…there are aspects of humanity that are not reducible to particles, chemicals and rational analysis.
In my last post, I reflected on the interesting work of Oliver Sacks on memory. A few further thoughts about the whole notion of science, faith, and humanity.
Sacks has been criticized roundly for his “anecdotes” that don’t meet all the rigor of some scientific requirement, especially by the radical reductionists. Some believe that “there is no self or soul. We are merely the product of our acculturated experiences and brain physiology and when it’s gone, so are we.”
But there is something instinctive that we know—that there are aspects of humanity that are not reducible to particles, chemicals and rational analysis. Beauty, humanity, value abide somewhere beyond all our curiosity about mechanisms. Even when the mechanisms are explained, there is yet Something.
I once asked a group of scientists with whom I meet from time to time to talk about religion and science (none of whom are six-day creationists, all but one of whom are yet theists and Christians), “My question for you is not why you believe in evolution or why even intelligent design is not logically necessary from the perspective of scientific method. It is this: you are committed scientists, are convinced of its methodology, humble about what we can know. And yet you still worship, believe in God, go to church. I am much more interested in that than boring college-dorm debates where someone has to knuckle under at the end and say, “You’re right. I give up.” Why do you do this?” What is it that you DO believe?
Then I heard something fresh. “Even when you understand these things, it causes wonder.” There is Something underneath that can be alternatively explained but it seems vulgar to do so. Wonder. Amazement. Delight. Joy. They can be explained as neurons, nerves, responses, brain centers, blah blah blah. But why do they exist at all?
On December 27, 1992, I did a funeral of a real character in the town where I lived in South Georgia. Mr. Earl “Tige” Pickle (short for “Tiger,” a peculiar name for such an outgoing man!) was a newspaper columnist, leader in the community and local radio personality. Everybody who was anybody in Early County eventually was asked to be on Mr. Tige’s radio show. Since our paper came once a week, people depended on Tige to get the day-to-day necessities. He kept us up on things like the funeral notices and what the coach had to say about the big game and how the peanut crop might do this year with the lack of rain and that terrible fungus the county agent had just identified.
Since I was the new preacher in town and he had more or less run out of interesting guests, Tige invited me to be interviewed. He was particularly interested in the fact that I was from Texas and, as people usually do, assumed that I knew all about things Texana. I didn’t know these things, of course, but like any good Texan, what I lacked in fact I simply invented, added and padded.
He was a wordsmith who appreciated a good story and a well-written sentence. He often came up to tell me how much he appreciated some joke I had told in a sermon or some point well-made. Of course, as in all lives, the day came when life began to take his gifts away, and it took them in a most cruel fashion. This dear man with a sly grin and quick wit began to lose his words. They said it was Alzheimer’s.
One day, long after the ravages of senility had begun to take their toll, I went out to the nursing home to lead a worship service. As always, Tige was present, sitting in a rocker at the back. By now he had become silent and unresponsive. This particular day I invited the residents to join me in singing “Amazing Grace.” As we began to sing, something came over Tige. He got up as though moved by an invisible and ancient force of habit and moved toward me. Now he was no longer in the day room at the nursing home. I believe he was sitting again in his mind in the pews of First Baptist Church and worshipping in his regular place.
He sang out loud and continued to make his way forward until he stood shoulder to shoulder with me. There he continued to sing as though he were leading the congregation itself until we finished the song. When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun; we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’ve first begun.
Then he went back to his seat. When nearly everything else had left his memory, the power of a lifetime of faithful worship and faith had marked his life. Though he rarely spoke those days, something raised him out of that chair and moved him to sing every word of that great old hymn. Religion has just about lost its soul in America trying to control the culture, run politics and come up with glib answers to everything. We’d do better to settle back into mystery, in my opinion. Humility is not such a bad place to be, not if you really believe in something. Especially if you think there is Something that comes from beyond us, beyond death, beyond decay and Alzheimers and suffering and loss.
Oliver Sacks’ work may also remind us that the practice of faith is deeper than what we “feel” or “decide” or experience. There is something entirely worthwhile about the practice of faith that resides at the level of gestures, behaviors and trusting actions. Liturgy, devotions, singing, and prayer become habits of a life. Theologian Greg Jones once wrote:
Two of the most powerful intellectual and social forces in our culture are the hard sciences and capitalist economics. Together they have conspired to produce images of personhood that undermine Christian understandings. According to these images, persons are defined by their rational capacities and their productive contributions.
The loss of reverence and respect for human life and human bodies, whether they retain capacity for memory or not, is the result of our obsession with reason and the GNP. But institutional religion can commit the same sin. People can be valued only for being young, for the contributions they make to the community or for their sameness to us. This is as far from the religion of Jesus of Nazareth as can be. The One who welcomed lepers, outcasts, children and the sick reminds us that pragmatism is a useful tool but not a way of life adequate to all things.
I find it frankly puzzling to meet conservative Christians who effusively praise Ayn Rand. In the words of Liz Lemon, “What the WHAT?” We can love, value, care for people poorer than us, less fortunate, weaker or damaged. This is not misguided but actually a humble bowing before mystery. There are yet things in a silent woman sitting in the activities room of the nursing home unknown to us. And so we care for her, not only for her past, but for the simple fact of respect and care for her deep fellow humanity. That is enough. To learn this is the beginning of wisdom.
“Blue Like Jazz” arrived at selected theaters this past week, an odd stepchild among usual movie fare of aliens, vampires, and things that go boom. Derived from Donald Miller’s book by the same name, “Blue Like Jazz” is a story of life and faith during a young man’s first year of college. Don, the main character, is son of a bible believing single mother who wants to protect her son and an atheist father who is emotionally disconnected, mostly absent, and religiously hostile.
Donald’s Dad wangles an acceptance from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, a school filled with intellectually brilliant and morally unfettered not-quite-adults. After struggling with it, he heads to Reed and Portland instead of the Baptist college his mother wants him to attend. Soon life is filled with Political Correctness, drugs, booze and moral haze. The professors challenge every aspect of life, and students engage in protest and outrageousness as an extracurricular activity.
From that point we follow Don as he struggles with the pain of the life he has left behind but the faith that won’t leave him alone. He is ashamed of that identity, and tries to fit in, but never really does. The church is an ambiguous presence throughout the movie. The childhood church that Don leaves behind is a stereotype of tacky children’s sermons and fear of the world. The youth pastor is glib, a know-it-all, self-assured, and, it turns out, secretly sleeping with Don’s mother, which brings a crisis into his life later in the story. Read the rest of this entry
Ten Commandments for Working for Change (Kingdom of God Version)
I am not sure why I started this. I have been thinking, at 57, about how disappointing the world, other people, the church, society, politicians, even myself, are. And yet, I hope. I still think things can be better. This is mysterious. I went to Mount Thinkaboutit to consider this, and came down with two tablets carved in sand, so they can be easily revised if needed, but these are some things I have thought about in my experiences thus far.
- First Things First. The ministry of healing requires clear priorities. The First Commandment is always the First Commandment. “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” “Let God be God,” is redundant. God IS
God. The only question is, “Will we rail against God and the universe and the Way It REALLY Is or not?” All of our spiritual traditions say God doesn’t care for human deities running around lording themselves over the rest of us. This keeps motives clear, priorities arranged and a healthy dose of humility in all of our efforts.
- Caring IS change. We are changed the moment we care. The poor are my neighbors, friends, or estranged kin, not problems to be eliminated or solved. Helmut Thielicke, the theologian, once said that sin entered the world when God was first spoken of in the third person by Satan: “Did God REALLY say?” Maybe the same is true of our neighbors—when we talk about them in place of “I-Thou,” as Martin Buber called it, we get, well, what we have. Listening, being present, loving our neighbors has already changed the conversation. Until you care, nothing changes. Not caring is a tempting way of protecting from the hurt, but it is ultimately impossible for being really alive.
- Politics alone cannot heal. It can facilitate genuine healing or get in its way. The same can be said of all the “principalities and powers”—economy, power, business, civic life, and even religion. They are instruments to occasionally use but never of eternal value for themselves. Sometimes it is the obstacle to go around, sometimes the opposition to ignore but never a god in whom we trust wholly. Politics is pretty important, which is why it is always overestimating itself
- Epiphanies are doorways! Real change begins with ideas, relationships, and genuine connection. Money, power and importance can only follow them if the change is genuine and the commitment unwaivering. Money, fame, and power are not usually agents of change so much as instruments of resistance. They get on board when it suits them, and left to themselves tend to prefer comfort, control and micromanaging (i.e., spiritual anesthesia). Because change will always bring the Unholy Trio into question, they become anxious because they will decrease if things do change. They do not like this, but sometimes the numbers just aren’t with them any more. Epiphanies are fast track connections.
- The Power of the Question. Before transformation was the question and it must be asked by right person at the right time. “Questioning” can be a somewhat self-righteous exercise, however, even a delusional self-perception (this was franchised in the United States in the 1970s, causing the number of people who were at Woodstock to quadruple). Real questions, like real change, have the element of self-involved investment/caring/suffering.
Part Two tomorrow…