Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Saturday, February 14, 2009

fishing for answers

Wow! Thursday was so busy with real life that I didn't have time to celebrate Charles Darwin's birthday, or Abraham Lincoln's for that matter. However, driving on the freeway Thursday night, and listening to NPR offered the perfect convergence of what I perceive to be Darwin's ongoing dilemma.

As I'm listening to the story of Darwin's amazing discoveries and his posited theory of natural selection (it is still a theory, right?), he came to the conclusion that we climb higher on the ladder, attaining ever more evolved states, only through struggle and suffering, so that the weak are eliminated, leaving the strong to survive, out of which arises a more evolved, more adapted species.

So I'm at the red light as I'm listening to this, and I pull up behind this lady who has the classic Darwin fish sticker (meant, I believe, to trump the earlier version of the fish that Christians used back in the 70's. Of course, there's a third generation of fish stickers, that of the Jesus fish eating the Darwin fish, but I digress). Right under her classic Darwin fish is that cool "Coexist" sticker, meant to call us all to an ecumenism that pretends all our world views are fundamentally the same, so "why don't we all just love each other."

Does anyone else see the contradiction on the back of this Subaru? If Darwin was right, genocide, forced sterilization, infanticide, and so much more that we rightly find horrific are in reality only the normal and appropriate course of things. Isn't this the way it works on the upward path towards a more evolved state as a species? Shouldn't the strong prey upon the weak, like what happens in National Geographic specials when the weakest member of the caribou herd is isolated and killed?

This, it seems to me, is a conundrum that any thinking naturalist finds him/herself in: struggle and suffering are at the heart of natural selection, and this is antithetical to our deepest instincts towards love and service. What's the solution?

Perhaps, and I'm only musing here, (because that's the name of this blog), the answer comes from the unlikely source of Christianity, which sets humankind apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, calling us to a higher standard, a standard of laying down our personal rights in service to others, a call to caring for the common good, and a call to give dignity to the marginalized of the world.

I have more thoughts on this little conundrum, and in the interest of full disclosure, want you to know that when I tread near biology, I'm on thin ice, so I'm a learner here welcoming comments as much as anything. But when biology rubs against theology, philosophy, and ethics... well, then I might have something to say, or at least something to muse.

Happy belated birthday Chuck... maybe a few of you can help me hash this out as a little present to the old dead guy.


At 14/2/09 20:09, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recently listened to a podcast that discussed Darwin's spiritual life. It changed my default impressions of the guy and made me want to learn more about him as a person. Whether you agree with him or not, it was very interesting to see how much he connected his observations of nature with his faith and how much that faith was influenced by his youth.

Here's the podcast. It was the 2/5/2009 episode.

At 14/2/09 21:50, Blogger Unknown said...

I personally feel that both science and Christianity have so much to learn from each other. They're both forms of faith and both seek the same thing...truth. They just focus on different aspects of the truth. Christianity focuses on God/Christ/Holy Spirit, Science focuses on God's creation (of course most scientist don't see it that way).

I think it's a shame that there is an immediate antagonism between many on both sides of the fence. For Christians I ask, what if evolution at a micro and macro level is true (as I believe a lot of empirical evidence seems to show)? How would that affect your faith/ theology? For scientists, what if God exists (as millions upon millions of people from every continent and every era have believed)? How might that change your science?

Personally, I'm looking forward to a day when Christians are encouraged to view science, not as enemy, but as a form of worship... as a means of delving deeper and deeper into understanding God's majestic creation.

At 15/2/09 10:56, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i think i agree with your conclusion that humans are called to live by a higher standard. i've been struggling with the topic of homosexuality lately - if they love each other, are monogamous, normal, if the animal kingdom even does it, it's natural - then what's wrong with it? well, you may or may not agree, but whether their feelings are natural is not the issue, rather it's whether their feelings are God's intent. we don't all get what we want - in fact rarely - even heterosexuals find themselves alone, or married to the wrong person, or whatever. and i think the only way to get past these things is to envision God's intent for us, and live in that, instead of our desires and the lives of those around us. my brother even reminded me of the blessing of suffering, and its ability to give us awareness of things we'd otherwise ignore. but anyway... darwin himself began to doubt his own theories, for all the gaps and lack of substantial proof. i think it's very funny that others have more faith in them than their creator.

At 15/2/09 12:24, Blogger bleev said...

I was at the early service this morning with my boyfriend. We were sitting in the second row.

It's been an intense past few months after leaving the church I've attended for four years... And 6 months of treading in waters of more questions than any answers. I've been in and out of visiting a few churches including yours.

I found Bethany through one of your previous attender's blog (Kate McDonald)... I've been reading for a few months now and today was my second visit... (I love your insight and writing, btw) Just this week, he and I were "intensely" discussing the purpose of church in our lives. I was more arguing for the "unnecessity" of the institution, while he gently tried to inform me that biblically I was incorrect. After a couple of evenings of me ending in tears - he concluded that I was intensely hurt and was pretty cynical about the organized church... I hated admitting it and don't know if I ever did explicitly. It mostly shown through my soggy tear filled face...

I was so encouraged by your message today. All of it. So biblically sound, full of compassion and truth. I am grateful for your humility and your heart for those who have been hurt by the church... I wanted to catch up with you after the service but think you quickly stepped into the next service.

We left and he asked me what I thought... I told him, "I think Jesus asked him to change his service message because he knew that I was coming..."

I don't necessarily feel "fixed" and my heart still feels broken and completely messy. I'm not quite sure what's next... I know I need more healing... And my heart desires to truly learn to deeply love and walk with others along this journey...

I grew up in the church and I never thought I'd ever end up in this "spot"... In some ways I really believe Jesus has come to strip me of all religious pride that has accumulated in my life. It seems he is determined to show me his heart for so many broken and hungry young people who have been in and out of the church... I'd love to meet you sometime.

Bless you.

I am so known by Jesus and so thankful for the nearness of His Spirit.


At 15/2/09 13:52, Blogger Patrick said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 15/2/09 13:54, Blogger Patrick said...

[Sorry, I had to fix a grammar mistake. I'm sure there are still more to be found]

Hmm. When biology rubs against theology . . .

I would say that being a Christian involves acknowledging that pain and suffering are a part of the world we live in. Survival of the fittest, natural selection, extinction events - all of these are broken, and rooted in death. But it's also how the world is, and unless we can deal with it honestly, we're not really able to do anything honestly.

BUT the other part of being a Christian involves hoping for the Kingdom of God, when pain and suffering are ended! When these evolutionary mechanisms are no longer dominant over God bringing life to all things!

And we are called to live as though we are in this Kingdom already, because in a partial sense, God has already brought life out of death in the resurrection of Christ. And we await when life will happen in the fullest sense!

So let's be people who say, "This is how it is right now. It's awful. It's broken. It's full of death. But something better is coming. And in a sense it's already here. So let's live like we are part of something better! Let's care about people who are weak! Let's care about people who are different! Let's protect our environment! Let's acknowledge the boundaries that evolution has placed on creation. But let's try to transcend these boundaries, because we know that someday God's Spirit of Life will break them once and for all."

So it's not really a conundrum, it's a part of being an authentic Christian. In my mind.

(Disclaimer: My mind spends 50% of its time in grad school at UW studying biology, and 50% of its time reading theology books and talking about worship services.)

At 15/2/09 17:01, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richard, I also wanted to thank you for the excellent sermon this morning (I was at the 11:15 service). We recently came to Bethany after leaving a church plant that struggled with the concepts of healthy, Biblically sound leadership models. I sat there this morning and just wished that I could have taken your sermon and transported back to our previous church. You did such an excellent job nailing all the points that we tried very hard to get across when we left; and I really appreciate your candor about the ethical challenges that arise when spiritual authority is centralized. So, thanks! Your call to prayer also encouraged me to be a little more tenacious about praying for our leadership at Bethany and for the leaders of the previous churches that I've attended. :) I just wanted to let you know that it really spoke to me, and I'm thankful for your ability to put into words complex thoughts that I am sometimes not able to adequately express.

At 16/2/09 10:13, Blogger Tipton Grisham said...

1 COR 7:13If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. 16For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

I heard that same story on NPR. One thing that struck me was that Darwin's wife was believer and that she was really concerned about what her husbands research was doing to His faith. As a result of her perseverant faith we may get a chance to talk to Charles about what he thinks now when we meet him in the afterlife. That will be an interesting conversation. Sort of like the one I have with people I meet that knew me before I met Jesus. It gives me a great opportunity to glorify God and the worship that ensues is always awesome. Think of what it will be like to worship the living God in community with Charles Darwin and all the others that God has saved whom we have so doubted that we would. Glory upon glory.

At 16/2/09 11:34, Anonymous Anonymous said...

After two years of enjoying your site as one from which I find nourishment in the true Bread of life, this is the first time I might have recognized a certain amount of prejudice in your thinking.
When you said, "that cool "Coexist" sticker, meant to call us all to an ecumenism that pretends all our world views are fundamentally the same, so "why don't we all just love each other." you sounded a bit like the arrogant and alienating mainstream evangelicals. The sticker may represent exactly what you said, but I wonder if you and I and the rest of us could begin to recognize and discuss certain pillars and fundamentals in all world religion and thought that ARE the same, instead of immediately writing others off who do not subscribe to our point of view.
In much the same way that Lincoln redefined the "created equal" language of our founding fathers, and Paul spoke to the philosophers at the areopagus of our shared "unknown God" we must begin to understand that we really don't nearly know our Creator as well as we seem to proclaim and maybe, just maybe, we could get to know Him better if we would listen to the reasoned points of view of those with whom we fundamentally disagree.
Wayne Bays.

At 16/2/09 12:59, Blogger Unknown said...

It would seem that just as the popularization of religion leads to a streamlining of doctrines and theologies, that the same applies to scientific theory. Indeed, much of what we understand about Charles Darwin we understand only through his followers, and just as the followers of Christ have a tendency to misrepresent His message, the same is true for old Charles. Really, though, this could be said of any movement centered on a specific human individual: Sir Isaac Newton would have rolled over in his grave had he heard what the so-called Newtonians were claiming, Albert Einstein—in his own life, no less—was appalled by the rise of the Einsteinian-Relativist movement, and Darwin himself was opposed to many of the theories put forward by the men who assumed his mantle. The phrase “survival of the fittest” was put forth not by Darwin but by Herbert Spencer, a contemporary of Darwin’s, and was never originally intended to be applied to human society. Used as a means of popularizing Darwin’s theory, however, the phrase took on a meaning akin to the ideals of “manifest destiny,” and came to mean—in the popular mind, anyways—something more like “survival of the strongest.” Those who had once seen Western dominance and expansion in the world as some divine mandate now had at their disposal a firm scientific reasoning to justify their racism, sexism, classism, and colonialism.

Although Darwin never dealt with the issue explicitly, his theory, while outlining a functional system for natural adaptation and sustainability, in no way addresses the specific position of humanity within that system. One could view this as a nod to the uniqueness of humanity’s created nature, but it’s far more likely that he was simply not concerned with this at the time. In either case, when we to try work humanity into Darwin’s theory we find inadequate space and consensus. One of the primary forces within the theory is coincidence, and, while the word “selection” might infer some sort of divine sentience within nature, it is mere chance that a certain group adapts more readily to changing environments than another; the adapting group does not adapt as a result of will or choice, they simply find themselves not dying out. This is the fundamental reason why humanity cannot fit within Darwin’s theory of evolution: being almost devoid of natural instinct, humanity is a community of individuals, each imbued with an unprecedented freedom of will that allows them to radically change their destiny, exercise unique judgment within specific and varied situations, and pass all of this knowledge onto successive generations possessed of the selfsame will and ability.

While natural selection may be a helpful tool in understanding the natural world, it cannot capture the transcendent nature of the spirit, that nature that makes us each unique, however we may be seeking after the same ends. Just as with any and every system, there is a no way to capture in concrete terms that which fundamentally resists capture, not to mention categorization, systematization, and understanding. Part of what makes us human is that while we are embodied in flesh—and thus bound by all of the limits of this created world—we also straddle that embodiment by virtue of our spiritual and transcendent nature. Though there is much that science and religion can learn from one another, there is nothing that either institution can provide to answer the problem of human suffering in this world. All that either can do is direct us to live more fully with the question.

At 16/2/09 15:44, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since "science" and it's methodology have only been documented since approx. 1620, with Francis Bacon, it certainly hasn't been around very long.

Knowing this in the historical record, there were approximately 1619+ years of knowledge with no scientific model.

The bible mentions zilch about science, or anything scientific. So it's astonishing when Christians try to negate science with their beliefs, and ignore so many things that are scientifically provable, and the bible will never have an answer.

i.e. Theory of Evolution, Dinosaurs, The age of the earth/universe.

I like the idea that God gave us the ability to evolve.

At 16/2/09 16:54, Blogger HadleyOnFire said...

Anonymous - I agree that the scientific model is something new, particularly when compared to Christianity. But I don't think using the Bible during a discussion of scientific theories is without benefit. Scientists continually build upon the thoughts of those who have come before them, including people who were not scientifically inclined. Using the Bible to participate in these discussions serves the same purpose: using previous thoughts to explore current ones.

Also, as for the things you believe science has absolutely proven, none of them are actually anything more than theories. In the scientific realm, unless something can be verified through certain means (such as being able to see it), then it remains a theory. Evolution, dinosaurs, and the age of the earth are all theories, which means they can't be proven. They are only the best idea that science has been able to come up with thus far. For instance, in order to better understand space and time, there a number of equations concerning the earth that can only be calculated using a geocentric model of the universe, rather than the heliocentric model that everyone believes to be undeniable. While I do believe the earth rotates around the sun, this shows just how much science does not fully know. For an excellent explanation of this, I recommend Stephen Hawking's A Briefer History of Time. Another good read about this uncertainity within science is The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukoff. Both of them deal with the false notion that science is comprised of mainly provable facts, whereas the truth is that most science is still theory at this point.

How does this all play into Christianity and Darwinism? Ultimately, science and Christianity are both faith based. The question is: which faith based system produces the best result for humanity? While many horrendous things have been done in the name of Christ, the relationship that He offers, and the changes that He enables in those who follow Him, in my view, are truly the most viable way to live in society. The teachings of Jesus are not simply a good moral how-to. They are life-changing. And that is what will better the lives of those around us, both near and far.

At 16/2/09 18:13, Blogger Outish said...


The idea that Christianity is somehow an explanation for the way we as a race decide to preclude the survival of the fittest is a good one. Unfortunately it is relatively easy to counter with another idea. In the development of man through an evolutionary model it is possible for man to have evolved, with our species large brai,n a survival instinct that sees the success of our species as related to it's ability to adapt and create. Thus, all of us is better than some of us. Social psychological-instincts along with equalizing technologies, like the glasses I wear, are another explanation for our rather un-Darwinian behavior. But I caviat as you do that I am no scientist, and am doing nothing more than musing.

At 16/2/09 19:30, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a Christian, Evolution does not bother me much. The physical processes by which nature operates is amazing and I am often left with a tremendous sense of awe and wonder.

I think the problem arises when we think about what "a more evolved, more adapted species" means. There is a fear that this creates an "anything goes" society, where the strong dominate the weak, where morality changes to fit the circumstance which allows us to survive. You've written that if Darwin was right a number of things we find horrific would simply be the natural course of things. What would it matter if that is the natural course of things? It would simply show me that there is an evil which resides in life. What matters is that there is something within me that is repulsed by these acts. (Unfortunately, for me, I think this same argument could be used when we think of Tribalism in the Old Testament. As the Israelites sweep through the promised land, I am repulsed by the slaughters which were so complete that nothing, not even livestock, survived. Did children really have to be killed?)

When I look at humanity, when I look at my own life, I am confronted with the problem of evil. Regardless of physical processes, the story of evil and redemption resonates with me. The stories depicting mans struggle with evil (within himself) and the resolution resonates with me. My faith tells me something perfect exists which is transcendent of nature. Language is often employed to mask that imperfect aspect of our lives (whether its evolution, which connotes a march towards perfection (evolution taken to infinity) or Thomas Jeffersons call to form a "more perfect union" (if its perfect, how can it be more so?)) I believe this imperfect aspect, sin, is known to exist and to be permanent within us.

While its true that Science and Faith operate by different processes, the idea of sin seems to me to be as real as gravity. While I am awed by nature, it only points to the something/someone far greater.

At 18/2/09 18:33, Blogger RC said...

"Right under her classic Darwin fish is that cool "Coexist" sticker, meant to call us all to an ecumenism that pretends all our world views are fundamentally the same, so "why don't we all just love each other."

You make it sound like such a bad thing! When all of these systems of belief have essentially one commonality, namely a belief in something that can't be proven, the best we can hope for is for people to love rather than kill one another as each have been prone to do.

At 18/2/09 19:01, Blogger Richard Dahlstrom said...

the point's well taken Roy, and a couple of other anonymous - the sarcasm of my comments regarding "coexist" are duly noted. My sarcasm wasn't intended to indicate that I don't believe we should all get along - we should. Rather, it stems from my perception that there are many who believe that there are no legitimate differences at all when, in fact there are many. To pretend that "we're all the same" is as dishonoring to all religions as it is when we fail to acknowledge the cultural heritage of those whose backgrounds are different than our own.

Differences are real, and bringing them into the light, not in a combative way, but in the context of relationship, is how real relationships grow. Bland denial keeps latent differences underground, allowing them to fester into full blown hostilities.

At 19/2/09 22:47, Blogger RC said...

There certainly are differences but I seriously wonder how all of us represented (and not represented) on that bumper sticker can sit down and "coexist" if we DO start talking openly about our differences? Especially when the differences are so vast and pretty terrible for other folks on the other side of some of those beliefs.


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