Sunday, October 26, 2008

Finding balance in pride and humility

I did something good today, and I'm proud of it. I was asked to sit on a "panel" in a bible class at our church with three other men to discuss an explosive and often-divisive topic: evolution. Really the topic was science in general, but evolution has been the primary topic of that class. I've written about it here before -- just search "evolution" in the search bar above and you'll find those old articles.

Anyway, this class has continued but I haven't been able to participate because I've been teaching a class of my own for the past five months. Then this panel idea came up.

At first I was excited, but over the past week or so I'd been getting more and more nervous. I discovered that all three of the other panel members are young-earth creationists, believing that a 6,000 year-old earth is an essential foundation of the Christian faith. I don't personally hold to that view. It felt like I was walking into a very dangerous situation. In the end, though, it went very well and several people came up to me after class to say they appreciated my contribution.

Below is what I said this morning. Yes, it's pretty close to verbatim -- my memory is freaky like that. After that, I'll post something humbling to balance things out.

Question 1 -- Why are you here on the panel? What is your interest in this topic?

I have no professional training in science -- I was just a dumb business major in college. I'm here probably for the same reason many of you are here listening this morning; I just love this stuff. Science fascinates me, and I love discovering and learning more about how our universe works.

Because of that, my favorite branch of science is physics, since they ask the absolute biggest questions -- what the world is made of, how it works, what are the forces at work around us, and so on. Those big questions are so leading-edge, and the theories often so unproven, that it brings with it a big dose of humility. The people who inspire me are the expected former legends of physics like Einstein and Neils Bohr, but there are scientists today like Brian Greene and Sylvester Gates who are equally brilliant yet still able to communicate to average people like me. I read these guys' books and see them speak in person whenever possible. Like I said, I just love this stuff.

Question 2 -- What is your definition of "evolution"?

Well, my answer is different than those you've heard from the other men here, but when I say "evolution" I'm just talking about the process of species changing over time due to natural selection. It's happening in our world right now, and I'd bet that everyone in the room agrees. Here, I can test it -- would anybody here give their children the flu shot from 10 years ago? Probably not, because the virus changes ever year, and the CDC tries to keep its flu shot relevant to the currently active strains. So things are constantly changing.

Even Ken Ham (the author of the book being used in bible class) agrees that evolution is a part of the picture. Let's take his view of Noah's ark, a literal event a few thousand years ago when only a maximum of 1,000 species survived the flood. And yet today there are over a million species on our planet. His explanation is that right after the flood, God started a super-fast form of evolution, turning one species of primate into 20 in just a few generations. One dog breed became hundreds.

So both sides agree that evolution has happened and is still happening, it's just a debate over the speed that animals evolved in the past. That's all I mean by evolution. The origin of man is a different issue for me.


At this point a class member said the following -- "But if our adversaries hear us talk like that, won't it weaken our argument? If they think that in any way we agree with them then we'll appear weaker and will probably lose the debate. I think we need to tell them upfront that we don't agree with any of their stance on evolution."

This was my answer:

I don't want this to come off as a personal attack on what you just said, but I'd like to point out how differently I approach the issue itself, regardless of my conclusions on all of this.

You said words like "adversary", "debate", and "lose", and mentioned that we have to appear strong to win the argument. In my experience in speaking with scientists, this just isn't effective. A true dialogue requires me to first humble myself, put aside my judgment, and listen openly not only to the content of the speaker, but to the person himself. I need to hear where he's coming from and truly try to understand, and that can be a very vulnerable thing. It's not about strength -- strength doesn't work, at least when I've tried it. It shuts down any chance of two human beings actually having a discussion and impacting each other.

I always start with what I have in common with someone else -- always. I start with what we agree on, use that to build up a base of companionship, and then go from there into the differences with an open mind.

(The commenter came up to me after class and apologized, saying that his words didn't come out like he meant them to. We smiled, shook hands and were better for it.)

Question 3 -- How do you see science and faith working together in your life?

Wow, in a lot of ways, but first let me tell you where they don't work together for me. I think that at the very root level, deep inside my soul, science and faith answer different sets of questions.

Science seeks to answer the What/When/How of the universe. For example, on the issue of creation, science continues to examine and study what happened, when it happened, and how it happened. And if all of those things somehow get answered, although I don't think that will happen in my lifetime, they still aren't the most important questions to me, when it comes to creation.

The most important questions about creation, to me, are Who and Why. Science may someday answer a lot of the things we're discussing today, but it'll never provide a pupose for my life, the "Why" of my values and priorities. That is the arena of faith. So at the very deepest level, science and faith are attempting to answer different questions for me.

Above that deep level, though, there's all kinds of overlap. For example, one of my favorite bible passages is in Luke 1, when Mary sings a song of joy after being told she would give birth to Jesus. She said that her soul gives glory to God, and her spirit rejoices, and then she gives evidence after evidence of what God has done -- shown mercy here, given strength there, provided guidance over there. She rejoices because she looks around and sees God working.

That's how science and faith work together in my life. I read about the weird behavior of an electron and I give glory. I hear a speech about dark matter and I rejoice. It's just an amazing universe, and it's my pleasure to get glimpses of the creator by looking at things in new ways.

Question 4 -- Time is almost up, so in one or two sentences, please tell us why we should even discuss these topics, if they're not "salvation issues".

(The other three men, in their own ways, all disagreed with the question and said that belief about evolution is a salvation issue, because if we doubt Genesis 1 then we are doubting the whole bible. I kept my mouth shut and didn't mention the irony of a creedless church saying you have to believe in young earth creationism to be saved.)

I'll answer the question with another question -- if we can't discuss the important topics of the day with our fellow church members, then what are we doing here? Whatever stuff is inspiring us, challenging us or bothering us, like the financial crisis, should be discussed right here. I don't want to wrestle with life's toughest problems with strangers, I want to lean on my brother and sisters right here for those things.

So that was my morning. It was a lot of fun, althought I was terrified before it started.

And now, as promised, my dose of humility:

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MamaRose said...

Oh, OUR SWEET, SWEET now GROWN-UP MICHAEL--I LOVE YOU EVEN MORE TODAY than when that pictures with BOZO was taken--and, you're STILL SO CUTE in it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I'd say--'SPEAK ON'--Son!!!!!!!!!!!
We SHOULD be talking about THESE IMPORTANT THINGS with our brothers & sisters--YES!!!!!!!! And, with OPEN MINDS & HUMILITY!!!!!!!!!!!!!

And, as much KNOWLEDGE as we can 'possess'/gather at one time!

Each of of us has our "OWN" opinions based on LOTS of things, but hopefully on WHAT we BELIEVE to BE TRUE, at the time!!!!!!!!!

To me--it really does NOT matter whether God 'sped things/evolution up' or whether the Earth has 'been here' for 6,000 years--the MOST IMPORTANT 'thing' for me to believe is that HE IS STILL 'IN CHARGE', WHICH I DO BELIEVE!!!!!!!!

Except for the things he's 'given over' to US, for now!!!!! HA!!!!!
And, we're figuring out we COULD have DONE BETTER 'taking care of OUR EARTH', so far!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I LOVED THIS POST & am SO GLAD that they asked YOU to BE on this panel at your church!!!!!!!!!!!!!
ROCK THEIR WORLD'S!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
LOVE & MISS YOU ALL!!!!!!!!!! Mom

Debby said...

The picture just slays me! The look on your face says "I just know this picture will one day serve as fodder for the powerful humiliation machine."

My Sunday School class (the 'tweens') began the year by regularly trying to trip me up with controversial questions. They were at first accusing me of copping out by answering, "I don't know. It's one of those questions I intend to ask God about one day." As we go on with our Bible lessons, they are starting to 'get' the idea that the more you read, the more questions you have. We discuss, we see things from different viewpoints, and we agree in the end that one day, we'll ask God ourselves.

My take on evolution is simple. God measures time on an eternal clock. The creation of the world is no less amazing taken over the course of millions of 'our' years, than it is to try to fit God in our time frame. (I'm thinking God does not strap on a timex.)

There is a lot of evidence to back the fact that the world is more than 6000 years old, and I don't believe that it makes me any less of a Christian to believe that dinosaurs did once roam the earth. I'm glad that your church chose to discuss the issue in a sensible way. But at the end, did they declare that you had 'lost', and the other three panelists 'won'?

Steve H. said...

Love that you love science! Like you I got my degrees in other fields but have this passion for science. I enjoy movies that have a distict science bent like "Contact" especially when they explore faith as well.
I always felt that evolution (and in this context I mean man evolving from lower life forms) as the best "natural" explaination for how we got to where we are as a species. I don't think its a particularly "good" explaination, but it is the best "natural" one.

Its too bad the guys on the panel see this as a salvation issue. I'm sure the thief on the cross that Jesus assured he would see in Paradise did not have perfect theology. I wonder what his position on evolution was? :)

t.k.foster said...

Evolution is one of the many things that turns people like myself off about Christianity and other religions that don't accept it. The idea is well-supported by evidence and it's not about a book supporting it or not - authority should be questioned (ie: Stanley Milgram). If there was a higher power, he/she/it would have more of a problem with those that appeal to books than those who go out and study that he/she/it made.

But I guess it is the limited minds of those who read a book and think it has all the answers that leads to such assertions.

~aj~ said...

Ok, I haven't even read the post yet (and I'm very excited to...creation/evolution conversations were VERY common in my classes at HU and I'm still having them with friends today), but I have to admit I scrolled down and saw the pic and about DIED laughing!

That is the BEST!!!!

I've heard all about your time on the Bozo show, but stories don't do it justice. That picture is priceless. If you don't have it framed already, you must. MUST! I love it!

Don said...

You seem to navigate the "minefields" with grace and agility. Better you than me. I marvel at how you are able to balance your "two lives". Press On!

~aj~ said...

I'm back now and your post did not disappoint.

I would love to be a fly on the wall during your panel discussions. Good thing you've got that freaky memory to make it seem like I was there.

This is good stuff, Michael and I'm very impressed with how you handled yourself this morning. I think a lot of people get something stuck in their head as the "right thing" and have a hard time accepting any new ideas, or terms or even different definitions of words that frighten them.

I pray that God will continue to give you the wisdom and humility and that all of you in these discussions will have open minds and loving hearts.

Bob said...

I went to a Bible Study on Genesis years ago and it was very good in that it was very detailed and I learned tons. The writer of the study who provided the commentary, however, seemed to be terrified that someone would question WHY, e.g. why there are actually two creation accounts, nothing to account for dinosaurs, why God would need to "rest," etc., so she very efficiently just gave way oversimplified explanations. It always baffled me that we were not supposed to ask why, we were just supposed to read her opinions and accept them as fact.

Of course that gave rise to my wanting to ask why I should even accept what she's saying since, supposedly, women aren't supposed to be teaching men anyway. I kept that quiet; I had already been upsetting people too much.

Great insight, Michael, especially about why we would call someone an "adversary." That is very telling.

Don't be surprised if you're not invited back, though . . .

Redlefty said...

Thanks, Mom!

Debby, that's a great question and one I'll probably address better in another post, rather than a comment here. Short answer -- we tried to avoid the "debate" format altogether, so nobody would emerge as a winner.

Steve, sorry to hear you liked "Contact". Carl Sagan was an atheist you know... tsk tsk... hate to see people so lost. Please turn your "sarcasm" meter fully to the "ON" position and then re-read the previous two sentences.

That's one of my fave movies, for sure.

T.K., yeah, two of the men said the very idea of evolution is "preposterous" and been "proven wrong". Guess I missed the paper/book that has evidently already settled the issue.

AJ, yes, the picture is framed. And Jacks asks me to hand it to him at least once a week so he can look closely at it. He vexes me.

Don and Bob, thanks for your encouragement and we'll see if I'm invited back. The other men on the panel weren't too thrilled with my comments but they gave me space to say them.

Steve H. said...

A couple of things:

1)Forgot to mention I too was on Bozo... more than once.

2) Yeah, Sagan was an atheist, but its interesting how often guys like him or Asimov trow the Bible for their source material :)

rodolfo said...

Hello redlefty. Your comment about how science and faith answer different questions was my position before.

If you get some time you should check out the beyond belief videos on this site:

This year's sessions just came out so I've only begun to watch them but it explores the very idea of science answering the questions of morality and ethics.

Redlefty said...


Well done! You're leading right into much of the stuff I'm studying these days -- the intersection of neuroscience/psychology/faith/physics.

This isn't new, per se. The Copenhagen Interpretation is more than 50 years old, I think, and it postulated that human consciousness actually impacts and changes the quantum world. That definitely starts to open up some interesting questions on our role in the universe.

I see that the site you link to pays homage to Carl Sagan -- the second time his name has come up in this comment thread! His thoughts in "Pale Blue Dot" are simply outstanding, no matter what theology they came from.

I also noticed that the site has videos from several neuroscientists I've heard about lately. Cool syncrhonicity.

Roland said...

This was very interesting. I think about this stuff all the time. Thanks for writing this stuff and being so thoughtful.

Tit for Tat said...

Interesting post, Im curious though, how do you make your view of Christianity work. I mean if you dont take Scripture in its entirety, how do you reconcile the parts that dont make any logical sense. Do you actually call yourself a "Christian"?

rodolfo said...

Well if you find those interesting check out some of the talks from this site as well:

Search for Vilayanur Ramachandran: A journey to the center of your mind

It's pretty diverse. I think Rick Warren gave a talk there as well.

Redlefty said...

Rodolfo, I've been on for over a year now and have watched dozens of those presentations. Jill Bolte Taylor's was my first. Great stuff.

Tit for Tat, great question, and if you don't mind I'll just address it in the next post. As you already know, everybody cherry picks which parts of the bible apply to us. Well, maybe not everyone. Perhaps there is a church out there who doesn't mix fibers in their clothing and does require the women to cover their heads in church, but I haven't seen it around here.

Debby said...

Redlefty, I've enjoyed following the comments on this post. However, another comment occurs to me. Your hair and Bozo's hair are actually nearly the same shade. Is he a relative? A lot of my relatives are clowns, but they never seemed to be able to make it work for them like Bozo did....

RedWifey said...


Clowness runs down the male side of the Wilson family tree, not skipping any generation that I know of. Though there is no red hair besides Michael's, the clown-ness is as prevelant.

Debby said...

Redwifey - "This gene leaves no generation untouched." I am sorry for you. I say this because as the mother of a clown, I can tell you that you are facing a real challenge with your son. Not to upset you further, but also girls can be clowns as well. I should tell you about the time that Cara was caught playing scrabble with her friend in the rafters of her highschool auditorium. After a while, you learn to stop asking them why. Redwifey, good luck with the Red-kidlets.

Roland said...

Every Saturday, it's fun to watch our neighborhood clown drive off to his little birthday parties. his super loud black 2008 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 convertible. There's only room for one clown in some people's cars.

The Scotts said...

Ok, I am now officially rolling on the floor laughing at the Bozo picture. That is awesome!!!! Great way to end your piece too. :)