waiting for the miracle

1: I remember an old joke that did the rounds in the late ’80s:

There was a big flood and a dude was stuck on the roof of his house. A guy came along in a row boat and called out to the dude to jump in. “No, I’m ok, my God will save me!” the dude called back. The water crept higher. A while later another guy came along in a motor boat and called out, “Hey, dude, the water’s getting higher, jump in my boat and I’ll take you to safety!” “No, thanks, I’m ok, my God will save me!” the dude called back. The water crept higher still and the dude was having to tread water when a helicopter flew by, spotted him, and dropped a rope. But the dude refused again, “I’m ok, my God will save me!” The dude drowned, and when he got to Heaven, he went up to God and said, “I waited and waited. Why didn’t you save me?”

“What are you talking about?” God replied, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter!”

2: About the same time I remember a lot of people saying that science is the process of discovering God’s creation.

3: Three quotations from God’s Philosophers, by James Hannam*, which I have been reading recently:

Some extremists advocated ignoring Greek philosophy altogether and insisted that everything that you needed to know was in the Bible. St Augustine of Hippo disagreed. He wrote:

Any statements by those who are called philosophers, especially the Platonists, which happen to be true and consistent with our faith should not cause alarm, but be claimed for our own use, as it were, from owners who have no right to them. (Augustine of Hippo (trans. Roger Green), De Doctrina Christiana (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) p. 125 [II:144])

page 88

and:

Echoing St Augustine and St Anselm, the Church believed that reason illuminated faith and you could not have one without the other.

page99

and:

Back in the fourth century, St Augustine of Hippo had wrestled with the matter of what to do when the Bible and science said different things in his commentary on the book of Genesis. Genesis clearly conflicted with the best available Greek science of the time. Augustine was worried that Christians who read their Bible too literally risked making their religion look ridiculous. In his commentary he wrote:

Usually even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens and other elements of this world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and relative positions … Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of the Holy Scriptures, talking nonsense on these topics, and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. (Ernan McMullin, ‘Galileo’s Theological Venture’, in The Church and Galileo, ed. Ernan McMullin (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), p. 98)

Augustine’s solution was to set out the circumstances when the Bible should be read in a figurative rather than a literal sense.

pages 314 – 315

4: The above three points are linked. Somehow. Allow me to try and explain. Somehow

Recently I have seen people promoting the “young Earth”, “6-day creationist” view of the origin of the universe. This is in direct opposition to the Theory of Evolution. Unfortunately, they have had nothing new to add to my understanding of the world. Unfortunately, they have only rehashed the same tired, old arguments. Unfortunately, the arguments presented have been fundamentally dishonest. Even more unfortunately, the tactics they have used have been highly manipulative, even bullying.

One common tactic has been to start with a question like “Do you believe in Genesis?” or “Do you believe in the Bible?” and to then go and set up a false dichotomy in which your options are to either agree with their particular interpretation of scripture or burn in Hell. Forget two thousand years of Church history and Christian scholarship, philosophy and science, forget the full diversity of Christian experience, your options are either this one particular interpretation of scripture or eternal damnation.

One of them quoted from Hosea, I believe Hosea 4:6a:

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge;

Well, I remember the quotation being “dying” rather than “destroyed”, but the Bible wasn’t written in Modern English, so different translations use different words… and looking at it now, the quotation does seem to be taken just a teensy bit out of context, and would seem to be arguing more the opposite of what they wanted to say…

“Mmmhmm”, I thought, “I wonder can you tell me why? Can you give me an honest answer why they might be dying or destroyed for lack of knowledge?”

It seems to me that that old joke about the dude on the roof of his house waiting for God to rescue him from the flood is just as true today as it was back then. So many Christians, especially, it seems to me, those of an evangelical persuasion, seem to be sitting around expecting God to swoop in any minute now all miraculous like the miracles they read of in the Bible, when the miracle they need is sitting right in front of them, resolutely ignored.

They’ll tell you that we are made in God’s image. They’ll tell you that God is omnipotent. But then they’ll tell you that God’s actions only fit into a very specific, tightly defined box. God does only this, but not that.

The two boats and the helicopter from that old joke are the knowledge that modern science brings us. It is by no means perfect knowledge – and that is the beauty of science, that it is imperfect and constantly being updated as we learn more. And it is the best tool we have for figuring out how this world works, and it is sitting right there in front of us ready for us to use. But so many Christians, especially those of an evangelical persuasion, reject it – or at least, those parts of it that make them feel uncomfortable – because it doesn’t fit the very tightly defined box of possibilities they allow for God. And so I wonder: Do they worship an omnipotent God in whose image we were created? Or do they worship a weak, limited god created in the image of their own fears and insecurities?

If we are made in God’s image, then surely we’re nothing more than God’s shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave? Pale, fuzzily-defined images that only hint at the Ideal that cast them?

If God is omnipotent, then surely he is not limited by our petty fears and insecurities, lack of imagination, or weak faith?

Surely St Augustine had a very good point – large parts of the Bible aren’t to be taken as literally true because they represent God explaining things to people of a particular time and place in terms that they could understand? After all, if God had sat down with Moses on the top of Mt Sinai and tried to explain to Moses the Theory of Evolution, or General Relativity, or Quantum Mechanics, or even something as (seemingly) simple and quotidian as gravity, how would Moses have reacted? Likely run down the mountain laughing his little head off at the obvious insanity of such ideas…. Moses could not possibly have had the educational or cultural background to even begin to comprehend such ideas (and fair’s fair, most modern people don’t either, despite the wealth of resources we have at our disposal). Surely large parts of the Bible, as St Augustine argued, are eternal truths presented in figurative or metaphorical forms – truths presented in terms the audience can comprehend. Kind of like the parables that Jesus told.

So if, as so many people were saying 20 or 30 years ago, science is the process of discovering God’s creation; and if God is omnipotent, and therefore capable of doing anything he wants; and if science shows us that the universe is actually billions of years old, multiple gazillions of light years across, and that Evolution is the particular process by which God created the species we currently know about and the myriad species that have gone extinct before we knew them, then what’s the big deal?

Shouldn’t we put the knowledge sitting right in front of us to the best use we can? Or should we continue to sit here rejecting that knowledge and demanding that God swoop in all deus ex machina-style because that is the role we have assigned to him?

What do we have to fear?

To have come back to New Zealand after all these years away and see that so little has changed is so very

disappointing.

But to come back to New Zealand and watch as people try to manipulate and bully others into submitting to only one very particular dogma, to see them deny the full diversity of Christian experience, to see them openly reject knowledge and work so hard to keep others bound in ignorance, that is

infuriating.

My people are dying for a lack of knowledge… because they are manipulated and bullied into submission to ignorance.

*God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science; James Hannam; Icon Books; London; 2009.