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  • Quote of the year

    If you write for God you will reach many men and bring them joy. If you write for men you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while. If you write only for yourself you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted you will wish that you were dead.

    - Thomas Merton, from New Seeds of Contemplation

  • Acknowledgement

    Image of Saturn (tbsp) and Rhea courtesy NASA/JPL

    Archive for "Aug 07 2010"

    Evolution and the art of dying well

    They died out, sure. But did they die out well? Apatosaurus lived about 150 million years ago, during the Jurassic Period (Kimmeridgian and Tithonian ages). It was one of the largest land animals that ever existed, with an average length of 23 m (75 ft). Yet it, like every other form of life on our fair planet, evolved into being due to selection pressures present in its environment. In the case of Apatosaurus, some aspect of its surroundings ensured that the larger beasts were most likely to survive. Illustration by Raúl Martin

    Henry, Julia, and Kristen are my children. I love them. Those of you who have children know what this means. To have a child is to cut your heart out and let it walk around on its own. And to go to school on its own. To learn and to get hurt on its own. To live its own life, not yours. The free giving of life is very painful, and this makes the love of a parent for a child different than any other love. It is a love balanced on the brink of obsession. It is very out of one’s control: fierce, consuming, desperate. It is a love mixed with the pain of letting go. It is a love mixed with the pain of death. Those of you who have children know what I am talking about. Those who do not, know this: Your parents love you.

    Henry is my son. He is ten years old. Everyone says he looks like me. Everyone says he talks like me. Everyone says he acts like me. And that is always flattering to me, because I think he’s a beautiful boy. He is handsome, smart, engaging, dependable, a really good egg. He shares my interest in math and science and I share his interest in chess and basketball. He is my only son and I love him fanatically.

    When Henry was six he taught me a painful lesson. He and I went to the city park up in Rome, GA where we lived. It was early evening, surprisingly cool and dry for August in Georgia. I was looking forward to sharing an hour or so of free play with him before classes started at the college the next day. As we walked up to the playground, we noticed some Hispanic boys playing soccer out in the field. They looked to be, on average, about 2 years older than Henry. As we drew nearer to them, Henry grew excited and asked “Dad, can I go play with them?” I started to say No. I was thinking: You’ll get hurt. They’re bigger and stronger and faster than you and you will end up being left out. They don’t even speak English. You’ll be disappointed. But then, to my own surprise, I said “Yes, take off.” He ran toward the boys. As I watched him go, I realized that everyone had been wrong: Henry is not really like me. I could never have done such a thing when I was six. I did not have his confidence. I did not have his physical skill. And at once I knew his distance from me, his separateness, and the rather severe limits of my own self. And something opened up in me like a trapdoor to a cellar I never knew existed, a deep and empty place, an absence. It is a void that my son, no matter how smart, friendly, or gentle, no matter how much I wanted him to, could ever fill. There was a stinging inner death, and I mourned. I mourned the death of a secret hope: for Henry to be me, for him to seal my permanence on this earth. I stood and wept quietly as I watched him keep goal, and my newfound knowledge haunted me and as we played together until dusk and into the night.

    That was a painful lesson, but do you know what? It gave me the gift of Henry. It freed me to see Henry for who he is, and more importantly, it freed me to love him and not simply some projection of myself. That night at the playground I learned: Do not be fooled by appearances. Death is not the enemy. To die is to be set free to love.

    This true story is from a sermon I preached a while back. It was a sermon about death, not necessarily physical death. What happened to me with Henry was a kind of spiritual or emotional death. A good death, like this one, happens when you accept reality as you find it, when you discover that what you thought was true, isn’t. With a good death there is a searing sense of emptiness and finitude. With a good death you find the strength to let go, to lean into the loss and let it be what it is. With a good death there is a deepening of vision and a freeing of one’s very self. This has happened to me a lot.

    A bad death happens when, in the face of a new discovery, you hang on for dear life to your old picture of the world. With a bad death, fear wins. With a bad death you refuse to accept the facts that stare you in the face. The consequences of the discovery are too much to manage and in an effort to survive you become more rigid in your beliefs. The emptiness is too much to bear. With a bad death there is a restriction of vision and an increased investment in bad ideas or habits, thus increased fear. This has happened to me a lot.

    Death happens in other ways too. Consider intellectual death. This has happened to me a lot. As with all kinds of death, out of some kind of survival instinct we resist it mightily. Mostly it occurs over long periods of time. For example, I used to believe that one had to proclaim faith in Jesus to be saved and go to heaven. I don’t think that anymore. In fact, my view of Jesus and the world has changed so much that that formula doesn’t even compute anymore. In the words of the great physicist Wolfgang Pauli, it’s not only not right; it’s not even wrong. I’m a Christian, but I just don’t know what those words mean. But that’s not the point. The point is, over a period of many years my beliefs have changed. They can also change in an instant, like the time a few months ago when I read about the four seals of Buddhism and realized that, because I agreed with them, I was a Buddhist. I don’t call myself a Buddhist, but there it is. It was a shocking and painful moment, because it called into question so many other things I thought we true about myself. The foundation of my world view shook violently. And I have had to go through the painful process — which continues today — of reconsidering lots of my old beliefs in terms of this new discovery. That’s what it was: a discovery. And as with any discovery, there’s no use pretending it’s not there.

    For example: One of the greatest discoveries in human history is that of evolution from a common ancestor via natural selection. To pretend the evidence is not there is not only to ignore reality; it is to pass up a wonderful opportunity to see the world anew, maybe even to love the world anew.

    I was poking around at religioustolerance.org the other day and I came across some interesting statistics about Americans’ views on evolution. This started me down an interesting road. Check out this graph; respondents from 34 developed nations were asked “Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals, true or false?” and here are the responses:

    My point is not to lament fundamentalism or the American educational system — although one does wonder where the next generation of scientists is going to come from — but to show, in graphical format, what a bad death looks like. We are the richest nation in the world, with the most resources and the best system of higher education on the planet, but the majority of us deny the evidence for the foundational idea of modern biology. The evidence sits there, staring America in the face, but as a nation we refuse to acknowledge it. This is a bad death on a national scale.

    So many people are unwilling to look calmly at the data that are out there in abundance. Why? Because to allow for the possibility of evolution is to allow for the possibility of being wrong. And I suspect that in this case it’s a foundational kind of wrong, related to interpretation of scripture and thus to many Christians’ entire world view.

    The fear is understandable. The world moves fast and it’s confusing. We think we need some kind of absolute yardstick so we can see how we measure up against everyone else, and many of us have decided that the Bible is that yardstick (a strange choice, IMO). What we’re doing, is looking for a place to safely moor our listing ship. It’s totally reasonable. But is it true? Are we being honest?

    I would like to suggest that the more of reality we can accept, the better off we are. And even though I have my own struggles with reality — just ask my wife — I would also like to suggest that we human beings have indeed evolved from a common ancestor through natural selection over millions of years, that we are deeply connected to all other life on the planet, and that we belong here. We are a part of this thing, we are not separate. And like the rest of creation, we are loved by a God we cannot understand with a love we cannot understand. Welcome to the Universe.

    Jesus knew who he was and what he was doing when he insisted that the first commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12.30). He also knew who he was and what he was doing when he died. He died well, some may say perfectly, and that made all the difference. His job, like ours, was to die and let God do the rest.

    Do not be fooled by appearances. Death — whether physical, emotional, spiritual, or intellectual — is not the enemy. To die is to be set free to love, to learn, and to see the Universe — evolution and all — for what it really is.