Evangelicals and the Problem of Free Will

Having been raised as a Southern Baptist, I was taught from a very early age that the Bible is God’s holy word, that it is infallible, and that it presents humanity with essentially a road map of how to live on earth and how to ensure one’s soul goes to be with God in heaven for all eternity after life on earth is over.  The central truth of the Bible is the work of God’s only son, Jesus, on the cross.  The only source of salvation and forgiveness of sins is through his death and resurrection.  This is still the basic creed of all Christian evangelicals, not just Baptists.  As the Christian fundamentalist movement swept through the South in the 1970s, the dogma became more emphatic, especially the concept of the Bible being inerrant.  I can remember pastors only half-joking when they stood in their pulpits, held the Bible up over their heads, and said, “I believe every word of this book.  Even when it says ‘genuine leather’ on the cover, I believe it!”

Evangelicals believe that God loves his creation and that he also has desires, the strongest of which is for humanity to return his love.  Humans express this love by obeying God’s commandments.  But, above all, humans demonstrate their devotion to God by believing that Jesus is his only son and that accepting his sacrificial death as atonement for their natural sinful state miraculously repairs the fallen relationship with God (Adam, Eve, rotten fruit, etc.).  Again, for evangelicals this part of the plan is crucial.  It is only the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus that can bring God and humanity together, which not only empowers humans to obey God’s commandments but also grants their souls an eternity with Jesus, who is actually God in human form just to complicate matters further.  The alternative is rejecting God and facing an eternity in hell — complete separation from God with a whole lot of torture, anguish, teeth gnashing, ill-tempered serpents, and the like.  God wants humans to love him, and by its very definition, love is something that has to be voluntary.  God doesn’t force humans to love him, which wouldn’t be genuine love.  Humans have the freedom to either love God or reject him, another key component of the whole arrangement.

Another part of the Baptist training was embracing the perfect nature of God.  The Bible is infallible because it is inspired, if not ghost authored, by God himself.  God is omnipotent and omniscient — there is nothing God cannot do, although he certainly elects not to do plenty of things.  All options are open to him.  He knows everything that has ever happened and will happen, past and future.  In fact, everything that happens ultimately conforms to God’s will.  So even the most mortal sins committed by humanity, although contrary to God’s wishes, eventually fold into the greater plan of God for the universe.  God’s will is unavoidable.  When I was growing up, it would have been inconceivable that there could be anything that God didn’t already know.  The evidence for this concept for evangelicals is found in the Bible in Jeremiah 1:5. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”  Putting aside the fact that this verse refers specifically to the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, my fellow Baptists cited this verse as proof that God knows individuals, and individual souls, before they are conceived and born.  Remember, time is irrelevant for God. Past, present, and future are all in his command.

Now we come to the problem that is free will.  As stated earlier, evangelicals adhere to the principle that God loves humanity and wants his love returned.  John 3:16 is probably the most important verse in the entire Bible to evangelicals: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  People are given the option to believe that Jesus is God’s son and that his sacrifice is the source of their salvation and relationship with God. However, it is painfully obvious that millions, if not billions, of people do not accept Jesus as their savior and therefore miss the salvation boat altogether.  Which brings us to the troubling question about the true personality of God.  If indeed God knows everything, and if he is not constrained by time, and if he knows all that is going to happen, then it reasonably follows that he knows which individuals will return his love and which ones will reject him, before they are even born.  Given this premise, it follows that the God who can do anything actually chooses to allow people to be born even though he knows they will ultimately reject him and thus be cursed to an eternity in hell.  Is this lais·sez-faire approach the only means by which God can secure the love of humanity?  Do billions of people have to be cast into hell to gather a minority of people who will love God, accept his gift of salvation, and share eternity with him?

Evangelicals who adopt this paradigm are faced with a God who is at once all-loving while also being extremely negligent of the majority of those he apparently loves.  In the case of humanity’s free will, God is obviously electing not to impose his omnipotence and letting humanity chart its eternal course.  Is this a situation where God is simply choosing not to know something?  Keeping secrets from himself?  If we think about this for more than a minute or two, we must come to terms with a God who is “writing off” a significant portion of the population as damned, when he could have easily spared them an eternity of torment by not allowing them to be born in the first place.  As a father, I would do anything within my power to prevent my son from committing suicide, especially if I could ensure that he had a bright future.  What kind of father would I be if I didn’t attempt to intervene?  Given the same circumstances, most fathers would do the same.  If parents could know, without a shadow of a doubt, that they were going to conceive a child who would suffer horrific pain for an entire lifetime, would they elect to have such a child just for the sake of starting a family?  Are we more compassionate than God?  Free will doesn’t seem like such a valuable gift when we consider the stakes.  If this is God’s plan for getting the love he wants, what does this really tell us about God?  Something’s missing here.  It’s a problem.

Worship Without Music

As stated previously in this blog, I was raised in a Southern Baptist Church (SBC).  Generally speaking, Southern Baptist worship, especially during the main service on Sunday mornings, could be described as a passive experience by the majority of people present, namely the congregation.  There are a couple of exceptions.  In recent decades, it has become popular to insert a time of greeting around the midway point of the service, which involves handshaking, hugging, some folks walking all around the sanctuary to apparently greet as many people as possible until forced by embarrassment to finally get back to their seat.  This practice is not limited to the Baptists either.  The only other part of a SBC service that encourages participation by everyone in the sanctuary is music, and for Baptists, music is a central part of worship.  SBCs give music a lot of space and time, from large pianos and organs for traditional worship services, to full-scale bands for “praise” services, and even small orchestras for the mega-churches.  They include several hymns for the congregation to join together singing.  SBCs also tend to employ full-time ministers of music, who typically are paid better than other support staff in most denominations with comparable-sized churches.  They typically have choirs for all age groups, along with an adult choir that practices weekly to present calls-to-worship, anthems, benedictions, etc.  Some churches even have special musical groups like hand-bell choirs, vocal or instrumental ensembles, and pop bands.

The format of worship in a SBC was certainly a suitable environment for my development with respect to the central role of music.  I was raised in a family that appreciated music, had some musical abilities, but above all encouraged musical skill and performance in my generation of youngsters.  My sister and I both took music lessons — she with the piano and I with the guitar.  I was brought up to sing church songs from a very early age, even before I can remember.  My earliest memory of singing was when my mother and grandmother took me out in the countryside to visit a bedridden relative of my grandmother (a sister or cousin, I’m not sure which), and I was instructed to sing a short song I had learned in Sunday School.  The song was titled “He’s Able.”  I still remember the words and the tune to this day:

He’s able, He’s able, I know He’s able
I know my Lord is able to carry me through
He healed the broken hearted, and he set the captive free
He made the lame to walk again, and He caused the blind to see
He’s able, He’s able, I know He’s able
I know my Lord is able to carry me through

As I became a teenager, my guitar skills developed enough that I could accompany myself singing, and could also play for youth group gatherings in my church.  My voice also matured to a fairly solid tenor, perhaps with a higher range than most guys my age.  I sang in choirs, performed at church functions (often with my sister and a cousin), and eventually reached what some would have considered the pinnacle of the music scene in a SBC — presenting “the special” during Sunday morning worship.  This song, typically a solo but sometimes a duet or trio, was usually placed in the service just before the pastor’s sermon.  For the 40+ years I was in a SBC, that part of the music service was always referred to by ministers and congregants as “the special” or “special music.”  Unfortunately, a label like that can encourage a certain sense of pride, if not arrogance, by the person offered such a place of distinction.

My love for music at an early age, combined with the ability to play the guitar (fair, but not very skilled) and a voice that my friends and family thought was pleasant, presented me with the opportunity to be a regular part of the special music rotation, almost always as a solo.  As I grew to adulthood, moved away from home, and started a family, I settled in another SBC where I continued with this practice.  I taught myself to play the piano and eventually began to accompany myself with that instrument.  It is with humility and perhaps some shame now that I look back on the decades of my musical contributions as a soloist because I realize that, all too often, I know what I was doing more than anything else was performing.  More than providing a meaningful worship experience for myself and the congregation, I was seeking to be an entertainer, to impress an audience, to attract their attention, to win their love.  So many people in SBCs will tell you that music is essential to their worship experience.  They will boast about their choir and exalt their music ministers.  But, they usually reserve their highest admiration for the people who perform special music, posting or sharing videos of them on their social media pages.  I enjoyed this kind of adulation all the time, and it was a rush.  My fellow church members were kind and gracious, and I have no doubt they were perfectly sincere when they told me how much a song I sang or wrote meant to them and enhanced their worship experience. I was touched by their encouragement, but what I craved was to amaze them.  Alas, I am vain.

After a divorce and a time of transitioning away from the Baptist church (I had left it theologically many years before), I met a beautiful Episcopalian.  And then I married her.  Everything changed, and for the better — much better.  I found a home in the Episcopal Church, with a theology that I could embrace without too much difficulty.  My wife introduced me to an early morning service at our small town church that she really liked because it was quiet, peaceful, reverent, and completely without music.  I had never been to such a service, and much to my surprise, I loved this style of worship.  After decades of being in churches where music was so central and where I was such a visible participant, it took me a while to understand why I was attracted to a service without music.  I think it is because I know that music was too often a distraction for me.  Instead of helping me get beyond myself to seek communion with the divine, it fed my ego and kept me in the foreground.  Performing caused me to focus on technique, style, quality, and even appearance.  It was way too much about me.

My wife and I have moved and are at another parish now.  They don’t have a service without music yet, although the priest has talked about introducing one.  There is resistance from the parish, which is to be expected.  I hope we can try it at some point. I will never stop loving music, and that includes church music.  And, I can certainly enjoy a worship service with music, even if I’m not at all familiar with so many of the songs from the Episcopal tradition.  In a way, that’s a good place to be.  It’s awfully hard to perform a song you don’t know very well.

God is a Gambler. Who Knew? (Part 2)

(continued from January 29, 2016)

If you tell students that the Book of Job illustrates how human beings are easily dispensable to God, who is quite willing to use them to prove a point, they don’t exactly embrace this vision too comfortably.  Nevertheless, it is difficult to read this story and not come away with a less-than-flattering description of God’s nature.  When God turns Job over to Satan, the evil one goes to work quickly.  In short order, all of Job’s livestock and servants are killed, along with ten of his children.  Poor Job tears his clothes and shaves his head in mourning, but he still blesses God in his prayers, which prompts Satan to return to God to increase the stakes.  To further prove how strong Job’s faith really is, God allows Satan to inflict physical torment on the poor guy.  Afflicted with horrible skin sores, Job is in so much misery that his wife encourages him to curse God, give up the struggle, and die.  Still Job stands fast and continues to honor God.

You can push a person so far though, and Job comes close to reaching his limit.  His close friends offer him philosophical rhetoric to bring him comfort and to explain his horrible predicament, and they even try to convince him that he must have done something to anger God — repent and all will be well.  One of his pals, Elihu, explains that physical suffering helps the victim to comprehend God’s love and forgiveness when he finally is well again, knowing that God has rescued him from misery.  Again, what a disturbing view of God’s relationship to humanity!  Job doesn’t buy it.  He is confident in his righteousness and refuses to admit to uncommitted sins.  Still, he grows weary and finally gets a bit demanding of God, and goes so far as to express his wish that he had never been born.  From an ancient Hebrew perspective, this just may be where he crosses the line and prompts God to blast him with what could be the best poetry in the Bible, even though much is certainly lost in the translation.

Out of a mighty whirlwind, God poses a series of blistering, rhetorical questions to Job, most of which begin with the phrase “Where were you . . . ,” which are designed to show Job how ignorant he is of the majesty of creation and how magnificent God truly is.  After he picks himself up out of a heap, good old Job admits to the limitations of his human knowledge, a response that apparently pleases God.  According to many Biblical scholars, the original story (which is one of the oldest in the Bible) ends at this point.  However, in the Biblical narrative, the plot continues, and God returns Job’s health and even more property than he had before.  God blesses Job with new children and gives him an extremely long life as an added bonus.  Of course, one could argue that property can easily be replaced, but ten children?  In the end, God won the bet and proved Satan wrong, which is the most important thing to remember, right?  As I stated before, a tad disconcerting.

The reason that the Book of Job is so important in Hebrew literature, or any literature for that matter, is because it creatively explores the age-old question of why an omnipotent God allows good people to suffer.  After all, Job isn’t selected as the pawn in this contest between God and Satan because he is bad, but because he is the best.  For modern Christians, especially those who espouse the prosperity gospel so popular in America, Job’s story presents quite a quandary.  If you follow God’s commands and live a life of righteousness, you just may come to ruin as a reward for your faithfulness!  Somehow I doubt Joel Osteen preaches from Job very often — I could be wrong.

Considering that the ancient Hebrews had no concept of personal eternity and were convinced that, as God’s chosen people, they were fulfilling God’s plan for creation and living up to their side of the covenant with God, this story becomes somewhat more palatable for the modern reader.  The Hebrews were commanded by God to be fruitful and multiply, to spread across the land, and to bear witness to God’s preeminence among all other deities.  There is no room in this arrangement for the wish of never having been born.  The survival and well-being of the individual was vastly overshadowed by the importance of the survival and fruition of the Hebrew nation.  The suggestion is that human beings should not dare question God’s divine justice because they cannot possibly appreciate its complexity.

What I find particularly fascinating is how the Book of Job serves as an excellent foreshadow for the coming of Christ and his sacrificial death to save humanity.  Jesus wasn’t chosen to face horrible agony because he was a rotten sinner.  Jesus was sent by God to suffer because he was the spotless lamb.  With all respect and deference to the modern descendants of the Hebrew nation and culture, the story of the New Testament messiah conveniently “resurrects” the suffering servant, who even has his own moments of doubt and questioning in the garden.  This is the same Jesus who charges those who profess to love him to take up their cross and follow him.  I guess you could say that’s just part of the deal.

God is a Gambler. Who Knew? (Part 1)

For ten years, I taught a freshman course covering the first half of world history as an adjunct instructor at a small public liberal arts college.  I knew that a good portion of my students had been raised in Protestant homes, and most were probably very active in their home churches.  Because so much of early world history ends up being a class in comparative religions, I thought it only fair to give my students the following disclaimer on the first day of class: “I am the college teacher your preacher warned you about.”  I knew that much of what I was going to cover about the origins of the world’s major religions, including Christianity, was going to be met with some resistance.  A few students probably thought I was an agent of Satan.  Having come out of a fundamentalist Christian background (Southern Baptist), I could certainly sympathize with that position.

What I thought would be particularly helpful was to spend quality time talking about a book from the Old Testament in the Bible, the work that is raised to the level of idolatry by so many pastors and their congregants.  By looking at the book as both a work of literature and as holy scripture, I attempted to help them see some basic tenants of their faith from a different angle than what they were exposed to in church.  I hoped to offer a bit more historical context too, helping my students understand the genesis of three of the world’s religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  The book I chose is my favorite of the wisdom literature from the Biblical Hebrew tradition and one that I think is most representative of that tradition.  This book does such a good job of exploring the complexity of the human condition, especially as it is impacted by faith.  The book I selected was Job.

The major reason that Job is such a good book to teach to students who are familiar with Bible stories from church is because it presents all kinds of challenges to the traditional image of God and the accepted nature of God’s relationship to humanity.  Here we have the story the takes off with a discussion between God and Satan about a man named Job.  God is obviously very proud of Job, who seems to be the model of human creation.  In a little chat with Satan, God says, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”  Of course, this is taken as a direct challenge to God’s adversary, Satan, who claims that Job is such a swell guy only because God is taking very good care of him.  After all, Job is wealthy, has a large family, and performs purification rituals for his family even when he knows of nothing they have done wrong.  He is described as the greatest man among all the people of the region.

So Satan decides to make a little bet with God, just to prove God wrong.  Satan presents God with this challenge concerning Job’s welfare: “Stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”  And how does the creator of all the universe, including Job but also Satan and his minions, respond to this challenge?  Does God dismiss it as petty?  Does God make clear to Satan that God doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone?  Well, no.  Essentially God’s response to Satan is, “Oh yea?  Is that what you think?  Fine then!  You’re on!!”  In verse twelve of the Book of Job, we read:  “The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.’”  The deck may be stacked in God’s favor, but still, God apparently likes to play the game!  Who knew?  And, the events that unfold after this exchange between God and Satan present us with a view of the deity that is both unexpected and just a tad disconcerting.

Christianity Is Alive and Kicking in the U.S.

The latest crusade to save Christians from persecution in the United States is now focused on Kim Davis, the Rowan County, Kentucky, clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples according to the law as defined by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.  She was eventually found in contempt because of her continued refusal to obey the law and carry out her responsibilities as an officer of the court based on her religious beliefs, nor would she allow her employees to issue licenses with her signature, which is required.  Rather than comply or step down from her position, she stood her ground and was arrested and jailed on contempt charges.

First of all, I can’t imagine how unfulfilled Ms. Davis’s life must be to go through with this defiant stance against the State of Kentucky and ultimately the Supreme Court.  Her actions seem to be that of a self-imposed martyr.  Given her past personal relationships that have been broadcast for all to read about over the last week or so, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.  In some ways, she is a bit pathetic.  Apparently, she is convinced that this is indeed what Jesus would do, because Jesus didn’t like same-sex marriage.  Of course, there is no hint that Jesus ever said anything negative about homosexuality, but there are plenty of passages condemning it in the Old Testament and several in the New.  That’s all Kim Davis and millions of other Christians need to know.  If attention is what she needed, she certainly succeeded in getting it.  And she is returning the favor to someone who needs it even worse and is very vocally supportive of her actions: Mike Huckabee, a minister and also a Republican candidate for President, who can’t get the media’s attention because EVERYBODY is waiting to hear the next outrageous phrase coming out of Donald Trump’s mouth, who is the current top contender for the White House for the Republicans.  Yes, we are all in shock.  I don’t know a fiction writer today with enough imagination to come up with something this rich.

Evangelicals across the nation are crying out again that there is a war on Christianity.  Religious liberties are at stake.  The liberals are forcing the silent majority to conform to the sinful culture of a nation that is turning its back on God.  They claim that Kim Davis has been thrown in jail simply because of her faith, and before long, it will happen to all Christians.  Really?  Does Ms. Davis’s refusal to carry out her duties as a government official not warrant repercussions, such as arrest (she is an elected official, and therefore cannot simply be terminated — she must resign or be impeached)?  Southern Baptists who were completely against drinking alcohol routinely issued liquor licenses to businesses in their counties and municipalities in their capacity as public officials. And speaking from experience, I can testify that it is difficult to find a more conservative religious person with deeper convictions than a Southern Baptist.  Apparently, serving or drinking booze does not offend God as much as two men who are in love and want to get married.

So how oppressed are Christians in America?  Are they indeed in danger for expressing their beliefs?  Is the government trying to stamp out Christianity and move toward a totalitarian secular society?  If the entertainment industry is representative of the cultural landscape, and I think it is, then Christians can relax.  The faith-based movie, “The War Room,” is the top box office hit this week, and it isn’t being banned or boycotted anywhere that I have seen. It follows the success of another Christian movie last year, “Heaven Is Real.” Both movies were released by mainstream Hollywood studios. The Supreme Court hasn’t ruled them unconstitutional. The President hasn’t issued an executive order shutting down theaters showing them. No one is going to jail for showing them or watching them. In fact, this latest one is taking the nation by storm. So for those who constantly preach about the war on Christianity in this country, please rest assured that your faith is alive and well and still one of the most influential forces in our society, for better or worse.

I Now Pronounce You — Addendum

As a nice addition and confirmation to what I wrote yesterday about the same-sex marriage ruling from the Supreme Court, here is a well-crafted open letter to Franklin Graham at Huffington Post from Paula K. Garrett.

“The Supreme Court did not say churches must change their definition of marriage. It said that states must. You have every right to insist that you will never accept same-sex marriage, God forbid a grandchild comes out in the family. You have every right to say you will never conduct a same-sex marriage. Nothing that the Court said this week implies otherwise.”

See the entire letter here.

I Now Pronounce You

It is now legal in the United States to marry anyone who also wants to marry you.  I’m not exactly sure why we needed a Supreme Court decision to bring us to this place, especially in the 21st century, but here we are.  In spite of the apocalyptic forecasts I have seen on Facebook over the last few days predicting that God’s wrath is now at the explosive point and ready to cover the country in steaming magma, we seem to have turned a corner where human relationships are concerned.  Of course, there have been the occasional displays of defiance we would expect from certain pockets of the country, namely the Deep South Bible Belt communities where homosexual activity is hidden, along with the whiskey bottle, K-Y Lubricant, the porn websites, and the patch of marijuana tucked neatly between the rows of tall corn stalks or mixed in with the soybean plants.

By far the most often-cited reason I have seen for those objecting to gay marriage is the idea that such an arrangement is in direct opposition to God’s intention for humanity, where marriage is the union of one man and one woman in holy matrimony . . .  period.  Not a woman with a woman, not a man with a man, not a man with a goat, not a woman and her cat, not a man and his voice-activated computer operating system.  The Supreme Court decision merely affirms what a majority of states had already decided on their own, which thankfully at this point only deals with marriage between two human beings — probably about as far as we need to push it and still have a reasonable assurance of consent from both parties.

God apparently has fairly strict and narrow rules for marriage, not to mention sexual positions, contraception, and Sunday alcohol sales.  If the one-woman-one-man plan is what the Bible or any other religious text teaches you about God and marriage, then you have every right to live your life according to those guidelines as long as you can do so without infringing on the rights of others.  You can encourage your family and friends to do the same.  If you are influential enough to have a whole congregation of people who voluntarily abide by your religious convictions, that’s just peachy.  However, what you should not be able to do in this country is use those convictions to create, sustain, and enforce public policies that are no longer upheld by a good portion of the population.

Marriage ceremonies are no doubt an important part of religious practice all around the world, which is perfectly fine.  But here’s a news flash: marriage does not BELONG to religion.  Atheist couples should be able to publicly proclaim their love, devotion, and commitment to one another, free of the interference of a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque.  Their union should be recognized by local, state, and federal governments as a legally-binding contract, even if the marriage is performed by a secular, government official instead of a priest, minister, rabbi, qazi or madhun.  Oh wait, that is EXACTLY what happens with many atheists couples, and it has been happening legally for a long time in this country.  Wonder what God’s view of an atheist marriage is?  Hmmmmm.

There is no place for legislation in the United States based solely on religious teachings, which is obviously the source of objection to same-sex marriage.  If you are in such a position of authority, either through election or appointment by elected officials, you have an obligation to put your personal wishes and desires aside to serve your constituents, and this includes your religious views.  If doing so is too difficult for you, then I suggest you either find some other job where your religious beliefs won’t be compromised (and keep in mind that not all private-sector jobs will accommodate your faith either), OR you should find a country where your religious beliefs are enforced.  Good luck with that second option.

I hope same-sex marriage is here to stay.  The benefits to loving gay and lesbian couples is only now being fully understood by the heterosexual community.  One of the main objectives of our Constitution is to protect the dignity of our citizens and to secure their right to pursue happiness.  While it seems a bit embarrassing that we needed a Supreme Court decision to make it official, I am relieved that ALL people who want to be married in this country can now do so, complete with the accompanying privileges, obligations, and benefits.  You may kiss the . . . spouse!

Facebook: The Filterless Forum

There are now close to a billion daily active users on Facebook, which represents about 15% of the world’s total population.  All age groups are represented, along with just about every race, socio-economic level, political persuasion, sexual preference, religious affiliation, and geographic location on the planet.  Facebook users are a fair cross-section of the developed world.  Without a great deal of effort, this star of social media sites allows us all to have a personal website that is dynamic, entertaining, informative, and intimate.  One of the most attractive features of Facebook is how it encourages us to be spontaneous, quickly posting photos, videos, memes, quotations, and links, along with our own commentary, with just a few clicks.  Because we have these capabilities with our mobile devices, we can practically broadcast our lives to the Facebook world if we choose on a minute-by-minute basis (extremely annoying to many of our Facebook “Friends” perhaps, but nevertheless most easily accomplished).

Another aspect of the Facebook community is the significant impact the platform has on social discourse.  We are able to post opinions, either our own or those with which we agree, and launch discussions that can go on for hours, even days, and involve dozens of people from around the world if our Facebook “family” reaches that far.  I find it interesting how Facebook provides us with a perceived sense of anonymity when we engage other people, especially about controversial issues, and how so many of us become bold and even aggressive in defending our positions, most likely with an intensity that we would not exhibit in person or in a letter or even in an email.  Our reactions through Facebook posts seem more immediate, urgent even.  We write sentences that we would be hesitant to say if we were looking into the face of the listener(s).

While I’m certain that many Facebook users present a persona on their page that merely masks their true identity, I think more often than not Facebook users reveal who they truly are in their posts, how they feel, what they hate, love, fear, and desire.  Facebook removes the filters that we employ under most other circumstances of human interaction.  At the same time, at least from my own experience, this type of filterless forum clearly illustrates to me how deeply divided our society is on so many issues.

All my Facebook Friends are in the U.S., so my experience is limited to political, social, and religious hot buttons in this country.  I have intentionally kept Facebook Friends whose opinions differ from my own, sometimes rather heatedly, to specifically remind me of these deep divisions and to help me understand why they exist.  While I do see plenty of extreme posts from the left and the right that are intended to do nothing more than incite anger and protest, I also see thought-provoking posts that warrant serious consideration and discussion.  Even posts that are reactionary in their origin can lead to productive exploration of the underlying issues.  The political climate in America seems to have lost its center altogether, and the raw nature of Facebook often provides evidence of the fact.  Perhaps it is also establishing a forum that can lead us away from the outer limits and back to a place where we can all find some common ground.

The Undeniable Evidence for Evolution

When I am asked if I “believe” in evolution, as I have been many times in my life, I am somewhat at a loss with how to respond.  To believe in evolution implies that there is some level of faith required to accept that life on earth changes in order to adapt to the environment and to increase the chances of surviving and reproducing.  The evidence for such adaptation is so abundant that, to my way of thinking, denying it would require an extraordinary suspension of observation and reasoning.

Of course, I am keenly aware that when I am asked this question, the real query is “Do you believe that human beings evolved from lower life forms?” or the less- intelligent and poorly-informed version, “Do you believe we came from monkeys?”  The answer to the former would be an unequivocal YES, and the answer to the latter would be an equally emphatic NO.  Anyone who has taken an elementary course in biology knows the difference between those two premises, so I won’t bother with the distinctions.

I suspect the people who have the most difficult time accepting evolution as a scientific theory that explains so much about life on this planet are those who cling to religious beliefs that somehow run contrary to the evidence.  This conflict is especially true for people of faith who maintain a literal interpretation of ancient, sacred texts such as the Bible or the Koran.  Evangelicals in America are so bound to their worldview of creationism by the hand of God that they will not allow themselves to be swayed by rationalism or overwhelming evidence.  I have even met scientists, teaching in universities, who cannot fully embrace human evolution as a fact because of their religious convictions.  The pressure to conform to supernatural explanations of natural phenomenon must be enormous.

Is it fear that prompts such denial?  Pride?  Does science pose such a threat to faith that adherents impose barriers to the most obvious truths rather than accept and embrace them?  I am absolutely baffled by people who can choose to believe the supernatural over the natural.

Peering Out to Infinity

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the launching of the Hubble Space Telescope, today the New York Times (nytimes.com) posted some favorite photographs of astronomers and others involved in the Hubble project over the years — photos taken by the telescope.  According to Hubblesite.org, this magnificent device represents “one of NASA’s most successful and long-lasting science missions. It has beamed hundreds of thousands of images back to Earth, shedding light on many of the great mysteries of astronomy. Its gaze has helped determine the age of the universe, the identity of quasars, and the existence of dark energy.”

(A cluster of 3,000 stars known as Westerlund 2 in the constellation Carina. )

Upon seeing some of these images and trying to grasp the scale in size, distance from the Earth, and time associated with them, it is certainly understandable why so many people still turn to supernatural or religious explanations for the vastness and wonder of the universe.  How can the mind comprehend it?  It is equally understandable why atheists such as Richard Dawkins make such proclamations as the following: “The world and the universe is (sic) an extremely beautiful place, and the more we understand about it the more beautiful does it appear.”

I try to get to the coast as often as I can, primarily because I like the way it puts my life in perspective for me.  I feel so small when I look out at the ocean and am soothed by the sound of endless waves pounding the shore.  To paraphrase a Beatles tune, all my troubles seem so far away.  Looking at these Hubble images and contemplating how small I am on this planet, in this solar system, in this galaxy that shares the universe with one hundred billion other galaxies — perhaps many more — magnifies this experience but makes me deeply appreciate my life, my consciousness, and all that I perceive.  How very fortunate am I.