Monday, February 25, 2019

Evolution Is a Theory Like Gravity Is a Theory. But What About God?

         I sort of believe in the theory of evolution like I sort of believe in the theory of gravity. Think about it. That means evolution is not up for discussion. But while the theory of gravity bores me, unless I’m falling, the theory of evolution fascinates me.
Sir Isaac Newton hypothesizes the Theory of Gravity

         Here’s why. I went to Toronto District Christian High, in Woodbridge, as a teen. Unlike many Christian schools, at Toronto Christian we were taught about evolution. We were taught, in fact, that evolution was likely how God created the universe. This is called theistic evolution.

         However, there was a single exception. Humans. According to my teachers humans were sinless special creations God made in his image. We were not part of the animal kingdom. We did not evolve. 

         This was pretty much the line I was taught at seminary, too. After seminary, I spent a year of graduate study digging deeper, comparing the Bible’s several creation stories to similar older creation stories told by ancient Israel’s neighbours. I learned that the stories in the Bible were very intentional, shabbat-night-live satiric commentaries on the more ancient creation stories of Israel’s neighbours. 

         Since then, studying human evolution has become a hobby. And one of the reasons I finally left my previous denomination was because I couldn’t, finally, pretend to play along with my denomination’s official view on human evolution.

         More recently, scientists have unraveled the human genome and the DNA within it. Doing so not only allows us to find relatives several generations removed through sites like 23andme’s DNA kits, but unravelling the human genome has helped us find criminals by the DNA they leave behind, and now even cure some diseases rooted in genetic problems. Within that genome, we’ve also discovered the deep evolutionary roots of humankind that ties us to the rest of the animal kingdom. We humans evolved from other earlier hominids, as have the Great Apes and yes, even monkeys. We are also related to other branches of the homo species, like Neanderthals and Denosivans—both now extinct. 

         But why review all this? Because as I’ve studied cosmic and biological evolution, I’ve begun to ask myself, more and more, “so what role does God play in all this?” If everything evolved, and if science can describe that evolutionary process without needing a God, then what use is God?

         And this is what I came up with. It is tentative. It is the best I can do. And I am very, very open to better ideas.

         Imagine a car. The car loosely represents the cosmos. And imagine God. God can relate to the car in several ways. For example, perhaps God is the driver.

         That is, God gets behind the wheel. God has the key, turns the ignition, and gets the car going. God as driver is in complete control. God chooses the destination. He’s the driver, after all. God steers the car around every corner. In fact, God even built the car he drives—he’s a cosmic Henry Ford. This is how most conservative Christians think of God—he’s completely in charge of the whole cosmos—starting it, directing it, and so on. It’s why, when someone dies or they get a new job, such Christians will say things like, “well, it was God’s will. That’s God’s plan.”

         Prayer, then, could be imagined as us asking the driver, God, to steer the car in a certain way, and get us to places we want to go. But God is the driver. God might listen to us, as passengers, but God might not. God is completely in charge of our journeys. Nothing is up to us. In its most extreme of the Calvinist versions of this line of thought, God’s mind is never changed by prayer. God has already decided everything ahead of time. This is called predestination—God decides everything about the destination and our drive there. Humans don’t really have a choice. No free will.

         But many Christians (and people of other faiths) disagree. For example, some Christians imagine that God is not much like a driver, but more like a passenger in a self-driving car, a next-generation Tesla, say, that he invented and built. In this case, God provides the blueprint, gets things going, comes along for the ride, but doesn’t personally steer the car himself. This is called deism.

         Deists have their own favourite analogy. Imagine finding a watch in a field. You pick it up. You wind it up. And the watch ticks and tocks. It keeps time. Perfectly. 

         If you found such a watch, you would have to presume that it was made by someone. Watches don’t just appear, by accident, as it were. So, if you found a watch, you would have to believe that there was a skilled watchmaker who designed and manufactured it. 

         Well, when deists look about the cosmos what they see is something even more wonderfully and fearfully made than that watch. The planets in their circuits, our blood coursing through veins, and all the laws of nature suggested to these ancients that, as with the watch, the cosmos must have a designer and a manufacturer. But once a big bang sets it off, the cosmos runs by itself. God is inventor, creator, but once God is done, God lets the whole mess run itself. Deism. 

         I’m more inclined to a deist view of God myself, than to a driver God who predestines everything. My problem with deism, however, is that actually, modern scientific theories can pretty much explain everything—the big bang, the appearance of life, evolution. The physical world doesn’t need an inventor or watchmaker to be properly explained. Which is why Richard Dawkins wrote a book about evolution called, ironically, The Blind Watchmaker. 

         Well, as you can see, if you don’t need God to create the cosmos and just come along for the drive, and if you don’t need God as the creator and driver either, there isn’t much room left for God. So, some Christians—liberal ones, for the most part, have begun to think of God not as the driver, not as a quiet passenger who just set things in motion, but as a backseat driver.

         You see, while science can explain a lot, some people don’t think science can explain morality, our human notions about what is right and wrong. And so, these Christians turn God into a backseat driver who is always telling us what is right and wrong, what direction to take our lives, which pedestrians and hazards to watch out for. This is a nagging God, a pushy God, a “you better get this right,” God. A liberal works-righteousness God who seems, always, to be saying, “Be better. Do more. Divest. Rally. Protest.” This God speaks to us insistently, mostly through theologians and denominational executives and pressure groups who are sure they know exactly what God wants when it comes to a whole list of contemporary issues. And while I often agree with these people, I don’t like the tone, and I don’t like the imagined God behind this tone, very much.

         None of these pictures of God ring true for me. Is there another possibility? I think there is. Perhaps God, in some wild but mysterious way offers guidance when we, alone in the car by ourselves, or together with each other as a community, seek that guidance. That is, instead of nagging us, perhaps God is more like Google Maps or the Waze app. Except those kinds of maps are too directive, too sure. So maybe God is more like the author of an old-fashioned paper map. We can turn to it for direction, but we need to read it carefully, parse its options, interpret it, and rely on the corroborating (or not) advice of fellow passengers. Only when we turn to God “The Paper Map,” for direction do we receive it—in part and imperfectly. 

          But where might God provide such guidance, in real life? Well, I’d say that scripture is where we find it; and in the cumulative wisdom we’ve built up about scripture as a community, over thousands of years. Scripture, and our reflection on it, is the divine roadmap we have for arriving ("Perhaps," says John Caputo. “We hope,” I add.) at our desired destination.

         I’m not saying that scripture is dictated by God, or that is divinely authoritative (so we better listen to it!), or that every word is inspired. I don’t think so. But overall, scripture—including the scriptures of other religions and the Testament we received from the Jewish people—scriptures do represent thousands of years of deep listening on the part of humans to a mysterious divine wisdom that permeates the cosmos and is deeply rooted in our own selves, as well. We argue about how to understand scripture, we question some of its odd suggestions that belong to another place and time, but overall, in scripture and in the communities that listen to it and truly seek guidance in it, we usually find God gently, kindly, offering direction when we seek it, encouraging us to live full lives that benefit each other and help us find our place in the cosmos.

         Scripture in this sense is a lamp that prevents our feet from stumbling when all is otherwise dark (Psalm 119:105). Keep in mind that when scripture is described as a light, it isn’t talking about a modern flashlight or streetlight that reveals all. It is a flickering, uncovered olive lamp with a sputtering wick that threatens to go out at any minute, and gives just enough light so that we don’t trip over what would otherwise be obvious rocks and chasms in the path. 

         Scripture is a divine gift. But gifts, to be true gifts, must be given unconditionally. There is no expectation of a return, no nagging about thank-you cards, no obligation to give something of equal or greater value back. If we were given a gift conditional on how we responded to it, it would be merely a financial transaction, a debt to be repaid, rather than a gift. We’d have to interpret it correctly, or else. But no. As a favourite writer once put it: There is nothing you have to do, there is nothing you have to do, and there is nothing you have to do.

         The divine gift of scripture is an invitation, really, to explore meaning and purpose beyond the facts. Science, and theories like evolution, explain a lot—everything, really. And yet, for such a world as this, we also have this one thing more, this divine gift, the divine (but often obscure!) map, for why and how to live a life—not just for survival, but for the love of all things bright and beautiful.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Gospel According to "A Star Is Born."

            As the curtains rise in the movie A Star is Born, Jackson Maine, a Country and Western hero, is singing at a sold-out concert before adoring fans. He’s rich, famous, and good looking. But it soon becomes clear that Jackson is also fighting demons.

            Jackson is the child of an abusive and alcoholic father. Jackson tried to escape his father at age 13, unsuccessfully, by suicide. Now Jackson needs drugs to get through concerts. He finishes off a bottle of Jack Daniels as soon as the show is over. He physically fights with his brother. He has tinnitus, which means he can’t hear what he’s singing. He wets himself on stage at the Grammys. He fails at rehab. Jackson is a good man who is joined to the hip with tragedy.

            In any case, after the opening concert scene, Jackson stumbles into a bar where Ally works as a singer. She is not living the dream. She’s a down-on-her-luck wannabe-star who slings garbage at work and covers songs at a seedy bar, nights. 

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper sing "Shallow."
            For Jackson, Ally is love at first sight. They spend the night discussing song writing. And ultimately, Jackson invites Ally to sing her own song, “Shallow,” at one of his shows. Listen to it on YouTube. 

            For the rest of the movie, Ally’s star rises as Jackson’s falls. They fall in love, get married, but don’t live happily ever after. Why not?

            The lyrics to “Shallow,” get at some of their big issues. Ally wrote most of the song about Jackson on the night they first met. Ally has figured out that Jackson is in trouble, that he’s longing for change, afraid of himself in the bad times, trying to fill a void—the shallows.

            Jackson, for all of his success and fame, needs more. He is trying to keep up a hardcore image but failing. He’s wading in the shallow end of the pool of life, not the deep end, where real adults swim.

            Shallow isn’t what Jackson wants. He’s is a good guy, after all. He is kind. He makes friends. He can make a deep, loving connection with Ally—when he’s sober, at least.

            Shallow isn’t what Jackson wants. He says, “Talent is everywhere but having something to say that is a whole other bag . . . there is one reason we’re supposed to be here, and it is to say something so people want to hear it.” 

            Shallow isn’t what Jackson wants. For example, Ally tells Jackson she’s a failure because the music industry tells me my nose is too big and she will never make it. But Jackson goes for the deep, he sees the real beauty in Ally—her authenticity, her artistry, her soul, and he nurtures all that.

            Shallow isn’t what most of us want, either. 

            But shallow is where a lot of us—myself included—go too often

            Shallow. Shallow is the inability to align your life with what ultimately matters. It’s a kind of preoccupation with the next step, the next paycheck or promotion, the current distraction, so that you absent-mindedly never actually focus on the big picture or the meaning of life. 

            Shallow. It looks like choosing a career not on the basis of your great gift or driving passion, but choosing it pragmatically, for the sake of big bucks or success asForbesor RollingStonemeasures such things.

            Shallow. It looks like adopting political opinions from parents or coworkers, well, because that’s what you heard, but not taking the time to think deeply about such opinions in light of what religious leaders, or philosophers, or scientists, or cultural critics are saying about the deep.

            Shallow. How many Canadians don’t choose their churches, or synagogues, or temples out of custom and superstition, for tribal or ethnic reasons, without ever giving the matter serious thought? And how many Christians hardly understand or even know the basic Biblical stories anymore? Because, you see, faith offers consolation and hope in direct proportion to how much we invest in faith. Deep, says the Psalmist, calls to deep. 

            Shallow can be as simple as the latest gadget we just had to purchase for the endorphin-fueled thrill of hitting the “buy” button on Amazon; the same gadget that Marie Kondo will tell us how to get rid of to declutter. 

            Shallow can be simple, like giving someone the finger at an intersection; or seductive, like drinking a few too many glasses of wine, over and over again.

            And perhaps most difficult, most maddening, shallow can also be good. We all need some shallow. We all need time away from responsibility, fun away from the rat race, soothing if mindless pastimes that can momentarily drown our anxiety or rest our bodies. Shallow is many negative and some very good things, and we are therefore required, if we are to enjoy our shallow, to be discerning, to regulate it and box it in and plan for it so that shallow—like Jackson’s whiskey—does not conquer us and waste our lives.

            In the end, Jackson Maine chooses to die by suicide. The scene is very sad, very jarring, and not knowing that it was coming, it hit my wife and I like a ton of bricks, because a few years ago one of our siblings died in this manner. Jackson’s suicide also seemed an overly melodramatic response to the problem of living in the shallow end. It felt tacked on. After all, A Star Is Born didn’t have to end this way. There are four versions of this movie out there and not all end with suicides.

            On the other hand, as much as I hated it, Jackson’s suicide also underlined that shallow—and the many ways we try to medicate ourselves, or distract ourselves against, or protect ourselves from the challenge of going deep—Jackson’s suicide was an attempt by the script writers to underline that shallowness is not nothing. Shallowness is a pretty, purring beast of prey that can ultimately tear us apart, from within. Beware.

            The movie left me with a big ache. It’s tragic. The family fights, the drugs, the alcohol, the artifice of the world of the rich and famous, the play-acting that everyone does—it’s all shown to be meaningless. Even the most precious, hopeful thing in this movie—Ally’s stick-to-it-ness when it comes to her love for her tragic husband, isn’t enough to save Jackson from the shallows.

            This movie is what the writer of Ecclesiastes might have produced or directed if he made movies instead of wrote scripture. “I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun, and see, all is vanity and a chasing after the wind.” Jackson’s love, his musical wizardry, his kindness, all stuck in the swamp of shallow, in the end, all a chasing after the wind.

            And—perhaps to its credit—the movie doesn’t offer any quick fixes or easy answers for those of us who struggle with shallow emptiness. By the end of the movie, not only does Ally’s sacrificial love not save Jackson, but she is herself beginning to sell out rather than sing the truth. 

            There is a Biblical word, however, worth pondering, I think—one that both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament explore at great length, a word that defies the shallows and defines deep. This word is “wisdom.” 

            In the book of James 3:13-18, Jesus’ brother describes wisdom, almost poetically, as a path of purity, peace, gentleness, a willingness to let others get their way sometimes, a merciful life, and not hypocritical. Nothing here about what you have to believe, mind you—just stuff about how to have a life that matters like Jesus’ life did, a life that isn’t shallow.

            Unfortunately, I can’t unpack that word “wisdom,” with words more compelling than James uses. I can’t explain wisdom, briefly, so that your life will be changed. 

            Wisdom, after all, like the deep, is complicated. Wisdom is elusive. Achieving wisdom is a whole-life goal; not a pastime; not merely the third, concluding point of a sermon. Wisdom is a pearl of great price that you must sell all to own. 

            And, there is only one way to acquire it. Commit your life to writing a wisdom script on your own heart. Do what only you can do for yourself; go deep to secure wisdom for your journey. And sure, along the way, carve out a bit of time to enjoy the shallows, too. But ultimately, choose deep and pursue it. Once you set out on that project, you’ll start figuring it out on your own. 

Monday, February 4, 2019

"Roma:" How Remembering Really Matters

We think we are the ones who choose what to remember, but in truth, our memories use us, shape us, make us who we are, often without our even realizing it. 

          Twenty years ago, on my way to work, I used to walk past a shuttered cemetery that came right up to the sidewalk on Kalamazoo Ave, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Very near the sidewalk, standing alone, were three simple stones. The epitaphs read “Francis B. Whitney, 1886-1960;” “Nora Whitney, 1891-1928;” and finally, “Baby Whitney, 1917.”

          I noticed the stones first, on a late-winter day, when everything was grey and brown with a glint of frost, when I was surprised to see a bright spray of yellow and red pansies firmly planted just before Baby Whitney’s stone. Looking closer, I realized that the flowers were made of silk.

          As I walked on, I wondered about those flowers. Was it possible that someone still remembered Baby Whitney’s birth, eighty years later? But how could that be? And why?

          Perhaps a younger brother or sister, someone who was born after Baby Whitney, left the flowers? Or was there no memory here at all, but just someone playing macabre tricks, carefully rearranging flowers for the odd thrill of it? But why?

          My curiosity was aroused. Genealogy is one of my hobbies. So, I scoured city records and census records for more information. Other than confirming that Francis Whitney had lived and died in Grand Rapids, and was married to Nora, I found little else. Family memories stretch back perhaps two, maybe even three generations. But as King Solomon once wrote, “The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them” (Eccl 1:11).

          Mary Carruthers, a historian of memory, writes that, “ancient and medieval people reserved their awe for memory. Their greatest geniuses they describe as people of superior memories . . . and they regard it as a mark of superior moral character as well as intellect.” Plato’s teacher, the philosopher Socrates, was deeply concerned that the invention of reading and writing would erode our ability to remember and thus make us less human. In ancient days, you cultivated memory.

          You see, if you wanted to be a midwife in the days before the printing press and literacy, there were no written manuals to study in classrooms that would turn you into a midwife. No, you had to learn this art from your mother, who probably learned it from her mother’s mother. You learned by watching, by doing as your teacher instructed, and practicing. But you never knew more than what you remembered. There were no books. No internet. No FAQs. Just your memory. Something you cultivated, crated, paid attention to, made a living from, and clung to.

          Alfonso Cuarón’s "Roma" is based on his bittersweet memories of growing up with his family, and especially memories of their maid, Cleo. The movie is about how memories make us who we are.

          In fact, this movie is all reminisce, a rivulet of time past bubbling into and filling the present. Cuarón remembers both childhood glee and trauma. Interestingly, as viewers, we cannot know how good Cuarón’s memory is, or why he remembers what he does, or even what Cuarón has forgotten; how his memory works, or how our memory works is much more mysterious than we give memory credit for.

          Some of Cuarón’s memories are bitter. His father, a doctor, abandons not just his wife, Cuarón’s mother, but the entire family, neglecting the children, not paying the bills, lying to cover his tracks. Cleo, the maid, is often on the receiving end of small slights and harsh words by her masters. She is used by her boyfriend. These memories are not bitter just because of the facts, but because of the emotion attached to these memories, the feelings that are truer for Cuarón than the bare facts, the feelings that shape his attitude to others and to life.

          For Cuarón, these bitter memories—the emotional impact of them, that is—inform his present ideals. He will cultivate his memories, dwell in them until he has put them in a place he can live with, learning lessons for life and love along the way. In fact, I think Cuarón has made this movie just to make sure he masters his toxic, emotionally difficult memories so that they won’t subliminally influence his soul without him realizing it.

          On the other hand, some of Cuarón’s memories are sweet and a source of strength and encouragement. For example, Cuarón remembers how the whole extended family gathered for fun and fellowship at a Hacienda, or how his immediate family could sit together on the couch, happily watching TV, before the troubles began.

          But even these memories are instructive. The kids had fun, fun, fun at the family Hacienda; but the adults preyed on each other without the kids realizing it. The kids remember the press of warm flesh on the family’s TV couch, but the father was already plotting his exit. Memories—especially good ones of love, and attachment, and kindness, and success—positive memories can be the rock on which we build the house of self we inhabit; and toxic memories, even if we cannot recall them, can be the sand upon which our lives collapse.

          We think we are the ones who choose what to remember, but in truth, our memories use us, shape us, make us who we are, often without our even realizing it. This is why we must master memory, cultivate it. Memories and the emotions they trigger in us, can be bitter or sweet.

          But third, some of Alfonso Cuarón’s memories are actually impossible. Cleo has a miscarriage, and the military government slaughters hundreds of protesting students, scenes that Cuarón cannot have witnessed. But the brain knows how to improvise and fill in the blanks. Many memories end up being the stories we tell ourselves, even without all the facts, and sometimes regardless of the facts.

          In one powerful scene, the climax of the movie, the maid Cleo is left on the beach with the children, who venture into the water. The undertow catches them. They can’t make it back to shore. They are going to drown. But Cleo, who cannot herself swim, wades in, waves washing over her, plucks first one, and then another out of the water, saving their lives at great risk to her own.

          Ultimately, Cuarón’s memories are like those waves—they are angry and bitter, in danger of taking him away, of leaving him overwhelmed by the past. And at the same time, his own memory of that terrible day on the beach is especially sweet for the love that was expressed in Cleo’s courage, and in all the children in a tangle of hugs and embraces with Cleo on the beach. Because they remember Cleo’s love, given freely and at great risk, Cuarón and the entire family can build a life in and for each other secure in the knowledge that they need not do it all alone.

          In sum? Cultivate your memories.

          Remember, most memories are stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our world, part fact, part reconstruction, part convenient forgetting. The brain actively grows and nourishes the old stories we tell about ourselves, so that we will come out looking good. Be aware of this trick, and make allowances for it. You are not always the hero or the exemplary person that you remember yourself as, nor are others always the villains you suppose they must have been.

          Some memories are sweet. Harvest them. Enjoy them. Let them sustain you. Don’t worry too much about how accurate they are, so long as they are true who you want to be.

          Other memories are bitter. You might want to prune these, in spite of the work it requires, discarding those that don’t somehow help make you a happier or wiser person, but meanwhile, not forgetting them so much that you cannot hang on to the critical lessons and insights you gained in spite of the pain. Other memories are a subtle mix of sweet and bitter, as when Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

          Finally, some memories influence us even though we are hardly aware of them—like poisons or fertilizer under the soil. These memories—whether they are the sort that fluff us up or bring us down—these memories are especially tricky. But here’s a hint.

          If someone you love or trust suggests that you should explore these past events, or if you recognize that sometimes you are unaccountably emotionally triggered by people or events all out of proportion to what was intended, or if large parts of your life are barely remembered, take a risk and see a counselor who can explore these kinds of memories with you. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. And, it is just possible that you might get to know yourself in a whole new, and more whole way. Don’t think of counselling as just medicine for the psyche—think of it as exercise for the psyche.

          I loved this movie. Not so much because I understood Alfonso Cuarón better at the end. But this movie challenged me to be honest with myself and to take responsibility for the memories that will shape my life unawares if I don’t pay attention.