Why the Ham-Nye Debate Wasn’t Helpful

I’m writing part of this post on my laptop in a coffeehouse just off the Baylor University campus. For many who may not know, Baylor is a private Christian school; it’s motto is Pro Ecclesia, Pro Texana (“For the Church, for Texas”). However, Baylor also finds itself at the culmination of an ambitious, decade-long initiative its regents called “Baylor 2012,” an aspiring, expensive plan to achieve higher levels of academic excellence in all aspects of university purposes and functions. One of the cornerstones of this plan was the construction of a massive science center that would revolutionize Baylor’s impact on the science and research communities, offering state-of-the-art training in competitive degrees such as chemistry and biochemistry, environmental science, geology, physics, psychology and neuroscience.

Also, the coffeehouse in which I sit is called Common Grounds.

It's a rule that the trendier the coffeehouse, the clearer the coffee pun must be.

It’s a rule that the trendier the coffeehouse, the clearer the coffee pun must be.

Because that’s the point. It’s the belief at the core of Baylor’s plan, it’s the hope residing deeply in so many of the educators and students working in this community, and it’s the cry of Christians all over our country and our world who are fed up with the prevailing view that science and religious faith are mutually exclusive – that they cannot coexist.

And then these same Christians and scientists turn the channel to CNN last Tuesday night and witness a “debate” between two individuals who have no interest in finding common ground between their respective fields of study. We stare at the screen, shake our heads, release a frustrated sigh, and listen as these two men only serve to fortify the wall they believe exists between science and religious faith. Thank you, gentlemen.

The only thing worthwhile about this debate was to whether neck tie or bow tie would prove victorious.

The only thing worthwhile about this debate was to whether neck tie or bow tie would prove victorious.

The Popularity of the Conflict Model

Here’s the main problem with the Ham-Nye debate. It took place within a “Conflict model” interpretation of the relationship between science and religious faith. The renowned scholar, Ian Barbour, who focused much of his attention and career on the interplay of science and religious faith, proposed a four-fold typology for understanding how the two fields of study can interact. In laymen’s terms, he figured there were four ways a conversation about faith and scientific research could go.

On one end of Barbour’s spectrum is “Conflict.” In this model, the fields are viewed as unable to coexist. One must be fully correct and the other must be fully incorrect. Many who embrace Barbour’s reasoning are quick to point out that this model is the least helpful, but the most exciting. Because conflict is exciting – it’s what drives action movies, political discourse and pretty much every reality TV show ever filmed.

"We need some conflict, stat! Let's have one of these ladies throw a party and then hide everyone else's Xanax."

“We need some conflict, stat! Let’s have one of these ladies throw a party and then hide everyone else’s Xanax.”

However, there are other ways to consider the relationship between science and religious faith. These models are less popular and more difficult for both “camps” to absorb into their understanding. However, they are perhaps more beneficial and edifying than the Conflict model.

Why the Ham-Nye Debate Wasn’t Helpful

Just because a debate, by definition and practice, is an argument between two different points of view, does not mean either point of view must be accepted to the complete exclusion of the other. A debate that truly educates and energizes deeper thought and study is one that is willing to concede that both sides have something to offer to the general consciousness.

Unfortunately, the two players in Tuesday night’s Creationism-Evolution debate are not interested in adopting that kind of overarching philosophy. Call it a fear of appearing weak or uncertain, or perhaps plain ol’ stubbornness, but I’m also apt to believe that fewer people would tune in for a debate that was clearly driven by a “Dialogue” or “Integration” model, in which common ground and the ability to learn from one another exists at the heart of the argument.

Everyone knows the neck tie and the bow tie hate one another with a passion.

Everyone knows the neck tie and the bow tie hate one another with a passion.

As Peter Enns put it in his own article on the debate, “Ham needs his theology just the way it is in order to maintain his strong grip on his understanding of reality. His theology requires a science that supports biblical literalism. Failure in this regard is not an option for Ham. … Nye is clear that he has no delusions of convincing Ham. The debate presumably is aimed at dissuading those who listen to Ham.”

Anyone else bothered by that? Sure, there is something satisfying when your belief about a certain something is proven to be the right one, but the deeper and more profound the question, the less likely you will ever arrive at such a feeling. Certainly within debate there is a loyalty issue; a person feels compelled to stifle dissent that might scratch and claw at the fabric of his or her belief. But that loyalty, and the desire to protect one’s viewpoint, only exists in those who are trapped in the Conflict model. And the longer you’re trapped there, the harder it becomes to see things even slightly differently.

It's a scary thing when these two guys prove to be a more agreeable pair.

It’s a scary thing when these two guys prove to be a more agreeable pair.

The Debate that Could Have Been

Sitting in Common Grounds, I can overhear students talking. Contrary to the stereotype that only Christians attend a Christian university, I can hear plenty of conversations and arguments ping-ponging back and forth across tables. Pro-choice or pro-life? Should homosexuality still be considered a sin? Is capital punishment unChristian? Should stem-cell research be banned? Should a Christian support alternative energy initiatives?

Which style of cravat is lamer?

Which style of cravat is lamer?

I can’t help but believe that every student who engages in these conversations walks away with a sharper understanding, not only of his or her viewpoint, but also of the other side and the data and conviction it also has to offer. The conversation partners are not only  better informed by the conversation/argument/debate’s end; they have been made, in some small way at least, more patient, perceptive, and gracious people.

Is that too much to ask, also, from a televised debate on one of the defining arguments of the last century? I don’t think so.

But after last Tuesday, I’ve come to suspect that more and more people – be they people of faith and/or supporters of scientific progress – are walking away from such contests with one thought clearer than all the rest. That the only relationship between science and faith is a warring relationship. That it’s a fight, a bitter dispute, and anyone who doesn’t dig a trench and draw a line in the proverbial sand is a weak, hesitant person, full of doubt and lacking conviction.

May we come to see that the exact opposite is not only the real truth, but also the only real hope for peace and progress we have left.

Colliding Particles, Colliding People

The following is a post I wrote for another blog that I often contribute to. If you’re interested in checking that one out, click here.

Flying under the radar of most of the news stories of the past two weeks is a report out of Switzerland regarding scientific experimentation with particle smashing. Over the past decade, brilliant men and women have worked tirelessly in hopes of identifying and evaluating the elusive “God particle,” a hypothesized elementary particle that would provide explanation of how the universe was formed. Known as the Higgs boson in scientific circles, its searchers believe the particle indeed exists, but despite creating trillions of particle collisions over the past decade, they have not yet been able to clearly identify it. Continue reading

What I’ve Learned from the War: 3 Lessons in Faith

Last Saturday, the 12th, brought me to the one-year mark in my current job search. For those of you familiar with my subtle, yet often long-winded, laments about this experience, don’t click away just yet. This post is not another whine or cynical complaint. It’s more of a retrospective. The few readers who have journeyed with me by way of this blog for a considerable amount of time will know that one of my favorite miniature quotations – the one I most take to heart, perhaps – is written by Frederick Buechner. It’s four little words: “Listen to your life.”

Specifically, I’ve done my best to keep an open mind in the midst of this war. What war, you ask? It’s the war that rages within, the job search war that is fought on multiple fronts: the emotional front, the psychological front, the physical front, the social front, and, sometimes the most bloody of all, the spiritual front. And the clash takes a toll that lingers long, more like a Hundred Year’s War than a Six-Day War.

"Hotel, Echo, Lima, Papa! Do you acknowledge?!"

Yet through all the waiting and wondering and dreaming and doubting – despite the escalation of hostilities between faith and frustrated despair – I’ve tried my best to adhere to Buechner’s aphorism. What follows are a few of the many things I have learned about remaining faithful to God during hard times…

#1 – Faith Often Conflicts with Common Sense

For a person who has been a practicing Christian for a while (as opposed to someone who merely claims the title without authentically pursuing God), it is no secret that faith seems to directly contradict reason and levelheadedness. I happen to believe that “contradiction” isn’t the right word – in my opinion, it’s not that faith contradicts reason; it simply doesn’t allow reason to be the stopping point or the final judgment. Either way, however, such a mindset often conflicts with good, old-fashioned common sense. In other words, it’s hard for a person operating on blind faith to always come across as sensible, or to make decisions that other people would consider practical.

"Seriously, man. This isn't rational."

I’ll give you an example from this past year. In mid-August, I was finally offered a position at a church. It had been a long summer following an even longer winter and spring (that whole broken foot fiasco didn’t help matters), and more than anything my wife and I wanted a job for me so we could settle down somewhere and begin feeling like our own family again. And, on paper, the job looked great. I appeared to be the perfect candidate, and I liked all of the people I had met during the visit. All that was left was to hear the salary and either accept or deny the offer. Only I couldn’t do it. Something wasn’t right. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but when I tried to picture myself in the position, doing the job and living life in that community, something was off. Despite every ounce of common sense crying out within me like that scene toward the end of Revenge of the Sith where Darth Vader screams, “Noooooo!” (only way more dramatic, because that was ridiculous), I called up the pastor and told him I wasn’t the guy for the job. There was a lump in my throat when I spoke, and I had to hold back tears of frustration and guilt.

Actually, the Emporer just told him that none of his new gear is covered by workman's comp.

Someone on the outside looking in might say I was swayed not by some lack of peace, but from the anxiety of starting a new position and creating a home for my family in a new state. They might comment that another position in which I was still a candidate was more appealing and I was holding out for that one. That person might even be partially correct. But the point is that when all was said and done, I believed I had to operate by faith and not reason. Reason alone would have found me taking the job. Faith went beyond it, to the detriment of all common sense and good judgment, and kept me searching.

I still regret turning down the offer. After all, I’m only human. But, if I’m going to truly deny myself for the sake of knowing God in all things, the decisions I make must be made through the motivation of faith, not the ratiocination of mere human circumstance.

#2 – I’m Not Job, and God Doesn’t Audibly Speak to Me

The first part is good, obviously (and don’t think I haven’t wondered at the homonym between the biblical character and the fact that I’m engaged in a “job” search). The second part is hard not to wish for. I’ve actually had absurd thoughts that guys like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, Paul – yes, even Jesus – had it easy. Can you believe that? Easy! As if familial separation, dangerous kings, angelic appearances, disembodied voices, selfish nations, storms, shipwrecks – and to top it off for Jesus, the cross – could ever be considered a walk in the park. And why? Because God actually spoke to them – told them what was up.

"Hey, it's me again. Yeah, I'm gonna need you to climb another mountain."

Then I think of Job’s story, not to mention Jonah’s and Hosea’s and all the rest of those guys I just mentioned, and I realize that the most terrifying thing I can imagine is God speaking to me audibly, in a way I can’t deny or escape. It’s not only because the incontrovertible command of God would expose every inch of my selfishness – it’s because the very paradigm by which I have lived my entire life as a Christian would be instantly burned away. When God speaks audibly, faith evaporates. Sometimes we wish God would just rend the clouds and speak directly to us and justtelluswhatweshoulddopleaseohpleaseohplease. We can even become resentful that God doesn’t cut through the veil and reveal himself, or at least make known that enigmatic thing we call “his will.”

The irrefutable presence of God – the complete invasion of his will into my life – takes away every aspect of my free will, which is the penultimate gift he gives each human being. Think of every voluntary choice you ever made in your life… which is impossible, of course, because the best attempts at a quantifiable answer is upwards of 5000 per day! But let’s say only .5 percent of those actually affect your life in significant ways – that’s 25 a day, which is 175 a week, which is around 750-775 a month, which leads to roughly 9200 significant, life-altering decisions a year. We also know, though, that one seemingly trivial decision can breed thousands, increasing the number of choices we have to make exponentially. I could go on, but blood is already dribbling out of my ears.

Amateur.

For whatever reason, God chose to plant us in a world that is cultivated, for better or for worse, by our decisions. This is the existence we know, and even though it can be hard – even though we are faced with moments where the effect our choices can have can shudder us to our core – we beat on.

#3 – My Hope Must Be in God, Not in a Job

It seems an obvious statement to make, but it has fingers that dig extremely deep.

When I taught high school English, my classes read The Great Gatsby, and we always discussed both the theme of materialism as well as the question of how basic, perhaps even primal, were the characters’ connections with security and stability, and how they were motivated by these connections to do what they did. I cannot help but remember these discussions when I consider how much I and my wife want me to find a job so we can move out of my parents house and establish ourselves in a community – so we can determine what our grocery store will be, how we will arrange our kitchen, decorate the baby’s room, organize our daughter’s toys, etc. These are the things that make a person feel like he is his own person. Call it self-centeredness, call it control, call it concern for stability – we are all guilty of this at one time or another. (Some of us are guilty of it almost every waking moment of every day.)

Regarding my second point, common sense, there seems to be nothing wrong with this. Why should I not be concerned with the welfare and security of my family? What is wrong with hoping for a specific job? With wishing for a home of one’s own? Must every desire for something this side of heaven fall under the category of materialism?

"Really, Jimmy, Two cookies! You're such a hedonist!"

No. And here’s why. If desiring such things makes you feel guilty, this is not the Spirit prompting you to fall back in line. I don’t believe God works that way. Of course, there is a danger in putting one’s hope and trust in a sense of stability or security. If happiness can only be found in gaining or attaining stuff, then you have fallen headlong into materialism. You’ve made possessions and physical comfort your god. I’ve had to guard against this at times during this search – no thirtysomething guy with a wife and kids would rather live as boarders in his parents’ house than have his own place in his own town in his own pace of life. But while I remain extremely thankful for all my parents have done for us during this time, I also have to watch out that my desire for a place does not supersede my desire to know God, to place my hope in him, and to trust his provision above all things. “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty,” claims the writer of Philippians. “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

__

Our faith is being molded every day, whether we recognize it or not. It is being challenged and refreshed and strengthened. When we listen to our lives, as Frederick Buechner encourages, we find there are almost as many lessons as there are choices. Sometimes, it can feel like a war. The strain can be difficult to endure, to keep your head down and your strength up as you face battle after battle.

But, no matter how long they may last, wars eventually end. And for the person who endures, there is peace after.

Absolute Truth and Why Relativism is Scary

Have you ever had an argument with someone only to eventually realize the two of you are arguing the same viewpoint, only from different angles?

Several years ago, I was listening to my pastor preach a passionate, inspiring sermon when a member of the congregation – a woman in her mid-fifties – stood up and began quoting Scripture at the pastor. Not to him or along with him. At him.

It was a sudden interruption – one no one could have seen coming. There I was, sitting contentedly in a pew a few rows in front of her, following my pastor as he carefully analyzed one of Jesus’ more famous sayings, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). My pastor’s sermon was part of a series on the “I am” statements of Jesus in the Gospel of John; this particular passage had spurred him to unpack our suitcase full of assumptions about how a person is saved. My pastor reminded us that while the statement is a clear one, without much room for argument, the one thing Jesus does not include are specifics on how a person comes to the Father through him. In other words, he doesn’t follow the statement up with a directive on the way to properly pray the “Sinner’s prayer” or provide an easy-to-remember acrostic (Accept, Believe, Confess) or formula. Perhaps, intimated my pastor, this means that the “How?” question is not as important as some people make it out to be. Neither, for that matter, are the “When?” and “Where?” questions. What matters is substance – the “What?” and “Why?” questions. Maybe the “How?” is more Jesus’ responsibility than ours.

Apparently, that little bit of wondering was the last straw for this woman sitting behind me. She stood up in front of everyone and began quoting Scripture at the pastor. I’m not sure if she was citing Joel, Acts or Romans, but her bold argument was centered around the promise that “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” That, she said, was how a person was saved.

As calmly as he could, my pastor asked for the woman to sit down. This, after all, was not a church where speaking out during the sermon was considered appropriate, especially in contention. He finished his sermon, and after the service the associate pastor had a talk with the woman in his office (I find it funny that a woman who was known to be a stickler for biblically modeled behavior did not take her grievance to the pastor in private, which is the way the Bible suggests one deals with a disagreement). However, the damage was done. Following her outburst, it was difficult to focus on what the pastor had to say. He eventually affirmed the very doctrine the woman felt she needed to protect, that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven. But that hadn’t even been the focus of the sermon. When he spoke those words, Jesus wasn’t detailing the prerequisites for heavenly membership. He was responding to a questions from a frustrated Thomas regarding how the disciples could, essentially, be with God. How could they know they were on that path?

Jesus’ answer was a simple one, and much the same answer as he typically gave people seeking a meaningful life: “Follow me.” Look to me. The way is me. It’s not a boundary rule, nor a challenge to other religions. It is a simple truth on the lips of the Messiah.

My pastor believed this. So did the woman who felt the need to argue with him. So what was the problem?

I think the woman’s biggest fear that morning was that the pastor’s slow and methodical analysis of Jesus’ word choice – of what he said and what he didn’t say – made her anxious. You go long enough without claiming something certain, without professing allegiance to a hard and fast doctrinal position, and some people get nervous. Because relativism is a real thing. There are a lot of people out there – both in and out of the Church – who are equally uncomfortable with absolutes. When it comes to making a clear distinction between truth and falsehood. It’s much easier to say that one way is good but doesn’t have to be the only way. People will like you more because they feel you aren’t imposing a belief system or way of life upon them. After all, nobody likes to be forced into believing anything. (Is it even belief if it’s forced?)

Unfortunately for the people who shy away from absolutes, Christianity is chock full of them. I still believe the reason why a lot of people walk away from the Church is not the absolutes themselves so much as the way some people insist upon them to the impassivity of another’s questions about faith. However, in a pluralistic society, absolute truth can sometimes seem like retirement. No more room for give and take, no more point to conversation. Time to move to Florida and hang out with the other folks who have made their choice and checked out.

But there is a shining ray of hope in the midst of this embarrassing and insubordinate moment that unfolded on that Sunday morning years ago. Despite the absurdity of one person arguing the same truth that the other was, in due course, affirming, the argument was still there. Alive and in our midst. In both the pastor and woman who interrupted him, there was passion to defend absolute truth. Sure, there are better ways to go about the conversation, but, in hindsight, I’m just glad they considered the conversation important enough to defend at all.

I feel the same. I believe in moral absolutes, and I believe in an overarching absolute truth. But that doesn’t mean I’ve checked out. I want conversation. I want to explore ways in which the truth that I believe can be the same truth that you believe. I’m not sure how it works, exactly, but one thing is for sure: I’m not interested in moving to Florida.

Balloons, Sharp Sticks, and Being Right

Yesterday, I not only had the opportunity to substitute teach a Sunday morning Bible study class, but I also made it back out to the church for an afternoon class on Baptist history. Strange the things you can take away from such humdrum church activities without even knowing it. Despite neither lesson focusing on it, I was left pondering how important it is to some Christians that they be proven right. Do you know what I mean?

Like a lot of things, this is not an exclusively Christian mindset. Religions of all brands and breeds contain their fair share of accuracy wardens, as do atheists and the non-religious philosophers of our day. There are agnostics even who hope their hesitation stems from loyalty to logic rather than complete disregard for it. We want to ensure that our belief system is error-free and precise in all circumstances. Because, if it’s not … if some sharp stick of dissent can easily be poked through the ideological membrane of our system … well, let’s just say we tend to react a lot more like the kid whose balloon has just been popped than the adult whose matured enough to learn that balloons are known to pop from time to time and it’s not the end of the world as we know it, nor the end of balloons as we know it.

"C'mon, Timmy, just let it go. We'll get you another one. They only cost a quarter."

Now, before you assume I’m nitpicking guardianship, I want to be clear I’m not calling out people who simply desire veracity in their beliefs. Who doesn’t? I certainly want the tenets of my faith to hold true. That’s why I believe them, actually – because despite the sticks of criticism that poke at my faith from time to time, I have found that what I believe has never really been popped. Punctured, maybe, but I’m okay with a patchwork faith. The things I believe may come across frowsy, but not as flimsy or fragile as balloons.

I’m talking about the folks who feel an overprotective need to verify not only what they believe, but to grind to mulch any and every stick that might be picked up by a critic. Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about.

In the Baptist History class last night (yeah, I know, I already took an actual semester-long class on Baptist history in seminary, but like any exhausted grad student, I nodded off a couple times, so it doesn’t hurt to have a refresher), we learned about J.R. Graves , the gentleman to whom Landmarkism is attributed – Landmarkism being an absurd (if you’re a supporter of scholarship or even plain,old-fashioned logic) belief in Baptist history that the only true, valid church is a Baptist church, as long as it, of course, adheres to Landmark beliefs, and that Baptists can trace their roots back all the way to John the Baptist.

It's in his name, for crying out loud!

If you grew up Baptist (especially in the South or Midwest), or if you have some familiarity with Baptist practices, you may have encountered the lingering effects of this 19th century controversy when you were told that Catholics are bound for hell, and those Episcopals, Presbyterians and Methodists aren’t far behind. I grew up suspicious of other denominations and it wasn’t until I graduated college and actually started spending time with some young, devout Catholic students that I realized the faultiness of this way of thinking.

The question, of course, is why J.R. Graves would ever feel the need to be so extreme with his rewrite of Baptist history. It’s one thing to take pride in your denominational tradition – it’s quite another to condemn everyone else. I don’t mean to copy Graves’s extremism by offering this analogy, but it stands to reason that if Adolf Hitler had settled for being merely proud of the Aryan race and stopped there, millions of families might not have been destroyed. Sure, people might have thought the little guy with the Charlie Chaplin mustache was a teensy bit racist, but simple pride in one’s race does not a genocidal maniac make. The same thing goes for diehard fans of believer’s baptism.

Though, I'll admit, he's got the mug for it.

It’s when we seek to purify our beliefs to such an extent that we reject any notion of misguidedness or fallacy that we wind up losing touch with the very point of our faith. When a Christian – like J.R. Graves – insists on factual treatment of faith, he becomes his own worse fear. He becomes a contradiction. A person’s faith cannot be based on facts. If it is, it isn’t faith at all, but merely an obsession with proof. When Graves sought to “purify” the Baptist legacy by adding erroneous assumptions about history, as well as severing all lines of participation and mutual respect with other denominations, he was entering into one of the most dangerous forms of escapism that there is.

We may not think we’re as bad as Graves when it comes to arguing for the truth, but as my pastor commented last night, it seems the man’s quest for purity boiled down to that age-old vice known as arrogance; “There’s something about having that secret knowledge that nobody else does,” the pastor reminded us, and he was right. We love to be in-the-know, and, for some twisted reason, being in-the-know feels a lot more exciting if we can look out our stained-glass windows and see all the people who don’t have the same clue.

"Look at those chumps out there, walking around all ignorant and indigo."

In addition to the tenets of my faith, I also believe in something I like to call the Great Conversation. It’s a conversation that all of us can be a part of if we wish, whether we are Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists or whatever way we choose to categorize ourselves. I enter into the Great Conversation when I choose not to build a moat between myself and the rest of the world. When I trust in the strength of my ideological membrane not because it can’t be punctured, but because the only way I will learn how to strengthen it is by accepting that the occasional stick might pierce a weak spot. To be a part of the Great Conversation, we do not have to become relativistic or unitarian (even though all relativists and Unitarians are welcome to join in) – we can hold fast to what we believe. I know our pluralist society praises compromise, but most religious people would agree that there are some aspects of one’s faith that cannot be compromised. However, this doesn’t mean the conversation shouldn’t continue. Sometimes the best discussion that occurs in this Conversation concerns the reasons why some beliefs cannot be compromised. This is how we learn from one another.

No one will ever listen to what you have to say if they don’t think you respect them, or if you show no patience with them, or if you exude suspicion rather than attentiveness. If you find yourself feeling this way, you may have already started backpedaling, stumbling into the trap of escapism into which Graves fell.

As for me, I think it’s high time we lay down our sticks and have a chat.