The Past Can Never Be Our Future


A couple of things about this piece – I am posting this on Boy Scout Sunday, which has a special meaning for me.  This is also Evolution Weekend, the celebration of Charles Darwin’s birth (see Evolution Weekend for a list of my posts.) That this is the same weekend as Boy Scout Sunday is also of special significance for me.

Please note that this post will not be a debate on “nature versus nurture.”  But if we are to have a vision for our future, we must first understand our past; I know it is a cliché but one must remember what the poet and philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (“Reason in Common Sense”, p. 284, volume 1 of The Life of Reason).

The other day I watching the last part of a show on Public Television dealing with genealogy and DNA.  This, coupled with some other shows that I have watched on this topic and similar television stations, prompted the following thoughts.

First, if you have your DNA tested, you will be surprised by the results.  Because, as it turns out, our DNA contains elements of the past that we would have never imagined.  For example, many people with European backgrounds will be surprised to know that some 20% of their DNA is from Neanderthals (At least 20% of Neanderthal DNA Is in Humans).  This research points out, that genetically, we are a diverse population.  And this will be very disturbing for some people because the purest strands of DNA, the ones with the least number of sources come from Africa.  As I said, some people will have problems processing that tidbit of information.

Now, if it were affordable, I would like to take advantage of that testing, if for no other reason than to prove or disprove some thoughts about my own heritage and ancestry.

When you look at my family tree, there are four branches.  The most dominant one is probably the one that extends back to Germany in the 16th century.  It would appear from the records that were discovered that constructed this branch that we, as a family, may have known Martin Luther personally for the records indicated that some twelve of my ancestors were or are Lutheran ministers.  Perhaps it was this hidden genealogy that played a part in my choosing to be involved in lay ministry through the United Methodist Church.

But I came to this ministry through the Evangelical United Brethren Church instead of the Lutheran Church.  And even though there is a shared German heritage in these denominations, there are those in the Lutheran Church who would view me as something of heretic for choosing a different path.  But that, as you will see in the coming paragraphs, is perhaps one marker of my life today.

The other dominant, though shorter, branch on the family tree leads to the hills and hollows of Appalachia.  I don’t know as much about this branch as I do the German branch but the signs on this second branch say that I am of the Scotch-Irish tradition.

The Scotch-Irish of America are among those whose families moved from Scotland to Ireland because English authorities encouraged Scottish families to move to Ireland, in part because of conditions in Scotland and in part because the English authorities wanted more of a presence in Ireland.  Later, the English authorities decided that to be in a position of authority one had to be a member of the Anglican Church, which many of those Scots living in Ireland were not.  From this began the move to America, a move to escape religious persecution where a government felt it had the right to tell others how and what to believe.  And again, I can see in my past another strain of rebellion.

I would like to write more about the other two branches of this tree but those branches end rather abruptly, clothed in a seemingly impenetrable darkness.  It may be with modern technology and perseverance along with society’s penchant for record keeping that this darkness can be removed and that my siblings and cousin will come to know more about what is for the moment, “familia incognito”.

And while there may be a genealogical basis for my rebellious streak, one can also become a rebel despite one’s genetics or family history just as easily.  And in fact, it is probably easier to do it than one might think (see, for example, “I Am a Southern-born Evangelical Christian!  What Are You?”

My choice to become a member of the Evangelical United Brethren church was not so that my ancestors could call me a heretic; rather, it was a choice of convenience since 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church of Aurora, Colorado (now the 1st United Methodist Church of Aurora) was the closest church to where I lived and it fit into the pattern of church attendance my family followed at that time.

My choice to enter lay ministry of the United Methodist Church was made before I knew of my family’s ministerial history.  Perhaps the only part of my own past that directly influenced the path that I would walk was the decision in the summer of 1966 to become a chemistry major at Northeast Missouri State Teachers College (now Truman State University).  (This, by the way, was also an unconscious act of rebellion because it did not fit the pattern that my father would have preferred; but that is for another time and place.)

The point must be made, and I feel that this is true for everyone, it is not necessarily one’s past that determines one’s future.  The Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “No man steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

When you look at the river of time, you see a changing image; one that is not fixed in the past.  But what you see can determine what you do.

I grew up at a time of great creativity.  The Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik spurred a demand for increased mathematics and science education.  As I noted in “Liberal Arts and Science Education in the 21st Century”, there was development of curriculum materials that focused on experimentation, rather than the traditional method of rote memorization.  It was a process that required the development of higher-level thinking skills.

653px-bloomscognitivedomainFigure 1 – Categories in the cognitive domain (Bloom’s Taxonomy) – Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001

And alongside this change in how science and mathematics were being taught came a similar expansion of what I shall call the creativity aspect of social relations.  No longer was there an acceptance of the traditional social status quo but a demand for an explanation of why people were treated equally in a world which proclaimed equality was the norm.  (Or as George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm, “while all are equal, some are more equal than others.”)

I know that my questioning of Southern traditions began when I could see differences in the ways schools operated during the period from 1962 to 1966 when I moved from Alabama to Colorado to Missouri to Tennessee.

In 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy sought the Democratic Party’s nomination to be President of the United States.  Throughout that campaign, he used variations on the following George Bernard Shaw quote,

“You see things; and you will say, “Why?”  But I dream things that never were; and I say, “Why not?”

And in questioning some of those traditions, I began, in my own way, to ask “Why?” and “Why not?”

There are those today who would rather we not ask why but to simply take their word as the final authority on the matter, seemingly in both science and faith.

It should be noted that the opposition to Darwin’s theory of evolution is relatively modern.  At best, it arose because religious authorities, having accepted the primacy of the Bible, could not accepted a reasoned and developed idea about how life evolved on this planet.  But on at least one occasion in His ministry, Jesus told those around him to look at what they saw.  If we are not to look around us at the world in which we live, how will we ever be able to make this a better place?

And while many will say that it was the Catholic Church that was opposed to Galileo’s depiction of the cosmos (based on what he had observed), it was the academic establishment who opposed his ideas, simply because they were counter to what they were teaching.  This academic establishment pushed religious authorities to declare Galileo a heretic because that was the easiest way to get him out of the way.

It should also be noted that the notion of the “Big Bang”, confirmed by physical observations, was initially opposed by the scientific community because it was like the Creation story in Genesis.

If we are not teaching our children how to think and evaluate, how then can we even begin to envision the future?  And I am fully aware that in doing so, we are encouraging our children to think independently and without our input.  And this causes great concern for some because it brings into question what they have been teaching their children all these years.

My only response to this is that if you have been teaching your children through strict adherence to a set of guidelines and without explanation, you had better be willing to accept defiance and rebellion.  And you had better begin questioning just what it is that you believe.  Is your faith and belief system strong enough to withstand questioning?

My understanding of evolution and the “Big Bang” only enhances my belief in God, for when I see the wonders of His work, I can only begin to wonder how it all took place.  And, as it is written in Genesis, I was created in God’s image, then I was created to be a questioning and inquisitive individual.

I look at my heritage with an understanding that is where I come from.  But my heritage can never tell me where I am going.  Nothing from our past or our present can give us any insight into what our future will hold.  But it is what we do today that will allow there to be a future.

We must be working for a better understanding of the world around us, for a better understanding of the other people with whom we share this world, and for a better understanding of how we came to be on this planet.

The future will always be the last “great unknown” and getting there will not be easy but, with the tools and abilities that we have been given, it ought to be fun.

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“It’s About Commitment”


These are my thoughts for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Deuteronomy 30: 15 – 20, 1 Corinthians 3: 1 – 19, and Matthew 5: 21 -37.

This is also Boy Scout Sunday and Evolution Sunday. Evolution Sunday is a project of the Clergy Letter Project; this will be the third year that I have participated in this project (see “The Differing Voices of Truth” and “That Transforming Moment”).

Now, I have to first begin with that same thought that John Meunier had last Tuesday (“Laity Lectionary Blogging – Mt 5: 21 – 37”). How do you write about murder and divorce, the two main topics of the Gospel reading? Those that know me that the latter of the two is especially uncomfortable for me as well. But when I looked at what Paul wrote to the Corinthians and I considered what was being said in Deuteronomy, I saw a theme of commitment.

The three scriptures spoke to me of a commitment, a commitment to know who I am and a commitment to know something about the world in which we all live. It is a commitment to show and lead others so that they can discover who they are and know more about where they live.

Sadly, there are many people who do not wish to know more about the world in which they live. They have no desire to seek the world beyond the horizon nor do they want to know anything about what may be on the other side of the road.

It would seem to me that this was an issue that Paul was facing when he wrote to the Corinthians. It would seem that they, the Corinthians, were quite comfortable with letting someone else do the work, of accepting Christ as their Savior but then not doing anything once that was done. We have that same mentality in our world today. We basically let others tell us what to think and we have no desire to determine if what we are being told has any degree of truth to it. As we watched the developments in Egypt over the past two weeks, we also heard many people warn us that great danger will come out of all this.

And as I read the words of Paul, I read Paul literally saying that it was time for each of those who heard his words to begin doing the work. And doing it at a level far beyond what we might do on our own. To reach such higher levels or to meet higher expectations means that we must be committed to the task.

If we say that we are Christian, then we are saying, at the least, that we are committed to walking a path through life with Christ. But do our words echo that same commitment? Over the past few weeks, I have talked about the feeding ministry at my home church and how some members of that church are resentful or angry that those that they feel are lesser than them are allowed in “their” church. But it is interesting to see some of those who come to the ministry and feel that they are somehow entitled to take all they wish, knowing that there are others who will not receive anything because of their greediness but seeming to not care. Do we turn away those who abuse the system? We have made a commitment in the feeding ministry to not turn away anyone; we do not ask that you meet some sort of criteria. But we have decided that we will, as it were, call their bluff, to point out that they have received their fair share and that others have the same right. If they get angry, so be it. Their poverty does not grant them the right to expect more just as the relative wealth of others does not grant them the right to deny as well.

What is expected is that each person does what Jesus calls us to do in the Gospel reading today, make sure that what we say and what we do are consistent. If our lives need to change, then now is the time to make that change. There is a new land on the other side of the horizon, the Promised Land of the Israelites. But one cannot, as the writer of Deuteronomy noted, survive in that land unless one is willing to make the necessary changes in one’s life.

I will always acknowledge that my life changed when I made the decision in 1963 to pursue the God and Country Award while I was a Boy Scout. And I realize that there was a time in my life where I did not keep the commitment that reaching that goal meant. I saw it in my life and I knew that I had to make a change.

Similarly, I made a commitment to a life of searching for truth when I told Wray Rieger that I would major in chemistry when I began my studies at Truman State University. No one told me that one could not follow Christ and also be a student of Robert Boyle or Joseph Priestly (though I didn’t know that I would walk such a path at that time – see my notes on Boyle and Priestly in “A Dialogue of Science and Faith”).

And just as Boyle and Priestly were determined to understand what it was that God did with this universe, I find myself amazed by the wonders as well. And I know that God has given me the ability and the opportunity to delve deeper into that realm. Am I to say that is beyond my vision?

There are those who will tell me that I must; that I must choose one path over the other. It always strikes me that when someone tells me this, they are trying to lead my life for me and they have no desire that I understand the truth for myself. The one thing Paul wanted us to do was see the truth for ourselves and not rely on what he or others might say.

We stand at the beginning of a new century, just as the Israelites stood on the banks of the River Jordan so many thousand years ago. We can, if we desire, stay where we are, just as those who stared at the Promised Land did. But time will not stop for us, no matter how hard we try and we must make a decision.

Shall we be committed to a life in Christ? Shall we accept the idea that this commitment requires great things from us? We do not have to see beyond the horizon but to not do so will mean death. If we commit our lives to Christ, we can see beyond the horizon and we can find ways to get to the land beyond the horizon.

Our decision to follow Christ means finding the truth, of understanding who we are and where we are in this universe. It is an exploration of the depth of one’s soul and the width of one’s world. To decide not to follow Christ is to say that one wants a very small world. To make the commitment opens the world and that is what we are invited to do today.