The Light Burden

Apropos of our discussion of religion and evolution, a story from the Second Book of Kings comes to mind.
Naaman is a foreign military commander, valiant and respected, who has become inflicted with leprosy. A military campaign brings a captured Israelite girl into his house as a servant, and she suggests that he seek out the prophet Elisha. When the leper follows her advice and travels all the way to Elisha’s door, the prophet doesn’t even make an appearance — merely sending a message that the inflicted man should wash seven times in the Jordan River. Disappointed at the lack of import to the event, Naaman prepares to head for home; there are rivers in which to wash there, after all.

But his servants came up and reasoned with him. “My father,” they said, “if the prophet had told you to do something extraordinary, would you not have done it? All the more now, since he said to you, ‘Wash and be clean,’ should you do as he said.”
So Naaman went down and plunged into the Jordan seven times at the word of the man of God. His flesh became again like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.

The counsel that Naaman’s servants offer is a repeating theme in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments: God is reality, and those who expect Him to express Himself more in the form of pagan mystics — behaving in ways strange and unfamiliar — are apt to be disappointed. Instead, He’ll take an ordinary act, such as bathing in the Jordan, and by way of a prophet or, perchance, a messiah, invest it with divine proclamation and in that way express miracles.
Thus do we see the hand of God: not in that which oughtn’t be, but in that which is. The showmanship is in the Truth, not in the deliberate oddity.
They are wrong who insist that God’s direction of reality’s progression must be bizarre and in contradiction to the natural order. It’s nearly an absurdity; that which God does is the natural order. In the accounts of Elijah’s and Elisha’s miracles of sustenance, as in Jesus’, there is no strange alchemy when they generate food. The prophets don’t scatter sand in bowls, twirl it with their fingers, and pour out stew. They say, “pour the oil into all the vessels, and as each is filled, set it aside.” They gather up the food and simply feed those in need. Indeed, it is among the temptations of the Devil for Jesus to “command that these stones become loaves of bread.” God acts via what is, not what is not.
Therefore, Andrew’s qualification when arguing on the side of science in the evolution/intelligent design debate makes all the difference: evolutionary processes “may appear from the perspective of mere mortals to be driven by random processes.” This is the heart of all disagreement on this issue. By what authority does one even proclaim the appearance of randomness at the existential level? The fact that species A apparently developed attribute 471 in response to stimulus theta offers no information on the question of whether theta or A’s thetal environment was random. It illustrates only that species may be influenced by their surroundings. Randomness — which we may, for this limited purpose, treat as synonymous with a lack of intention — is entirely a presumptuous human superimposition.
Yeah, a fly might have a longer proboscis if it had evolved in a different hemisphere, but it did not. Yeah, a capacity for rational thought may have led evolution down its path with another phylum, but it did not.
Yet, when advocates at the state level, or lower, seek to make this particular message available to school children — that, whatever the science finds, their parents aren’t necessarily deluded in their beliefs — opposing advocates the nation over behave as if interrupting the science education of distant tweens for a philosophical qualification is equivalent to recrucifying Galileo. At the end of our grown-up arguments, we can often agree that “science ends here,” but to insist that children receive such a message as part of their science education is treated as tantamount to the imposition of dogma.
In the irreducible element of the fight, John West is entirely correct: “If it really is a ‘fact’ that the evolution of life was an unplanned process of chance and necessity (as Neo-Darwinism asserts), then that fact has consequences for how we view life.” Consider last week’s doom-and-gloom reportage du jour:

Even folks in the Optimist Club are having a tough time toeing an upbeat line these days. Eighteen members of the volunteer organization’s Gilbert, Ariz., chapter have gathered, a few days before this nation’s 232nd birthday, to focus on the positive: Their book drive for schoolchildren and an Independence Day project to place American flags along the streets of one neighborhood. …
But then talk turns to the state of the Union, and the Optimists become decidedly bleak.
They use words such as “terrified,” “disgusted” and “scary” to describe what one calls “this mess” we Americans find ourselves in. Then comes the list of problems constituting the mess: a protracted war, $4-a-gallon gas, soaring food prices, uncertainty about jobs, an erratic stock market, a tougher housing market, and so on and so forth.

It is necessary, for such leanings to be sensible, that the mess of the modern day be seen to constitute the aggregation of random circumstances. The “list of problems,” in this view, didn’t have to be the case, and the “uncertainty” is a consequence of faith in randomness. Contrast this with last week’s Gospel reading in the Roman Catholic Church:

At that time Jesus exclaimed:
“I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
for although you have hidden these things
from the wise and the learned
you have revealed them to little ones.
Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.
All things have been handed over to me by my Father.
No one knows the Son except the Father,
and no one knows the Father except the Son
and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.”
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for yourselves.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

The “wise and learned” may not know it, but our yoke is easy and our burden light. The hand of God is obvious to those who will see, and His existence makes playthings of our anxieties and concerns. I’ll vote every time for children to have at least the sense that such a reality is plausible, and I submit that a society that insists that children receive only the cold, hard lessons of the skeptics would be doomed. And that it would probably be a good thing, in the end.

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OldTimeLefty
13 years ago

The problem of teaching creationism in public schools is which creation myth to teach. Justin’s argument is challengeable on its main premise i.e. it’s assumption that the Judeo-Christian creation story is the one to be taught to the exclusion of all others. Before accepting Justin’s major premise, we should define our terms. 1. The term myth refers to the imaginative narrative expression of what is apprehended as basic reality. 2. The term creation refers to the beginning of things, whether by the will and act of a transcendent being, by emanation from some ultimate source, or in any other way. Justin has ignored or brushed aside all other cosmogonic expressions of creation in favor of the Judeo-Christian myth. His argument presents a constitutional problem by asserting one religious belief over another. Furthermore, there are several types of cosmogonic myths: Creation by a supreme being. This myth is familiar to most Westerners, and I need not elaborate on it. Justin has done that. Creation through emergence. This myth places the symbolism of the earth or a part of the earth as a repository of all potential form. Just as the supreme-creator-deity myth forms a homology to the sky, the emergence myth forms a homology to the earth and to the childbearing woman. In many cases the emergence of the created order is analogous to the growth of a child in the womb and its emission at birth. This symbolism is made clear in a Zuni myth that states, Anon is the nethermost world, the seed of men and creatures took form and increased; even as in eggs in warm places speedily appear . . . Everywhere were unfinished creatures, crawling like reptiles one over another, one spitting on another or doing other indecencies . . . until many among them escaped,… Read more »

msteven
msteven
13 years ago

I think that amongst the usual hyperbole from OTL an be found a legitimate point here.
Justin, I don’t see how not teaching creationism in the public schools suggests that to children that any alternative to Darwinism is not plausible. I would also submit asserting that the “a society that insists that children receive only the cold, hard lessons of the skeptics would be doomed” is a very extreme exaggeration. I guess there are those that do insist that any reference to possibilities other than evolution should be excluded from any material available to the public but that is a far cry from this debate over whether ‘intelligent design’ should be taught alongside evolution is public science classes.
As I wrote on this subject before, I believe the teaching of intelligent design in public schools is unnecessary as the idea was created more as a response to the increasing claims that any public expression of religion is unconstitutional by the 1st amendment than a mission to somehow balance the ideas taught in public education. For over 200 years, well before this was an issue, children were only taught evolution yet a vast majority believes God created the universe.

doug
doug
13 years ago

Schools should teach the 3Rs plus a little Spanish
Kids can study Religion on Sat Sunday

EMT
EMT
13 years ago

In Catholic high school, I learned about evolution in a Physiology class (taught by a Brother), and Creationism in sophomore year Religion classes (pretty much a year spent on the Bible).
Why don’t public school children deserve the same rounded educational experience? I was taught two different versions of the same thing, and basically allowed to make up my own mind.
Is it that liberals don’t think public school students are capable of holding two contradictory ideas in their heads at the same time? Or is it that liberals believe in choice when it comes to killing babies, but not Creationism or say, guns?

Justin Katz
13 years ago

msteven,
Part of the reason there’s such division on this issue is that the terms cover wide swaths and folks seem to find it difficult to see the gradations. The case in point: There’s “intelligent design,” the general philosophical principle that the order of the universe is (or can be seen as) suggestive of intelligent purpose, and there’s “intelligent design,” the specific collection of hypotheses put forward in order to prove lapses in evolutionary theory. To argue for one is not to argue for the other, much less for creationism.
This entire conversational thread has been pulled from John West’s disagreement with a specific branch of evolutionary thought: that it is a “fact” that evolution “was an unplanned process of chance and necessity.” Thus far, everybody who has argued against that limited assertion has done so by assuming a more specific educational regime than that which West suggests.
Similarly, I still don’t see where I argued for the teaching of creationism. I think that, somewhere in their education, children should encounter and discuss the complexity of evolution’s implications. I’ll admit that I think local and regional polities should have wide latitude to determine their own curricula, even unto teaching varying degrees of religious thinking, but for my own district and region, I’d only go so far as to encourage that students be familiar with various arguments and systems of belief.

msteven
msteven
13 years ago

Justin,
Maybe my comment is not appropriate for this thread. But I’ll make my point anyways – not like it’ll be the first time a blog thread has gone ‘off-topic’.
I agree that discussion on the complexity of evolution’s implications, and yes, the mention of the dreaded G-word or some philosophical principle of intelligent design should be allowed during the evolution part of the curricula. I think it is silly that the mention of any alternative to Darwinism in a public classroom somehow goes against the 1st amendment. But I do not think it is neither necessary nor appropriate to teach what you call ‘religious thinking’ in science class. That belongs in another class, maybe a class called ‘religious thoughts and ideas’.
I do see the arbitrary line that seems to be the source of division on this issue. Does the mere mention of a deity in a public classroom go against the 1st amendment? Maybe just in science and math but not social studies? It’s all absurd to me but then again so does the idea that voluntary prayer in school or even a faith-based school club is in some way an infringement on someone’s constitutional rights.

OldTimeLefty
13 years ago

EMT
There aren’t two creation stories, there are more like 200 or 2,000. The Hebrew bible has obviously lifted much of the creation myth of Genesis from Babylonian sources. This is not my opinion, it’s the opinion of Jewish, Christian and atheist or agnostic biblical scholars and cultural anthropologists.
The only way to explain creation, since none of were actually there at the event, is metaphorically and each culture has developed its stories, based upon its particular world view. For my money, one’s as good as the other. Some strike a familiar chord with me, some with you, some with someone else. Nobody can say that this particular one is the proper story. The best that can be said is that this tale resonates with me. That is why one or two versions cannot be taught. I’d be all for a course entitled something like, “Creation Myths”, or if you take offense at the word myth, “Creation Stories”.
OldTimeLefty

OldTimeLefty
13 years ago

Justin,
Your “religious”argument is based upon a particular view of god, one centered on the deity as described in certain catechisms and shows an appalling lack of depth. There are many views of god. Check out Karen Armstrong’s, A History of God, and you will find serious discussions on god as El, Elohim and Yahweh. Yes, even to the monotheistic Hebrews, god’s character changed so much that the word for god itself changed to fit each new interpretation. Christianity, through the Trinity, changed the view of god again and Islam yet again, let alone interpretations of god as expressed by Krishna in The Bhagavad Gita. So your argument is very culturally bound.
We have our political differences, and sometimes you score and sometimes I do, but stay out of theology. It really doesn’t become you.
OldTimeLefty

citizen
citizen
13 years ago

Justin, that same bible also commands rulers and states not to oppress aliens living in their midst, but rather to show them hospitality and give them sanctuary.
Don’t forget that part.

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