Sunday, February 26, 2006

An Intelligent Comment on Intelligent Design

The Doonesbury strip from this morning's paper makes one of the best ever comments on Intelligent Design. I'd cut it out and mulled it over before going to Mass this morning, intending to begin writing in earnest later on today. Good thing I waited, because the gospel gave me exactly the right perspective with which to view the subject of ID. It all has to do with wineskins. You can't put new wine into old wineskins, Jesus told his disciples. In fact, things just don't work when they're put in the wrong framework--because that's how I see the wineskin image, as a frame of reference within which to view certain ideas. Those Jesus spoke to were of a certain mindset, one which prevented them from hearing his message. His ideas needed a new mindset to be understood.

What kind of mindsets am I talking about with reference to ID? Faith and science come to mind, which is why this comic strip seemed so applicable. We've had a split between faith and science ever since the time of Galileo. Galileo himself was a man of deep faith, as were many of the scientists who followed him, right up to the present day. The Jesuits of his day took an interest in astronomy and followed his work with great interest, just as they have continued with their scientific endeavors down through recent centuries. Science doesn't exclude faith, nor does faith, science. They're just two separate modes through which to experience the world. They constitute different realms, but are no more contradictory than are, say, apples and oranges.

But, slice those oranges, dice the apples, add some coconut and a little Triple Sec, and you've got a tasty salad. Don't forget a few toasted almonds, and maybe a little chopped candied ginger. Mmmm! What I'm saying is, those apples and oranges can be very distinct realities, and yet when mixed, can offer something neither one had alone. In fact, I would say the world is more like a fruit salad than it is like either apples or oranges alone, and that includes the realm that both science and faith claim to explore.

However, let's back up to the list of ingredients once more.
Take science, a discipline that attempts to make a guess about how things work and to proceed by using experimentation, observation, and testing, to find out if that guess is right. Further testing can indicate whether the phenomenon observed can be repeated, whether it is consistent. Eventually this method yields an actual scientific theory, which can serve to predict further occurrences or to build on for future experimentation. It's a limited discipline. Scientists are not given to wild speculation and theoretical extravagance. Science proceeds step by step in an orderly fashion, adhering strictly to the Scientfic Method. It begins with the premise that only that which has been observed is known.
Faith, on the other hand, begins with the position that one can trust the unknowable, that the Unknowable reveals itself to us. The Unknowable Known is Law, yet cannot be governed by any other force. It is radically free of control, cannot be captured and tested and made to perform test-tube tricks.

To mix these two opposites might be like combining acid and base--explosive. Intelligent Design attempts to do exactly that, with results that ought not to surprise us. Many the scientist, confronted with the mere suggestion of ID, fulminates in outrage. On the other hand, fundamentalist persons of faith often react in a similar way to suggestions of a universe that developed without a Creator. This should not surprise us. What should, rather, astound us is the fact that there are scientists who calmly see themselves as creatures of that Creator, and that there are persons of faith who can readily accept evolution. This is where we get the salad.

How does this work in reality? When we recognize that the skins are but structures that enable human beings to follow certain trains of knowing. We live with a number of wineskins. As in the metaphor, you can't keep wine without the skin, nor can we have ideas apart from some kind of intellectual structure. But wisdom leads us to recognize that these are but containers, and that reality or truth is far more vast than what we can imprison in any limited vessel.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Chameleon and the Tyrannosaurus Rex

Humankind survived over the hundreds of thousands--at least, that's how it looks now--of years, despite their lack of physical adapatations. We were hairless, soft-bellied, weak-backed, bi-pedal; had limited range of hearing and smell, and only two eyes. We spawned one or two offspring at a time instead of swarms of them, depended on two partners getting together.

Okay, so we share that with other animals. But we've evolved away from having a female yowl at night until suitors come running from miles around to pounce on her and produce an offspring (at perhaps 6 months of age!) Ask any cat-owner of an un-spayed animal, and you find out that lots of offspring does ensure continuation of the species. Add 9 lives to the mix, and you've got an enduring population.

But we had certain other characteristics that enabled us to survive and triumph over our better-abled brothers and sisters in the animal world, to say nothing of the plant kingdom. We walked on two feet, which freed our upper appendages for food gathering. We developed an opposed thumb, which made the hand a much more useful instrument, enabling us to construct tools to help us survive.

What did we construct? Clothing, to protect in northern climes, where we were able to find a niche without too much competition. We made containers for food and water. We found diverse ways to make homes, and could construct large enough dwellings to allow for a variety of activities. We made objects to enable us to worship. And we made weapons.

Notice that this last artifact was different from the others. All of those first accomplishments basicially enabled us to adapt to our surroundings. If the climate was inclement, we could move, we could dress warmly, we could build a better house, we could store food more effectively. If there was danger, we could build protection or we could defend ourselves. As we developed, we found ever more effective ways to adapt.

However, with weapons came more than self-defense, more than killing of game for food. They also enabled us to attack and dominate others. Shock and awe was not about adaptation.

So, essentially we have two ways open to us: adaptation and domination. The question is, which is better for us? Because I write from the standpoint of faith in this blog, I look first to the wisdom of our parents in faith. It is interesting that one of the earliest stories we have from the Hebrew Scriptures is that of Cain and Abel. Cain lived by subjecting animals to his power; Abel survived by raising plants. Already there was a division between use of the land in such a way as to coexist, and one which involved the domination of one creature by another.

With Abraham, later on, we hear very little of warfare. Abraham used his adaptive skills in traveling to a new land, one in which he and his family could flourish and increase. Much could be said about those who followed, the lessons they left in how a people must live in order to adapt to the world and survive intact.

Following in that same tradition, Jesus Christ gave the example of one who turned the other cheek, who offered only peaceful resistance, and his model in this was the one in whose line he was born, David the King.

How effective is peace? Consider the two strains of the people who gave us both David and Jesus. The Jewish nation was struggling at the time Jesus was born. The Romans kept them subjected until around 70 AD, when they finally moved in and took over Jerusalem and Israel. The surviving Jews were the Pharisees and the Christians. Neither stood much of a chance, deprived of their land, persecuted. Both survived against all odds and are together among the most successful members of today's world.

Both Jews and Christians resorted to force at times, but this was not the source of their success. Their success lay in the undeniable strength each derived from a faith that taught them how to live in the world and beyond it.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Why sabbath?

I got up yesterday with waffles on my mind--the perfect breakfast for a Sunday morning. About the time I was finishing dressing, my daugher called from New York. Since I'd planned to call her, this was perfect timing, and I was delighted to spend time catching up on the grandchildren and family question with her.
Suddenly time was crunching on me. I had an hour left before I needed to leave for mass. But that was time to squeeze in the waffles--right?
I could race around getting waffles made and then wolf them down in time to run out the door panting on my way to choir warm-up, or I could pour myself a bowl of trusty granola with a dollup of berry compote and a swish of soy milk, and sit down to enjoy some of the paper.
This decision prompted reflection on sabbath. What's it all about anyway?
A weekly rest, a time to relax from all the racing of the week--that's what sabbath is. It's not necessarily a time to do all the good you can, although you wouldn't want to neglect doing good on the pretext of practicing sabbath. The old practice of making it a real day of rest--a day to visit family, to spend time on relaxing enterprises, to replenish spiritual resources--made a lot of sense.
Without waxing eloquent about the reasons for this, I want to note what a difference that could make in society--what a difference it may, indeed, HAVE made. Because, what does leisure allow us anyway? It's hard to judge from today's society, when we have a great deal of freedom to do whatever we see fit. In previous generations, life was not so easy. The life of the mind and the practice of the arts were limited to the upper classes, who could pay to have their daily needs taken care of. The poor and lower-middle classes worked from dawn to dusk just keeping bread on the table and clothes on their bodies. School was a luxury.
Go back even farther, to nomadic or agricultural societies. (Having lived among farmers, I have some experience with this.) The land and animals dictate in those circumstances. Work is ongoing, there are few opportunities for other occupations.
In such a society, the sabbath provided a weekly break long enough to accomplish something other than physical labor. It was a mandated time to be used for study, conversation, worship and reflection.
The idea of sabbath--Shabat--came to us from the Jews. Look at what sabbath produced in early Jewish society:
first, one of the first alphabets. With that alphabet, the Jewish scribes were able to produce a collection of historial and literary books that is quite uncommon in the ancient world.

Secondly, it produced a society with strong familial structures, which led to a similarly strong society. If there is any doubt about that, how many ethnic groups today can point to a similar identity as a people after 4000 years of history, 2000 of which were lived without a homeland? Did sabbath contribute to the societal ties? I think it did. When you have a day to spend in family gatherings, you tend to build stronger ties.

Thirdly, setting aside a day of the week on which no work can be done requires that you organize your week to get things done in a timely fashion. This results in better use of time.
I'm sure the benefits of sabbath go far beyond the ones I've mentioned, but these are a few to consider.

Can we still benefit from Sabbath today? As our lives become more and more crammed with options, obligations, observations, we need permission to take time off. It's not the animals and fields that dictate to us now, but rather the competition of today's life.

Having lived in a small town for many years, I have seen how the traditional weekly rhythms can become part of one's life. There, in Delta, most businesses were closed on Sunday. The hardware store and the groceries and one stalwart merchant stayed open. Most of us did not do much shopping on Sunday. It was a day for puttering around the house, going out for a walk or a drive, visiting family, going to church. You couldn't buy alcohol, except in a bar or as 3.2 beer. Now I live in a larger city, where you can count on businesses being open on Sundays. In fact, the parking lots are crammed every day.

Now, you might say, well I enjoy shopping, so why should shopping be prohibited on the sabbath? Why should anything be prohibited? I can speak for my own experience in saying that it is hard for me not to drive myself. I welcomed the closed businesses, which removed one confusing option from me on Sundays. Today I have a tendancy to want to edit web pages on Sundays, when I have a nice block of time. Hey, I like working on web pages. The html is like a puzzle that my mind likes to get around. Web work also tends to become addictive. Invariably it gets to the point where I want to stop, but can't because of some problem that I can't solve and can't stand to leave alone. I end up feeling drained.
What ought I to do on Sundays? Go to the beach, go for a walk or a drive, go to a movie, visit friends, read a book, putter.

I do go to church, and that's one of my favorite parts of the week. Sunday mornings I go for a walk, take a leisurely shower, listen to the NPR puzzle, make a nice breakfast, read the paper. Then I go down to mass at the Basilica. That's the best part of my day. In the evening I watch a few TV programs I like, do a little knitting. These are the Sundays I enjoy most.

Everybody's got to slow down in their own way. But we've all got to slow down. We have to shut out some of the clammor of the world and allow ourselves time for reflection and thinking if we're going to sort out the truth of our lives. It's more important now than ever.