An Open Letter to My Friend, a Scientist

In our last conversation, you offered to be a guest speaker at my church. When I asked about the topic you’d like to address, you said, “Someone needs to tell them the truth about science and religion.” My response was to simply state that you’d probably be surprised by how people at my church understand both topics. Indeed, I’m sure you would be surprised by how they integrate them into a coherent whole.

I know that you were raised in a family that practiced a religion. You told me that at one time in life you considered preparing for ordination in that tradition. But you became disenchanted with it, eventually concluding that there was a great deal of hypocrisy in organized religion. Sometime later, concluding that the god of your youth didn’t exist.

To be honest, I’m quite glad that you grew beyond the god of your childhood. Just as growth and maturity should bring about a greater depth in thinking about many topics, religion and faith need to grow and evolve from our childhood conceptions to ways of understanding that are more appropriate for adulthood.

It’s interesting to me that while you’ve made many comments about religion, you’ve never asked me what I believe. I think you assume that you know about my beliefs. I’m not so certain that you do.

Let me begin by saying that I don’t believe in a deity who is a magician. My understanding of a deity doesn’t include defying the laws of physics or over-riding the choices people make in order to cause some “divine will” to occur. I find it frustrating that many people appear to believe in a Great Magician who causes some people to have fortunate circumstances while others suffer, or even for one person to find a good parking space while others continue to circle the block in hopes that someone moves a car. While children are often taught about a deity who does wonderful things for them, such notions don’t reflect the heart of the great religions of the world. Essentially, it’s much like teaching children about Santa Claus as a way to make the more complex messages of Christmas, like generosity and good will among people, more understandable.

What I want to share with you will be clearer if I refrain from using terms like god or deity entirely. I prefer to use the term, “the Divine Mystery.” The terms god, deity, and titles like “the Almighty” come with lots of baggage. Most people think of God as a person, as someone much like us. There is a saying, “In the beginning, God created humanity in his image and likeness, and humanity has been returning the favor every since.” I don’t recall the source of this saying, but it is true that people have tended to imagine God to be the deity they want God to be. I want to avoid those conceptions and want to think more broadly and honestly about my own beliefs.

The Hebrew book of Genesis conveys a story of the creation of the world in which the Divine Mystery spoke and things came into being out of a formless void: night and darkness, dry land and oceans, plants, animals, and people. While this sounds like magic, the metaphoric story conveys something about the Divine Mystery. What we understand from the story in English about god speaking, this Divine Word, is “dabhar” in Hebrew. While it’s commonly translated into English as word or words, it conveys the sense of a wisdom expressed in action. This story in Genesis attempts to convey that before there was time and space as we know them, a grand sort of wisdom expressed the action that brought the cosmos into being.

Genesis contains another story of creation that conveys another understanding of how the cosmos came to be. In this second story, the Divine Mystery breathes its own life, its own spirit to animate people and the cosmos. The Hebrew word is “ruah.” Ruah is breath, spirit, or the essence of life.

What I’m attempting to convey is that my understanding of the Divine Mystery is at work in the universe. It is the essence of cosmic life and energy in all its forms. Our individual lives are part of this over-arching mystery of an integrated, balanced, and wondrous whole. To borrow the words of Paul in the New Testament book, Acts of the Apostles, it’s in this dahbar, this wise creative mystery, that “we live and move and have our being.”

Just as I don’t accept a belief in a deity who is a magician, I also don’t understand the Bible to be a magic book. Indeed, all too frequently contemporary Christians seem to think that the Bible is itself divine, or is a deity. There’s a term for that in theology: bibliolatry. It refers to worshiping the Bible as deity. Such people are, at the least, very foolish and surely very wrong in their understanding.

I do consider the Bible to be sacred. The term “sacred” simply refers to something that is devoted to special use. The Bible is unique. It was compiled over a period of a few thousand years and is drawn from several cultures. The most recent writing occurred about two thousand years ago. Taken together, the Bible conveys how people over millennia attempted to make sense of their lives and beliefs in a context greater than self. The specifics of what the people of the Bible believed changed a great deal from earlier periods of time to later ones. Perhaps more significantly, scholars have clearly demonstrated that many of the stories of the Bible we consider key probably never occurred. They are simply sacred stories. I would suggest that while the events of the Bible are generally not accurate and many of them probably never occurred, there is a greater truth about life, meaning, and purpose that the book conveys. The Bible, much like other sacred texts, often conveys truth through metaphor and story in order to transmit lessons of wisdom.

New Testament scholars have long contended that we know very little about the actual person of Jesus. There’s some historic evidence that he existed. But we have no record of his actual life other than the Bible. Further, many Biblical scholars state that we can’t be sure any events about the life of Jesus recounted in the Bible actually occurred other than he was born and that he died. It’s generally accepted that we can only be sure about two things about the words and teachings of Jesus from the Bible: 1. that his message was one of love, including God’s love for humanity and our need to love each other; 2. that he referred to God using the familiar term, abba, meaning dad or daddy. This use of abba would have been scandalous in his time and culture and is not found in any other writing of that period.

I find the Bible to be inspired and inspiring not because some other-worldly being dictated the words. Instead, the Bible is a collection of writings about how people sought to understand what it meant to live in an inspired way. It continues to be inspiring because when we examine these stories, they address the heart of the human condition even today.

Conversely, the Bible is not a newspaper that recorded facts – and just the facts. It’s not a scientific treatise. It’s not even a history book in the way we think of history today. Taken together, the books of the Bible are an interpretive biography about how people have sought to make sense out of life. The “truth” of the Bible is found in the life-lessons it conveys not the literal rendering of the stories reported.

Ultimately, I don’t find my belief in a Divine Mystery to be incongruent with science. In fact, I would suggest that the more we know about the cosmos through scientific investigation, the more we know about the Divine Mystery. As a psychologist, I know this is particularly true. It’s because of neurological research on prayer and meditation that we know today that not only does spiritual practice relate to a person’s belief system but that the practices themselves are beneficial for physical and mental health and well-bring.

In the end, I call myself a Christian not because I believe in magic. Instead, I am a Christian because I value the wisdom of what we have come to be known as the teachings of Jesus about love, compassion, care for others, and living in ways that are balanced. Where I look first for guidance in my life about meaning, purpose, and value is the creative wisdom attributed to Jesus. That doesn’t mean I think other religions are somehow wrong. Instead, my path in life is illuminated first by the message of Jesus.

In the end, my friend, I would welcome you to visit my church – but not as a guest speaker to correct what you think is wrong with our beliefs. To be honest, my church is more concerned with helping people articulate questions about the deeper meanings of life than about providing stock answers. Instead, I’d welcome you to meet people (some of whom are scientists and researchers from various disciplines) and learn how we understand the role of religion and the beliefs we share. I suspect that the reasons you have for concluding that a deity doesn’t exist are the same reasons that brought others to evolve to a deeper understanding of faith. While I don’t ask that you agree with me or with others who understand faith in ways similar to me, I hope that you could consider that there are many ways to understand faith, belief, and religion. It’s not all about magic or superstition.

© 2013, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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