SCRATCH RELIGION

The number of people who will need to go down to bedrock to reevaluate or rebuild their religion may increase dramatically in the years ahead. This going down to bedrock is what I call "scratch religion." Many have already been through this process. The thoughts and experience cited here are an example, not a norm. If the example is helpful to you, well. If not, may God speed you to your own resolution of whatever issues you may have.

For myself, I was born and raised in a serious religion. In our household, religion was a dominant motif. In a religious community much consumed with its importance to the world, my mother was considered borderline fanatical. In my youth and early adulthood, I pursued my dead motherís religious "vocation" with fervor.

Following the most vigorous and charismatic scholarship within our community, I eventually came to the end of the line, as far as being able to reconcile my community with my understanding of God and human normalcy. At 37 years of age I cut loose from much that was foundational to my life. I spent about three years in a wilderness experience that was neither tense nor unpleasant. More like a long deserved rest from years of intellectual and pious exertion.

This was twenty years ago. I donít recall spending much time thinking about religious matters during my three-year religious hiatus. Rather I turned my focus to a study of what made the rest of the world tick: business, psychology and other practical matters. At the end of this period I relearned in a forceful way a truth that I had known since I was a teenager: you donít choose what you believe.

Thatís right, belief is not a matter of choice, at least in terms of the belief itself. Belief is a gift bestowed (or thrust) upon you. You may discover what you believe, but you do not decide what to believe.

What you believe is a synthesis of your personal history. The ideas you have heard, the context of hearing those ideas, how you interrelated them and the force with which you were struck. The term ideas may be way too strong. These may be fleeting thoughts, impressions, emotions and may well up from within you or waft over you like a gossamer cloud.

Is God a part of this "welling up" or "gossamer cloud?" If you donít think so, you are simply defining God in a way that is different from what the rest of the human race does. (Well, maybe not; but most likely.)

So what I discovered after three years of religious indifference was that I did indeed believe in God. Moreover, I believed in some of the cultic (proper use of the term) aspects of my former religion; as shared by at least a billion or more of my fellow humans. As I say, I discovered that I continued to have this belief, I didnít decide to continue to have these beliefs.

This is not to say that I am totally non-complicit in my beliefs. For a significant period in my youth and young adulthood I was a closet unbeliever. Had I been able to choose to believe at that time, I would have. But I could not. However, through association with a believer (an author of books), and the process outlined above I had become a believer. Belief is a very contagious thing. Unbelief is too! I knew that through carelessness or association with anti-believers, I could become an unbeliever again. This prospect did not appeal to me.

Donít think I am contradicting my earlier principle that you do not choose what to believe. You do choose how to act. You may choose your associations, through acting, and your beliefs will follow, as surely as night follows day. So you do choose a course that will lead to belief, of one sort or another.

In this way it is possible to believe the most outrageous humbugs, just through associating with others who do. Trust me on this. I've believed plenty of outrageous humbugs; and donít presume to be clear of the problem yet. As the down-home American philosopher Josh Billings said: "The trouble with most people isnít that they donít know, but that what they know, ainít so!" Thanks, Josh. I needed that.

These observations may account for my general skepticism about the beliefs of the people around me. But, to an extent, I have expanded this skepticism to include my own beliefs. I might as well say something here about the need for all of us to change our beliefs. Someone has commented about how carelessly we form our opinions (beliefs) and then how stupidly and vigorously we defend them. I donít know whether is really the fair word to use here, for in many cases we may be largely unaware of just how we came to believe this or that. No matter. If you have never been really, really seriously wrong (in your own eyes), I doubt that you know much about truth at all. The question is, how to change your mind?

This is a serious question and most important. It is no accident that we are often called, even in the secular world, to repent. This is because re-penting literally means re-thinking. (Pent means think, as in pensive means thinking, reflecting, etc.) This is necessary if we are going to change our minds.

Too often we get stuck in loops, simply thinking the same thoughts over and over. One mentor led me over a period of several years out of such a loop by bringing my mind to focus on new issues that I supposed I was in full agreement with. By intensely focussing on these issues for several years, the old "loop" shriveled into worthless insignificance. Thank God for new thinking! (Repentance.)

But this also illustrates another aspect: too often we are like the drowning man who clutches a large stone for flotation support, not realizing it is the stone itself that is speeding him to his grave. Too often our lives are so full of crap that we refuse to let go of, that there is no place for the good stuff we see or sense "out there," but it continues to elude us. No wonder Pogo said, "We have met the enemy; and he is us!" Pray for repentance. :>)

All of this preamble and commentary is intended to give background to what follows, but also to make it plain that a true scratch religion is probably not possible. In fact, whether liberal or conservative, the sorriest lot are probably those who think they have attained scratch religion. The presumption will only be comfortable when shielded in one way or another from serious probing and challenging.

With these caveats, I offer one perspective on scratch religion.

 

FOUNDATION

For purposes of perspective it may be helpful to consider ourselves as having just dropped from another dimension into the human condition here and now. The metaphor may seem impossibly ragged, but following Maslowís hierarchy of need, I presume that our first activity would be to take a few and continuing breaths of air. Within hours we must needs have water to refresh ourselves and shortly thereafter, food. Other needs would dominate in their turn: clothing, housing, fuel for heat and/or light; and transportation. It begins to get complicated quickly with social needs, recreation, security and a host of psychological matters. Unmet needs rise to the fore in the order of their hierarchy or significance to our survival.

I havenít mentioned religion yet, although Iím confident that its need would arise very early. There are at least three, possibly overlapping, motivators for religion that would necessarily come into play.

First would be our perception that things are not ideal. The conflict between the way things are and the way we think they should be is so deep, that it is hard for me to imagine human existence without what philosophers call the is/ought conflict, the foundation of ethics. The way things are is not the way they ought to be. This tension can be looked at in a thousand ways and in whatever contexts you please (God; not God, etc.) but religion tends to just use the word sin to catch it all.

The ways of dealing with this "divergence from the ideal," in religion, is as diverse as the psychological methods for dealing with conflict and imperfection.

In my opinion, no religion is worth a tinkerís dam if it does not adequately account for our failure to "be all that we can be." If you tell me that you never have guilt or other psychological suffering, I know that you would lie to me about other things, too. It is common to all mankind. Is there such a thing as sin? If you donít think so, you are just defining it differently than most of the human race does.

The second motivator of religion would be repetition, habit or a thought dominating event. As surely as mankind has an innate sense of imperfection, they have a longing for meaning. And meaning is inextricably tied to either of two things: repetition and/or remembrance. Even cryptographers search for meaning by looking for patterns, or repetition, within the coded, encrypted data. When something happens over and over again we naturally suspect some kind of meaning. Or some great event, either positive or negative, so impacts us that we memorialize it, often on an annual basis. We create "repetition" where none may have occurred in the original event. Birthdays and anniversaries of one kind or another are examples.

The meaning that we discover (or assign) can become the basis for a ritual, a rite religiously practiced. Public rites with common meaning to a large constituency tend to fall in the realm of religion. (Donít forget that holiday derives from holy-day.) Private rites may be no less meaningful to the individual, but, though religiously practiced, usually are not thought of as religion. But the line between secular and religious can be vague.

The origins of some repetitions are obvious: the daily peregrinations of the sun, the seasons, fertility cycles, etc. Another major repetition is the need for cleansing. The removal of the debris and detritus of life, whether physical or spiritual, is usually actualized/ritualized with fire, water or blood. One or more of these three feature prominently in most major religions.

The third motivator of religion is death. As a freshly minted human person you must experience death, probably first vicariously in someone or ones around you. The removal from human affairs of an individual that matters a lot to you causes a confrontation with your own mortality and its meaning.

It is here, in views and governance of death, that one often finds the strongest grip of religion on the life of its particular adherents. Death is the power of religion. And a religion that does not "adequately" address this issue is unlikely to have much success in competing with other religions that do. (But adequacy is in the eye of the beholder, so donít expect some vast reconciliation of religions; or a bowing down of the others to yours.)

So, in attempting to come to grips with scratch religion one must come to grips with these three issues: death, ritual and sin. And notice here that I use the terms, "come to grips with." This demonstrates a definite cant on my part, because I do not believe you can create a successful religion for you. (This is not to say that no part of your religion was created by someone out of whole cloth. But it wasnít you.) It is a matter of finding, not creating. Just like you cannot, by choosing, believe this or that; but you may find or discover that you believe this or that.

Insistence on this issue of finding-not-creating essentially puts me in the camp of objectivists. By this I mean that truth and reality is something that derives from outside of me. It does not mean that I can have no experience of it from within me, but simply that I am immersed in the universe, not the reverse. Reality keeps coming at me from every direction, and I can either deal with it or not. (I would not say subjectivists are wrong, they just make no sense to me. There will be more than one successful scratch religion.)

So, for my scratch religion, death, imperfection and meaning (ritual and remembrance) are the key elements.

 

SEARCHING FOR THE ANSWERS

Having identified these elements, we move our attention to a consideration of some of the options for learning about them. Mindful of the professorís comments to a student who cobbled together a paper larded with plagiarism, I take a conservative approach, and hope someone else has the answers to these questions, answers that are not obvious to me. [The professor described the studentís work as "good and original." "Unfortunately, the parts that are good are not original; and the parts that are original are not good."]

Given that quite a few billion people have joined or preceded me on this earth, and major effort and expense have been invested in the issues, it seems reasonable that someone may have something relevant and true. I canít possibly check everything out, but I have made at least a survey of major religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. My knowledge of all but one of these is really quite superficial. For the others I have only read a book or two on each. Knowing what this would mean for the one I know well, I logically conclude superficiality of my knowledge of the others.

With these caveats, I move to the consideration of God (or not).

All of the religions seem to assent that there is a God (or gods); although the eastern ones donít much resemble the western ones. I do not discount the eastern religions out of hand, and will cite some positive features from my point of view. But being a westerner, the western Gods (or God) all make a lot more sense to me. This is a very subjective point to insert in a scratch religion. But I presume that if I was an easterner discovering a scratch religion, I might discover something quite different.

[But then an easterner might not be impressed with my three foundation issues either. I just donít understand that, but I can only think with the mind I have, which happens to be a western mind.]

There seems to be a consensus among religions that there is "a god." And this consensus extends to a great many really brilliant people, many of whom, for one reason or another have not chosen to identify with any religion. Iíll cite here just two of these thinkers, who are generally considered to have had some of the best minds of any age: Albert Einstein and Immanuel Kant. Believing in God while rejecting religion makes a lot of sense to a lot of thinking people when they see the conclusions and actions that religious believers derive from their perception of God.

Well, I have a very firm (?) belief in God myself, for quite a variety of reasons and probably a goodly number of non-reasons. Intellectually, the design argument strikes me most forcefully. As a Ph.D. biochemist, I was at one time in my career involved in a careful study of the evolutionary mechanisms for the production of "informational macromolecules." These are such things as the proteins and nucleic acids whose form and function is very much driven by a series of molecular code letters (or words). In every imaginable sense, these macromolecules represent the basic units of the meaning and intelligence of life.

The problem is how to develop them from an optically symmetric hot dilute soup (no meaning) without inserting externally some element of design or meaning. The faith that the godless evolutionist (and not all evolutionists are atheistic) exercises in this development is substantially more naïve and trusting than that of the rabid, right wing fundamentalist, in my opinion. And it has a lot more to do with a determination to avoid God than any commitment to "truth."

I, and many people before me, have found design to be a convincing demonstration of Godís existence. Iíll not try to prove God to anyone. If God does not prove himself to you, I suggest that you just keep an open mind and hang around believers that you respect. However, if you are looking for a pure problem whose solution requires an externality (commonly called "God") I recommend that you consider how intelligence could develop from its complete absence. To me, this is the essence of creation: to bring into existence that which formerly has not existed. I touched briefly on this subject in my Create essay; and will outline a bit of that here, as well as unify the thought.

In the essay I referred to the theoretical construct in statistical thermodynamics whereby pure intelligence could create thermal energy. The Nobelist, James Clerk Maxwell, posited a molecular "demon" who could guard a tiny gate in a membrane separating two containers of water having the identical temperature.

By the intelligent expedient of letting fast water molecules go through the gate in one direction, and slow ones in the opposite direction, the temperature will gradually rise on one side and fall on the other. Conceptually, pure intelligence is used to create thermal energy.

The significance of this is nothing less than astounding, to me. For we now have this equivalence:

INTELLIGENCE = ENERGY = MASS

Maxwell shows us the way to the equivalence of intelligence and energy; and Einstein gives us the equivalence of energy and mass (E = mc≤).

Whether we are primitive and have only the experience of seeing the mass of firewood become the heat (energy) for warmth or cooking; or whether we are modern and understand, too, the process of releasing atomic energy by the very obliteration of mass, we now have in hand the means to appreciate the reversal of these processes through the injection of pure intelligence.

Intelligence alone can reverse "times arrow" (Sir Thomas Eddington) and reverse the inexorable Second Law of Thermodynamics, the law of continually increasing disorder Ė dis-creation. (See my essay, Things Fall Apart.)

Pure intelligence is the necessity for creation. Is God this intelligence or its source? If you donít think so, you are simply defining God in a way that is different from what most of the human race does.

 

GOD

There are a lot of observations, with humility, that we need to make on the subject of God. I believe that the single most important point is touched on above: God is the creator. As with nearly anything we say, we can lade it with semantics. But in its simplest terms, we use the expression "God" to account for the existence of things thought formerly not to exist.

This requires a brief excursion into the whole problem of using God to account for the "unaccountable." I want to relate God to the issues of death, ritual and ethics. But is this necessary? By introducing "God" into the mix, are we simply allowing ourselves a "cheater" variable or fudge factor to fix any problem in our perception or comprehension? Or are we going to restrict ourselves to occasional uses of "God" to account for particularly thorny philosophical or practical problems? ("There are no atheists in fox holes.")

I believe that how we answer these questions may be more a matter of personal style than any franchise on truth. Some "simple folk" see God in every action, thought and occurrence. For them, God is not a "cheater" variable, but the only constant in life. Everything is accounted for by reference to God. Other, more sophisticated folk, are quite confident and comfortable in their mastery of themselves and the world around them. For them, God is only needed for certain well defined "exceptions" that canít quite seem to be fitted in. They have "God-in-a-box," and the cheater variable is itself carefully regimented, so much so as to possibly even lose its "cheater" nature.

We must shortly deal with the question of whether God has anything to say about all this, but first, for scratch religion, I think it is prudent to articulate another principle. This principle I call "economy of belief." This principle suggests that we ought not to believe anything more than we have to.

One of my mentors used to say approvingly, that so-and-so "is a man of few words, and well chosen." (I was never so referenced, myself. :>) I would like to adapt this expression to, "a man of few beliefs, and well founded." The point here is not to disbelieve a large number of things, but rather to be confident of a few. For example, this issue of God being the creator seems far more pertinent than the color of socks I wore this morning.

To me, this is one point of scratch religion: to not be too sure about too many things, but to have a bit of humble confidence in a few that really matter. Perhaps this is a reflection of the "scientific" principle of Occamís razor: cut away all that isnít necessary. The correct explanation is probably the simplest one. Adhering to this principle, we will not go far beyond the scope already laid out here in "scratch religion."

Of our three issues (death, ritual and ethics), death may be the most important to relate to God. I will not do that here, other than to say a transcendant God (one above the natural realm) can also transcend death. I donít think it is valuable to say more without plunging into certain cultic aspects of the subject.

And now we return to the issue of what, if anything, does God have to say about all this? There are at least four communications in two categories that have been posited from God to man:

The first two, nature and history, are more or less open books, for all to see and judge for themselves. The magnificence and power of nature lend themselves to worship, if not as God, at least as a close affiliate. Both the beneficence of nature and its careless destructive behavior toward the individual are problematic in "finding" God. History is plagued by this same problem. But before dismissing history as irrelevant to the being of God, consider the famous philosopher who, when challenged to prove the existence of God in two words, on brief reflection cried, "the Jews!"

Perhaps the nature of God defies clear communication on the elemental human level. The implicit communication of nature and history doesnít seem as clear-cut to most of us as a simple conversation with a friend. It is this longing for intimacy with the divine that drives us to find explicit communication, or even to ascribe an explicit element to history or nature. (That personís house burned down because they did wrong Ė God is sending them a message.)

But notice that in my original introduction of God as the creator, I called attention to intelligence. Informational macromolecules represent communication and intelligence. And an externality such as God is required to initiate intelligence and communication in the first instance. How could a "big bang" communication suffice for a being who apparently takes such pleasure in life and its variety, in the face of its counterpoint, death? No, no. Any being who initiated intelligence and communication on the scope that is apparent to all, would surely continue that communication and spawning of intelligence forever and aye.

Anyone who has ever "created" anything must surely understand this. Donít you return to your creation ever and anon to check on its being and progress. Come now, even a careless parent takes pleasure in a child from time to time. Dale Carnegie noted that when inspecting a group photograph, you will always first check your own image there. A builder passing through a neighborhood will give predominant attention to the house he built himself. A fine craftsman will inspect and reinspect his work a thousand times, far more than is needed to accomplish the task. The creator takes pleasure in his creation, and will return as often as practical, driven by both pleasure and the potential or real needs of the creation.

We then conclude a continuing and serious interest of God, the creator, in all of creation, not the least of which would be man and his affairs. And nothing in experience would suggest that this interest could involve anything less than communication, and not just of the one-way, observational kind.

This would mean that nature and history most probably do reflect communication from God, but this communication is not limited to the implicit. God speaks to the individual, by whatever means, in "the still, small voice."

All but the committed atheist would likely agree, at least in some measure, with the three forms of communication from God discussed to this point: nature, history and the inner voice. It is when we move to the fourth level that we find a splintering of religions, east and west, and with their multitude of flavors and fragrances.

But I am trying to formulate a scratch religion with the assets at hand to me. I can not speak well of the Oracle of Delphi or the Tibetan Book of the Dead. At the risk of alienating my own religious community, I will not say nay of these, or Mohammed, or Zoroaster, or Buddha, or Lao Tze, or a thousand others known or unknown to me. I was not born in a place or time to give fair consideration to a scratch religion encompassing the best of what these have to offer. But I will not stupidly dismiss them as a sectarian might, either.

Rather, I turn my attention to the oracular tradition of my own culture and religion. In all that I have said before, I have attempted to maintain some semblance of universality. Now I speak as one informed by several thousand years of the Judeo-Christian tradition. This is a necessary part of my scratch religion.

God is not only the creator, he is the great communicator! (Source of intelligence.) But communication always involves a sender and receiver. For the communication to work, there must not only be a connection but some degree of commonality. What is the commonality between man and God? Or is their any commonality between man and God?

The fact that we can draw such pleasure from the great out-of-doors suggests that the commonality is at least adequate to give us an appreciation for the handiwork of the creator-God. As noted before, the messages of history and the inner voice may seem ambiguous. Even if these represent communication from God, the issue of commonality is problematic.

To have oracular communication on the level that we long for requires commonality at least of the range of friend-to-friend. It is here that the Christian Jesus addresses the need explicitly. It isnít just the incarnational issue addressed in the gospels. After all, Jesus is not the first human worshipped by his community. Nor is he the first "god" supposed to have come down into our midst. But in the book of Hebrews, the issue of necessary commonality is addressed with explicit force:

He had to be made like his brothers in every way. Hebrews 2:17.

As one commentator noted, "had to" is very strong language to apply to God. A perusal of the entire chapter referenced shows that the issue of commonality (shared characteristics) is argued by the author with great force.

And the issue of commonality is also addressed in one of the appellations of Jesus:

They will call him Immanuel Ė which means, "God with us." Matthew 1:23

Interestingly, the Judeo-Christian scriptures have an explicit focus on the communication problem between God and man, and consistently focus on God, rather than man, as the active agent in establishing communication. This begins with our dimmest corporate memories of Eden and continues on into the New Testament:

The man and his wife . . . hid . . . among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, "Where are you?" Genesis 3:8,9

I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. Matthew 23:37

God was reconciling the world to himself. 2 Corinthians 5:19

It is no accident that the "theological gospel," John, refers to Jesus as the word:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. . . In him was life. . . John 1:1,2,4

This is perhaps as close as you can get to a representation of Jesus as a pure communication device, the word. But the same theme is pursued in Hebrews, where Jesus is depicted as the culmination of a long series of efforts on Godís part to communicate with man:

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, . . . through whom he made the universe. Hebrews 1:1,2

Some have argued unnecessarily, in my opinion, that Godís commonality with man (as expressed in Jesus), obviates the sovereign distinction usually accorded to God. But this ignores the enormous problems associated with our creation and being. I applaud every effort to see the reality of Jesus as man, for this commonality is the essential element of Godís effort to talk to man on a direct, personal level. But the assertion in the popular rock musical, "Heís just a man," is dubious as best.

This last cited passage in Hebrews refers to Jesus as both the agent of communication and as the agent of creation. This is simply reaffirming the foundational Judeo-Christian principle that God is the creator.

This linkage between communication and creation is pointed up also by the linkage between the New Testament WORD and the Old Testament WISDOM:

Does not wisdom call out? . . . I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning. . . I was there when he marked out the foundations of the earth. Then I was the craftsman at his side. . . Whoever finds me finds life. Proverbs 8:1,23,29,30,35.

The parallels in language and sentiment with the passage in the first chapter of John are striking and serve to confirm the close-knit relationship between God as the creator and God as the communicator.

If we long for intimacy in our communication with God, that will come from Godís chosen voice, Jesus the Galilean.

 

SUMMATION

This excursion into the express cultic aspects of the Judeo-Christian religion are intended to provide a doorway from my "scratch religion" into my own history and tradition. Iím in no position to judge the validity of othersí history and tradition, but I do know that there is a solid intellectual foundation underlying my own. The doorway outlined here is a connection between two rooms in my "house." Both of these rooms are very important to me, and have been my principal domicile since my teen years, 40 years ago.

The first room is the world of science and objective truth. I share this room with a host. Many of the finest minds in the world reside here. Some of the rest of us are curious seekers of varying competence.

The second room is the Judeo-Christian religious world. My immersion in this has included an annual reading of the entire Bible, by way of keeping some balance and perspective of the "room." Again, I share this room with a host. Many of the finest minds in the world reside here. And some of the rest of us are curious seekers of varying competence.

Finally, here are some key elements I see in the Scratch Religion outlined above, with what seem to me to be obvious expansions:

1. Things are not always ideal. In religion this deviation is subsumed under the simple title, "sin." In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this discrepancy serves as a barrier between God and man. Itís origin is associated with man and/or a third party; itís resolution depends on God.

2. Repetition and remembrance of events lead naturally to religious ritual. Ritual attempts to preserve as well as explain. Our need for meaning makes ritual a valuable tool; and a significant glue for community.

3. Death is the ultimate challenge for religion. The resolution of this challenge can be facilitated by including God in the picture. This is because it is easy to conceive of God as transcending death by existing from eternity to eternity.

4. The highly organized state of the world requires a creator God. The scientists Maxwell and Einstein provide the models for how pure intelligence can be converted, first to energy, and then to matter. Continuing infusion of intelligence creates the organization we see.

5. The impediment to communication with God is a lack of commonality between God and man. A creator of sentient, intelligent beings (humans) must have a continuing interest in them. This leads him to establish communication by establishing commonality Ė becoming a human.

These five points capture my scratch religion in a nutshell.

There are several points of this that leave me in continuing awe.

The overwhelming emphasis in the Judeo-Christian tradition on God as the creator is buttressed by an account of the scientific principle of creation in the first chapter of the Bible. The author of Genesis again and again cites the dividing process which is essential to creation. Light is divided from darkness, water is divided from water, water is divided from land. This is an explicit reversal of the second law of thermodynamics, the essential process that must occur for scientific creation.

My question is, how is it possible that a writer several thousand years ago would explicitly reverse the second law in the account of creation? This law was only discovered by scientists a couple of hundred years ago. To me, this is far more prescient than any number of supposed oracular "prophecies." And it goes to our very existence and the being of the universe. I am in awe.

Secondly, how did other writers of similar antiquity know to equate creative power with Wisdom? If they had thought this through, one would think they couldnít have resisted explaining it to us. But no, they simply refer to the creative properties of wisdom, almost in an off hand manner in Proverbs. In the gospel of John wisdom is extended to encompass communication, the Word.

And finally, what an awesome thing that God chose to satisfy the deep longing of man (and probably also of himself) for face-to-face communication by appearing personally as Jesus. I donít know of any other religion or culture that conceived of such a thing. In fact, as Albert Nolan points out in his book, Jesus Before Christianity, this is part of the scandal of the incarnation. Not just that God came among us, a common idea in many cultures. Not just that God appeared like a man. But that God became a man. The ultimate common link in opening the door of communication. It is an awesome thing.

[I have to consider whether all these ideas derive from objective, scientific observations. Or am I simply reading back into the science my years of marination in the Judeo-Christian tradition? I have thought about this carefully and believe the first is true, but I can understand why a skeptic would assume the second. My question for the skeptic would be, does it matter?]

 

A BRIEF NOTE ON SPACE/TIME QUESTIONS

Sometimes people have difficulty reconciling what they conceive of as enlightened, modern views of the universe with what they see as fantastical, primitive conceptions presented in the Bible. I am no apologist for fundamentalism, but at the same time, I am mindful that our ancestors were a lot more perceptive about the world around them than they are sometimes given credit for.

I will take my lead here from a scholar at UC Berkeley who commented, in consideration of the work of the Jesus Seminar calling into question the accuracy of a great many of the quotes attributed to Jesus in the New Testament. Kevin Edgecomb said, "There is really no hard, incontrovertible evidence that every single saying in the Gospels attributed to Jesus is not authentic. I'm not saying, . . . that they all are, but the possibility does exist." I will say something in the same vein about fundamentalism: It is just possible that the world-view of the fundamentalist is approximately true.

I have dealt extensively with our problems in perception of the past in an essay titled Coke Bottle History. This is a follow-on to my original research in the areas of tree ring and radiocarbon dating. Time is not important to me to buttress fundamentalist ideas, but if our perception of our perception of history is grossly flawed, we will deprive ourselves of most of our best historical material, which is cultural, rather than scientific, per se.

It is such considerations that suggest to me that the popul vuh, and the vedas, as well as the Bible, are important sources for understanding our origins and events in the predawn of civilization. These source materials are being neglected and treated as fairy tales, in the headlong rush to endorse the authoritative scientific view. How absurd! True science is the antithesis of authoritative. After all, it was authoritative science that ridiculed continental drift for 50 years after its discovery, and ridiculed catastrophism, a now accepted tenet of good science, for an even longer period.

So time is of less importance in determining whether, objectively, something happened 5000 years ago, 50,000 years ago or 50 million years ago. The struggle is not with time, but with our perception of our ancestors. For how we perceive them will inexorably drive our self-perception, and our behavior and, thence, our future.

On a more general level it is worth noting that since Einstein we have had an embryonic understanding of the space-time continuum. We recognize that time is simply one more dimension; and in fact is often referred to as the fourth dimension, after the three Cartesian dimensions.

Time is not just like the other three in that it can have only one sign (direction). But it is instructive to think about the whole dimensionality problem, not just with time, but with questions about such things as, "Where is heaven?" And, "How could someone walk through an unopened door?"

I wonít presume to provide definitive answers to such questions. But I highly recommend perusal of Edwin Abbott Abbottís little treatise on Flatland. In this book, of only two Cartesian dimensions, all of the characters live on a flat plane. There is no third dimension in their perception. They are flat characters, sliding around, as it were, on a flat surface like a piece of paper or table top.

One interesting development is that a three dimensional being, standing outside the Flatlandersí plane, throws a round ball through their flat world. To the Flatlanders, the ball first appears as a point (when the ball first touches the plane) and then grows into a circle of increasing size, to a maximum which is equal to the ballís diameter. At this point, the circle begins shrinking, eventually to a point, and then disappears as it moves off in the third dimension on the opposite side of the plane, opposite from the direction it entered.

This event brings awe and consternation to the Flatlanders, since it transcends their two-dimensional existence.

Reading the Flatland book helps one form a dimensional consciousness possibly not readily attained otherwise. And from this consciousness, one can more readily understand the consequences of Flatlanders living on what appears to them as a two dimensional plane, but that is in reality more like a corrugated piece of steel roofing (in the third dimension). In the third dimension, the distance between two points may be much shorter than it is in the two dimensions. As a parallel, we all understand that the distance between two points on a curvy mountain road may be substantially further than "as the crow flies" (in a straight line).

This might have no practical value to our discussion were it not for the fact that Einsteinís theory of relativity predicted that the space we live in is curved in another dimension. This prediction was later proven to be true in fact, one of the most striking confirmations of Einsteinís theory. And again provides a potential facile scientific explanation of events that might otherwise seem quite fantastical. The recent demonstration that the speed of light can be exceeded identifies additional "supernatural" opportunities.

Given these scientific facts, I am less inclined to be critical of our ancestorsí possibly metaphorical description of the location of heaven, of possibly real events that seemed fantastical to them, etc. Criticizing these Bible images suggests an unwarranted effort to distance oneself from the supposed contamination of fundamentalism, rather than as a requirement of sober judgment and science.

Your friend, Herb Sorensen

September 7, 2000

Follow-up topics:

The history of the Jews

Insh-allah; "We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we forget Godís guidance in our past."