Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Jenga

I've been reflecting on how I've experienced this faith crisis of mine. In some ways, it's reminded me of a game of Jenga, where each player takes turns pulling a block from a tower of blocks until the whole tower collapses. There are many different blocks to choose from, but the end result of the game never changes. Crash!

My questioning started over the concept of hell (block 1). My initial questioning left me with a willingness to reexamine all sorts of issues I would have feared studying before. Researching the evidence for an old earth and evolution led me to reevaluate the Genesis account of creation as well as many other stories in Genesis. It became apparant that many of these stories contradicted clear scientific evidence(creation, Noah's Ark ). (Several blocks here.) I then revisited the literalist/inerrantist view of scripture I had tried to maintain. The contradictions in scripture and the prophesies which weren't, suddenly became very obvious. Why had I never noticed? (More blocks pulled.)

Without the ability to view scripture as divine writing on the wall, I was left trying to discern what to make of it. If there's no literal Adam and Eve with their original sin, why do we need a savior? And why did Christ have to die, really? There's more than one interpretation offered in the Bible, not just the penal substitutionary theory of atonement, as I was taught. What do we really know about Christ and how much can we trust what scripture says? What about the Old Testament stories of genocide that leave most of us squeamish? What about the treatment of women in the Bible, do they reflect the culture of the time or could they really reflect how God views women? How much weight should I give Biblical teachings on divorce and homosexuality? What if hell is a concept borrowed from surrounding cultures? Can there be anything to it? If not, what's left of Christianity without a hell to save people from? (More and more blocks pulled). What Christ centered narrative can be constructed that has integrity? How many blocks are left standing?

One thing that seems to still be standing is my need/desire for the metaphysical. It may be a personality trait, I don't know. One thing I have observed, however, is that the more I detach from my religious practices, the more I find time to be alone in nature, the more I immerse myself in music, the more I seek out moments of meditation, introspection, and peace as well as moments of wonder and thanksgiving. I continue to make meaning and to connect with others. Feeling less fettered by the binds of doctrines and practices that entangle my mind has not led me to hedonistic pursuits and a nihilistic outlook. I am still left open to the idea that God exists and allows us to transcend the material, but I don't think He/She/It looks much like what I've imagined most of my life.

Like A Child sent me a link to a post which resonated with me because the man who wrote about his doubts is a Christian who is from my denomination (church of Christ). He has degrees in both theology and archeology and has undergone quite a transformation in his beliefs. He writes a bit about this Jenga effect I discussed:

The problem, of course, with dismissing biblical creation and the flood is that Jesus mentions both of them (Mark 10:6 and Matt. 24:38-39). Christians are reluctant to let go of creation and the flood, because doing so places Jesus in the awkward position of repeating mythological stories that are not historical. An even greater problem for some with conceding that much of the Bible is not historical is that the result is not an exclusively "Christian" God. While some aspects of biblical historicity may be discounted and a distinctively Christian understanding of God retained, the honest scholar must concede that, followed to its logical end, the resulting view of God is more like a cosmic God -- a prime mover that better resembles a deistic God of the early universe -- than it is the personal, pocket God of modern evangelical Christianity.

And it is this contemplation of the theological chessboard seven moves from now that terrifies most Christian scholars into an immobilizing silence -- within both the academy and the church -- and stops them from taking the next step or even speaking aloud of its consideration. I am here to tell you, it's OK. Some may call you a heretic, but coming out of the skeptical closet will free you to understand faith in a whole new way.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Book Review of "Why Us?" Part 3

Le Fanu devotes a chapter to the mystery of the Double Helix. Despite the extraordinary accomplishment of the Human Genome project, we are still unable to determine how genetic code causes one creature to be a fly while another becomes a human. Le Fanu detailed the ways in which uncovering the human gene sequence led to highly unexpected findings and more questions than answers. Not only were there fewer genes than expected, but 95% of the Double Helix was "junk." It was not clearly obvious how our sparse number of information bearing genes made us human. Additionally, studying mutations that lead to genetic disease resulted in the discovery that multiple mutations could cause a given disease. Even more puzzling was the finding that mutations could be present without always exerting their effect. Genes, we now know, are multi-tasked and work in concert with other genes. They are capable of displaying contradictory properties, depending on context and can be "essential for, and yet irrelevant to" their purpose. These findings make the concept of natural selection with random mutation appear simplistic and untenable. A discovery which has shed some light on the complex functioning of genes is the master genes, or Hox genes. They function as a switch, turning off and on various genes. However, scientists are learning that the same Hox genes which are responsible for a particular outcome in one organism produce a different outcome in another. So, the question remains, how does a fly know to be a fly and a mouse know to be a mouse? What is controlling the master genes, which are controlling everything else? The current assumption is that the Hox genes "turn the genes of the universal toolkit 'on and off' in a different sequence and at different times to produce these different structures."

However, Le Fanu has a problem settling with this explanation. He states that "the parts of the fly-its eyes, wings and limbs-are all 'of a piece', and it is difficult again to conceive how the relevant master gene for each could have chanced upon the correct sequence of switches to generate the appropriate part. It is as if the 'idea' of the fly (or any other organism) must somehow permeate the genome that gives rise to it, for it is only through the master genes of the embryonic fly's knowing it is a fly that they will activate that sequence of switches that will give rise to those appropriate structures."

He concludes that "there must be some non-material formative influence that, from the moment of conception, imposes the order of form on the developing embryo...and holds it constant while its cells and tissues are continually renewed...."

I appreciate the chapter for educating me on the incredible complexity of DNA. He does a terrific job of highlighting the questions and mystery that continue to pervade the study of the human body and our evolution. However, I'm not sure that I can accept his conclusion that there can be no material explanation for the workings of the Hox genes. It appears suspiciously like a God-of-the-Gaps argument that is subject to burial as science fills in the holes. I would agree if he ended the chapter by merely pointing to the appearance of a mastermind determining various forms, but I'm wary of his conclusion that sounds like a spirit inhabits fertilized eggs to ensure they grow up to be what the spirit intends.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Book Review of "Why Us?" Part 2

Le Fanu devotes several chapters to Darwin and evolution. He begins by describing the zeitgeist of Darwin's time and how it led to the rapid and devoted acceptance of evolutionary theory. He then goes on to describe how scientific findings have undermined Darwin's theory, leaving it on the verge of collapse. He believes it is only the ideology of scientists that protects it now. In chapter five, he describes why he believes science has revealed fatal flaws in evolution as an explanation for our origin by addressing the problem of the fossil record, the inability of man to replicate nature's designs, and the inexplicable homology (similarity) of animal structures.

Regarding the fossil record, he discusses the evidence for immediate change within organisms, followed by long periods of stability within organisms, rather than slow evolutionary process described by Darwin. He quotes Niles Eldredge as saying "When we do see the introduction of evolutionary novelty, it usually shows up with a bang, and often with no firm evidence that the organisms did not evolve elsewhere." In summarizing the finds of the transitional forms that presumably led to the modern whale, Le Fanu notes that 12 million years would not provide the time needed for the numerous transitions from the wolf-sized mammal pakicetus to the whale. He noted, "some other dramatic mechanism, as yet unknown to science, must account for that extraordinary diversity of life as revealed by the fossil record." He didn't calculate how much time would be needed. He only quoted a report from an academic conference on evolution which concluded that mechanisms underlying microevolution could not be extrapolated to explain macroevolution.

Le Fanu also described the problem of "perfection" for evolution. He noted the inability of bioengineers to design an artificial heart which performs anywhere nearly as effectively as the human heart. He concluded that "it seems merely perverse to suggest that the undirected process of nature, acting on numerous small, random genetic mutations, could give rise to this or any other of those 'masterpiece of design.'" He declined to point to a Creator as the designer of such masterpieces, instead stating that "some prodigious biological phenomenon, unknown to science" must be responsible for our organs being "constructed to the very highest specifications of automated efficiency."

Finally, Le Fanu examined the "unsolved problem" of Cuvier's law of homology, which refers to the apparent similarity in structure of limbs of various creatures, from reptiles to amphibians, to birds, to mammals. Darwin felt that this was strong evidence of evolution. However, studies of embryos from these diverse animals reveal that their limbs originated in different segments of the trunk. He concludes by noting that the "'common architectural plan' of the forelimbs of reptiles and mammals, so long held to be powerful evidence for Darin's theory, can no longer be interpreted in favour of descent from a common ancestor."

I certainly agree that there is still a great deal we have to learn about our origins. Additionally, I do believe we are products of our time, apt to adopt the worldview in which we are born, which necessarily colors our view of the evidence before us. Certainly scientists are no different and have been slow to question the orthodoxy of evolution. This is a concern in that it prohibits them from asking the questions and exploring the inconsistencies in data that might lead to a better understanding of how we all came to be. However, I am encouraged that there are scientists who are challenging current understandings of evolution and attempting to develop models which better fit the data.

Here's one example of a recent article by a scientist evaluating the state of evolutionary theory.

In future posts I'll discuss what Le Fanu has to say about the limits of science in the fields of genetics and neuroscience.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Review of "Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves"

At the book club I attend, we recently discussed the book "Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves" by James Le Fanu. The author believes that as science has progressed, it has become clear that the boundaries of human knowledge are within sight, and science has fallen short on the promise to reveal all of nature's secrets. He supports his thesis by highlighting three areas of research: evolution, the double helix, and the brain. He believes that it is abundantly clear that the philosophical materialism that has dominated science since the enlightenment, has, through its own efforts, revealed its inability to fully explain the human experience. Le Fanu views this state of affairs as an indication of a non-material realm that exists along the material. Though he never speaks directly of God, he clearly believes that material explanations alone will not suffice in answering questions that continue to persist about who we are, how we came to be this way, and how exactly we work. I will take a look at some of these questions in my next post.

There certainly is much we still have to fathom. We and our world continue to be objects of mystery. This is why I would have difficulty ever confidently declaring myself to be an atheist. There is so much we don't know and so much that we experience as transcending material explanations. However, that doesn't mean material explanations can't someday suffice. Le Fanu, though, would beg to differ.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Trying Something New

On Sunday, I decided to do something I never would have considered a couple of years ago: I attended a Unitarian Universalist (UU) church service. My husband had to work on Sunday, so I used the opportunity to attend a congregation I knew he'd have no interest in visiting. Much to his credit, he didn't try to dissuade me when I told him what I wanted to do. I've had a feeling that the denomination might be a good fit for where I am now. There's very little by way of church doctrine. The focus is on humanist values and there's no doctrine about belief in God. Both atheists and believers alike attend.

What was the experience like? It felt surprisingly comfortable for me. My boys attended with me and they took to it immediately. Someone thought we were members because my boys were so social and unhesitatingly involved in the activities. I enjoyed the sanctuary with its large, numerous windows that allowed me to view the grove of pine trees and the clear blue sky overhead. These natural adornments presumably took the place of crosses or other symbols of religion. The focus of the service was on the principles of love, community, unity, and human value. The message from the pulpit didn't leave me engaged in internal debate over points of disagreement. It was a much more peaceful experience than I've had at church in sometime.

I admit it was strange to hear the name of God invoked only once from worship leaders during the entire service. And the one time the minister used God language she followed it up by pointing out a different type of language that could be used if one wasn't a believer. I enjoyed the fact that the minister who led the service was a woman. Given my own faith tradition, I felt surprised that the men in the audience looked so comfortable listening to a woman preach and half expected them to stand up and object. It felt refreshingly affirming of women.

My husband has asked why one would even bother attending a church if he or she is agnostic or an atheist. However, it actually makes some sense to me. If I were to fall into one of these categories in the future, I could see myself wanting to attend a church, particularly a UU church. It provides a community of individuals with similar values with whom you can develop friendships and find support. It also gives you an opportunity to meditate on what matters to you and to live out your values within a community where a greater good can be achieved. And if you have children, you may appreciate having a community such as this in which to raise them.

It's interesting to me how some individuals respond to doubts about their faith by retreating from faith communities, others by clinging more tenaciously to their religion and doctrines, and others by finding different faith communities. I guess I've done a little of all three. We all have to find our own way. I'm wondering what you have done and how well it has helped you along in your journey. And I'm interested in knowing if anyone has ever attended a UU church?