Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Wish I Could Be Afraid

I wish I could be afraid. Like Peter was afraid, once.

It happened this way. One day, after a fruitless night of fishing, Jesus told Peter to throw the nets out on the other side of the boat. Peter thought, "No way. Wrong place; wrong time." But to humor Jesus — who had, after all, just healed his mother-in-law — Peter did as he was told. And according to the story Luke tells, Peter caught a huge load of fish. It seemed a miracle.

The next thing Peter knew, he was stepping out of the boat and falling on his knees before Jesus. Something about what had just happened — something about Jesus — terrified him. So Peter said, "Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man."

I wish I could be afraid like that. Even if it only happened once, for a minute, I wish I could feel the breath sucked out of me like Peter’s must have been when he guessed, before he had words to say it, that Jesus was the Christ, of God (Luke 9:20).

This is why: my life is all about Jesus. I have gone to church all my life. I spent twenty years going to Christian schools, including seminary. I now preach about Jesus weekly. I pray to him daily. He is rarely far from my thoughts.

Yet I have never held his hand. I have never laid eyes on his face. I have not put my hands in his wounds. I have not heard him preach. I can't get him to slap me on the back or pass the wine or even to tell me where to fish. He seems distant — almost unreal. Just once, just for a moment, I'd like to taste that mysterious, awful, painful, fear that seized Peter when he guessed who Jesus really was.

I don't know how exactly to say it. I think this would be a good fear, even if I could only hold onto it for a minute or two. A good fear — maybe like the longing fear a virginal bride and a virginal groom have at the foot of their wedding night bed as a whole new world of intimacy and trust opens up to them.

I think Peter's fear must be something like that of a teacher facing her first classroom alone. She trusts her training and doesn't doubt her skills, but she is terrified by the enormity of her job and all the kids she'll help shape. She's just one, all alone, at the beginning of the rest of her life.

I think this fear is something like the fear that those who love extreme sports look for. They want a rush, a brush with death, the exhilaration of being on the verge of losing it even as they know they will make it to the other side.

This good fear is deeply spiritual. It is rooted in wanting more life than a body can stand, in wanting to look around the corner, at death, maybe even touch it — without having to embrace it.

Some Christians claim to have encountered Jesus in this way — to have tangibly felt his immanence and the holy fear that it inspires. I can’t speak, of course, about the truth or falsehood of anyone else’s claim to have experienced this kind of fear. All I know is that I’ve never felt it. Not like Peter did.

But as I carry on in faith, which for me includes this persistent struggle with doubt and uncertainty, I wish I could know — even for a moment — what Peter felt that day, and what Jesus' words cured.

(This post appeared earlier this week on Eerdword, at http://eerdword.wordpress.com. Check it out!)

Friday, August 19, 2011

End of Summer Booklist

Labor Day is just around the corner, and so perhaps you are looking for that one, last great book of the summer. I've read a few, and maybe one of them will appeal to you.

My wife, Irene Oudyk-Suk, is a couples and sex therapist (couplesinstep.ca). One book she asks many of her clients to read (or watch on video) is Canadian therapist Sue Johnson’s “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.” The book is a popular and practical exposition of the new neuroscience of love. Her approach to therapy is based on John Bowlby's attachment theory, and is usually called Emotionally Focussed Therapy. Don't let the ten-dollar terms scare you, though. This is a very practical and readable book about committed relationships. If you want to figure out how love actually works, pick it up.

One book that has been making waves in Christian circles this summer is Rob Bell’s Love Wins. In this book Bell tries to explain why the heart of Christianity has to be the story of God’s grace, and how the heart of Christianity has nothing to do with eerie tales of hell and punishment. A noted Evangelical leader, his book has upset the status-quo apple cart. You’ll need to read it to make up your own mind, but I thought it was a great read.

My PHD is in Communication Theory. One question receiving a lot of attention in those circles is, “does use of electronic media effect how we think?” Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle argues that we have traded the world of ideas for one of “comforting, reassuring images, fantasies, slogans and a celebration of violence.” Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading and the Brain, looks at the issue from the perspective of neuroscience. Amazon just delivered Shane Hipps’ Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith. I haven't read it yet, but he asks what this all means for Christians who are, after all, supposed to be “people of the word.”

No summer reading list is complete without fiction to fall asleep by--or not! I’m a fantasy and science fiction buff, and really enjoyed reading bestselling George Martin’s A Game of Thrones. This summer I also found Robert Sawyer’s Hominids, which combines my interest in human evolution and sci-fi. Sawyer is easily Canada’s best known science fiction writer. With the upcoming provincial election in the air, I’ve also purchased Terry Fallis’ Best Laid Plans. This book, about the inner machinations of Canadian politics, was CBC Radio’s 2011 Canada Reads contest winner. I'll read it over Labor Day weekend in preparation for Ontario's upcoming provincial election.

Finally, a bit of a dream. I'm trying to talk Irene into retiring to a sailboat--at least for a few years. I'm not sure when we'd do that (I'm thinking soon, Irene wants to wait fifteen years!). But in the meantime, we should probably learn to sail! So I bought, and devoured The Sailing Bible: The Complete Guide for all Sailors. Living on a boat sounds like it could be a blast. Not much in there about being becalmed and swarmed by flies, which I hear is one of the occupational hazards of being out on the great lakes, at least. We'll have to see--maybe Irene and I will try sailing for a week next summer?

What late-summer good-reads would you add?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The DNA Says Evolution. Is the Church Ready?

My daughter-in-law Gillian, a student at Columbia Medical School in New York City, recently graduated from Syracuse University with a PhD in Biochemistry. I'm proud of her achievements. Her dissertation is entitled "High Throughput Screening of Aptamers." Gillian developed and patented a new process for sequencing DNA much faster than older methods. Her research will aid in the development of new drugs, and interestingly, the speedy detection of cryptosporidium in our water. Cryptosporidium is a pathogen that is responsible for one of the most common waterborne--and sometimes fatal--diseases in the world.

I understand the basic thrust of her research because I've been long interested both how evolution works, and especially how DNA analysis sheds new light on the evolutionary history of our species. The theory of human evolution has always been based on independent and converging lines of evidence from many fields, such as archeology and biology. Modern DNA analysis that shows how different groups of people are related through time by comparing minute mutations in their DNA is just the most recent line of such evidence.

Christians often struggle to integrate new evolutionary science into their ancient faith. We have options. One is to argue that evolutionary science must be wrong because the story of Adam's creation out of the soil is an exact description of what happened. On this approach, genetic similarity between us and other species, such as Neanderthals or lemurs or fish is a red herring that God threw into the DNA--maybe for fun, or maybe to test our faith in the literalist interpretation of Genesis.

This approach is unacceptable for many reasons. At heart, it makes God's revelation of himself in the book of creation intentionally duplicitous. We gladly make use of our new understanding of the science of DNA to identify genetic diseases or for forensic analysis of trace amounts of DNA to identify people (usually criminals). Gillian has moved from a PhD in biochemistry to medical school because the scientific research in both places is completely interdependent. It is high irony that many of us are glad to take advantage of new medical advances when it comes to our health but reject the same science if it challenges our theology. I liken it to sailing around the world while continuing to insist that it is flat.

A more helpful approach would be to accept that contemporary science is forcing us to rethink traditional interpretations of the Bible. Of course, this has happened many times before. No one believes the earth is flat, that the universe revolves around the earth, or that there are waters above and below the earth.

We do have a lot of theology to rethink. For starters, a doctrine of original sin can't be based on a historical fall by an original human person. Calvin professors Daniel Harlow and John Schneider have done a wonderful job of getting a discussion about what we need to rethink restarted for Christian Reformed people.

In the meantime, though, I often think about my daughter-in-law Gillian. Telling her to reject human evolution from other, prior species would basically require her to discount the very science on which she bases her daily research, her patents, and her contributions to defeating the scourge of cryptosporidium. Gillian is a person of faith. She loves going to church. But she won't go to one where she has to check her science vocation at the door and enter into a pretend alternate reality. Why should she, or any of our children, have to make such a sacrifice?

The time is ripe for us to put this evolutionary tempest in a Fundamentalist teapot behind us, and get on with the adventure of working out a theology that is a better reflection of both the book of scripture and the book of nature.

PS: I'm often asked what books I'd recommend to those who are curious about human evolution. Here are three that I would highly recommend. Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True is a very accessible introduction that is sensitive to traditional Christian concerns. Francisco Ayala is a former Dominican priest, and his Am I a Monkey? is a very spiritually mature reflection on evolution. If you're looking for a rollicking good read, I suggest Neil Shubin's entertaining Your Inner Fish. This article first appeared in the August 8 issue of Christian Courier (christiancourier.ca/).