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A Christmas Story

Tuesdays are usually a bit different than other days for me.  My wife works from 2-9 pm so I pick the kids up from school and work from home.  Or at least I try to.  Of course, there are inevitably numerous distractions, minor crises and irritants to put up with, as well as such essential tasks as dinner preparation, help with homework, the circus of bedtime, and any number of other things to deal with.  Suffice to say, that Tuesday afternoon/evening is not typically the most productive time of my week.

Well, yesterday was no exception.  I had the best of intentions of getting some sermon work done while my children played in idyllic silence and contentment (where might I have picked up the illusion of that possibility, I wonder?).  As usual, this was not to be the case.  There were the usual requests for snacks, help with the TV, squabbles and disagreements, and the usual commotion and activity.  There was not much progress to report on the sermon front.

I looked over at the couch and saw my daughter poking around in an old book that my wife kept to record memories and pictures from our kids’ first years.  She has always loved to hear stories and look at pictures from her earlier years.  I put my computer down, pushed my books to the side, sat down beside her and just looked on as she turned the pages.  Eventually, she started to ask me questions.  Then she asked if I could read her what mom had written under a picture (the words are mostly in handwriting which the kids haven’t quite progressed to yet).  She wanted to know every detail.

Eventually I just picked up the book and began to read to her.  I read stories about what she used to do in her crib, about the little yellow wheeled duck that she and her brother used to tear around our house on, about the time during potty-training when, upon my emergence from the bathroom one day, she offered me a piece of chocolate for my “success,” about her first words, first steps, first time riding a bike, first holidays, etc.  We laughed harder than we have laughed in a long time.  My daughter leaned her head on my shoulder, slipped her hand in mine, and before I knew it half an hour had passed.

“I liked it when we read from my book,” my daughter said later last night.  “How come,” I asked.  “Because I like to hear funny stories,” was her reply.  But I suspect that there was more to it than that, even if she couldn’t quite articulate it.  I think that the half-hour spent reliving the story of my daughter’s life reminded me how important stories are to us, as human beings.  My daughter likes to hear funny stories, certainly, but more importantly she likes to hear her story—the story of who she was, what she did, and how she affected others.  I think that even if she couldn’t quite express it, her delight was not just the result of hearing about a bunch of funny things she did once upon a time.  Her story is who she is.

We cannot do without stories, whether we are eight or eighty-eight.  We need to know who we are, what has shaped the person we are at present and what can influence the person we will yet become.  We need to know the parts of the story that preceded our arrival and the parts that are yet to come that might fulfill the deepest hopes and aspirations of all our stories.  We are storied creatures—we cannot make sense of who we are and what we can hope for apart from stories.

Tomorrow night we will gather as communities for Christmas Eve and we will once again listen to the story of Christmas.  We will sing songs and we will read Scripture, and we will be reminded of the bigger story of which we are a part.  Throughout the Christmas season, with family and friends, we will retell the story—in living rooms, around kitchen tables, in coffee shops, on chilly walks.  We will be reminded that whatever else we might say about what we believe, Christmas is our story—the story of what God has done, what God is doing, and what God will do for us, in us, and through us.  We will be reminded that in order to accomplish the redemption of the world he loves, God does not send a set of metaphysical principles or enlightened moral codes, but he sends himself.  He enters the story and pulls it along. God tells a story, and he invites us to inhabit it.

I wish all of you a joyous and hope-filled Christmas as we celebrate Jesus our Emmanuel, the God who is with us, the God whose story we inhabit, the God whose story we tell.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:14

49 Comments Post a comment
  1. I totally agree Ryan and I can identify with Clare’s experience – memories are powerful. Clare teaches us “big kids” that we should practice remembering more often.

    An idea I’ve been exploring recently is “story-formed” living – acknowledging how my identity is formed by the various narratives I find myself in. And in particular, paying attention to how I’m (trans)formed by the “God with us” story we remember at Christmas.

    Merry Christmas!

    December 24, 2009
  2. Paul Johnston #

    Theology seems almost small and mean compared to the intimacies and dearness of our lives together.

    Another great post, Ryan. Thank you.

    May the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you and your family, always. Merry Christmas.

    A big shout out to ma boy!! …Kenny. Merry Christmas, sir. All the very best to you and your loved ones.

    Deborah, I can’t promise you I’ll always agree with you…ya think!! But I promise to always love the music of Van Morrison. Bono notwithstanding, Van IS the Irish singing man!!

    Merry Christmas, dear lady.

    James, I still haven’t bought my copy of “If the expressionless guy in the two sizes too small, spartan black suit is lying down, it’s a funeral; if he’s upright he’s a Saskatchewan barn raiser”…somebody in my neck of the woods recommended the complete works of Pope Benedict XVI…man! another theological think tank, that’s busting my ba…uh, brains.

    I should be able to read safely again sometime in the new year. Merry Christmas.

    Mdaele, meh Christmas to you too. 🙂

    Sorry about the Bono comment, Ryan. But I couldn’t leave without at least taking one shot. If you didn’t know it already, most Catholics are “dirty fighters” 🙂

    December 24, 2009
    • hahahaha! Thanks Paul, charmed as always:) And Merry Christmas to you too!

      Ryan- Merry Christmas and thank you for the awesome post…
      Peace to all!

      December 27, 2009
  3. Ken #

    Re: “We cannot do without stories.”

    On Christmas I happened to read Chapter 10 of The Dream of the Earth by Thomas Berry. The chapter titles is, “The New Story.” It begins, “It is all a question of story.” He agrees with all you have written here, except that he does not believe the Christian story works anymore for many of us. The “new story” is the story Darwin told, except that it is infused with spirituality. It is something like that told by Chardin. It is a story of emergence, something like Phillip Clayton believes, except that it is churchless. It is a story of emergence, but not the one told by evangelicals or liberal protestants. It is something like Dawkins believes, except that it is not a humanism. (And Berry was a likeable, loveable, loving figure.)

    Berry suggests that we are between stories. That way of looking at our situation seems to explain much about it. It explains our tendency to be suspicious of metanarratives right now. He is hopeful that the world will embrace that story of emergence that is evolution almost like that of Darwin. I think he trusts that it is a story of kindness.

    Thomas Berry, who died this year in June, was a Roman Catholic priest, a member of the Passionist Order, a professor of the history of religion at Fordham University. I think it is fair to say that he felt a connection with deep ecology, like me. I have read that he liked to think of himself as a “geologian.”

    Anyway, as I read Berry on Christmas I remembered what you had written here.

    December 26, 2009
    • Does this story work better for us, in your view? I, for one, find it extremely difficult to trust that these kinds of stories are stories of kindness and goodness. Whatever goodness they may contain seems to have arrived via other stories and in many cases is logically incompatible with their own.

      December 26, 2009
  4. Ken #

    Re: “Does this story work better for us, in your view?”

    I find it hard to chose between yes and no. It is the question Berry’s writing presents. Something like this question is one I think about often.

    My reaction includes one like you described here: “difficult to trust,” “goodness … arrived via other stories,” “logically incompatible” aspects. My reaction also includes something different. I recognize in Berry’s new story so much of my own beliefs.

    A spiritual or religious story of evolution like that told in much of nature writing, including Berry’s, is not the same as the one Darwin told, even though he wrote that there is “grandeur in this view.” Where does goodness enter in? Not in Darwin’s view. Indifference is the stance of natural selection.

    I think Christianity fits best with a Ptolemaic view of the universe. Copernicus caused problems. Darwin multiplied them. And that is where I think we are. Whether we are Christians trying to let Darwin in, or Darwinians trying to let goodness in, we struggle with the logic. And whether we believe the old story or the new story more, I think, in the end at least, we ask as Thoreau did, “Is life sublime or mean?”

    December 27, 2009
  5. James #

    Merry Christmas from Hawaii to everyone.
    I’m inside babysitting- so have time for a little response here.
    Ken, your comment that Christianity is Ptolemaic has got me thinking about your worldview. Anabaptists would profoundly disagree with that. The incorporation of the Ptolemaic cosmos was part of the paganization of Christianity. We have no affinity for a mystical, Greek, earth centred cosmos. I can see, however, that if you associate Christianity with Ptolemy, Darwin and Copernicus are a big problem.
    I happen to be reading GK Chesterton [alongside of Taylor 🙂 ] Here’s his take on Darwin-
    “Thus, for instance, Catholicism, in a sense little understood, stands outside a quarrel like that of Darwinism at Dayton. It stands outside it because it stands all around it, as a house stands all around two incongruous pieces of furniture . . . It is impartial in a fight between the Fundamentalist and the theory of the Origin of Species, because it goes back to an origin before that Origin; because it is more fundamental than Fundamentalism. It knows where the Bible came from.” Why I Am A Catholic
    I, of course would switch “NT Christianity” for Catholicism and think that Chesterton lets Catholicism off the hook far too easily. It was of course the Catholics and Aquinas particularly [I think] that made Christianity Ptolemaic.

    Sorry Paul 🙂 earlier Chesterton says, “Nine out of ten of what we call new ideas are simply old mistakes.” He sees Catholicism as a defence against new mistakes. Anabaptists, unfortunately see Catholicism and one of those “new ideas.” The Anabaptists I know tend to like Chesterton, though. Thanks for the nice Christmas greeting.

    December 27, 2009
    • Ken #

      James, I guess I was perhaps using the expression Ptolemaic too loosely. I was using it to refer to an ancient vision of the cosmos.

      As you know, I am not well-informed about Anabaptist views. I would be surprised to find out that Anabaptists hold the the view that Darwin did, and that is taught in universities today, that natural selection accounts for the origin of species and with the view that generally accompanies it in universities that the origin of life is itself explained by something like natural selection and that the same is true of the universe. I would be surprised to find out that Anabaptists hold the view that the universe and reality are emergent. So I imagine you are referring to something else.

      I think fundamentalism offers one way of dealing with the conflict – by saying that natural selection is false and that Genesis 1 is literally true. From what I have read of Roman Catholic theology, including the position of Pope Benedict, Roman Catholicism essentially embraces or accepts a kind of theistic evolution. The trouble is, theistic evolution is not the same as the model upon which modern biology is based. Theistic evolution is another way of saying that natural selection is false, without saying that Genesis 1 is literally true. That is the conflict – saying that natural selection is false, or that it is an illusion, and yet saying that one believes in evolution or in an emergent universe.

      As for my world view, I am not sure that I have one, at least not a stable or pure one. I think our culture in the west offers us multiple views. I don’t think I can say that I have only one.

      December 27, 2009
      • Ken #

        I need to correct one thing I wrote above. I think it is historically more accurate to say that it is creationism that holds that Genesis 1 is literally true in all of its details. I don’t believe that position was included in the fundamentals listed in early part of the twentieth century by the Christians who were first called fundamentalists by their detractors.

        And let me add this: to say that God created us is to say something quite incompatible with a belief that natural selection accounts for the origin of species. Some Christians, who generally don’t call themselves fundamentalist and who may even speak pejoratively about fundamentalists, hold that God working through evolution accounts for the origin of species even though that position is not at all the scientific view and is not the view Darwin proposed.

        December 27, 2009
  6. James #

    Hi Ken
    Of course, I don’t pretend to speak for all who call themselves Anabaptist- I do try to articulate what follows most naturally from our version of Biblicism- but I liked the Chesterton quote because it points to a world-view that should stand above the Darwinist/Creationist debate. We are all very capable of getting sucked into arguments that are like Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby. I believe avoiding that is a good thing 🙂
    As to origins- I believe that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” If Darwinism goes beyond natural selection and tells us what happened at the beginning, then I would differ vigorously. Pure evolutionary materialism implies we are mere accidents. Such a view implies nihilism. I don’t know very many people [if any] who really believe that except when like, Dawkins, Hitchens et al they are trying to be provocative.
    I don’t, however, understand what you mean by the phrase “the view that the universe and reality are emergent.”
    I also don’t think you can be coherent without a world-view. You are coherent 🙂

    December 27, 2009
    • Ken #

      James, I think you and Chesterton are right about the all encompassing aspect of Christian faith.

      Re: “If Darwinism goes beyond natural selection and tells us what happened at the beginning, then I would differ vigorously. Pure evolutionary materialism implies we are mere accidents. Such a view implies nihilism. I don’t know very many people [if any] who really believe that except when like, Dawkins, Hitchens et al they are trying to be provocative.”

      Darwin only dealt with the origin of species from one or several first species. He left the door open to the idea that God made the first, but even he wrote that he had increasing doubts that life, the first specie, was made. The Darwinian view is that we are mere accidents. No purpose, no plan, no aim – just chance and necessity. It does imply nihilism.

      In American polls, less than 10% of the people believe we evolved by natural selection. About half of the rest believe God made us as we are, and the other believe God made us by guiding evolution. I have read that the percentage who believe we evolved by natural selection is higher in Canada. In my own discussions with people, I find what you find and what the polls reveal. I find an even smaller percentage who understand what natural selection means and how and why Darwin used that expression in Origin of the Species.

      I have to say that the largest part of me believes what Darwin believed – that natural selection, or chance and necessity, account for the origin of species as well as the origin of life and the universe. A small part of me believes that is not true and that God accounts for it. I think it is hard to read Darwin’s work and not be persuaded as he was.

      To say that the universe is emergent is to say that the universe has evolved without a plan, and that reality itself is evolving without a plan and without an external reference point. In the view generally associated with Christianity, we live in a cosmos, an order made by God. In the view associated with emergence, we are part of a cosmogenesis, an always changing order or disorder, not made or guided by God. Christians who adopt process theology, like Chardin or Berry, find a kind of goodness or kindness in the cosmogenesis and they may think of the cosmogenesis itself as God.

      December 28, 2009
  7. Paul Johnston #

    Ken, how does Darwinism account for all the meaningful exchanges in our lives we know as love?

    December 28, 2009
    • Ken #

      By attributing it to the struggle to survive – love evolved in some species because it enhanced the survival of the specie. In other species, maybe even in ours, there is no love; indifference or even what we might consider hate have served to enhance the survival of the specie.

      In a haunting passage in Origin of the Species, Darwin wrote that “we ought to admire the instinctive maternal hatred of the queen bee for her fertile daughters.” Note doubt he wrote “ought” because he could not, and we cannot.

      Love and hate are the same to natural selection. This is what makes it so hard to reconcile the emergent view of the universe and of life with Christianity – never mind the conflict over Genesis 1.

      It is not only those who think of themselves as Christians who resist this view of the way of life and the universe.

      December 28, 2009
  8. Paul Johnston #

    There is no “love” as we know it, feel it and live it, Ken, not with Darwin. Love is enhancing the “survival” of someone else, without self concern. Very antiethical to Darwin, I think.

    In your example of the queen bee I think that someone who wants to be honestly Darwinian removes the word “ought” and must truly admire and affirm the ruthlessness. Welcome to Neitzche, welcome to Marx, welcome to the horrifying tragedies of 20th century.

    You let Darwin off way to easily, in my opinion. While there is no sense of Christian love in Darwin, my, my it is full of what a Christian would understand to be hate. His dogmas integrated socially and politically are, from the Christian perspective, philosophies of hate. Actually, they are pure genius if hate be your ambition. Not only do they affirm injustice and slaughter on a massive scale but they do so with a sublime indifference, masquerading as knowledge, that is truly breathtaking and rational unto itself, if it weren’t so heinous.

    Darwin objectifies humankind. Makes us feel less, without personhood. Sees only the external object of our being and not the internal subject.

    Objects are either useful or they are not and they exist only in so far as they are useful. Discarding that which is useless in this context is not only prudent it is virtuous.

    Evil, as a virtue, brother. Plain and simple.

    December 28, 2009
    • ” His dogmas integrated socially and politically are, from the Christian perspective, philosophies of hate. Actually, they are pure genius if hate be your ambition. Not only do they affirm injustice and slaughter on a massive scale but they do so with a sublime indifference, masquerading as knowledge, that is truly breathtaking and rational unto itself, if it weren’t so heinous.”

      The thing with natural selection is it has no ambition, it is moving towards nothing, and it is fundamentally indifferent. In a Darwinian worldview hate and love (and even God) are only properties that humans have created for some purpose or another. The political and social dogmas are not an agenda of Darwin’s original work. He was a a true scientist at heart and was n0t pushing any political or social agenda. In fact, his personal agendas maybe be why he was so troubled by his own work.

      So love may be a gene that is or was useful to human survival. Working together to overcome the environment. Those who refused to love died out.

      December 28, 2009
      • In the second paragraph I should be more clear and say that humans are endowed with the ability or desire to create….

        December 28, 2009
    • Ken #

      As Tyler has explained, Darwin’s masterpiece accounts for even self-sacrificing love.

      Indeed, evil can be a virtue in a universe governed by chance and necessity.

      It is hard to think of anything more sinister than the wasp that paralyzes its victims and feeds the helpless living creature to its young. It is hard to say that a system that is indifferent to such means is anything but evil. Darwin never thought it was good either.

      And yet, many who believe in an emergent universe find a way to see good in it. That usually involves diluting the cold truth of natural selection.

      December 28, 2009
  9. I’ve never understood Natural Selection. It seems like an oxymoron to me. Who…or what does the selecting? …seems silly.
    A decision is made somewhere, regarding life, growth, survival, shapes sizes and colors.
    Some things and/or people survive when science tells us they shouldn’t.
    Bees fly 🙂
    The need to sing, dance, paint, create with our hands things that are of ‘no use’–write stories, fall in love, make love, argue, forgive, laugh (enter your passion here), … comes from a deep place- far too deep to be explained away. If we are here to merely survive, shoot me now… how boring.

    Other thoughts; God won’t be reduced to an ideology, (Bruce Cockburn- Gospel of Bondage) and therefore cannot be controlled. I think this is at the core of resistance to the idea of God. Even Christians have a hard time accepting God without attempting an experiment or two, of some kind, to make God be something God is not. It never works. I like mystery. Unlike ignorance, or blind faith, being connected with mystery means I am involved in a relational experience with life. All the things I can’t explain with words are understood with my heart and so there’s revelation and it produces rest.
    “Prove it!” I’ve been asked, to which I reply “No… Get your own proof” 🙂
    Evidence of God is seen with the eyes of the heart. How can my proof be yours?

    December 28, 2009
    • Nature does the selecting. Only those species that are endowed with some advantage survive in a certain environment in a certain time period. The decision is purely based in the “fittest” individuals of a species.

      “The need to sing, dance, paint, create with our hands things that are of ‘no use’–write stories, fall in love, make love, argue, forgive, laugh (enter your passion here), … comes from a deep place- far too deep to be explained away. If we are here to merely survive, shoot me now… how boring.”

      In a Darwinian world view, this things did or do serve us a purpose. Even if it is just well being. There is many reasons why each of those things you listed could contribute to survival.

      I am not trying to advocate Darwinism to the extreme here but he does put forward compelling ideas and modern genetic evidence is further backing what he wrote. How much we are determined by genetics is debatable… but to a large part we are what we are due to evolution.

      December 28, 2009
    • Ken #

      Deborah,

      Re: “comes from a deep place.”

      Respect for that deep place is something often found in nature writing. It is what causes many to pause on the way to acceptance of Darwin’s powerful explanation of life, or to pull back from it, even those who profess no faith in God. It is not a scientific objection – it is a stance towards life. It amounts to saying, “nevertheless.” Even Darwin said something like this.

      Re: “I’ve never understood Natural Selection. It seems like an oxymoron to me. Who…or what does the selecting? …seems silly.”

      To what Tyler has written, I can add this. It is an oxymoron, but one Darwin used intentionally. Natural selection is a metaphor. Darwin used it to contrast the natural way species evolve with the way they evolve when humans make the selections, as in tomatoes or peas. It is also a way of saying that God is not doing the selecting (which is the claim of theistic, or God-directed, evolution.) Nature means chance and necessity in Darwin’s writings.

      It is a rare human being who does not shudder at the thought that chance and necessity are at the heart of things so precious to us.

      December 28, 2009
    • Paul Johnston #

      I love this, Deb. The next time I go off on one of my “We’re all that; me and my point of view” rants, please remind me your my Daddy. I’m not saying I’ll hush up entirely but I promise to really read, reread and read again everything you write…WHAT SHE SAID PEOPLE!!!

      December 29, 2009
      • Thanks for your responses 🙂
        I’ll have to chew on this for a while.
        But I’m wondering …what it is in a person that drives them to seek out answers to these questions in the first place?
        There’s passion there to be sure, to discover what is hidden.
        That in itself seems to point toward a reality that is supernatural.
        There are moments I think, when we have to introduce our left-brain to our right-brain if we’re going to become good learners.
        I for one don’t see a separation between sacred and secular, natural and supernatural etc… One not only compliments the other, but they require each other.
        It’s 3 am and I’m rambling 🙂 if I keep writing I’ll make even less sense than I do now. Night all… 🙂

        December 30, 2009
      • Ken #

        Re: “But I’m wondering …what it is in a person that drives them to seek out answers to these questions in the first place?”

        The emergent answer is: consciousness.

        And what is the genesis of consciousness? The emergent answer is: natural selection.

        December 30, 2009
  10. I’ve been traveling for a few days and have missed most of this discussion. I won’t add much other than an interesting quote that I came across in Ross Douthat’s review of James Cameron’s new film Avatar a few days back. Douthat is talking specifically about pantheism here, but I think the quote hits on a few themes that have popped up in this thread:

    The question is whether Nature actually deserves a religious response. Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why does he allow suffering and death? But Nature is suffering and death. Its harmonies require violence. Its “circle of life” is really a cycle of mortality. And the human societies that hew closest to the natural order aren’t the shining Edens of James Cameron’s fond imaginings. They’re places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.

    Religion exists, in part, precisely because humans aren’t at home amid these cruel rhythms. We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it. We’re beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality.

    This is an agonized position, and if there’s no escape upward — or no God to take on flesh and come among us, as the Christmas story has it — a deeply tragic one.

    Pantheism offers a different sort of solution: a downward exit, an abandonment of our tragic self-consciousness, a re-merger with the natural world our ancestors half-escaped millennia ago.

    But except as dust and ashes, Nature cannot take us back.

    December 29, 2009
    • Paul Johnston #

      Thanks again, Ryan. you are an extraodinary Pastor, says the cranky old man from the last row in the virtual pew.

      December 29, 2009
    • Ken #

      The distinction can be understood as that between a religion based on emergence versus one based on redemption – that is the way Thomas Berry frames it.

      A powerful insight offered by those Douthat might call “pantheists” is that our focus on redemption, and the related feeling of separateness from the rest of nature, is contributing to the destruction of life, including our own. This is the great irony of millennial dreams.

      It is worth reading these “pantheists.” But not the Hollywood kind. The folks sometimes lumped into the pantheist category are, mainly, not pantheists. They do not believe in any form of theism. Bron Taylor calls it dark green religion. I think it is best to understand it as a religion based on emergence – evolution. The primary text, is, of course, Darwin’s Origin of the Species.

      December 29, 2009
    • James #

      Way to dig out quotes, Ryan! I’ll try not to wreck it.
      This conversation started with Ryan’s beautiful story of a father and daughter. From there we drifted off into how Christianity relates to Darwinism. What’s the connection?
      I see it this way- materialism limited to natural selection merely rationalizes how love might be accounted for. Love, beauty, justice etc are THE puzzle for the materialists in the same way the existence evil and pain is THE puzzle for those who believe in a loving Creator.
      Those who believe in a loving Creator are stuck rationalizing the existence of pain and evil- but it seems to me even admitting evil exists bolsters our argument.
      What bolsters the materialist’s argument? The fact that they feel the need to explain love at all undercuts them. They are seldom willing to deny love exists- although for the sake of the debate they are sometime go there. [After all winning arguments is the highest of all possible goals 🙂 ] There is no “respect for the deep place” in that system- just wishful thinking that somehow complexity solves their problem and that “a deep place” might possibly exist. In that world-view nihilism is always lurking around the corner ready to burst this hopeful myth.
      Why does Darwin see anything admirable in the queen bee? Why is anything admirable at all? If the logic of materialism is taken to its natural conclusion- there is no more beauty in a seascape than in a toxic garbage dump.
      That is the problem of a system that tries to go beyond the observable logic of the mechanics of natural selection- and attempts to use this explain the origin and purpose of the cosmos. If Darwin [and I have only picked up “The Origin of the Species” on a few occasions] tries to rewrite “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” he is way out of his element. There is no connection between natural selection and the creation. They are 2 different stories. Merging them turns into a kind of like Alice in Wonderland- intriguing but disconnected.
      By the way- I love Alice In Wonderland and have read it to each of my children and am now starting with my grandchildren. With this in my back pocket I was well equipped for seminary 🙂

      December 30, 2009
      • Ken #

        We ended up on evolution because I was reading something about “new story” on Christmas Day that connected in my mind with Ryan’s posting about the significance of story to us, and the Christmas story. The “new story” was a term Thomas Berry used in connection with a religious narrative that starts with emergence or evolution by natural selection. He also contrasted that religious narrative with the Christian, Christmas narrative of redemption. In that and other essays he writes about how the millennial dream associated with the redemption narrative threatens life. He and Ryan agree on the great importance of narrative, but they do not agree on what the true narrative is. Berry’s “new story” is not a strictly materialist story. I think he, like Deborah (and me, and perhaps all of us here) do not separate the material aspect of life and the universe from what we see as its other facets.

        Thomas Berry is an important figure in understanding our ecological narrative, whether we think of ourselves as Christians or something else. Ryan’s quotation above illustrates the important place occupied by redemption in the Christian story. The review of the movie by Douthat that Ryan read illustrates the appeal of the ecological narrative, which I think many Christians share with those Douthat appears to call “pantheists.” This narrative of ecology is based on the idea of emergence, which is closely associated with the idea of evolution by natural selection.

        The ecological perspective which is grounded in a story of emergence (and evolution) suggests that our focus on redemption, and the related feeling of separateness from the rest of nature, is contributing to the destruction of life, including our own. For many Christians the millennial dream has become something we strive for in this life and the assertion made by ecology is that this is destroying life.

        Re: “If Darwin … tries to rewrite “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” he is way out of his element.”

        He did not. What he did was explain the origin of species through evolution without God, but not the origin of life by emergence.

        Re: “There is no connection between natural selection and the creation. They are 2 different stories.”

        Natural selection is a creative process but does not involve divine creation or divine guidance.

        A deist might say, as Darwin once did, that God breathed life into the first creatures and then left the rest to natural selection. A theist would not say that.

        I think it is ultimately hard, perhaps impossible, to be a theist of any kind, or even a deist, and at the same time subscribe to an emergent view of the universe and life. There is no need for the idea of god in the emergent view.

        The emergent view is spreading.

        December 30, 2009
      • James #

        Hi Ken
        I have been out and about for a couple of days and this conversation seems to have run its course- but I think I was too obtuse in making my point earlier- so let me try one more time.
        My point is this- a meaningful existence does not follow from a materialistic world-view [what you call Darwinism]. You don’t accept that life has no more meaning than non-life- on this point I wholeheartedly agree with you.
        However your use of Darwinism to argue against theism, deism or Christianity applies with equal force against your own belief that beauty and meaning exist. You can’t create meaning from a meaningless cosmos. As far as Darwinism goes you might as well be a creationist [though not a Young Earth Creationist 🙂 ].
        It appears to me that your emergent view still requires faith that meaning exists but just puts it more at arm’s length.
        Hope that makes sense.
        Blessings

        January 3, 2010
      • Ken #

        Re: “a meaningful existence does not follow from a materialistic world-view.”

        I agree.

        Re: “However your use of Darwinism to argue against theism, deism or Christianity applies with equal force against your own belief that beauty and meaning exist.”

        I agree. (I don’t really mean to argue against theism personally. I only meant to point out the incompatibility of a Darwinian position on life with a theist position.) Darwin agreed. I think it is fair to say that he also agreed that beauty and meaning only exist in a subjective way and have no external reference point within an emergent universe. So, I think you, me and Darwin agree.

        Re: “It appears to me that your emergent view still requires faith that meaning exists”

        I agree here too.

        I may have given the wrong impression. I don’t mean to argue for adopting an emergent view.

        An emergent view seems to share space in my brain with a theistic view. They don’t fit together. Let me assure you that I am acutely conscious of their differences. I never have an easy day inside. That is the only mind I know.

        January 3, 2010
      • James #

        This is certainly and interesting conversation, Ken, and it seems to be carrying on in the next thread. I can’t resist one more point though 🙂 Theism and emergent are different but depend on the premise that meaning exists. When it comes to life having meaning- it is materialistic Darwinism that doesn’t fit anywhere in the human brain except as a polemic instrument. There’s nothing wrong with arguing for emergentism [or Catholicism as Paul does or Anabaptism as I do]- it’s materialism that’s dead and has no children. It isn’t even the parent to nihilism because nihilism grows out of despair and you can’t despair if you’ve never known hope. It seems to me that your attempt to merge your version of Darwinism with anything remotely meaning based is where things fall apart.

        January 4, 2010
      • James #

        Another metaphor.
        I think natural selection is powerful instrument with great uses in science- but it is limited to its discipline. I still remember the day I “got” calculus [call me strange 🙂 ] It is amazing and is able describe shapes and motions that Euclidian geometry can’t. Without calculus our scientific revolution would have stalled off.
        But you can’t use calculus to describe love, truth and beauty. The sense I get from some evolutionists is that they are using their discipline far beyond its application. I consider myself an evolutionist in the scientific context but see it as a dead stick when talking about meaning.

        January 4, 2010
      • Ken #

        James,

        Re: “It seems to me that your attempt to merge your version of Darwinism with anything remotely meaning based is where things fall apart.”

        I am not attempting to do that, nor do I have a version of Darwinism.

        Nevertheless, we differ on a major point: When an scientist uses natural selection to explain how love, truth and beauty can be traced to the struggle to survive, they are applying their discipline within its bounds.

        It is my belief, but not yours, as I understand it, that the ideas that natural selection accounts for the origin of species and that the universe itself has evolved and is evolving by similar means is ultimately fatal to theism. There are certainly many Christians who believe as you do. Darwin did not. Nietzsche did not. This difference is the basis of Nietzshce’s parable of the madman. I agree with Darwin and Nietzsche on this.

        Theism requires a belief that there is a purpose behind life and the universe and that they are under the guidance of God. The heart of Darwin’s argument is that evolution takes place without purpose or guidance. It is this argument that is the basis for biology. To say that God is guiding evolution is to differ with Darwin at the heart of his argument and, for all practical purposes, is to negate the central organizing principle of biological science. To say that God is not guiding it, that it happens by chance and necessity, not by purpose, is to negate theism. That is what Darwin did. That is what biology does. That is the giant Darwin slew in Origin of the Species.

        January 4, 2010
      • James #

        Re: “Nevertheless, we differ on a major point: When an scientist uses natural selection to explain how love, truth and beauty can be traced to the struggle to survive, they are applying their discipline within its bounds.”
        And to me it seems like they are trying to “rationalize” things that they know exist but can’t reconcile. We differ on what they are doing. I think they are trying to use math to describe love, truth and beauty instead of being content with the beauty and truth in math- no love though 🙂

        January 4, 2010
      • Ken #

        I would express this differently, to avoid saying they are “trying to rationalize things.”

        They are trying to explain why the appearance or existence of beauty that does not serve an apparent current need for survival, for example, is not fatal to the argument that natural selection, and not divinity, account for the origin of species. Darwin did this himself in Origin of the Species. If beauty has its own reason, Darwin’s whole argument fails – that was his own observation of the seriousness of this issue. This, he wrote “would be absolutely fatal to my theory.”

        I believe his explanation is coherent, and not a rationalization that tries to overcome cognitive dissonance.

        Similarly, this is why one cannot coherently say that one believes evolution (as that term is used in biology) is is compatible with theism. Natural selection, as Darwin used that term and as it is used in science today, contradicts theism. A belief that God has guided evolution is a quite different belief from the scientific theory. The scientific belief and evidence is that evolution is unguided and happens by chance and necessity. Coherence requires one to simply say that natural selection does not account for the origin of species and to explain why one believes that divine guidance does, with or without an evolutionary process. This is, of course, to acknowledge that one disagrees with science. To do this one must risk sounding like a rube. Many intelligent people, not only those who are Christian, take this risk. Their need for being genuine requires it.

        As I have written many times here, I wish to persuade no one that natural selection accounts for the origin of species nor that an evolutionary, or emergent, process explains the universe or life. While I admire and find compelling the great insights that these explanations involving emergence provide and the coherency of the underlying arguments, I would be less than honest if I did not also say that a part of me finds another truth, one involving God, that is contradictory, and with which I must reckon. I am grateful for that part of me and I cherish it.

        January 5, 2010
      • James #

        Re: “Similarly, this is why one cannot coherently say that one believes evolution (as that term is used in biology) is is compatible with theism. Natural selection, as Darwin used that term and as it is used in science today, contradicts theism.”
        This is where you and I have a profound disagreement on the matter of logic. Your statement assumes that a Designer God could not use evolution to create the diversity of life as we see it around us- without resorting to rationalization. I don’t know who created that straw man [it wasn’t you 🙂 and it almost certainly predates Darwin] but it is precisely a straw man. The only statement that all who believe in a Christian God agree with is “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This says NOTHING [nor do the chapters that follow] about the mechanism God used to create the diversity we see around us. We are not arguing about how species were formed- we are arguing about Creation or not Creation. I refuse to accept that people like Francis Collins [The Language Of God] and GK Chesterton must “rubes” because some evolutions think so.

        What is rationalization and back to Ptolemy. Ptolemy had a problem with his cosmos- it was the retrograde motions of the planets [the Wanderers]. They misbehaved in the unchanging sphere of the heavens. But Ptolemy and his followers solved this problem by creating spheres within spheres. The solutions were elegant that Copernicus’ sun centred solar system failed to predict the motions of those same planets with the precision of the Ptolemeic calculations until it was discovered that the planets had elliptical orbits. [I believe it was not until Newton’s theory of gravity that the elliptical orbit made real sense.] But honest Ptolemists knew these were rationalization and it prompted alternative theories.
        Every thoughtful evolutionist [apparently including Darwin and absolutely including the Dawkins, Hitchens et al] knows that as an explanation for meaning materialism is fragile on this point. The latter solve the problem by bombastic arguments that even alienate thoughtful materialists.

        All of the above to say that rationalization is part of any system and should serve to keep its proponents humble. As I mention above the existence of evil is what Christians must rationalize. The existence of evil seems to be a violation of a loving and all powerful God. Materialists take great glee in this and go to great lengths to find examples [such as Darwin’s mother bee that offend our natural sense of moral decency] as counter examples to the Christian God. In my opinion, Christians have little logical response to the existence of evil without looking as cruel as any gleeful materialist. But as I have also mentioned earlier I would rather accept a worldview that struggles to explain evil that a worldview that struggles to explain love, true, beauty and on top of that doesn’t believe that evil exists either.

        January 5, 2010
      • Ken #

        Re: “Your statement assumes that a Designer God could not use evolution to create the diversity of life as we see it around us- without resorting to rationalization.”

        I don’t assume that. I am making a different distinction.

        God could use evolution (meaning change over time) to create the diversity of life. I am only saying that possibility is inconsistent with a belief that natural selection created the diversity of life. And the argument that natural selection did this, not God, is the basis, the paradigm, of modern biology.

        I don’t know what to say about Francis Collins or G.K. Chesterton. I have not read their work. My impression, from what I have read about Collins’ positions in other works, is that he believes in theistic evolution – God guided evolution. That is not the basis of modern biology. That means that he does not believe the central argument of Darwin. He is not alone. Even outside of Christianity there are scientists and nature writers who believe that natural selection does not tell the story of life and that emergence is not the story of the universe.

        I would also like to say that not all materialists are critical of religion and religious people. Dawkins is, of course, critical and is often critical in the harshest terms. Darwin was not, although the problem of evil troubled him greatly in his own relationship with God while it lasted.

        January 5, 2010
      • James #

        Re: “I don’t know what to say about Francis Collins or G.K. Chesterton.”
        What you shouldn’t say is that they risk being “rubes” because they disagree with you that creation is “inconsistent with a belief that natural selection created the diversity of life.” I am not a biologist and reading Collin’s “The Language of God” reminds me that his micro arguments about evolution and creation are way past my ability to evaluate. Collins however comes across as an intellectually honest person [as do you, Ken], that he is a recognized expert in modern biology and a devout Biblicist.
        I am not challenging your emergent paradigm and have not even engaged it- I am simply challenging your dismissal of the cohesion of the Biblical world-view. It seems to me that you are not taking this seriously enough in spite of the fact that there are aspects of it that you are drawn to.

        January 5, 2010
      • Ken #

        James, I don’t think Collins or Chesterton are rubes nor do I have any other negative opinion of them.

        I am certainly not dismissing the cohesion of the Biblical world-view within itself or with reality. What I have attempted to do is to explain how it differs from the evolutionary paradigm that is the basis of biology today.

        It is not correct to say that I am not taking the Biblical world-view seriously.

        January 5, 2010
      • James #

        Hi Ken
        It seems like we are talking past each other on this issue but I accept that you take the Biblical world-view seriously.
        Blessings

        January 6, 2010
  11. Paul Johnston #

    Hey Tyler, I have to say that I find your responses coherent unto themselves but precisely indicative of my point. A scientific theory, when applied philosophically, (as is often the case)that renders what we would otherwise describe as evil to be something of sublime indifference.

    …”The thing with natural selection is it has no ambition, it is moving towards nothing, and it is fundamentally indifferent.” I don’t know about you but what you have just described as natural selection works for me as an accurate description of evil.

    Systemic evil, Satanic evil, moves towards nothingness, the negation of all things. True evil, sustainable evil, is precisely so because it is passionless because it is so massively and wholly indifferent.

    Hate, as evil, requires a passion that eventually peters. When the passions of hate subside, there is always the opportunity for redemption. Hate alone is not enough to sustain evil. Hate is evil’s weakest weapon. True expressions of love will always overcome it. Hate is passion distorted. Love is passion restored. Love will always conquer hate.

    Indifference, that’s another matter. Indifference is by nature passionless. It neither hates or loves. It never tires due to the strains of passion. It is relentless. Indifference is the key to mass tragedy. Look at the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany, look at the plight of the sub Saharan peoples today.

    Darwin’s theories are the foundation upon which philosophies of indifference are based. Further notions of survival of the fittest are distorted hatefully to encourage xenophobic and radical ideologies to resort to mass extinctions as a means purification, as a means of progress. Abortion; Darwinian. Euthanasia; Darwinian. Mass termination of the infirm; (get ready brother, you’ll live to see it)Darwinian.

    I don’t know who Darwin though he was or what he thought he was doing. But mankind has seen his legacy, the acceptance and affirmation of evil as social policy, in the name of progress, in the name of science.

    My precious, my precious, it would have been better for us if such a thing were cast into the fires of Mordor.

    December 29, 2009
    • Ken #

      Paul, I don’t think abortion is Darwinian, nor is euthanasia. Nature tends to overproduce offspring, in a sense, not to curtail reproduction. And euthanasia is not what the “survival of the fittest” means in the context of natural selection. Euthanasia is basically irrelevant from a selection perspective, unless one is euthanizing a race or children or fertile adults. But we are more likely to call that genocide than euthanasia.

      And perhaps the most interesting thing about natural selection is that new species most often begin as mutations, or genetic copy errors.

      December 29, 2009
      • Hi Paul,

        What I mean by moving towards nothing is that natural selection doesn’t act towards or for the future. It simply can’t. The only way natural selection can occur is in the present by a being having the capabilities to survive and having the means to reproduce. The reason it is moving towards nothing is because there is nothing. Its not the same sense as moving towards a lack of something…. a lack of God or a lack of Good. I think there is an important difference there.

        Social or political Darwinism is an interesting beast which I personally believe is wrong in application. It is a scientific theory to explain the evolution of species through natural and sexual selection. Darwin’s aim was never to create or illuminate an ethical or morale system. This is very clear in his work. While he does suggest some interesting implications of his work, he does not really enter the realm of ethics.

        Also, I agree nature is indifferent and therefore passionless. This however does not directly translate to humans being indifferent and passionless. Environmental forces are not conscious and pursuing ends with willed action. This is where the most interesting questions find their home… and in my opinion where science gives away to the likes of philosophy, theology, etc.

        December 29, 2009
  12. Ken #

    If anyone here has not yet read Darwin’s Origin of the Species, I highly recommend it. It is a masterpiece of science, literature and persuasion. It is definitely one of the most important books I have ever read. In case you feel bored following some of the details, Darwin provides concise summaries within the book. It is a book that is accessible to all.

    I must warn you, however, it is persuasive, very persuasive.

    December 29, 2009
    • One up to Ken’s suggestion.

      December 29, 2009
  13. I love the image of your daughter putting her head against you, and her hand in yours. What a gift those moments must be. Peace to you.

    December 29, 2009
    • Thank you, Chris. You’re absolutely right—this moment was a gift. Without doubt, one of the best gifts I received this Christmas.

      December 29, 2009
  14. Beautiful story and an appropriate challenge.

    Thank you.

    December 30, 2009
  15. Merry Christmas, Ryan…oh yeah, it’s June. Ha. I couldn’t resist. 😀

    June 2, 2017

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