Sunday, November 17, 2013

Science and Faith (Genesis 1:1-19)

When Christians talk about the problems we see with science and religion or faith, they seem to fall into two main categories.

One is the story of creation. The scientific picture of the world, with what we call "the Big Bang" and evolutionary theory, is definitely at odds in many ways with the creation stories from Genesis. Cosmology, archaeology and geology all describe for us an Earth that's something like 4 billion years old and a universe that's as many as 15 billion years old. But Genesis leads us to a picture of an Earth that is several thousand years old, and those two numbers are not close enough together for the difference to be a rounding error. There are many people, in fact, who reject Christian teaching because of this difference.

When we look more closely at the stories, though, we can learn some things that might make it easier to accept parts of both understandings (you can tell I'm a Methodist -- if there's a fence within 500 miles, I will find it and sit on it). The Genesis creation account shares a lot of features with stories from people who lived in that part of the world at that time. Many of them feature a world in which primeval waters of chaos were divided by a divine being, with land appearing to separate the seas from one another. The Babylonian story is one of the major ones, and we find them sharing many details with Genesis.

But they are also different. In the Babylonian story, the earth and seas appear when the king-god, Marduk, defeats his mother Tiamat in battle. The earth is her dismembered corpse, and the seas are her blood. Quite a bit different from Genesis, in which we see God choose to create the world and bring order from chaos instead of more destruction. The point of the story the Israelites told was less to describe the physical creation of the world than the meaning behind the creation of the world. They used the science they knew to show the how, and then used what God revealed to them as the why, which was far more important to them.

Even the creation of people shows this. For the Babylonians, Marduk created human beings from the dust of the ground and breathed life into them, just as Genesis tells happened with God and the first human. But Marduk created people so the gods would have slaves and something to make fun of. God created human beings so his great love would have an object other than itself. God created Adam and Eve, but Marduk created Moe, Larry and Curly.

When we talk about the beginning of the world today, we hear a lot about the random chance of it. How the Big Bang itself was a random event, and the formation of the world happened in the right spot by chance, and how the laws of the universe are what they are by random chance, and so on. But as a Christian, I see God's hand in these things. Because of that hand, we have a world in which beings exist that can respond to God and love him back.

The other wrinkle with science and religion is this idea that we must pick one or the other; that there can be no overlap and no agreement. Christians must reject science because science, of course, rejects religion and Christianity. But they don't. Many scientists find what they learn about God's world deepening their faith. Physicist John Polkinghorne retired from work at a university and went back to school to become a minister in the Church of England. I have a friend who teaches pediatric pharmacology (you can tell who's smarter by the number of syllables in her job and the number in mine -- pediatric pharmacologist vs. preacher). She sees the cutting edge of scientific work in the arena of the human body itself, and both her research and her practice bring her closer to God.

I myself accept a lot of what science tells me about how the universe came into being and how the people who live here developed. But that doesn't mean I reject faith, because it's my faith that helps me understand why the universe is here and why people who can respond to God are here. And that, for me, is the key. Have all the fights you want about how everything came to be. Argue it, hash it out, fuss about it from now until the second coming, but don't pretend you've done what needs to be done as people who think seriously about the world and the human condition unless you've got some kind of an answer as to why.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Forgiveness and Retribution (Matthew 18:21-22)

It may be kind of weird, but I sometimes think that the Christian teaching of forgiveness is one of the places where we who follow Jesus have the hardest time setting aside what the world tells us about how to act in order to do what Jesus calls us to do.

I think that because it doesn't seem like Christians do any better at forgiving their enemies than do people outside the church. Yes, we're called on to take up our crosses and follow Jesus, but it seems even though we're carrying our own crosses we always have room for one more grudge. And I wonder why that is? Jesus proclaimed forgiveness as central to his message and he made it plain -- as plain in this conversation with Peter as it is anywhere else. The two men used the numbers seven and seventy times seven, which in their culture are shorthand like "24-7" is for us. Peter asks Jesus, "Shall I forgive every time?" Jesus answers, "Not just every time, but every time."

Why do we struggle with it so much then? There may be many reasons, but a key one to me seems that we misunderstand forgiveness and how to do it. The prevailing notion looks like we are to simply pretend a wrong or an injury never happened and that the hurt it caused never happened either. As best as I can tell, the world thinks that "forgiving" someone is like trying to play Obi-Wan's Jedi mind trick on ourselves and saying that whatever was done to us is not the 'droid we're looking for.

You can see the problem immediately: Those were the 'droids the Empire soldiers were looking for and the hurts we have been given are real. Our minds know they were real, and pretending they aren't creates a conflict between what we know to be true and how we're supposed to act. We can't reconcile living like nothing ever went wrong when we know that something did. Maybe with minor wrongdoings and understandings that's actually a good idea; if we all kept score of the little things that went wrong between us and others we would be pretty miserable most of the time. But with real wounds it just doesn't work.

So Christians try to work around Jesus' clear direction about forgiveness. I'll forgive, but I can't forget, we say. God will forgive that other person, but I can't. And other formulas that make it clear we're not doing much more than pay lip service to forgiveness while we really live by the code of retribution and getting even.

What if forgiveness meant something else, though? What if it didn't mean setting up a rickety house of cards of denial that will never bear the weight of real life?

See, another use of the word is in economic transactions, specifically debt. If I owe someone money (and I do), and they choose to tell me I don't have to pay them back (which they haven't done yet. Thanks a lot, Sallie Mae), then we say the debt is forgiven. But isn't that the same thing, you ask? Not exactly.

While the debt is forgiven, the cost remains. While I owe you the money, it costs me the amount of regular payments I make. If you forgive the debt, then the cost becomes yours because you won't every get back the money that you lent me.

If we put this back into the moral arena, see what happens when I forgive someone who has done me wrong? I accept the "cost" of the wrong and forgo my right to have that other person pay it. That may not seem fair, and in fact it isn't. It's the worst option there is, except for all the others. Because the others involve lives of retribution and revenge that are ultimately empty and meaningless.

Recently Mandy Patinkin, the actor who played swordsman extraordinaire Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, talked in an interview about two lines in the movie. One is the famous, "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." Inigo has spent his life searching for the man who killed his father so he can kill him. But Patinkin said another line struck him recently when he was watching the movie, near the end.

It's when he says, "I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it's over, I don't know what to do with my life." Inigo has achieved his goal, but he has many years left and with his father's killer dead he has nothing left to do. Patinkin said it points out just how worthless a real life lived for revenge is, because it's either never fulfilled or it is fulfilled and the person learns they've wasted all those years. Now, in the movie, he decides to become a pirate, which just goes to show you that you can't take movie illustrations too far.

In the end, taking the cost of forgiveness on ourselves is not fair and it isn't just. We can't recommend it as either of those things to people who ask us why we Christians forgive our enemies. But realizing that Jesus forgave us and took the cost of our wrongs on himself -- I mean really realizing it and not just saying it -- should get us thinking. It may not be fair, but it's really the only way someone who claims the name of Christ can live, both to show his or her thanksgiving for God's grace and to show others how that grace can be made real in their lives as well.