Death of the Casual… Paisley, Part 9

Sinking the Old Frigate

I fell silent after reading that book, laying, as Job memorably stated, my hand upon my mouth. I stopped the grinding mental machinery of dismissal. I pulled back from friends and from life, and I dug in to find out what the truth was.

Please hear me well on this point: Paisley’s survival did not answer the question of whether Francisco Ayala was right, or whether evolutionary theory was true. I do not believe evolutionary theory because Paisley lived. Nevertheless, her survival put to death any casual approach to fact and fiction on the subject. And in Christianity, we embrace casual approaches to fact and fiction.

Casual? Yes, casual – meaning that we hold views, often with great passion, for which we have not invested any serious labor. We think that our position on evolution is important, but not enough to warrant actually learning about it. By contrast, taking a subject seriously means studying it. It means hearing out all sides. We do not do this. We read books sometimes, but usually to affirm and muscle-up our existing views, and scrupulously chosen from the right sources.

Thus, as jurists of right and wrong, we utterly fail in our duty. We already know what our verdict will be. We listen attentively to the prosecution, and we sleep through the defense. We assert that our church leaders, or our five-minute readings of Genesis 1 and 2, outweigh the thousands of invested lifetimes spent in diligent biology research. Gaze backward over the historical horizon. We are today transacting the same stupidity against Darwin that formerly persecuted Galileo, all for the crime of being correct. It is the same quintessential Christian casualness:

Science has it wrong I know,

For the Bible tells me so.

Friends, if you find yourself already raising a hand to protest the difference between micro and macroevolution, you are not hearing me. If your hand comes up to advocate a more broad-minded creationism, co-opting a theistic evolution, you are also not hearing me. If you offer up a pet scholar from a splinter faction of the biology community, who says we can reject evolution based on his facts, you really and truly are not hearing me.

The death of the casual means to stop raising one’s hand. It is to stop talking altogether. It is to lower your hand and put it over your mouth. It is to stop asking how we can look at this, and to start asking what is the actual-factual?

For myself, knocked to the canvas by a phantom left, which had to be explained to me after a searing whiff of the salts, I trembled in new awareness of my own blindside. How important was the question? Pretty bloody important, if Paisley was even obliquely connected to it.

So the creaky frigate Casual sank away beneath me. Left bobbing and rocking in my own tiny lifeboat, the unbounded ocean loomed large.

Turning More Rocks

I turned over more rocks, only to find leading Christian lights telling me what I did not want to hear:

Truly it can be said that not only biology but medicine would be impossible to understand without the theory of evolution.

These words came from Francis Collins, the ardent Christian head of the Human Genome Project. Like Ayala, Collins explains the many, many reasons we know that evolutionary theory actually is true. As do compatriots like Dennis Venema, Darrell Falk, Alister McGrath and others.

The difference between macro and microevolution? … Mythical.

The proportion of biologists who dispute evolution? … Insignificant.

The evidence supporting it? … Boundless.

Contending for the Actual-Factual

The fire-breather against which I battled had three heads. If evolutionary theory was correct, and I had spent my life denouncing it in vocal terms, then I had a problem with reality (the objective dimension). Secondly, evolutionary development had direct implications regarding a trove of Christian texts and theology, and they must either be squared, or something was false somewhere (the faith dimension). Third and most personally, Paisley was saved by the most advanced medical treatments that we had. That meant there could be no separating the toddling steps of the perfect child before me and a scientific precept I had been taught from childhood to revile (the personal dimension).

On the facts? To a researcher, it was not a difficult call – not even close. The manifold evidences are as solid as one will ever witness in the sciences. Evolution is indeed the actual-factual, and it permeates more than I could have imagined. Ignorance is like that. We have not only been clinging to bad answers, but our very questions are, as Wolfgang Pauli famously quipped, “not even wrong.” Questions like the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.

On faith? Here came a bizarre range of devil’s bargains, offered by my own people, the Christian right… Reject the overall picture and fall back to a dogmatic mantra… Attach yourself to a pet scholar who offers splinter-faction pseudo-answers… If nothing else, just kick the can to the next generation, and insist that perhaps after your lifetime, all the evidence will be undone and reverse itself… And who are our only allies in denial? Muslims. The rest of the results-oriented world is unanimous on the facts, no matter what else they may believe.

But what about the personal?

Retching over the Balcony

Ootp076

Severus Snape

Everything had inverted. It was that point in the story when you realize – you were mistaken about the villain. The character under most suspicion had actually been your ally, and you were in his debt for the benefactor he had thanklessly played.

How can I describe the confusion, the dissonance, and the guilt? I had been reviling a key component of my precious Paisley’s cure. I had been doing it all my life. Now she was healthy again, and I was still condemning it. Worse still, as a homeschooling parent, I was presently ensuring that my children grew up to revile Darwin and his ilk too. They would learn to bite the hand, and they would learn to airbrush the act as one of principle. I felt ill at the realization.

It was to watch someone urinate on Paisley’s hallowed battlefield, in God’s name, and then to realize that the desecrater was me.

Cartoon Love Affair

Soul-searching followed for me, and a good deal of it.

The entire science community had, after all, been trying to tell us Christians about evolution for a very long time. We honestly are without excuse, renown for our belligerence on the subject, and never without that distastefully smug chin lift. Belligerence is a curious thing, enabling us to look down on even our brothers and sisters, should they embrace a Christianity that imbibes the science. Christian biologists who try to tell us? Sell-outs, establishment hacks. Sometimes we more generously dismiss these wayward souls as simply having different presuppositions than we do.

Never mind all that. Why do we do it? What is the epicenter behind the error?

I realized that it was our love of cartoons. The Genesis text is not a science book. It tells the creation story briefly and in large brush strokes. Mirroring this simple tale, believers usually understand evolution only as a rudimentary caricature (a point driven home again and again by conversations during the past year).  Thus, inside the believer’s head, the question boils down to these two grade-school illustrations – a contest between cartoons.

Against the story-book simplicity of this choice, well-meaning scientists come along and muddy the waters with dizzying encyclopedias of extraordinary detail.  The encyclopedias are challenging to understand, and challenge makes us feel insecure. Atop this, the detailed picture seems to tell us that we are less cosmically important than our favorite storybook. We shove the encyclopedias off the table, uphold our sacred story, and burn the caricature. Afterward comes the deep sigh, and the inward smile at cosmic importance which our storybook pinky-swears is true. We covet the warm embrace of the simple and the affirming, selectively tossing out any science that might alter the bottom line.

Then we walk out the door to oppose stem cell research and evolutionary theory – which includes, as it happens, Paisley’s treatment strategy. Based on cartoons.

Good Fortune of Irrelevance

I rewound to the day Paisley went into the hospital. I realized, we could forget the what if of that critical phone call. We could put aside the doctors and nurses. There was an antecedent what if to haunt me:

What if the Christian right had had its way where science was concerned?

Here I do not mean the struggle for a public school toehold of “equal time.” I mean a thoroughgoing theocratic control.  If the universities were actually subject to the guiding compass of the Christian right, and if academic research occurred only with its permission, and if Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory had been banned from exploration and development, what then? Grandfather the treatment strategies out of existence, and tell me where Paisley would be.

This haunt followed not far behind:

What if the doctors had told us they were using Darwinian principles in Paisley’s treatment?

Would we have refused it? Should we have?

The Catholic Church needed almost a century to venture a belated neutrality statement about evolution. The right-wing Christian church in the United States still maintains stalwart opposition. We are lucky that no one in the sciences listens to us, or waits for our permission to make progress. It is good that we are not in charge. It is good that doctors and nurses speak in layman code, keeping our ignorant consciences untroubled at such moments.

Food Stamps

Friends, some of you recommended various anti-evolution books after I left the faith. There seemed to be an assumption that I had somehow not heard the Christian anti-evolution case before. One of you emailed me photographs of a well-pump and a supercomputer, conjoined to a ramshackle argument from design. Some of you have denigrated science in general and evolution in particular. Then came admonitions to remember Paisley, or suggestions that we had forgotten. Meanwhile, stiff headwinds often blasted my suggestions that we should read from beyond the bubble and dispel our glaring ignorance.

I found all of this somewhat like standing in a checkout line, wincing as the customer ahead of me railed against big-government welfare, while paying with food stamps, and refusing to hear of how they actually work.

In any event, I have labored very hard to forbear with such convolutions during the past year, recollecting, with sustained regret, my own past ignorance. I have tried to speak from objective fact. I have tried to keep Paisley out of it all. She is mentioned here and there in my Journey pages. Yet the Journey was an attempt to focus on the actual Bible and science research that led to my change in position. Facts wound up mattering far less than I would have hoped.

The Opposite Bookend

For me, what happened with Paisley did not answer the questions of fact and fiction. I do not believe evolution is true because of Paisley. I did not leave the faith because of Paisley. She was a catalyst, who swept from the table our casual Christian dismissals, and kindled a flame of pure fire to drive my quest. She made it clear that none of this is academic, that life and death could be decided by ignorance, and that I had behaved very shabbily indeed.

I would continue undaunted by the brass-knuckle discoveries that awaited, and march through ten thousand pages of material. Evolution had been only the first subject. My queries would soon ripple outward to investigate everything, which I have already discussed in the Journey.

We now leave evolutionary questions behind. As I said at the beginning, Paisley book-ended my pilgrimage. We slide now to the far end of the shelf, where the questions of miracle, the supernatural, and story must be addressed.

~

[to be continued…]

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Comments

  1. Great post, Matt ! I withheld comment until the end. I too became teary-eyed several times throughout this post. Mostly for Paisley but also for the way I was taught to look at evolution .
    Thanks so much for sharing ! I know it wasn’t easy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow.

    Facts wound up mattering far less than I would have hoped.

    They matter to me, and to many others. But I know you are not addressing us here.

    BTW, who’s the guy pictured with the long dark hair?

    Like

  3. Everything had inverted. It was that point in the story when you realize – you were mistaken about the villain.

    Me too, Matt. Not about evolution, but all kinds of other things.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It was to watch someone urinate on Paisley’s hallowed battlefield, in God’s name, and then to realize that the desecrater was me.

    Powerful!

    There seemed to be an assumption that I had somehow not heard the Christian anti-evolution case before. One of you emailed me photographs of a well-pump and a supercomputer, conjoined to a ramshackle argument from design. Some of you have denigrated science in general and evolution in particular.

    For so long I comforted myself in my ignorance with:

    For it is written:

    “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”[a]

    Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 1 Corinthians 1:19-20

    I didn’t think I needed none of that fancy learnin’. Awesome post, Matt.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. For me, what happened with Paisley did not answer the questions of fact and fiction. I do not believe evolution is true because of Paisley. I did not leave the faith because of Paisley. She was a catalyst, who swept from the table our casual Christian dismissals, and kindled a flame of pure fire to drive my quest. She made it clear that none of this is academic, that life and death could be decided by ignorance, and that I had behaved very shabbily indeed.

    Very awesome post indeed Matt. What we learn about reality can in fact have a huge impact on our lives. As your experience shows it can save the life we have here on earth which is the only one that we know for sure exists. Unfortunately too many people want to focus on a life that likely doesn’t exist, to the detriment of the one that we know does.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Howie. Yes, it is unsettling in the highest degree – you take the most impactful event of your life, when you nearly lost an unspeakable treasure, and then realize that if your beliefs had been in charge, you would have. Mmmm-mmmm. Head shaking follows.

      But there are – unlike in generations of the past – answers out there for those who will look. I am so grateful to live in a day where we know “less and less about more and more,” as Hitchens would say. 🙂

      Like

Michael Seidel, writer

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