wheels. That creature visible only to the eyes of the medium wears a blue robe. By which shall I order my life and which mine for deep truth? Why not take paranormal experiences with a grain of salt as well as normal ones, rather than having an all or none response? My tradition teaches that we ought to test the spirits–they don’t all tell the truth. the ones that don’t aren’t necessarily evil,  they may be misguided or mistaken, or just nothing special.

It’s about trying to separate false from true, while realizing one can’t often do so decisively. And it sure doesn’t help people really looking for the truth( so they can apply it, rather than sell it) to discover the people they trusted glossed over contradictions and gray areas, not even intimating they were doing so “for all practical purposes,” like we do in science.

On the other hand, it does turn out to be very useful to believe “I before E except after C” until one is capable of grasping the amendment, “except in words like “eight” and “neighbor.” I suppose it’s the same in theology and other more abstract areas of knowledge and belief.

And then there’s the belief that truth is relative–something against which evangelical Christians and especially fundamentalists of every stripe continually warn their flocks. Personally, I know it’s one hundred percent true that some truths are pretty close to one hundred percent true, but not very many, and some are true depending on the circumstances, the people and personalities involved, and the way other truths must be balanced. So, Omar, I guess you were right after all, though I would have liked to have seen you declare that you believed something, besides Don’t step on anyone’s philosophical toes. Even those in the back rooms of the most conservative seminaries, not to forget conservative political think tanks, admit this much to each other, in whispers: what the masses don’t know could hurt their faith in the priesthood.

And there are back rooms. Where the guys in charge (occasionally it’s women, such as in feminist back rooms, but usually not) say, we can’t tell them all that, even if it is true–it will conflict with this; there are nuances, and they might get confused and disillusioned, and not cooperate. It’s expedient that they believe the basic package, and anyway, they want to believe it–it makes them feel better, and they like things simple.

Amazing how people will believe the package even though contradictions are out in plain sight. Like the one about the Bible being 100% true and authoritative, yet most of it we wouldn’t think of using as a lifestyle guide. Wives, submit to your husbands. Stone your children if they are disobedient. Then there’s “bear your own burdens” and “Bear one another’s burdens.” Contradiction? Nuances. My southern Baptist theology professor at least had the integrity to say the Bible is “authoritative in what it teaches and affirms.” And to encourage students willing to grapple with the text. Maybe that’s why he ended up at a school north of the border–simple faith wasn’t good enough for him.

At the funeral the preacher (well-schooled in that simple faith tradition, by all appearances) who never really knew the deceased or much of the family because they were not church goers, scraped together the not-likely-to-be contradicted story of how this ailing woman essentially, in her last days, saw the light, repented, gave her life to Christ. And how kind and wonderful she was, always a smile and encouragement for everyone, which made it seem that her kindness was a result of this conversion, when really it was her essential character all along, despite all the wine bottles showing in the slide show of her life prior to that moment. What a comfort that she is not in hell after all, don’t we agree? Then he says it: “Friends, if anyone here has not yet given their life to the Lord, in your heart I invite you to say that prayer…” Seventy-nine percent of the congregation shifts in their seats, thinking, you self-satisfied, condescending simpleton, don’t call me ‘friend’,” thirty-five cough or sigh that this guy is embarrassing them in front of their liberal friends, and five smile with satisfaction that the gospel is being preached to all these heathen, because when would they get a chance to hear it otherwise? So the believers can wash their hands of that blood. Friends?The gospel has been preached!

Even in my younger days, when we weren’t yet in the era of deconstructible truth—it may have happened faster in your neighborhood than in mine—I never responded to that kind of message, and couldn’t believe anyone would (except on televangelist broadcasts, and I only ever saw those by mistake). Shows how naive I am. I know now that there were, and still are, souls going around hungry to believe something, especially if it sounds different enough from what they grew up with, even if it comes out of a screen or from a stranger at a funeral or a rally, and especially if there’s a starter kit for sale and a network of trained outreach workers with 1-800 numbers. No need for corroborating evidence, apologetics, rational discourse, just try it out. And I’m trying not to judge, because as a biology person, I know it takes all kinds, “all” being the ones that are around right now, to make a world.

 

 

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Wrapping up college applications and comparisons

When my oldest son joined us in the airport arrivals area, he said we had all got taller, except me–I looked a little shorter, he said. Which reminded me of times I had felt that very same thing on seeing my family after an absence–some kind of manifestation of relative expansion into the significance of a developing life. Or possibly it is more about parents being imprinted on one’s early memory as large, in relative stature as well as in influence, until, voila! there they stand, looking very small and ordinary to the adult progeny.

Acadia University, Wolfville, Nova Scotia, is now my son’s college of choice. If he gets accepted there, it will be tough to break it to the Grandma and Grandpa here, who have their hearts quietly set on Whitworth. My daughter saw my mother-in-law’s face when I was telling the family at dinner what my son had liked about Acadia, and she said her expression was very controlled. My father-in-law shared with us what a difference Whitworth had made in his life when he studied there, then coached and taught P.E. My mother-in-law said–jokingly—is what if he meets and marries some wonderful Nova Scotian girl, and decides to live there, so far away? Like I did, basically, depriving my parents of regular contact with their grandchildren. Another way to look at it, though, is don’t we then owe my parents some time with at least one grandchild?

The Acadia tour was led by two students, and my son was struck by how many of the others they met along the way that they knew personally. Also by the quality of the computer science program (they also have a great education program) and the scale of the campus. He told me that he loved the opportunity to be closer to my side of the family for a few years–my parents, sister and brother-in-law, niece, and brother all live within an hour of Acadia–as well as to be immersed in a Canadian way of looking at the world. Also, he wants diversity. Whitworth, he said, limited diversity, first by being expensive, and second by being Christian. My husband an I are both very aware of how narrow and sometimes even intellectually dishonest an “orthodox” world view can be. And there’s so much of value to learn from folks with other points of view and life experiences. As for the opening up of other cans of worms such as exposure to lifestyles and philosophies that he, and/or we, would find immature, unhealthy, or dysfunctional, I have confidence that not only will he maintain his integrity, but he’ll be a good influence. I hope I’ll feel the same about all my children as they get to that stage, that they are ready to go out there and be light and salt, and when they make mistakes, that they’ll be okay.

While he was away we had some really interesting conversations with two of his cousins who went to an evangelical Christian college in state. What they shared confirmed in both my husband and me that a conservative Christian college probably wasn’t the best option for our son. This wasn’t the intention of my nieces, of course. These sisters have completely different personalities–one, a self-admitted compliant child and introvert, admitted that she sought the cultural shelter of the Christian campus and needed that for a few years, and the other, a self-admitted strong-willed child, who originally wanted nothing to do with Christian schooling, went in to be challenged and to challenge, feeling–this is my between-the-lines interpretation–that she needed the loving constraints of the campus covenant and close knit Christian community as a kind of spiritual discipline.

So we’re waiting for the mail, now. Whitworth and another college (low priority) have sent acceptances. This is so exciting. Even though all of our lives will change with one leaving for college, I’m looking forward to seeing him make his way, and expect he will do well.

 
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Posted by on April 6, 2015 in Education, Religion & Spirituality

 

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