Excerpt from a Theological Thread

In the beginning was a post by Andrew Sullivan on The Daily Beast: “The Origin of Sin Not Species,” which begins:

My own view is that there can be no conflict between eternal truth and empirical facts, because God is without error. And so the Genesis story is not disproven by Darwin; Darwin actually helps us understand its deeper spiritual, metaphorical truth.

Sullivan continues on in this bafflegabulous vein, attempting to weave Darwinian evolutionary theory and the Judeo-Christian creation myth into a single glorious tapestry. (He tried this in a conversation with Sam Harris a few years back and—in my opinion—failed.)

And he concludes,

One day, Christianity will see science as the wondrous gift it is, rather than as a threat to a cultural neurosis masquerading as faith.

My friend W sent me a copy of his response to Andrew’s post, and I responded to his response, as follows:

I imagine when Andrew starts going on about the perfection of the Godhead and related matters, many of his readers scroll down to the next post, hoping for one of his wonderful “Mental Health Breaks.” I am pleased that he sees science as a gift and not a threat, but I wish someone would introduce him to some of the science of evolutionary psychology (EP). He might find it far more satisfying, wondrous, and inspiring than these foundational myths, as beautiful as they sometimes are. For one thing, EP possesses what biblical hermeneutics notoriously lacks, i.e., method, rigor, internal coherence, and a relatively high degree of consensus. It can be studied in exquisitely sequenced and integrated college courses without provoking lawsuits and schisms. Instead of beginning sentences with, “My own view is…” (Andrew’s second sentence), professors of EP start with, e.g., “The data show…” or “There is widespread agreement based on available evidence that…” EP is cumulative, collaborative, and objective rather than fissiparous, dispersed, contentious, and subjective. Of course scientists quarrel among themselves, sometimes viciously attack each other and lose all sense of objectivity. But the scientific method sooner or later rinses away the blood and sweat while fresh talent or cooler heads cull through the debris to uncover the scattered gems. And, as in mineralogy, the gems can be conclusively identified as such and will be universally recognized (at least among mineralogists) for what they are. No quibbling about whether something is trash or treasure. The only way any such internal cohesion can be achieved in religion is by authoritarian measures. Fiats. Directives. Catechisms. Encyclicals.

What you (a lapsed Catholic) and Andrew (a disaffected but loyal Catholic) are participating in and exchanging is the kind of “lived religion” that Winnifred Sullivan described in the book that I reviewed yesterday. Religion of the institutional, hierarchical, and authoritarian variety—the kind of religion that just tells you who God is and that’s that—has been slowly evaporating since the Reformation, and nearly all Christians, including Catholics, are now protestant (That’s “protestant” with a small “p”)—i.e., their religion is much more personal, lived, individual, and unorthodox than would have been possible even a hundred or so years ago in this country and elsewhere. We are even beginning to see this disconnect between religious authority and folk religion in Muslim societies, and that’s why it’s so unfair to judge all Muslims by what the 9/11 hijackers did.

Andrew is still basically very faithful, isn’t he? But not so faithful to church hierarchy. He seems to have a strong belief in God based on personal experience, and he doesn’t look to anyone else—least of all a council of elders or a body of doctrinal “experts”—to elucidate the mysteries of faith for him. He seems to thrive on the “do-it-yourself” ethic as applied to the spiritual quest. I would say you and Andrew have these approaches in common—the creative personal quest and the suspicion of authority—but you (W) have gone much farther into the dark night of the soul, perhaps, than Andrew, and, though you still profess to believe in God, you’re no longer sure who He is or even whether He’s good and perfect. Andrew doesn’t doubt these things.

Some of what you say suggests you’ve still got a toe-hold in Andrew’s kind of faith. (“I’m probably in enough trouble already,” you write. With whom? A just and perfect God?) To doubt God’s inerrancy is, in a way, to doubt God altogether, and I wonder if your early upbringing did not permanently imbue you with a horror of apostasy and of backsliding. Elsewhere you write about your “spiritual decay,” as if approaching God without a mediator were a symptom of degeneracy. I think you have things backwards. You’re framing things the way you were taught to in your early religious education. But the way forward is not the way back. The sisters had it all wrong, and you have been spiritually growing during all these years when you thought you were in decline. They were ossified. You are alive.

I loved your quotations, especially the one from George Carlin*, which you sent me some time ago. Yes, another lapsed Catholic. And you are right not to embrace his nihilism (not fully, at least). It’s neither practical nor useful in getting through life unless you’ve got a phenomenal sense of humor to counterbalance it.

*Here’s the George Carlin quote from W’s response to Sullivan:

“….For centuries now, man has done everything he can to destroy, defile, and interfere with nature: clear-cutting forests, strip-mining mountains, poisoning the atmosphere, over-fishing the oceans, polluting the rivers and lakes, destroying wetlands and aquifers… so when nature strikes back, and smacks him on the head and kicks him in the nuts, I enjoy that. I have absolutely no sympathy for human beings whatsoever. None. And no matter what kind of problem humans are facing, whether it’s natural or man-made, I always hope it gets worse.  I think we’re already ‘circling the drain’ as a species, and I’d love to see the circles get a little faster and a little shorter.” 
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