The “Residue” of God’s Image
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
I was lucky enough to have the best seat in the house for Krista’s live interview with Robert Wright (in the very front, manning the video cameras), and this was probably my favorite part of the entire conversation. I was fascinated by Wright’s intersection of belief in physics and belief in God, which he sums up in the afterward to The Evolution of God:
"Maybe the most defensible view — of electrons and of God — is to place them somewhere between illusion and imperfect conception."
Reading Wright’s 1988 book, Three Scientists and Their Gods, I saw a role reversal from his conversation with Krista. In 2010, he played the part of the “relentlessly logical” theorist, but in ‘88 he was the questioner who was probing rationalistic scientists like Edward Fredkin and E.O. Wilson with his own challenging questions.
For instance, Wright talks to digital physicist Edward Fredkin about his conception of the universe as a computer. Fredkin seems resistant to any conversation of the theological implications of this idea, but Wright probes him until he gets this response:
“‘I guess what I’m saying is: I don’t have any religious belief. I don’t believe that there is a God. I don’t believe in Christianity or Judaism or anything like that, okay? I’m not an atheist … I’m not an agnostic … I’m just in a simple state. I don’t know what there is or might be. … But on the other hand, what I can say is that it seems likely to me that this particular universe we have is a consequence of something which I would call intelligent.’
'You mean that there's something out there that wanted to get the answer to a question?'
'Yeah. Something that set up the universe to see what would happen? In some way, yes.'”
Wright challenges sociobiologist E. O. Wilson as well, asking:
“‘The knowledge that we are all related to bacteria makes it no easier to swallow the harsh facts of hard work, brief retirement, and death. How can scientific materialism give meaning to our lives?’”
Even though Wilson shares Wright’s (and Krista’s) Southern Baptist upbringing, he seems to have completely avoided the same “residue.” Or at least, almost completely avoided it:
"Still, a funny thing happened a couple of years ago. Harvard was honoring Martin Luther King, Sr., and Reverend King, as part of the festivities, was preaching at the Harvard Memorial Chapel. Wilson, being a southerner, was invited to the service. There was a large turnout. The reverend preached fervently, and the congregation sang richly, and one of the hymns hit home with Wilson — ‘one of the good, old-timey ones that I hadn’t heard since I was a kid.’ Partway through it, E. O. Wilson — scientific materialist, detached empiricist, confirmed Darwinian — started crying.
As if in atonement, he has a perfectly rational explanation. ‘It was tribal,’ he says. ‘It was the feeling that I had been a long way away from the tribe.’”
Are You a Philo Fan?
Colleen Scheck, senior producer
Are you a Philo fan? Robert Wright is, as you can see in the video above.
Wright devotes a couple of chapters in The Evolution of God to exploring the Hellinistic Jewish philosopher’s influence on religious philosophy. Here, Wright illustrates his view that Philo helped give us both a morally and an intellectually modern God:
"…it’s worth taking a look at the ancient Abrahamic thinker who tried supremely to have it both ways: to see divinity abstractly, as a kind of logic running through history, yet to do so in a way that preserved the emotional satisfaction of traditional religion."
My introduction to Philo came through a quote that’s posted on the desk of our managing producer: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle” (a quote apparently often wrongly attributed to Plato or Socrates).
After hearing Wright talk about Philo, I’ve been digging around to learn more about this man who straddled two worlds, and why, though not widely accepted in his time, he holds resonance for ours. Are you a Philo fan?
From Building Blocks to Erector Sets
Shubha Bala, associate producer
"…there are some scientists who say ‘I don’t think electrons really exist.’ It’s useful to think of them as existing. It’s useful to build computers with that image in mind of an electron, but I don’t think they really exist… when other people think of God as a personal thing, that’s as close as you can get given the constraints on human cognition and maybe it’s not something you should apologize for…"
Transcribing Krista’s interview with Robert Wright for next week’s show, I came across this passage, which reminded me of a conversation I had with a Hindu Sanyasi when I was 16. In Hinduism, “God” has different definitions depending on what appeals to you. For example, in my family, I grew up understanding that all the different deities were forms of one personal being. But working in India, I met people who literally believed every deity existed as a separate identity — true polytheism. And this Sanyasi was my first exposure to the idea of God not as a personal being.
He explained it by saying that you have to start in kindergarten, learning simple concepts and forms. I think he believed that many people need rituals and images to understand God, but as their spirits reincarnate (and they “graduate”), they can refine their perception of God towards the truth, just like over time we can understand quantum physics (maybe!).
Manifestations of the Living Earth
Trent Gilliss, online editor
"Why, then, turn to a God who seems to be absent at best and vindictive at worst? Haitians don’t have other options. The country has a long legacy of repression and exploitation; international peacekeepers come and go; the earth no longer provides food; jobs almost don’t exist. Perhaps a God who hides is better than nothing."
The closing paragraph from Pooja Bhatia’s op-ed in today’s NYT courses with the pain of helplessness and suffering brought about by the recent earthquake that decimated this small island country. Bhatia’s questioning of God’s possible vindictive participation, or His absence, in nature’s destruction of human lives is a classic theological question.
Five years ago, the massive tsunamis that killed thousands of people, and displaced thousands more living in the low-lying areas of the South Pacific and Indian Oceans had struck. This question of “Where was God?” was being asked by many. We attempted to get at this issue with our show on the morality of nature — by looking at the history of seismic activity and its impacts through the field of Earth Sciences.
To this day, Jelle de Boer’s account of the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 sticks with me, particularly his assessment of the aftereffects of the event and the musical tradition of fado. You can hear the show in the audio player above (or download here). Obviously, we can’t answer the theodicy question. But, hopefully, these scientific perspectives can both challenge and illuminate such religious questions as you read the latest news in Haiti.
The traditional view of God the Creator is untenable now.
—Professor Ellen van Wolde, an Old Testament scholar at Radboud University in The Netherlands. She claims the first sentence of Genesis is not an accurate translation of the Hebrew verb “bara” in the context of the Bible and other creation stories from Mesopatamia.
Translations of the Bible are debated and challenged all the time. In the case of the Creation story in Genesis, it’s often about the tense of the verb “create” and God’s role in the process that’s up for grabs. In a previous post, I compared three versions:
First, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,
And from Fox’s The Five Books of Moses:
At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth,
And now from the Tanakh:
When God began to create heaven and earth—
She says that the “bara” should not be translated as “to create” but “to spatially separate.” The impact of such a statement challenges the very notion that God created something out of nothing — and that humankind’s understanding of the story has been wrong for thousands of years.
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Darwin and Creation
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
This is the trailer for Creation, a biopic about Charles Darwin that recently made a splash at the Toronto International Film Festival. I noted the movie earlier in September partially because of the debate surrounding it. The film was having trouble finding a U.S. distributor, and its producer Jeremy Thomas stated it was "too controversial for religious America."
The film starts after the death of Darwin’s 10-year-old daughter, Annie, and focuses on the period where he wrote his seminal book on the theory of evolution, On the Origin of Species. According to the film’s synopsis, “Darwin is torn between his love for his deeply religious wife and his own growing belief in a world where God has no place.”
This made me think of Krista’s conversation with Darwin biographer James Moore for our program "Evolution and Wonder." At one point in the interview, Moore says about Darwin:
Always, I believe, until his dying day, at least half of him believed in God. He’d said he deserved to be called an agnostic. But he did make the point later in life that, “When I wrote The Origin of Species, my faith in God was as strong as that of a bishop.”
I’m interested to see how Creation's account of Darwin's life compares to Moore's: does it reflect the same understanding of Darwin and his struggle, or is it a slightly different story?
And, it looks like I won’t have to cross the border to find out. A few weeks ago the film was picked up by Newmarket Films for U.S. distribution. Interestingly enough, Newmarket was also the distributor for The Passion of the Christ — perhaps they’re well-equipped to handle a potentially controversial film.
God Has a Sense of Humor, Too
Krista Tippett, Host
In our interview for next week’s show, the very thoughtful scientist/author Jon Kabat-Zinn has intriguing and provocative things to say about the pressures and possibilities of aligning our “Stone Age minds” with 21st-century digital realities. But he also says: “This is far too serious to take too seriously.”
The most godly people I know have a sense of humor even about the most important things, and I’m convinced God does too. And that is my far too serious justification for posting two very funny Facebook takes on Passover and Easter, the holiest of holidays being observed simultaneously this week. Be blessed — and enjoy.