Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) finds reconciliation in the final scene of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. “There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace,” come the film’s opening words. “You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” The film’s deeper suggestion, and the hope of my life, is that the two ways might become one
Next month I will be ordained into the Christian ministry. The ordination service will signal the resolution of years of personal struggle and I can’t believe how happy I am.
My ordination council — beautiful souls — met with me last Sunday and affirmed my call. They asked me a lot of questions, some personal, some theological. They also asked me about my vocation — what would I do once ordained?
My answer: I will keep writing, but with a renewed energy and purpose. I’ll also do some of the things all ministers do: officiate weddings and probably funerals too, preach occasionally, maybe speak at churches every now and again. But as far as I can see, and I admit to not knowing how far exactly that is, mostly I’ll continue to teach physics and astronomy to undergraduates.
Now “physics professor” is not an orthodox occupation for a minister of the Gospel. What has electrodynamics to do with the Kingdom of God? This was not lost on my council. But they somehow saw that, for me, it’s a perfect fit. I’m so grateful to them. It’s as if the scientific and the spiritual halves of myself, long divided, are reconnecting. It feels great.
As if on cue, a few days ago Alert Reader Curtis Beaird sent me a link to “Freedom of Thought,” the first essay from Marilynne Robinson’s 2012 collection When I Was a Child I Read Books. I was delighted. Reading Robinson — her fiction and essays alike — has always had a calming effect on me. She puts me in a contemplative and expansive place, as if I’m surveying the sea with my feet in the foam. This essay was especially timely and effective because in it Robinson argues for the very reconciliation I am experiencing in my vocation: that of the physical and the spiritual. She tells us that
Almost everyone, for generations now, has insisted on a sharp distinction between the physical and the spiritual. So we have had theologies that really proposed a “God of the gaps,” as if God were not manifest in the creation, as the Bible is so inclined to insist, but instead survives in those dark places, those black boxes, where the light of science has not yet shone. And we have atheisms and agnosticisms that make precisely the same argument, only assuming that at some time the light of science will indeed dispel the last shadow in which the holy might have been thought to linger.
We live in a time when many religious people feel fiercely threatened by science. O ye of little faith. Let them subscribe to Scientific American for a year and then tell me if their sense of the grandeur of God is not greatly enlarged by what they have learned from it. Of course many of the articles reflect the assumption at the root of many problems, that an account, however tentative, of some structure of the cosmos successfully claims that part of reality for secularism. Those who encourage a fear of science are actually saying the same thing.
If the old dualism is put aside, we are instructed in the endless brilliance of creation. Surely to do this is a privilege of modern life for which we should all be grateful.
Indeed we should be and indeed I am. To some readers Robinson’s admonishment may seem academic, but to me it does not, for despite my longstanding criticism of the old dualism — which is the air we breathe and which drives virtually all conflict between religion and science — I have spent years taking it too terribly seriously, fearing that maybe something was wrong with me for rejecting it in my heart.
That statement seems to demand a story I can’t tell right now. It will have to wait.
What I can tell you right now is: On Sunday I heard my council say, Fear no more. I heard them say I might be reconciled to myself. I heard them say my faith in the unity of things is not stupid or weird or wrong. I heard them say my life could make sense.
To me this is very good news, and I’m happy to share it with each of you.
A big Thank You goes out to Curtis for sending us the Robinson essay. As for everyone else, keep on sending us interesting pieces when you find them — the Internets are huge, and we here at psnt.net are oh so tiny.
Ceri Richards, The Supper at Emmaus, gouache, 1958. Image used with permission of the trustees of the Methodist Modern Art Collection, UK
On that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.
Luke 21.13-24, 28-31
Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.
About twelve years ago I attended one of the most memorable parties of my life. It was a Christmas party at a fellow parishioner’s house. Everyone was in just the right mood and the fellowship lifted us all a bit higher.
In the midst of the jollity I sat down next to Mark, a minister friend. Somehow we got on the subject of homosexuality and the church. He was in favor of an open and principled acceptance of homosexuals — practicing or not — into all aspects of church life. But to me an actively gay life seemed incompatible with Christian faith and practice. I asked him about the biblical laws, the admonitions of the Apostle, and the principles of design and reproduction in nature, etc. My questions were sincere and he was kind but firm with me. When I rested my case, Mark, the consummate pastor, looked at me and said with considerable urgency in his voice:
“Paul, you’re coming at this from the wrong end. You must start with the person.”
When I heard those words, coming as they did from a trusted spiritual mentor, I experienced a small but significant shift to the left. Maybe it was the party, maybe it was the look in his eyes, but I actually felt it. I didn’t change my mind that night, but over the next few years I did.
Start with the person. What does that mean? I’ll tell you, starting with a person. I will call him Brad.
Brad is one of a number of homosexual men and women who are active in my church. My family and I have worshiped with Brad and his partner — I’ll call him Sean — for about 5 years now. Looking back over my life, I can report that I have not known anyone who radiates joy more consistently and more infectiously than Brad. He loves people; he loves the church; he loves God; he loves Sean. He is confident in his identity as a gay man, as a Christ follower, and as a human being. Normally I keep my visions to myself, but today I say: whenever I see Brad there seems to be a dove perched on his shoulder, or hovering just over his head, or flying out in front of him. When I see Brad I see Christ himself.
When Brad figures out it’s him I’m talking about, because he is who he is, he will feel terribly embarrassed. I’m a human being just like everyone else, he will say. Which is true, and him saying so will only encourage my opinion. Stop it, he will say. But I won’t stop it. Brad brings the gifts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control to the world. And, as the Apostle said, there is no law against these.
But there are laws and admonitions — some of them found in the Bible — against Brad’s expression of his love for Sean. To say otherwise is disingenuous. So why shouldn’t he just follow our tradition, accept that he is not free to express his particular love for Sean, and love everyone (including Sean) but not romantically? Like a celibate priest? His love is of God and it will find its target, right?
I’m not so sure. The revelation that greets me in the person of Brad is not merely that he’s a gay Christ-follower who’s happy in his identity, but that his relationship with Sean is essential to his joy, his peace, his patience, his self-control, etc.
Marriage is a laboratory of love that fits the majority of people, myself included; few are they who are called to love in celibacy. For most of us, loving the world is best learned by paying attention to and caring for a single person. Brad is clearly one of these. The marriage model is for him. His life is grounded in God, but he loves the world through loving Sean. Anyone who knows Brad knows this.
So Brad loves Sean and joy and peace and patience overflow from that. Meanwhile there sit Biblical passages that condemn Brad’s expression of his love. Take, for example, Leviticus 20.13: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” There are plenty of others but they all come down to the same thing: one must not overtly express homosexual love.
What to do? How to think about this?
Perhaps looking to the roots of Christianity will provide a clue.
While in seminary I had the pleasure of taking Luke Timothy Johnson’s New Testament course. One of the things I remember best is his description of the severe cognitive dissonance that must have been suffered by those to whom Christ appeared after his resurrection. By this he didn’t mean the incongruity of seeing Jesus alive post-burial or the strangeness of seeing someone vanish from sight. What he referred to was their intellectual struggle with their own tradition — Judaism — that unambiguously told them crucifixion was a sign of God’s curse.
The earliest Christians were forced, in light of the revelation of a crucified Messiah, to look back over the Law and the Prophets and resolve this problem. They probably started with individual passages but found themselves recasting their tradition entirely to make sense of what was revealed to them in the person of Jesus. Even then, they weren’t trying to start a new religion; they were faithful Jews trying hard to square this new information with their old beliefs. In the end the ramifications proved serious enough that Christianity was born. For those who knew him, the person of Jesus Christ proved too compelling for any other response.
In other words, the face-to-face encounter with the person forced a reformulation (not a wholesale rejection) of old ideas. The earliest Christians started with the person and worked outwards, keeping their tradition ever in mind.
Brad is not Jesus and, though our church is trending against tradition (at least in this area), we will not have to recast our faith whole. Coming face-to-face with Brad will not force us to found a new religion, but it must make us think and reconsider and pray.
In any case, it seems relevant to me that Christianity itself was born out of a group of the faithful struggling to make sense of a revelation, and doing so in light of a tradition that rejected the very person through whom the truth was revealed. It may be that my encounter with Christ in Brad is just a fresh echo of that old story.
That’s how I think about it, anyway. I’m not a heavy lifter when it comes to biblical studies or Christian ethics, and I thank those like Johnson and David Gushee who do the hard work of sorting out the details post-revelation.
Here’s to a happy week for all Alert Readers.
Cassandra Davis, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, 2013. Photograph taken at the Creation Museum. Davis is a Chicago artist working in photography and installation. She is interested in our deepest desire for the spiritual and her latest body of work “Holy Ground” examines her charismatic pentecostal roots. You can see more of her work at www.questionsfromthesoil.com. Click image for a high-resolution version
One day a few years ago I lost my glasses. I searched all over: kitchen, bedside table, bathroom. I didn’t find them but I did find Elizabeth. “E,” I said, “Have you seen my glasses? I’ve looked everywhere and can’t find them.” She smiled quizzically, then laughed aloud when she saw I wasn’t kidding.
They were on my face. I had been looking through them the whole time. My forward focus had missed them even as they floated at the periphery of vision.
On Saturday it happened again: Something I could until then see only peripherally, something I had been looking for, materialized before my eyes. It was pretty awesome.
It has to do with young Earth creationism. This is the belief that the cosmos and the Earth in it were formed over six 24-hour periods about 6,000 years ago. This number is arrived at using the biblical account alone — its historical markers and begats — to calculate the year of creation. Different methods yield different calendar dates for Day One, but to a single significant figure all round to 4,000 BC.
I think about creationism a lot, and when it enters the scope of my mind’s eye I see science. I see the tsunami of unambiguous evidence that forces us to believe in a 14-billion-year-old cosmos; in a 4.5-billion-year-old Earth; and in the long slow evolution of creatures, Darwin’s “endless forms most beautiful.” And I see the sad caricature of science championed by young Earth creationists in their effort to prop up their historical reading of Genesis. I see their arguments about the Deluge, the Grand Canyon, the receding Moon, and I see exactly why they are wrong. I see all of this and I ask myself, How can the Creation Museum (and the forthcoming Ark Park) even be possible in such a cosmos? Why can’t people see the evidence and change their minds?
This is naive, I know. And I would have admitted as much even before I picked up the October issue of the Atlantic on Saturday. But before I read Jeffrey Goldberg’s article about his visit to Ken Ham‘s Creation Museum, the truth about creationism lurked faintly and furtively at the outer edge of my vision. By the time I put the magazine down, however, my naivete had become a large solid thing standing directly in front of me. I could finally see it in all its obviousness.
The Creation Museum offers up plenty of fun — zip lines, a planetarium, a food court, a petting zoo — but these are so many electrons swirling around a stable and serious nucleus: a series of scenes from the so-called “primeval history” of Genesis 1-11. Up front and central is God’s establishment of Adam and Eve in the bright luxury of Eden. The First Couple radiates contentment (in a mannequin-y kind of way). They are white, healthy, and unfazed by not only their own nakedness, but by a horde of large animals and (yes) dinosaurs.
They are also, per scripture, oppositely sexed. There is no subtlety in the presentation of this fact: “buff Adams and sexpot Eves,” Goldberg writes of the mannequins, “plastic breasts covered by waterfalls of extremely healthy hair.” Male and female God created them; very male and very female Ken Ham presents them.
For me this is a sign pointing to the truth about creationism, which is: Creationism is not about the dinosaurs in the ark, it’s not about the weird chronology, it’s not about the tortured explanations of geology and biology. Creationism, in short, is not about science at all.
What creationism is about, is gay marriage.
Sitting with Ken Ham and Terry Mortenson, a historian of geology and a theologian on staff, I asked why it is so important to convince their visitors — more than 2 million since the museum opened seven years ago — that Genesis is a book of history. “There’s a slippery slope in regard to authority,” Ham replied. “If you say that the history in Genesis is not true… why shouldn’t you just reinterpret what marriage means?”
Mortenson stayed on the subject. “The homosexual issue flows from this. Genesis says that God created marriage between one man and one woman. He didn’t create it between two men, or two women, or two men and one woman, or three men and one woman, or two women and one man, or three women and one man. If other parts of Genesis aren’t true, then how could this idea of marriage be true? If there were no Adam and Eve and we’re all evolved from apelike ancestors and there’s homosexuality in the animal world and if Genesis is mythology, then you can justify any behavior you want.”
Other issues are important to Ham and his fellow creationists: teen pregnancy, pornography, abortion, euthanasia. But gay marriage, it seems, is representative of the lot. It is central. It is, as friend and fellow parishioner David Gushee writes, our generation’s hot button issue.
And because creationism is about gay marriage and not about science, science doesn’t matter to creationists. Back in February bow-tied science advocate Bill Nye debated Ham on the question of human origins. He did an admirable job representing real science. But Nye can calmly and rationally present the facts of science to Ken Ham until the Sun turns to coal but it won’t make a difference because the facts of science have nothing to do with it at all. All the scientific posturing of Ham and his team is there to effect a single and manifestly non-scientific end: the protection of a traditional social order, starting with one man and one woman.
This is why creationists can deny science while accepting its technological bounty; this is why they make up their own science as they go; this is why they stand and face science’s great wall of facts — and even comprehend it — and don’t budge a micron from their long-fixed position.
Creationism is not about science. This is so painfully obvious to me now, I’m embarrassed to reveal how blind I’ve been. I may even be more embarrassed than when Elizabeth witnessed me losing my glasses while they were perched on my face.
There are of course plenty of creationists who are not true believers like Ham, who might yet be persuaded by the facts of science. Therefore the work of science apologists like Nye is important. And not all who oppose gay marriage have a view of science even remotely resembling young Earth creationism. But there seems to be a parallel between Nye’s work and that of Gushee, for example, who is in the midst of developing a Christian argument in favor of gay marriage (among other things). Both work to convince not the entrenched but those at the boundaries, where all the good stuff seems to happen.