This is Part 7 of my series on Doubt. You can access the whole series here.
I was in Los Angeles on Colleen's 25th birthday. Colleen is one of my best friends, and by a stroke of luck a bunch of my friends were all in L.A. too. We all committed to an evening of drinking and frivolity to mark the occasion, which I think is a pretty good idea for a 25th birthday. After all, the price paid for such a night begins to rise dramatically in the years following your 25th.
My friend Ashton was out with us. Ashton is effortlessly cool, with a voice designed for radio or movie-trailer narration. He's the kind of guy who finds the heart of what any city is about, and he offered us a menu of nightlife possibilities. True to form, every bar or club we visited was interesting and fun.
Colleen and I are both extroverts. When extroverts consume enough alcohol, karaoke becomes an irresistible craving. Our friends weren't thrilled by the idea, and Colleen and I would have probably given in, but music wafted onto the sidewalk like the smell of delicious food in a Warner Brothers cartoon. We were drawn toward that inviting audible aroma, feet floating above the ground with our eyes full of stars.
The amount of energy in this little bar was incredible. One person had a microphone, and sang into it, but they were completely drowned out by all the other voices in the room. Everyone was singing together, full of happiness and shared joy. No one was trying to perform, and no one was concerned by the imperfections in their pitch and rhythm. Strangers put their arms around friends and strangers alike and celebrated the immense power of being alive.
This story happens in the part of my life where I did not believe in God, and yet the only word I had to describe the experience was "holy." I understand that my use of that word in this context will frustrate believers and skeptics alike, but I don't have any better word for the experience I had in that room. Everyone stood together, in harmony and love, without division. The self-conscious obsessions we all carry were lost in all that singing, as was the tendency to judge others.
That word startled me when it came to mind. I was an atheist and humanist, and also a materialist. For those reading who may not know the term, a materialist is someone who believes that there are no immaterial realms or forces. Materialism asserts that everything is composed by physical matter, energy, and fundamental forces. It's a close sibling of naturalism. A word like "holy" doesn't have any real meaning in materialism–the concept of holiness is just a quirk of human psychology and religion.
Something in that room didn't mesh with materialism. I'm not saying the room was full of supernatural forces or anything. You could explain everything that was happening in that room using sociology, psychology, biochemistry, neuroscience, and ultimately physics–but doing so describes only the mechanics behind the experience while doing nothing to describe the experience itself, sort of like looking at the HTML that makes a web page instead of the page itself.
That got me thinking about my daughters, and how every time we cross a parking lot, I lower my hands. I don't say anything, but they reach up and place their little hands in mine–their small fingers barely reaching around the thickness of my palm. Again, you can describe that moment in scientific terms, but to do so misses the potency of the actual experience–the context of what it feels like to be in love with two daughters, to want to protect them, and to know that they trust you. That is a sacred, fleeting thing, and to capture it you need a poet or a painter. Describing the love and trust between a dad and his girls in technical language is both precise and obscene–reducing love to it's neurochemical components and evolutionary pressures doesn't tell you anything about what it's like to be in love.
It's a shame that all people remember about Vincent van Gogh is the ear thing. His life is far more interesting than that one fact. Van Gogh was a serious, troubled child who grew to be a successful art dealer, before he became frustrated with the commoditization of art by his fellow dealers. That frustration turned him to an early desire: ministry. He was a pastor's assistant and then a missionary (he was unable to pass the required exams to become a pastor).
Van Gogh was moved by the needs of the poor. He gave money freely to those in need and slept in a haystack behind a baker. His congregation was embarrassed to have their preacher living in such poor conditions, and raised money to provide housing for him. Van Gogh responded by giving the money away, and was ultimately fired for his overzealousness.
It was from this suffering, having abandoned art dealing and being fired from ministry, that Van Gogh devoted his life to art. This story puts The Starry Night in new light; notice the central place of the church, and also its distance. See the interplay of light and dark, warmth and cold, and the way shadows stand over the land.
The Start Night communicates truth about suffering and loss in a powerful, profound way. It captures something about what it means to be human that can't be captured by psychology or brain science. We may be able to explain the mechanics of these feelings, but we can't convey them to others without something like art.
Is The Starry Night true? Is it infallible? Inerrant? Who asks those kinds of questions? No one uses The Starry Night to learn about the physical universe–instead this work of art challenges us to contemplate what it means to be alive in the physical universe. And yet, people fight about the scriptures, debating its truth and inerrancy. Could we be approaching this whole issue from the wrong angle?
Science is the best means available to humanity for uncovering the facts and mechanics that create our reality. Science, by design, moves toward every increasing fidelity in its explanations for natural phenomena. Where science speaks, it is very authoritative–and transparent. If scientists claim one age for the Universe and Theologians another, I'm going with the scientists.
But this is a series about doubt: doubt about God. We've reached a turning point, because I believe science best describes reality and I believe in God. I study astronomy and scripture, but I don't study them the same way.
The Bible offers me insight into what it means to be alive in the Universe in a similar manner as The Starry Night. When I read the scriptures, I see people struggling to understand and serve the same God I struggle to understand and serve. When I read the story of Adam and Eve, I am reminded of what it's like to make decisions that I know aren't best for me. Jonah reminds me of the tendency I have to hold prejudices against others–and that I sometimes hold onto them despite seeing the need to let them go. Paul reminds me how I tend to think of myself before others. And Jesus, this man to whom I have devoted my life, his story challenges me to sacrifice my own rights and needs in order to serve others. The cross challenges me to lay down my life, willingly, anytime I can help others.
I understand that a lot of people get really upset when I talk about faith in this way, especially when I include the Bible. There are a lot of people who attach the inerrancy of the Bible and its factual authority to their belief in God. People have told me that without a literal Adam and Eve, or a global flood and Ark, that their faith in God will fall. I grew up believing these things, so I do understand this way of thinking. If this is how you understand the Bible, or how you approach God, my series is probably not for you. I am writing for people who accept the ability of science to reveal facts, and many people lose their belief in God in the process. Not only do they lose their belief in God, but they are less happy as that happens.
It is my belief that the truth of scripture lies in its ability to tell us the timeless themes of the human experience. I believe that it also shows us how we've grown and changed–and how God has been a part of that experience throughout history. I'm not trying to disclaim the Bible, and I'm not trying to discount belief. What I am trying to do is meet people where they are. The whole point of this series is to let people know that belief is not an all-or-nothing proposition, and that God can be part of our lives even when we don't have a complete understanding of what that means.
Drawing a line in the sand regarding Adam and Eve, Noah's flood, or other stories in the Old Testament excludes huge swaths of humanity from knowing God. Science offers really compelling reasons to doubt these things. Analysis of our DNA is one of the most compelling pieces of evidence supporting Evolution, and this same coded data tells us the the smallest human population was around 1,200 members–not one or two.
Some people reject this insight because of their faith, and others reject God when they accept it. If we continue to treat the Bible as a book of facts, and attach God to the acceptance of those facts, we will only drive future generations away from God. Science is getting better at proving its theories, not worse. This forced dichotomy will only get broader as the world becomes more science literate. I believe there is another way.
This whole idea that science and religion are in opposition is misplaced. Even the modern angst over the content of the Bible comes from reading the Bible in a reductionist manner. My friend Rob is doing a fantastic series on the Bible. Anyone wondering how we can still see these scriptures are relevant today should read along–it's great stuff. Like Rob, I believe the Bible has a great deal to tell people living life today, even in a world where science is the primary force behind new insights about our world.
Science and faith serve different purposes in my life: Science gives me facts; Religion gives me meaning.
We'll talk a lot about the scientific understanding of God and faith in the rest of this series, but I also have to lay out my cards here: my faith is not a means of finding fact. It's a means for understanding the miracle of life, and the contradictions that come from being a tiny animal in a vast Universe. It's the way that, somehow, the experience of being conscious is more powerful that the sum of our parts. I admit this is all very subjective, but some of the best parts about being alive are subjective. Think about it.
My subjective perspective tells me that Guinness is delicious, that pizza is best when it's very hot, and that my daughters are a treasure of singular importance. Subjectivity reveals the vista I see in my wife's eyes. Subjectivity makes me believe that good will conquer over evil, ultimately.
And although I can't prove it, my subjective experience tells me that which we call God loves me–an impossible concept for something that can exist among ideas like singularity and cosmic inflation.
But we'll talk more about God later. I'm already over my word count for this post.