Todd Park Mohr of Big Head Todd and the Monsters recording at Ardent Studios in Memphis. I missed BHTM back in the 1990′s when they had their major-scale success; I blame graduate school for this. But a good friend introduced them to me several years ago and to this day I am grateful to him for that. Photo credit: Anthony Scarlati
It was a good morning at church. I have been given the opportunity to lead a four-week discussion on science and religion and today was the first day. The class that invited me, the Pilgrims, is a group unlike any I have ever encountered. It is a collection of socially and intellectually engaged folks between the ages of 35 and 80. They are not all liberal in the political or theological senses — although some are — but they are all open-minded and open-hearted. It is their aliveness that makes them so special.
I began the series this morning by introducing them to Carl Sagan‘s immensely useful teaching tool, the Cosmic Calendar. This calendar compresses cosmic time — from the big bang until the present — into a single calendar year. It helps one to get a grip on the overwhelming scale of the past. Importantly for this post, I mentioned not only the arrivals of such as flowering plants and certain animal classes (birds, mammals) but the large number of mass extinctions that have taken place in the last half-billion years or so.
(This DOES relate to Big Head Todd. Just wait for it.)
I stressed that the reconciliation of the Cosmic Calendar with Christianity is in some senses easy and in some senses not easy. After the class a woman named Clara (not her real name) walked up to me and said she was interested in knowing how exactly it was not easy; she had been raised in a home where both science and faith coexisted and saw no problems herself. I told her I looked forward to that discussion.
We entered the sanctuary and worship began.
Julie’s sermon was on Job, the part wherein God finally responds and respectfully puts Job back in his place. How does God do this? By giving Job a vision of the created order: the stars, the Sun, the animals, Behemoth, Leviathan. It is precisely through creation that God manifested the divine presence to Job. Her point was emphasized by a video that showed the many faces of nature: the surf, the sky, the mountains, giraffes, pandas, enormous flocks of migrating birds, etc. It was beautiful in a certain way. Happily, this was all very much in resonance with my emphasis on nature during the Sunday School hour.
But as I sat there and watched the video my mind returned to Clara’s question about the difficult parts of the science-religion reconciliation.
The reason I thought of her is that the video, as worshipful and appropriate as it was, did not exactly give nature an unbiased treatment. If one wants to think about creation clearly, there is more to consider.
In particular, those extinction events came to mind. I sat there and visualized catastrophic global climate changes and entire species — heck, entire genera and classes — struggling for survival in new and impossible conditions, and every one of them losing a fight that was over before it began. Decidedly not beautiful. This may seem a bit silly, that I was thinking about this while I watched a video in church about rainbows and birds, but I tell you: Those prehistoric creatures were just as real as giraffes and pandas, just as alive as Fluffy and Rover.
Do animals suffer morally significant pain? I don’t know, but here’s one man’s story.
If we human beings are the intended outcome of evolution, God chose an insanely inefficient way of bringing us to be. It is a well-documented fact that over 99% of all species that have ever lived, live no longer. They were here and have gone, mostly in struggle and violence.
Will the same happen to us? Why not? One day that meteor will hit; one day a supernova will go off nearby; one day the ocean levels will change suddenly and forever. The Earth’s climate has never stayed put; it will change again (it is changing now). All manner of natural global-scale catastrophes have happened in the past and they will happen in the future. It is a mathematical certainty. Maybe we’re not all that important. Maybe it’s all just a crap shoot.
During her sermon Julie said a true thing with utter clarity: This is not a safe world.
How do we reconcile this with a God who loves? I’m not sure, but for a few brief shining moments today Big Head Todd and the Monsters suggested to me that mass extinctions (and other disasters) happen because of — not in spite of — God’s love.
This afternoon I was driving in the car and listening to songs randomly selected by my iPod. And one of my favorite BHTM songs came on. It’s a quiet little tune that rounds out the band’s 2002 record Riviera. Called Universal Mom, it’s a gentle encouragement to an exhausted mother. I have always loved its lyrics, but I thought of them differently today.
You can’t try to keep what you’ve given away
Oh, be still
Watch them, still, let them fall down
You’re wasting your life trying to rescue the day
All your steel, iron will won’t break this frozen ground
Helplessness, wordlessness, why do you let yourself worry this way?
So let there be shelter to make some mistakes
I will, you will, never control what we create
When you give a gift, it’s gone. And those Alert Readers who are moms know about not controlling what you create. So do those of you who are poets or artists or musicians. Actually, all of us know a little but about what Big Head Todd is saying here: To create is to love, and to love is to let go.
So if God really created the world and loves the world, then maybe God has to stand back a little from it. Maybe if there is no real creation and no real love then we would all be an extension — and not an expression — of God. Would that matter? I don’t know. Maybe creation’s seperateness is a measure of God’s love. Maybe if the universe were a mere extension of God we would have no real integrity as creatures. Maybe it hurts God to let the universe go, but maybe that’s how a loving God had to do it: step back and release it, mass extinctions and all.
Beauty in nature is never unambiguous. It is always accompanied by brutality and randomness. But maybe this is necessarily so.
I don’t know. This may all be wishful thinking. It probably is. But for a few minutes in the car it seemed so clear. Reflecting on it now, it seems dangerously close to deism, which of course I don’t buy. I certainly do not propose this as a fix for suffering, human or otherwise. Don’t worry; I won’t be pulling it out next time I encounter a hurting brother or sister. It’s simply a thought.
Do with it what you will.