I will be at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church this Sunday, the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany. The Scriptures were Deuteronomy 18: 15 – 20, 1 Corinthians 8:1 -13, and Mark 1: 21 – 28; the service starts at 10 and you are welcome to attend.
This was my contribution for the 2009 Clergy Letter Project. (Updated on 14 February 2011)
When I started thinking about this message, it was in the context of what was going on in Texas. I watch what goes on down there for a number of reasons. First, I have lived in Texas for two distinctive times in my life. Second, what happens in Texas often has a very definitive impact on what happens in the other states.
I have found growing up as I have in so many different states that many people do not have an understanding of what goes on outside the boundaries of their own state. They may assume certain things about people that aren’t necessarily true and they may assume that things are done in other states just like they are done in their own home state.
We might have saved ourselves a lot of grief over the past eight years if more people had known that the governor of Texas is not the most politically powerful position in the state. In the words of former Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, the Texas governorship is the weakest in the country (see As Alaska governor, Palin has more power than Bush in Texas). To quote Molly Ivins, one of my favorite writers,
The single most common misconception about George W is that he has been running a large state for the past six years. Texas has what is known in political science circles as “the weak-governor system.” You may think this is just a Texas brag, but our weak-governor system is a lot weaker than anybody else’s. Although the governor does have the power to call out the militia in case of an Indian uprising, by constitutional arrangement, the governor of Texas is actually the fifth most powerful statewide office: behind lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller, and land commissioner but ahead of agriculture commissioner and railroad commissioner. Which is not to say it’s a piddly office. For one thing, it’s a bully pulpit. Although truly effective governors are rare in Texas history, a few have made deep impressions and major changes. Besides, people think you’re important if you’re the governor and in politics, perception rules.(Shrub, The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose)
But we assume that governors of the various states all work in much the same way and we figure that if one can govern one state, then they can govern a country.
But it is in terms of education that we need to know what is happening in Texas (and California as well). Because of their size and the number of textbooks used in those two states, these two states have an extraordinary larger say in the development of textbooks used in elementary, middle, junior high and high schools throughout the whole country. Publishers are reluctant to change the content of a textbook if such changes are not accepted in either state. In effect, the State Boards of Education in California and Texas are deciding the textbook policies of the other forty-eight states. It is possible that the other states may choose to select another textbook but if it is not on the California or Texas list, it is not likely to be marketed very heavily.
Presently, the Texas Board is debating whether to change a line in the state science curriculum requiring students to critique all scientific theories and to explore the “strengths and weaknesses” of each. Now, this line has been in the official curriculum for the past twenty years and most teachers have ignored it.
And to that end, there is an attempt this year to revise the curriculum by dropping those words and urging students to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using “empirical evidence.” (“In Texas, a Line in the Curriculum Revives Evolution Debate”) While this may seem like a meaningless debate about a few words in a state document that will get put in a file in a cabinet in an office somewhere, it is more than that. It is the tip of an argument that has occupied the minds of scientists and theologians for most of the past 150 years.
Social conservatives want scientific theories to be examined for their strengths and weaknesses so that they can attack Darwin’s theory of evolution. But, in making this argument, they are ignoring the basis upon which science operates and how theories are developed.
By definition, a theory is the best explanation for what has been observed and what might happen next. (See “The Processes of Science”) Theories are developed from observation and evidence; you cannot develop a plausible theory if you do not have the evidence and you cannot fiddle with the evidence in order to fit a theory (the problems with the orbits of the planets in terms of geo-centric solar system show this). What present social conservatives are trying to do is find a way to introduce “intelligent design” as a plausible and acceptable theory for the creation of life on this planet. But to make their theory work, they must either change the processes of science and eliminate the need for empirical evidence or suggest that the evidence can be changed to fit the theory.
The problem is that there are some teachers who teach theories as if they were facts and are often not willing to accept alternative ideas in their classroom. Critics of social conservatives and religious fundamentalists tend to take this refusal as some sort of academic totalitarianism. But the evidence suggests that the reason why many teachers teach evolution as a fact, impervious to change or discussion, is because they do not know what a theory is and are only following a discussion outlined for them in the textbook. Their refusal to hear alternative ideas is more a reflection of their own lack of knowledge and a rather inflexible curriculum. Right now, most teachers teach from the textbook because the textbook drives the tests and the tests are the items that determine the success of the teacher and the school system. And because society has stated that teachers and school systems are accountable for what the students learn and such accountability will be measured through tests, if it is not on the test or in the textbook, it will not be taught.
But it should be also pointed out that many of the secular fundamentalists who cry out against the influence of the sectarian fundamentalists in schools don’t have much in the way going for them either. They see religion in terms of the church that tried Galileo for the supposedly heretical belief that the Sun was the center of the solar system. These modern day secular fundamentalists see religion as only superstition and evidence of an unknowing society. They would rather we place our belief in rational thought and the truth of empirical evidence. But in doing so, they have created their own religion, the religion of scientism.
Rabbi Michael Lerner put it this way
“Science, however, is not the same as scientism — the belief that the only things that are real or can be known are those that can be empirically observed and measured. As a religious person, I don’t rely on science to tell me what is right and wrong or what love means or why my life is important. I understand that such questions cannot be answered through empirical observations. Claims about God, ethics, beauty and any other face of human experience that is not subject to empirical verification — all these spiritual dimensions of life — are dismissed by the ‘scientistic’ worldview as inherently unknowable and hence meaningless.”
“Scientism thus extends far beyond an understanding and appreciation of the role of science in society. It has become the religion of the secular consciousness. Why do I say it’s a religion? Because it is a belief system that has no more scientific foundation than any other belief system. The view that that which is real and knowable is that which can be empirically verified or measured is a view that itself cannot be empirically measured or verified and thus by its own criterion is unreal or unknowable. It is a religious belief system with powerful adherents. Spiritual progressives, therefore, insist on the importance of distinguishing between our strong support for science and our opposition to scientism. (http://www.thenation.com/doc/20060424/lerner)
We live in a world where we hear differing voices of truth, each insisting that the version of the truth is the only truth and all other versions are false. Those who claim to speak the truth refuse to acknowledge that others may see the truth as well and their refusal to allow dissent is as much a form of totalitarianism as they claim the opposition to be.
Dennis Overbye, in response to President Obama’s inaugural address (“Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy”), argued that science cannot operate in a dictatorship. Neither can religion. For both science and religion to survive, there must be an environment that fosters questions and free thought. If one’s belief cannot exist in such an environment, then it is probably not a very good belief system. Countless times in the Gospels, we read of how the authorities would not challenge Jesus for fear that He would show the weakness of their positions and thoughts.
Moses, in the passage from Deuteronomy for today, warns us about prophets who presume to speak for God when they are really speaking for themselves. The test of a true prophet, one who speaks for God, will come through the fulfillment of the prophet’s words, not through intellectual foresight masquerading as prophecy or coincidental fulfillment of the prediction.
And the fulfillment of the prophets was seen in the words, deeds, and actions of Jesus. When He began His mission, he brought a new vision into the world, one that questioned the voices of the establishment that had for so long controlled and dominated the people. Jesus challenged the people to see the truth for themselves. And as Mark told us in the Gospel reading for today, the very nature in which Jesus taught underscored the authority of His Word.
We live in a world of many voices, each claiming to tell us the truth. But the truth is a complex thing, not easily told and not easily learned. If our world is to be a world of either faith or reason and not both, then it will be an incomplete world and our knowledge of the truth will be limited and incomplete as well.
It is clear that this incompleteness is having a profound impact on our lives, far beyond a few days in a high school biology class. We are faced with problems of hunger, illness, violence, and repression both in this country and across the world. We seek new ideas but can only express old ones. We seek the answers to our problems in the past because we are more comfortable looking to the past and seeing where we have been than we are looking into the future and imaging where we could go.
As Jim Wallis noted (“The Wrong Question”) the crisis that we are in is not just a crisis of the economy or politics but a crisis of values. Shall we simply try to use the old ways and go back to business as usual or shall we try to find a way to avoid repeating the problems all over again sometime in the next generation? Michael Lerner put it this way,
[We need] to embrace a “new bottom line” in which corporations, social practices, government policies and individual behaviors are judged rational, efficient or productive not only if they maximize money or power, but also to the extent that they maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity, ethical and ecological sensitivity, enhance our capacity to treat others as embodiments of the sacred and to respond with awe, wonder, and radical amazement at the grandeur of the universe. (“Verse and Voice” for 30 January 2009)
It is time that we begin using both our faith and reason to find the truth and to use the truth in the way it was meant to be used.
Our age abounds in information and technology, but it lacks godly conscience, Christ-like compassion, and Spirit-enabled commitment, the traits of our Methodist heritage. It can be said that the early Methodist church in England had an impact on the social condition of the day. The key to that early church’s influence was found in the traits of conscience, compassion and commitment.
If we are to be faithful to our age, then we must bring the riches of our heritage to our social responsibility, using what ever tools our age affords us that have moral integrity. The in-groups of our culture will not always approve of our agendas or our choice of methods. For that we will suffer their censure, as did Jesus in His day and Wesley in his. Yet both served many well by serving God most of all. That is what faithfulness to one’s age meant then, and it is what it means today. (”John Wesley, the Methodists, and Social Reform In England, Luke Keefer”)
On that night in the Upper Room some two thousand years ago, twelve disciples gathered with their friends, their families, and their teacher to celebrate the traditional Passover meal. It was a meal framed in the truth of the past but it was a meal that would herald the truth of the future.
We gather together this day knowing the truth of that meal. We know that Jesus spoke the truth and was the truth and that his death on the cross freed us from slavery to sin and death.
And just as we know the truth through Christ, so too will others find the truth through what we say and do. When Christ spoke to us some two thousand years ago, he spoke of a hope, a promise, and a truth that was missing in the lives of the people. We can choose to be Christ’s voice in this world or we can let others be the voice. What shall it be?