These are my thoughts for Transfiguration Sunday, 14 February 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 34: 29 – 34, 2 Corinthians 3: 12 – 4: 2, and Luke 9: 28 – 36 (37 – 43a).
There is a certain degree of significance in this weekend for me. In addition to this being Transfiguration Sunday, it is also Boy Scout Sunday and, with February 12 being the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth in 1809, Evolution Weekend. To quote from “The Clergy Letter Project” web page,
Evolution Weekend is an opportunity for serious discussion and reflection on the relationship between religion and science. One important goal is to elevate the quality of the discussion on this critical topic – to move beyond sound bites. A second critical goal is to demonstrate that religious people from many faiths and locations understand that evolution is sound science and poses no problems for their faith. Finally, as with The Clergy Letters themselves, which have now been signed by more than 13,000 members of the clergy in the United States, Evolution Weekend makes it clear that those claiming that people must choose between religion and science are creating a false dichotomy.
There are those who find my being both a chemist and a lay speaker mutually incompatible. As I have mentioned before, I find it disturbing that many in this country feel that you can be one or the other but not both. This, I also find alarming and frightening. For it speaks to a world where one’s thought is limited and controlled. To me, the topic of evolution and what it means in the context of both faith and religion is about controlling; controlling what one believes and how one believes.
As a chemist I need not, I suppose, be concerned with the issue of teaching evolution in our schools. But as a science educator and as a parent and grandparent, I find any attempt to limit the discussion of science in the classroom an alarming and frightening proposition. I also believe that such limitations come about from a lack of knowledge and an unwillingness to seek answers to questions that are often beyond comprehension.
Too many people, I fear, take their rudimentary knowledge about their faith and the world around them as the limit to what they can and cannot know. But to do so is to limit what God can be for each of us and what we are meant to be.
We are presented with a society in which our individuality is determined by our conformity and acceptance of societal standards. We are told that we can be a person of faith but then we are told what a person of faith is supposed to be; we are not allowed to find out for ourselves. We are told that we can be a person of reason but, again, we are told what a person of reason is supposed to be. We are told that we can be one or the other but not both. We are told by those whose faith and ability to reason is limited by that veil that covers their eyes and mind and whose vision of the world is cloudy at best that we must limit who we are and what we can be.
But there comes a time when there are opportunities to push aside that veil and seek what lies beyond, to see new visions from the mountaintop and pursue them wherever they may lead.
When I was twelve, I heard the call to seek God. Three years later, I would again hear the call, this time to seek a better understanding of this world. I would answer the call to seek God by earning the God and Country award in the Boy Scouts. In the summer of 1966, I would begin the journey that would ultimately lead to my doctorate (though I had no idea then that it would) by entering the Honors Program at Northeast Missouri State Teachers College (now Truman State University).
Were it not for my involvement in the Boy Scouts when I was growing up, I doubt very seriously that I would have even contemplated, let alone begun, this particular ministry. For it was my confirmation class and my study for the God and Country award that provided the foundation in faith that would enable me to pursue an active lay speaking career in the United Methodist Church. The skills learned as a Scout, both in earning the God and Country award and otherwise, have served me well over the years.
Besides giving me the opportunity to build a foundation for my own faith, the Scouting program also gave me an appreciation for the world around me. I am not by any sort of standard an environmentalist but that doesn’t mean that I believe that we can do what we want with this planet and its resources. I was taught to leave the places where I had been better than they were when I got there; I was taught to carry out my trash and not just bury it somewhere so that it wouldn’t disturb others. I wish I could say that this appreciation for the environment was universal but it appears to me that we as a society and as a civilization are bound and determined to leave this world trashed and abandoned.
It isn’t that we deliberately litter this world but we definitely don’t show much consideration for the earth on which we live. We still cling to the idea that, given enough time, the environment somehow will correct itself. At least we don’t have any rivers catching fire like they did forty years ago (“Cuyahoga River Fire”). But when we run out of clean air and clean water and our land has outlived its fertility, we will wonder what happened.
I truly believe that any discussion of the environment must also include a discussion about climate change. But this is difficult to do when the discussion is dominated by a vocal minority that refuses to accept the notion that mankind is screwing up the environment They have taken God’s commandment to be good stewards of this earth to mean that they can do anything they want and not expect to pay the cost of such blind ignorance.
This vocal minority will tell you that there is ample coal and oil to meet this planet’s energy needs and that we need not seek alternative energy resources but simply drill for more oil and mine more coal. It is of little consequence to them that the burning of more and more fossil fuels adds more CO2 to the atmosphere. To them, such statements are merely part of a myth perpetuated by liberals who have a grievance against the growth of business and prosperity.
But can we keep growing? Is prosperity limitless? Or are their limits to what we can and cannot do? Is it possible that human greed, driven by ignorance, is the real problem in this world today?
There is a nuclear power plant in the region where I live and its operating license is due to expire in 2012. The plant owners want to renew the license for another 20 years but there are a number of groups and individuals who want the plant shut down, not at the end of the license, but right now.
There is a problem with the various nuclear reactors that are in this country today but it is not terrorism; rather the major problem is ignorance and complacency. After a certain period of time, the age of the plant comes into play and this particular plant is definitely old. And while that is a problem, it is not the whole problem.
You see, there is a small problem with a leak coming from an underground pipe. It is a water leak but it is water contaminated with tritium, the radioactive isotope of hydrogen. It is a by-product of the process but it is not supposed to “leave the building”.
First, the plant owners said there wasn’t an underground pipe but now they have acknowledged that there are such pipes but, apparently, they aren’t sure where these pipes are.
To me, all of this is not a problem with nuclear energy; it is a problem with humans and the desire of humans, especially in business, to cut corners and shave expenses. The pipes weren’t supposed to be there in the first place but the government’s regulating agencies didn’t catch the error because they have too many places to regulate and not enough people to do the regulating. Of course, some people actually believe that the government shouldn’t be regulating such industries but rather should let the industries regulate themselves; after all, they know what’s best, right?
And while there is a threat to the water supply, the issue is no longer about that threat; it is that this particular company doesn’t have the trust of the people; they lied about the leak and the pipes and no one is going to believe them about anything.
Why, we ask, would a company do this; why would any company try to get by with shoddy workmanship, sloppy quality control, and an arrogance that they can do anything they want and the public will accept it for economic and national security reasons? Because we, the people of this country, let them!
Perhaps the world is changing too fast technologically for most of us; perhaps we are just too lazy and don’t want to learn. Whatever the reason, we see the world through a veil and the images that we see are cloudy and dim. And rather than lift the veil and see the world clearly, we gladly let others tell us what to see and what to do.
We are fast approaching a point where our own ignorance will destroy us. This company that I described wouldn’t have tried to do what it did and is doing unless it thought it could get away with it. While I was preparing this piece, I have been following a debate on the CHEMED list about climate change. But it is no longer a debate about climate change; it is a debate about the validity of the data, caused in part because evidence has arisen that some individuals have tried to tamper with the data, not show all the data, or prevented all the data from being presented. It is not a debate about what is happening; it is a debate about people.
It is a nasty debate that no one will win. It is symptomatic of our society that when we no longer debate the issue, we debate and debase the people. And we do that because we are essentially, and excuse me for being blunt, ignorant and unwilling to learn.
Learning is a transforming moment in our lives; when we learn something, it is like the veil has been pulled from our eyes and we can see what is happening. We have all had that moment, a moment when a difficult learning experience suddenly becomes quite clear and we then wonder why it had been so difficult before.
It is a liberating moment, giving us the opportunity to move beyond the boundaries of our lives. But liberation can be frightening because it takes us where we do not know what’s there. And we sometimes are more comfortable in being where we are, not where we could be.
Learning requires an active participation by the learner; it cannot be accomplished by having an instructor tell a pupil what will happen. Would Peter, James, and John have understood the relationship between Jesus and God if they had not gone with Jesus to the mountain top? Participation is an important part of the learning process, but it is quite clear that too many people today want education to be more about what happens than actually doing it. Our educational process today gives more credit for learning about basketball than learning how to dribble a basketball or make free throws.
Learning also requires questioning, not just blind acceptance.
And in the field of science, there are those who would limit any experiences. There is no way Darwin could have created his theory had he stayed home in England. It took being in the field and observing variations in species and thoughtful consideration about what was observed before he put his thoughts on paper. And from his observations Darwin began to ask questions.
Yet, there are those today who would have us blindly accept words written two thousand years ago as more than fact, as statements that cannot be questioned or tested; words which were intended only to tell us who we are and why we are on this planet. They would have us believe that certain processes are so complex that they are beyond comprehension and that we should just accept that some intelligent designer designed the process and we are not to even think about what happened. But to say that something is unlearnable or unknowable is as much an invitation to explore and find as it is against God’s own words to seek the truth so that it, the truth, can set the people free.
It would be understandable if the Bible was a science book or a history book but it is neither one. It is story about who we are and what we are and why we are here. It provides the opportunity for us to complete the story; to truly understand the creation called Earth that God made for us, with all of its complexities and all of its paradoxes and contradictions.
When we limit what we learn; when we demand that evolution not be taught in schools or that alternative theories be taught (even though there are no credible alternative theories), we are acting as Paul said the people did when Moses wore the veil to hide his face. There is a veil over our minds and it clouds our minds and prevents us from seeing that which needs to be seen. As Paul writes, without the veil, we can see the glory of the Lord clearly and we are, ourselves, transformed.
Now, I will add this caveat; if we are to teach the theory of evolution, and note that I said “theory of evolution”, we need to make sure that it is taught correctly (something that I am not entirely convinced happens today). I think that the reason there is a controversy about this subject is because the individuals involved do not know what it is they are teaching. But if we really want people to understand the glory and power of God, we should work to make sure that they are capable of doing just that.
There are those today who are afraid of what might happen if their children or grandchildren are taught the theory of evolution. And perhaps they should, for if their children and grandchildren were to learn something new, it would open up their world and take them away from the rigidity and control that their parents and grandparent seek to impose on them. But, God never meant that our lives would be limited or controlled; He gave us the power to explore and open our minds, to find out who He was and what He was about.
There is a danger when we open our minds and we begin to see the world differently; we may not like what we find. I think that is why so many people are opposed to the teaching of evolution; it will lead people away from God.
It is true that as we explore this world around us, our belief in gods (note the plurality and lower case) as the cause of illness, sickness, death, weather, and various other things diminishes. But it should not diminish our belief in God for it was through Him that we have achieved the ability to conquer illness and sickness and disease. Were it not for our being created in His image we would not have the power to change this world, to bring water to dry valleys, to make crooked roads straight and fill valleys. It is when we forget from whom we received our abilities that we run the risk of doing what we are doing right now, destroying the world.
And when we forget from whom our gifts, our talents, and our abilities come from, we also run the risk of reducing God to a capacity and size limited by our capacity and size, thus once again placing the veil before our eyes. And when we do this, we are unable to call upon God and like the people of the Old Testament find ourselves as a lost and forgotten people wandering in the wilderness.
The debate in this country about whether or not we should teach or not evolution or whether we should offer some sort of alternative theory is more a debate about whether we want to see the world clearly. Now, none of this has anything to do with evolution but it does have a lot to do with that moment on the mountain top when Moses encountered God and when Peter, James, and John saw Jesus standing with Moses and Elijah in the same light that first bathed Moses.
I doubt very seriously that Peter, James, and John truly understood what took place that day on the mountaintop. After all Luke writes that they didn’t speak of what happened. But it was there in their minds, along with all the other miracles that they had seen Jesus do. And when Jesus was resurrected on Easter Sunday, then it became very clear what was happening.
When Jesus was transformed on the mountain, He showed the Glory of God to all. When Jesus healed the sick and cast out demons, He demonstrated the power and greatness of God. And He gave authority to the disciples to do the same, to pass on to the people that knowledge
On this weekend, I celebrate that I was given the opportunity to open my eyes and expand my horizon. I celebrate that I was shown the wonders of the world and given the opportunity to explore it and appreciate it as a gift from God. And on this weekend, I want to offer to others that ability to transform their minds and their lives.