Determining the Greater Frontier: Exploration versus Restoration

So President Trump signed a directive to send humans back to the moon with an eye toward Mars. Unfortunately, his budget proposal actually cuts NASA funding, so the symbolism of the gesture is not backed by anything tangible.  Like nearly every American child of the mid 20th century, I have a fondness for the idea of space exploration. I remember the Apollo missions and Skylab and the Shuttle program.

But having taught seminars on the effects of space travel on biological systems, I also know that there are dangers there.

And I know there are problems right here on Earth that we are not adequately addressing: hunger, climate change, pollution, disease, habitat destruction, extinction….

While I will always be fascinated by the idea of colonizing another planet, Mars could not be made even marginally habitable in less than a few hundred years–at least 400 years by one study I saw, beginning with seeding the Martian polar ice caps with very hardy algae to begin the enrichment of the atmosphere. But perhaps more significantly, Mars has an almost non-existent magnetosphere, which means protection against harmful solar and cosmic radiation is far less effective than on Earth, where the core is molten and constantly circulating to maintain that protective field.  Terra-forming is a slow process as we might practice it today, and it is not the sexy, wild-west adventure that too many people envision.

Elton John and Bernie Taupin were right in their song, “Rocket Man”:

“Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids,
In fact it’s cold as hell.
And there’s no one there to raise them if you did.”

So that leaves the question: what is the final frontier? Perhaps that is nothing more than a recursion to the first one–to seek answers for and solutions to repairing and restoring this damaged planet that is our only home.

I challenge the notion that we have only a few hundred years to make the leap to the stars. With a unified will to stop polluting and start restoring, we can make a difference in the habitability of this planet. But it will take strong will to accomplish that. While fortunes could be made in technologies to accomplish this, ultimately this initiative must go beyond profit: as E.O. Wilson has so passionately argued, saving biodiversity is a moral imperative. And I would extend that by mitigating our negative impacts on the environment and saving biodiversity, we save ourselves.

To those of a Judeo-Christian faith, it is finally addressing the primal mission of caring for this complex and fragile creation. “Dominion” as used in Genesis is better expressed as “stewardship”, serving as a caretaker and not an exploiter.

I have shared this passage from C.S. Lewis over and over, and I hope that it will indeed stick with some who read it. Lewis notes that only what he calls “supernaturalists” can truly understand nature. He writes,

“I spoke just now about the Latinity of Latin. It is more evident to us than it can have been to the Romans. The Englishness of English is audible only to those who know some other language as well. In the same way and for the same reason, only Supernaturalists really see Nature. You must go a little away from her, and then turn round, and look back. Then at last the true landscape will become visible. You must have tasted, however briefly, the pure water from beyond the world before you can be distinctly conscious of the hot, salty tang of Nature’s current. To treat her as God, or as Everything, is to lose the whole pith and pleasure of her. Come out, look back, and then you will see…this astonishing cataract of bears, babies, and bananas: this immoderate deluge of atoms, orchids, oranges, cancers, canaries, fleas, gases, tornadoes and toads. How could you ever have thought this was the ultimate reality? How could you ever have thought that it was merely a stage-set for the moral drama of men and women? She is herself. Offer her neither worship nor contempt. Meet her and know her. If we are immortal, and if she is doomed (as the scientists tell us) to run down and die, we shall miss this half-shy and half-flamboyant creature, this ogress, this hoyden, this incorrigible fairy, this dumb witch. But the theologians tell us that she, like ourselves, is to be redeemed. The ‘vanity’ to which she was subjected was her disease, not her essence. She will be cured in character: not tamed (Heaven forbid) nor sterilised. We shall still be able to recognise our old enemy, friend, playfellow and foster-mother, so perfected as to be not less, but more, herself. And that will be a merry meeting.”

If indeed in the theological realm the ultimate end is the redemption or restoration of a fallen creation, it is not incumbent that we seek to plumb new depths of destruction that the grace and glory of renewal should be all the more glorious.  Paul said as much in his discussion of grace in Romans where he posed the question, “Shall we go on sinning that grace may abound?” He concludes, “By no means!” By the same token, the misguided drive to escape our fouled nest only exacerbates the problem by fostering the false hope that the extraterrestrial grass will be greener than the dead stubble of our abused home.  The reality is that at present, there is no extraterrestrial grass.  Full stop.

The directive to take care of the creation was never rescinded in scripture: the job was paradoxically made harder by a nascent mankind’s tendency toward seeking the easy path. If indeed that bite from the forbidden fruit opened the eyes of that primitive pair, the tang of consequence has too long been ignored if not forgotten, and nature has paid a dear price for it.

We must be better toward the natural world. We must see it not as mere resources to exploit, but wonders to behold and treasures to be cherished. Life is a gift, but it is fragile. Running away to a dead moon or a dead Mars will only open new dangers and possibilities to snuff life out. The future is here. Embrace it by nursing this wounded planet back to greater health and vitality.


“star stuff* [*and then some]: essays at the intersection of science and faith” is now available at the Kindle Store

I am pleased (and maybe a little proud) to announce the publication of my second Kindle book, a collection of essays titled star stuff* [*and then some]: essays at the intersection of science and faith.  This work represents a group of essays that attempt to bring together the logic and practice of science skills to religious themes, while remaining true to a core of Christian faith.  

This effort has been a labor of love, including a love of learning, a love of nature, and a love for the author of it all.  I must be true to the evidence I see in all realms or suffer the bleak misfortune of being intellectually dishonest.  The following excerpt is taken from chapter 1, and sets the stage for the succeeding essays.  If you find this interesting, I invite you to follow the link at the right to learn more about star stuff*.    

Life, or what we know of it so far, is indeed a wondrous thing.  The person of faith exults with praise to its creator.  That there are those among people of faith who can observe it and not want to know why it works or know more about any and every aspect of it is odd to me: learning more reveals the mind of God. The scientist wants nothing more than to understand.  That there are those among scientists who can observe its complexity and not be in awe is also puzzling to me. 

For a moment, consider a purely naturalistic view of everything.  According to Stephen Hawking, the universe is, it exists because of gravity.  Perhaps it is overly simplistic, but the complex interplay of matter and energy happened because gravity exists.  Hawking declared God redundant when he made this pronouncement.

 That’s all well and good, but from a purely naturalistic perspective, the story is never complete. I have no problem with a Big Bang.  It makes good sense.  But I do have trouble with why.  And from what.  That pesky one step back from what can be extrapolated, that question of first cause, is the fly in the ointment, at least to me.  It is impossible to answer that by science.  And the science side of me is annoyed by that.

 But I accept that there is indeed more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in the naturalistic philosophy of science.  I believe there is more to life than can be experienced by the senses.  It is not measurable by scale or ruler. It is not observable by the most powerful microscope or telescope.  The more I firmly believe in and accept simply is.  If gravity is Hawking’s creative force, in a sense his god, mine is more.  My God is more complex.  More intelligent.  More responsive.  More compassionate.  More forgiving.  More merciful. 


 I have no scientific evidence for any of it, despite the volumes written professing to “prove” the existence of God.  But my sense of wonder is not confined to the physical.  Beyond nature is a realm vaster than the universe.  It is a reality beyond the physical, which has been variously characterized, but generally considered to be that of the spiritual.  The physical and spiritual are by no means at odds with each other.  They are complementary in every way.  Each supports and refines and clarifies its counterpart.  The trick is in knowing how to listen to each.  It is in knowing that each realm is the palette and playground of a boundless God.  He is greater than our theories, but welcomes our investigations.  He is beyond our dogmas, but welcomes our exploration.  To me, life is a journey of discovery in both worlds, a balancing of what can be observed in the physical realm with spiritual truths that can only be known by faith. 

 The greater wonder is in celebrating both.  To dismiss either is to lose a dimension, an integral piece of the puzzle of existence.  We are more than atom and molecule, flesh and bone, breath and blood.  We are star stuff and then some: we are the image of the one who conceived those stars. 

In Pursuit of Wonder

From the mundane perspective of middle-age, it seems that very little contains even a modicum of wonder any more.  But it hasn’t always been so.  I remember as a child how everything was new and interesting.  The world was vast, life was unknown, its mystery a game.

I have often mused with my students about how the sense of wonder is vital to anyone interested in science, about how children possess it, but somewhere, some kill-joy element of growing up wrests it from our minds and very few retain any sense of it as adults.  And that is a down right, low and dirty shame.

Wonder is a supreme experience among humankind.  From the freshness of the observations of a baby just beginning to experience the world to the tiny but undeniable thrill of achievement when you learn something new, wonder is among the experiences that set us apart from the rest of the animal world.

In many of the more sedate churches, wonder is something that is more often suppressed.  It is given some lip service (the passing mention of the wonders of creation, etc.), but in reality, wonder may be construed as something that is too volatile to address.

The Bible is filled with the concept of wonder.  Certainly, the miracles are awe-inspiring.  But there are many examples of language meant to at once reflect and inspire wonder.  Perhaps the most succinct of these is found in Psalm 139.13-16:

13 For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.

15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.

This passage has been used to support the theory of predestination, with which I admittedly have some trouble.  However, more fundamentally, this soaring expression of awe and wonder at the complexity of the human organism is one of the most beautiful expressions of praise for the creature as well as the creator.

Indeed, as a biologist, I am constantly in a state of wonder when I consider the precision with which life functions.  But I am also in a state of wonder at how life changes, and what may happen, whether good or ill, when those changes occur.

Consider one chromosome in the human set.  Chromosome 11 is a middling sized chromosome.  Everybody has a pair of them, one from your mother and one from your father.  If you reproduce, you will shuffle and rearrange the information from your parents to create unique combinations that will be passed on to your children.  Most of the time, everything is fine with chromosome 11 as with the other 22 in a haploid set.  But sometimes, a mistake occurs when the chromosome is being copied to make gametes—egg or sperm cells—and if that mistake is not corrected, it may lead to very distinctive changes in a child that is the product of the pairing of that “different” chromosome with a normal chromosome from your partner’s donation.

In particular, geneticists now tell us that there is some very specific information on chromosome 11 that affects the expression of things like autism and obesity.  Deletions from a portion of the short arm of chromosome 11 may include six important genes, two of which have information for neuron development and neurotransmitter receptor structure and function.  While our current understanding of autism encompasses a spectrum of disorders with what may be a plethora of causes, being able to locate such an important region may one day lead to new strategies to deal with those problems.

The wonder is not only in the remarkable expression of the normal, but in the complex expression of the abnormal, where such a seemingly small change can make such profound differences.  We cannot fully appreciate the beauty of the normal without there being something to compare it to.  Thus, one “imperfect” expression serves to demonstrate the perfection that is more common but too often taken for granted because of its commonness.

Continuing with the idea of wonder in scriptures, I often return to Job, where beginning in chapter 38, Job is questioned by God who rehearses a lengthy series of questions that explore the details of the creation process and the on-going function of said creation.

Job 38:1 Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: 2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3 Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. 4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? 6 On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, 7 when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

The language is beautiful and poetic, but the images are those of wonders beyond the common man’s experience or ability to fully comprehend.

When I consider the natural world, I cannot help but wonder at it.  There is a thrill to learning more about it, understanding its complexity, revealed a layer and a hint at a time, each new bit of information adding to the picture like a single dot in a pointillist painting, an independent element in a rhapsody of color that is life.

Life, in all its complexity, could never be static and contend with a dynamic environment.  The on-going process of creation initiated and ordained by a wiser artist than any man is another unmistakable thumbprint of God, every bit as telling as the gravity waves at the edge of the universe and fractal geometry in the form of a leaf or feather or cloud.  It is not only we that are fearfully and wonderfully made.  It is everything that is, and everything that has been and everything that shall ever be in this tapestry of life.

Modesty and Temperance (Part II)

The other issue that is often argued from the influence perspective is the consumption of alcohol.  I wish to make only a few observations, more to raise some questions for thought and reflection than anything else.  But before I proceed, please take some time to carefully read a 12-part series written by Timothy Archer on the Christian and alcohol.  (Don’t worry; each article is rather succinct and to the point.)  The series can be found at his blog, The Kitchen of Half-baked Thoughts, starting here. 

According to the orthodox doctrine and practice of the churches of Christ, any consumption of alcohol at all is a dire sin.  Perhaps much of this comes from the fact that the Stone-Campbell Movement came of age at the height of the temperance movement, when there was a tremendous cry to prohibit all alcohol in the United States.  Historically, the concept of “temperance” originally meant “moderation.”  However, during that era of extremism, temperance came to mean complete abstinence with respect to alcohol.  It may be that a significant portion of the prohibition is more cultural than scriptural.  So what does scripture say?  According to Archer’s rather thorough overview, throughout both testaments, drunkenness is condemned while consumption is not only expected, it is welcomed and wine is considered to be a gift from God.  The churches of Christ and other conservative groups like the Southern Baptists have used arguments like the wine mentioned in many places in the Bible was not really wine, but juice, or a boiled down syrup that was diluted like some juice concentrate.  Careful examination of the language clearly disproves such nonsensical justifications of accepted practice.  Yes, Jesus turned water into wine–real, good wine.  Jesus was on occasion accused of being a drunk, but there is no indication that he was ever inebriated.  Peter and associates were accused of being drunk, but his defense was not “we are only drinking juice”, it was “it’s far too early in the day to be drunk.”  The wise man in Ecclesiastes commended the use of wine, but in Proverbs warned against its abuse, which suggests on balance, a view toward moderation. 

But what about the Christian’s influence?  Some will assert that if he or she drinks ANY alcohol, people will see him or her as a hypocrite, and their influence will be compromised.  I can see that, if the person gets drunk, loses control, and acts irresponsibly.  That behavior is repeatedly condemned.  I agree, after having lived in a dorm during college and seeing the irresponsible behavior of people who abused alcohol.  Drinking to excess, leading to vomiting cannot be pleasant.  Losing all sense of propriety to the extent that urination in hallways seems acceptable—this is obviously irresponsible behavior.

On the other hand, what about the person who is a Christian and CAN use alcohol in moderation AND maintain control?  Is it not plausible to suggest that this person can have a positive influence on others by giving an example of moderation?  I read a comment by a minister who said that he was able to teach a man not because he condemned him for drinking, but because he sat down and drank a beer with him, tearing down a wall of stereotype and opening a dialog.  I don’t believe this minister tried to drink the man under the table.  I imagine he showed that there can be control.

In one article that discussed the Christian’s use of alcohol, the point was made that gluttony is also condemned.  But one respondent to that article said gluttony is only addressed something like four times and drunkenness is mentioned a lot more.  How hypocritically inconsistent is that when we bind practices (Lord’s Supper on Sunday only, collection on Sunday only) for all times based on single verses (Acts 20.7; I Cor 16.2)? 

The issue of gluttony comes quite close to home for me, since I have fought an unending (and rather unsuccessful) battle against obesity for much of my life.  I never set out to over eat, at least not in recent memory.  But I tend to stress eat, and I have had a lot of stress for much of my life.  When I eat at a family style buffet restaurant, I consciously try to not overdo it.  But I see extremely large people there with not one but two plates heaped with food before them.  And they will intemperately return perhaps more than once.  That is a sad demonstration of gluttony.  And I have no doubt in my mind that it is wrong.

Paul answers the Corinthians’ mantra of unrestricted liberty in Christ voiced in I Corinthians chapters 6 and 10 (“all things are lawful for me”) with calls of moderation (all things are not expedient or not edifying).  In I Corinthians 6.12, Paul outlines a very important principle: “”All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful.  “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.” 

That comment that he would not be dominated by anything is the key: any “thing” that becomes a master takes control away from the individual, and detracts from submission to God. 

We could spend a great deal of time and space discussing the health effects of alcohol, both positive and negative.  In general, while light to moderate consumption (no more than one or two drinks per day)  has benefit, consuming more than two units of alcohol (two drinks) a day causes negative effects.  For example, it is well-supported that moderate drinkers may actually live longer than teetotalers.  Some alcohol consumption may help to reduce “bad” cholesterol and or raise “good” cholesterol.  Some alcohol consumption helps to decrease plaque formation that leads to coronary heart disease.  Some alcohol consumption may actually help to moderate blood sugar levels.  With conflicting studies having reached different conclusions, the jury is still out on the value of compounds (resveratrol, polyphenols) found in higher concentration in red wine and dark beer that may help to protect against some forms of cancer.  

Excess consumption of alcohol, however, raises blood pressure, negatively affects triglyceride levels, causes harmful changes in the liver, impairs judgment, raises the risk for a number of forms of cancer…the list could go on.  But it should also be noted that a person can die of water toxicity—excess water consumption.  Excess consumption of animal fats contributes to heart disease and increases the risk of digestive cancers.  Excess consumption of something as seemingly innocuous as asparagus can cause gout. 

As another question, if some examples of a behavior or activity are bad, should all practice of that behavior or activity be prohibited?  The general tendency where alcohol is involved has been prohibition.  But what about sex?  Biblically speaking, sex within marriage is honorable and good.  Sex outside of marriage is prohibited.  For some people, addiction to sex is a real problem.  If we apply the same rules we use for alcohol, we can see that because some sex is wrong and may even be harmful, all sex should be prohibited.  One possible objection to this line of reasoning is that you can live without alcohol, to which the obvious reply would be that you can also live without sex.  The Shakers pretty much showed that that is a losing proposition, however.  Continuation of the species is another issue.

Do these questions mean that I recommend that everyone start drinking?  That is a thoroughly ridiculous assertion.  Not everyone can drink, nor should they.  Medical conditions may prohibit drinking.  Propensity to addictive behavior and alcoholism (which in some cases is actually linked to an organic condition involving a genetic mutation leading to an enzyme deficiency) would suggest a person not indulge.  Women who are pregnant should not drink.  (But then they should not drink coffee or caffeinated beverages, either.)  If a person has decided that he will not partake, he should not be forced to nor should he feel compelled to:  anything that would cause a person to go against his or her convictions should be avoided.  Personal choice in this matter should be respected so long as that choice is exercised responsibly. 

What I am suggesting is that we stop judging and condemning anyone and everyone for any use of alcohol.  If a person can responsibly use alcohol and avoid intoxication, we should see that as demonstrating a positive influence.  The era of Prohibition in the United States proved that such a tactic as blanket prohibition is ineffective in changing a culture’s standards.  In fact, crime soared when (virtually) all alcohol was banned.  If wise use is modeled by responsible people, there may be less of a tendency to abuse by those who are attracted by the lure of forbidden fruit.  Obviously, the “party animal” lifestyle promoted by organizations like many college fraternities and brewers of cheap beer is inconsistent with this concept of responsible moderation.  The person who can appreciate the history and art of winemaking or brewing and appreciates the complexity and character of a product but knows where to draw the line in terms of consumption is consistent with the model.           

Again, I urge you to read Archer’s series.  I have never seen a plainer discussion of the actual Biblical position teased clear of modern dogma than what I have read there.  His conclusions are close to my own, which I reached independently over years of thoughtful reflection.

Influence is important, and should be guarded judiciously.  However, when our traditions overshadow our understanding of permissible and prohibited use of products available since ancient times, we may cause more problems than we seek to belay.  The sin is not in drinking a glass of wine with gratitude and thanksgiving and in moderation.  The sin would be in setting out to drink so much that you are no longer in control of your faculties.  For those who choose to partake, the former should not be condemned.  But for all, whether one partakes or not, the latter should never be condoned.

Of Cats and Creation and the Image of God

Of all the questions a human could ask, there are some that are repeated throughout all the ages and cultures.  These are the existential favorites, “Who am I?”, and “Why am I here?”  Science may address these questions one way, but faith may have other answers.  I have been thinking lately about how we may not have been completely honest in our dealings with these questions, and may have subsequently played the game that we have accused ancient cultures of playing: anthropomorphizing deity, or more simply, making God in man’s image.  Perhaps the question that most frequently stirs up this scrutinizing and revising of the role of God is the classic query of, “Where did I come from?”  From the vantage point of faith, there is only one good place to search for such an answer.   

Genesis.  The beginning.  The very opening line of the Judeo-Christian scriptures ignites controversy by setting forth a proposition untestable by empirical means.  But perhaps much of the controversy lies not with the assertion itself, but rather with our finite interpretation of that core truth.  We who are unskilled with linguistics are captives of those who are.  The bias and prejudice that the translators embraced, whether ancient, medieval or modern, continues to shape our limited view of what can only be understood as infinite possibilities. 

In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message, Genesis 1.1 says, “First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see.”  “First this” equates to “In [the] beginning….”  How could Peterson ever change Genesis 1.1 in such a way?  Maybe it was because in ancient texts, the definite article, “the”, is missing.  So, it is possible that Genesis 1.1 was not necessarily dealing with a specific moment, but rather a foundational truth.  From the very outset, God was behind all that there is.

Another interesting point, as brought out in the Asbury Bible Commentary, is that Genesis 1.1 can also be translated as “In [the] beginning, when God began to create…”  What implication does this present?  Well a very interesting one indeed:  Creation did not necessarily stop with Day 6.  If this term is allowed, creation may be construed as an ongoing process.  But how?  Geologically, the processes that shape the planet today are “creating.”  Rock weathers to soil.  Rivers cut canyons.  Volcanoes lift islands from the sea.  And populations of organisms subjected to environmental pressures, bearing genetic variation can evolve, adapt, and survive.  This ability to continue “creation” is inherent in the directive issued to each regiment of life: “Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth.” 

The Hebrew verb, bara’, which is translated “created,” can also mean to “cut” or to “carve” or to “sculpt” something.  But to do so implies that “something” already exists on which the “sculpting” can take place.  The “heavens and the earth” need not be taken only as factually literal, but also a statement reflecting that the ordered universe, all that physically exists, was shaped by the mind of God.  What if this were a way to express the congealing and accretion of matter from the energy that violently erupted, springing from that anticipated primordial singularity of the hypothesized “Big Bang”?  If it is true, does it negate, pervert, or even mildly contort the foundational truth of Genesis 1.1?  I don’t think so.

Now from this discussion to this point, it may appear that I am attempting to do what I have often decried: make the Bible into a science book.  I do not think that to be the case here.  I have merely pointed out that within the first verse, a central truth is posited.  The language that was selected to convey that truth is pregnant with possibilities beyond our “authorized”, though limited interpretations.

Yesterday, I did something that I have never before had to do: end a life to end suffering.  On a cold December day in 2000, my wife and I became the caretakers of a half-grown kitten who stole our hearts when he came through the snow to our door and adopted us.  Henry was his own cat.  Having been apparently mistreated as a youngster he was rather wary of humans.  Our daughter, Emily, who came along two years after Henry, can charm any animal.  She won him over.  So as he aged, he mellowed.  But as he aged, he also developed an aggressive form of cancer that stripped him of his strength and shrunk him from the high point of his vitality to a shadow of his former self.  When it became obvious that his life was becoming more of a burden to him than a pleasure, we engaged the service of a veterinarian friend who graciously and compassionately helped us with that final and heart-wrenching decision.


Emily’s 4-H award-winning photo of Henry.

Why should I relate this story here?  Well, because I think of Henry as one of God’s finest creatures.  I suppose we love animals because according to the Genesis story, we were given “dominion” over them.  I rather dislike this word, “dominion,” since it implies an imperialistic sort of attitude.  Again, in Eugene Peterson’s The Message, Genesis 1.26-28 is rendered,

“God spoke:

“Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature So they can be responsible for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, And, yes, Earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.” God created human beings; he created them godlike, Reflecting God’s nature. He created them male and female.  God blessed them: “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge! Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.”

Another paraphrase further explores this idea.  In The Voice, the same passage offers,

“26 Now let Us conceive a new creation—humanity—made in Our image, fashioned according to Our likeness. And let Us grant them authority over all the earth—the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, the domesticated animals and the small creeping creatures on the earth.

27 So God did just that. He created humanity in His image, created them male and female.  28 Then God blessed them and gave them this directive: “Be fruitful and multiply. Populate the earth. I make you trustees of My estate, so care for My creation and rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that roams across the earth.”

Humankind, by force of its reasoning ability, its intellect, and its transcendent nature has been given a divine mandate.  Where some read “dominion” and see the potential for exploitation and profit, Peterson suggests a fuller concept: “be responsible” for the creation.  The Voice says, “I make you trustees of My estate.”  That takes the mandate to a new dimension: not exploiter, but caregiver.  Not thoughtless user, but thoughtful servant.

This is weighty on my mind this very early morning as I write this, because I am thinking about my cat (or was I more correctly, his human?), and about the implications of what Dr. Debbie Reynolds posted on her website regarding the esteem God places on his creation.  Dr. Reynolds simply notes, “When Adam was created, God surrounded him with animals.  When Noah was delivered from the flood, God surrounded him with animals.  When Jesus was born, God surrounded him with animals.”  Animals are more than our servants in this life.  They are our companions and fellow travelers.  They are part of the creation that God surveyed and saw that “…it was so good, so very good!” (Genesis 1.31, The Message).  They trust without reservation, and their acceptance of us says much about the human character.  They know that they are loved and cared for, and reflect that warmth with their own brand of animal appreciation and even affection.  To mistreat an animal is to violate one of God’s earliest and foremost directives to humankind:  to “be responsible” for the creation. 

Returning to Genesis 1.26-28, notice another extremely important idea, that being that humankind was created in the image of God.  The Imago Dei is a sticking point for many people in their ability to see beyond the literal and grasp a truth that transcends the physical.  According to literalists when you look in a mirror, you see the “image” of God.  But is that what that idea really means?  Could that not also mean that mankind was given a special insight owing to its God-likeness?  We are possessed of an intellect, a moral capacity, and the ability to fully and deeply love, even to love the unlovable.  These are aspects of God that go far beyond the physical form. 

Atheists tell us that we invented deity, whether God or a whole pantheon of gods, as a way of explaining questions we could not answer.  Death and suffering?  It’s God’s will.  How did life begin?  God did it.  What does the future hold?  God knows.  And to some extent, they may be right about relying on such easy answers to explain the inexplicable.  As earlier posed, in numerous mythologies, the gods essentially demonstrated larger than life examples of virtually all human failings and foibles.  The gods were lecherous, bickering, deceitful practitioners of vice, showing partiality in their capricious interactions with the lecherous, bickering, deceitful practitioners of vice that worshiped them.

When the image of God is reversed to make God assume the physical aspect and demeanor of man, we have acted no differently from the ancient Greek polytheists.  When we willfully refuse to see the fullness of the image of God, we limit ourselves to a stunted and incomplete understanding.   

If we see God’s image as the gestalt of consciousness, conscience, and moral reasoning, the physical becomes immaterial.  If the Imago Dei is not what you see but what you are, many things become easier to assess, accept and apply.  For example, there would be less of an issue with understanding evolution as a means of on-going creation.  How we arrive at a physical form is not nearly as important as the foundational truth on which that process stands: “First this: God created….”

Another issue has been teasing my mind lately, and it is related like bookends to the first question that was addressed, above.  This is, of course, the forward searching question of, “Where am I going?”  There is an ongoing and growing chorus of thinkers and believers that see a different future from the traditional interpretation of the end of all things.  Rather than seeing the fiery description of the end of the world as the end of all physical existence, the longing of all creation for redemption as seen in Romans 8 sets the stage not for destruction, but for renewal.  The fires of that final temporal event do not destroy, but purify, eliminating the imperfection and suffering that entered the world with selfish pursuits and evil. In Revelation, the image of the New Jerusalem descending from Heaven, the declaration that God would live with his creation, mankind, the exclamation that he is explicitly “making all things new” –not, as N.T. Wright points out, making “all new things”—all begin to coalesce into a new understanding of the redemption possible in a restored, perfected world, freed from the crippling effects of the burden of evil and sin.

I am neither so distraught nor so naïve as to assert that those beloved pets we have lost will find a place in Heaven, be it ethereal, as the Platonists espouse, or a restored creation as a growing number are starting to awaken to.  But as part of that “very good” system conceived in God’s mind and carved from whatever reality existed at or before the primordial event, I have no reason to believe that “very good” animals will not be a part of it.

I return frequently to one of my favorite passages from C.S. Lewis.  Writing about the beauty of a supernaturalist’s appreciation of nature, Lewis mused, “If we are immortal, and if she is doomed (as the scientists tell us) to run down and die, we shall miss this half-shy and half-flamboyant creature, this ogress, this hoyden, this incorrigible fairy, this dumb witch. But the theologians tell us that she, like ourselves, is to be redeemed. The “vanity” to which she was subjected was her disease, not her essence. She will be cured, but cured in character: not tamed (Heaven forbid) nor sterilised. We shall still be able to recognise our old enemy, friend, playfellow and foster-mother, so perfected as to be not less, but more, herself.”

From a small child, I have observed the wonders of the natural world with enraptured awe.  Could there be anything more perfect than nature as it exists, at least without human insult?  If this restorationist view of the future is true, then eternity will be an awesome experience in a refined and perfected reality.  All that we have known and believed perfect in our imperfect world will be shockingly different, and more perfect than we are capable of experiencing presently.  It will not be a happy reunion with nature.  It will be so different as to be starting to explore it and understand it afresh, as for the first time.  I could not emphasize the introduction to a perfected creation any better than Lewis phrased it, in his characteristically British understatement, “And that will be a merry meeting.”  A very merry meeting indeed.

Exploring a Multidimensional Reality from the Human Nexus

“Thou shalt not bear false witness….”

Now there’s a thought.  Most people would heartily agree with it. 

But is it ever OK to bear “half-witness”?  Apparently so, if you are doing it in defense of your doctrines. 

I’ve been thinking more about this as I have reflected on a presentation I recently viewed that had as its focus a refutation of Darwinian evolution.  There were many facts that were presented regarding discredited paleontological flubs and hoaxes.  Granted, there have been a lot of bad things that have been perpetrated with a mantle of “Darwinism” wrapped about it as a cloak of invincibility—the inevitable justifying the unthinkable in service to the inscrutable.  But there were also plenty of comments that were either untrue or misrepresentations of facts or only partially presented information that, if taken on face value by the uninformed, made it look like scientists are all a bunch of duplicitous scalawags.     

But to some, evolution is an elegant poem that unites the processes of life—birth, living, reproduction, even death—into an epic saga of struggle and survival over-arching a plot line that that heralds gain or loss or sometimes neither.  To some, the process is a revelation of God’s very own creative power that did not end with a final command spoken on the sixth day of creation, but became its own language, growing, developing, reaching, succeeding or sometimes failing, but always changing as the world around it changes.       

Why is evolution so hard to grasp for many people?  According to its most ardent detractors, evolution must of necessity strip God of his power while elevating humanity to god-like omniscience and omnipotence.  Anyone who questions the dubiously calculated age of the earth is a heretic and an infidel.  Anyone who suggests that the first chapters of Genesis provide core truth but are not a combination biology, history, physics and astronomy text is a false teacher with a ticket on the express train to hell.  Anyone who praises a Creator whose vision reached beyond the moment to the far distant reaches of the four dimensions that define and confine us, even beyond the seemingly infinite to the truth of eternity itself is no more than a black-hearted demon, spouting blasphemy against the Almighty.

While some would tie God’s hands and relegate him to the status of a birthday party magician pulling all life ex nihilo from his considerable hat, others might see him as the ultimate engineer, who with mathematical precision forged a process for his creation that would impute near infinite possibilities, and provide for its continued existence, not merely mark time until the cold fact of extinction snuffs it out.  Why would an all-powerful being create a dynamic environment for his static invention?  Change allows life to continue in the face of the irresistible forces of nature.  Static existence would only allow a population or species to resolutely await the inescapable with nothing in the wings to replace it—from that view, after all, there has been no additional creation since the end of business on Day 6.

I often reflect on the passage that says that God cannot lie.  If that is true—and I accept it as true—how could he create a world so great so recently and yet so full of red herrings that point to something far different by extrapolation and adherence to the known laws of physics?  Forget dinosaurs and fossils: more fundamentally than that would be light striking earth from stars more than 6,000 light years away, and radioactive decay profiles that reach back farther than Bishop Ussher’s calculated date of creation.  The renowned 20th century evolutionary biologist and Russian Orthodox believer, Theodosius Dobzhansky reflected that, “Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts….the blunder leads to blasphemy: the Creator is accused of systematic deceitfulness.”   Why would he need to create a world cast in the middle of its existence with false memories of a distant past? 

If all life was created in static form, why should all life as we know it possess in its very instruction set the allowance for variation from its own pattern?  I’m talking about DNA and its transcribed messaging system, RNA, which provide the blueprint for the structure, function, and control of everything from single-celled organisms (and below, like viruses) through the most complex multicellular organisms including humans.  The central dogma of molecular biology tells us that DNA codes for RNA and RNA codes for protein, especially functional proteins or enzymes.  (Yes, there are exceptions to the rule, but the central truth remains.)  All things require instruction.  All things universally considered to be alive use DNA as that instruction set. 

The genetic code is an elegant language unto itself.  Using only four basic pen strokes, 64 combinations are arranged by groups of three to allow the evocation of an alphabet of 20 amino acid “letters” that can be sequenced into an endless vocabulary that speaks “life.”  But the language is not a dead one, like Latin.  It is alive, and capable of fidelity or change, either at random or in response to some intervention by a dumb physical force or the meddling of a mind bent on seeing what happens when the next mutagenic chemical is tossed into the mix.  It has its own accents and dialects, but they can communicate and we can understand them—there was no genetic Babel.  The fundamental language is common to all.

One of the most striking things about the genetic code is its capacity for variation.  After a DNA strand has been read by the appropriate enzyme cohort, a messenger RNA message is produced that is then exported from the nucleus of a cell and read by specially assembled structures called ribosomes to convert the digital information stream into a chain of amino acids, which may then be processed by the appropriate cellular machinery into a functional protein—an enzyme—or some other product like a structural protein.

The genetic code is read in groups of three nitrogen-containing bases (which are part of the structure of nucleotides).  Chains of nucleotides make up the nucleic acids, DNA and RNA, which are the library and instruction sets for the cell.  There are four bases found in DNA nucleotides: Adenine, Guanine, Thymine and Cytosine.  When RNA is made reflecting the DNA pattern, three bases are similar, but Thymine is replaced by another one called Uracil.

Molecular biology long ago deciphered the genetic code, which can be easily visualized in the accompanying table.  A group of three bases in an mRNA message is called a codon.  As previously mentioned, there are 64 possible combinations of bases (four Nitrogen bases in groups of three, or 43), yielding 61 codons that call for specific amino acids, which, when assembled are the most basic structure of a protein.  One codon has a dual purpose: the codon, AUG, is called the start codon, and its first appearance in any mRNA message signals the beginning of the actual gene message to be translated into protein as well as calling for the presence of the amino acid, Methionine.  Subsequent appearances of that codon simply call for the inclusion of Methionine in the sequence.  Three codons are called terminators, or stop codons, and signal the end of the message.  The 60 remaining codons code for the other naturally occurring amino acids that make up the primary sequence of a protein.

The mRNA version of the genetic code is read by reading the first nucleotide base from the left side of the chart, followed by the second across the top, and finally the third from the right side.  Thus, the codon, AUG, codes for the amino acid, Methionine, and also serves as the start codon.  UAA, UAG, or UGA are stop codons that signal the end of a message.  Browsing the code is an interesting exercise: only two amino acids have a single codon: Methionine (AUG) and Tryptophan (UGG).  At the other end of the scale, there are six ways to call for Leucine: UUA, UUG, CUU, CUC, CUA, and CUG.  There are also six ways to call for Arginine, which involve differences in both the first and third base positions: CGU, CGC, CGA, CGG, plus AGA and AGG.  All of the others have either two, three, or four codons. 

Consider the codons calling for the amino acid, Proline: CCU, CCC, CCA, and CCG.  Now consider the codons for Alanine:  GCU, GCC, GCA, and GCG.  And what about Glycine: GGU, GGC, GGA, and GGG.  From these examples, a pattern should begin to emerge: for these three amino acids, the bases occupying the first two positions in the codon are essential.  The third base position could be occupied by a nucleotide containing any of the four RNA bases and still provide for the same amino acid in the final product.  The third base position allows for what molecular biologists often refer to as a wobble effect, or a redundancy in the code.  Changes may occur in the message, but if the change is in the third base position—which can happen back in the nucleus when the DNA is replicated as a cell divides or in the transcription process as an mRNA message is made or even by some random mutation event—it will not change the expression of a protein.   Any mutation that changes the third base in these redundant codons involves a silent, synonymous substitution.

genetic code

But if that substitution occurs in a location or at a time when the change will be passed on to another generation, and this change increases in frequency in subsequent generations, then the population of organisms that carry that altered sequence will have evolved.  Plain and simple.

Evolution, in its essence, is a change in the frequencies of specific forms of genes in a population over time.  Microevolution occurring within a population is easily observable.  As small mutations accumulate, differences between one population and another may become so great that the two no longer recognize each other for the purpose of reproduction, or can no longer produce offspring that can, themselves, reproduce.  When two populations diverge that far, they can be considered separate species.  Biologists call this speciation.

Speciation happens.  To deny it is like denying that the sky is blue or the grass is green.  This is especially evident in plants, where speciation may take as little as one generation to occur.  Consider a plant in which a chromosome doubling event leads to the production of an egg or sperm with twice the genetic information of the sex cell of its parental type.  It can no longer reproduce with a plant like its parents and still be able to produce fertile offspring that can reproduce.  The product of a cross between an egg that has 1 copy of each of its chromosomes and a sperm that has 2 copies (the result of the doubling event) would be an offspring that has 3 copies of every chromosome, and an individual with this odd number of chromosomes cannot produce functional sex cells to reproduce itself.  It is sterile.  These plants that have experienced such doubling will be able to reproduce with others like themselves, and their offspring will be fertile and functional.  While this process may sound far-fetched, it has happened in the past 100 years, and the potential remains in any plant population.

But can the environment really influence a change in a population?  Well, you decide:  think of a time when you went to your doctor with a genuine bacterial infection—strep throat, for example.  Your doctor gave you a prescription for an antibiotic drug, a medicine specifically designed to attack bacteria, which from the bacteria’s perspective represents a change, even a threat, in its environment.  In that population of bacteria causing your illness there is likely to have already arisen by spontaneous mutation a cell or cells that can resist the antibiotic.  It has happened, and it continues to happen today.  That mutation was a random event and did not occur as a response to the presence of the antibiotic.  It simply happened.  The mutation itself was not in and of itself an evolutionary event, but it provided the basis for the population to evolve.  Remember that evolution involves a change in the frequencies of gene forms in a population. 

Let’s say that you have a 10-day course of antibiotics.  If you take the full course of antibiotics, you kill the cells susceptible to the drug, you may weaken the resistant cells, and by both means, you may reduce the overall number of disease causing bacteria to such a point that your body can easily and naturally take care of them via your natural immune response.  But what if you start feeling better after four days?  You stop taking the medicine.  You killed off the susceptible bacteria in short order, but the resistant ones are still there, and now, with nothing to fight against them, they reproduce, producing a new population of resistant cells that cause you to experience a relapse.  The frequency of the resistant gene form has increased in the population, i.e., the population evolved.  The antibiotic failed because you didn’t follow through.  Enough of the more resistant cells survived to bounce back with a vengeance: this time, the doctor must prescribe a stronger antibiotic, which may, if not taken as directed, lead to selecting for an even stronger line of bacteria.  As the bacterial population becomes more resistant with each antibiotic that has been improperly used (or even if used properly), the bacterial population evolves.  It is observable, measurable, and undeniable.

Someone may say, “OK, that may happen in bacteria.  And that may happen in plants.  But surely not in animals.”  Well, based on the evidence, it does happen.  The renowned (and often reviled) naturalist, Charles Darwin, pointed to an age old practice to support his concept of evolution by natural selection.  One of his strongest arguments dealt with the process of artificial selection as commonly encountered in farming and animal husbandry.  Consider all of the breeds of cattle, horses, pigs, chickens, dogs, even goldfish.  If a breeder sees a novel characteristic or trait in one individual that he would like to see in his flock or herd, he will breed that individual to another one that has a similar trait, and hope for the development of a pure-breeding line.  Artificial selection takes advantage of the breeder’s ability to identify specific characteristics that may be beneficial to his business.  If he wants a cow that produces milk higher in milk fat, he breeds a cow with that trait to a bull whose mother was a good milk fat producer.  If a monk in the ancient temples of Asia saw a goldfish with a different color or sporting a novel color combination, he selected similar fish to spawn, looking for similar variants in the resulting brood of offspring. 

Artificial selection as practiced in selective breeding programs almost always selects for some freakish quality, some characteristics that might take away from an organism’s ability to function well in the wild but serves a purpose for the farmer or breeder.  A milk cow, with her significantly enlarged udder would not survive well in a natural setting where she could be easily injured.  An orange goldfish flashes bright against a dull background, putting it at a survival disadvantage. 

But through a similar process called natural selection, nature selects for those traits that boost survival or provide for a reproductive advantage.  The gene combinations that give that advantage are more likely to be passed on to the next generation, so beneficial traits increase in frequency.  Those traits that confer some disadvantage are not likely to be passed on.  If a bright orange fish in murky waters calls attention to itself and is eaten by a predator, it may die before it has an opportunity to reproduce and pass on its genes.  But the ancestral type for goldfish was not gold or orange at all.  Instead, wild type goldfish are a bronzy tan color, easily blending in with muddy, murky standing waters in ponds.

Natural selection is elegant in its simplicity, yet provides a framework for understanding how and why such diversity exists throughout all of the kingdoms of life.  The environment provides a laboratory where nature itself conducts experiments.  The variation in genetic expression is the toolbox.  Changes in weather, the presence or absence of predators, the availability of foods, the abundance or lack of mates—all of these types of things and countless others provide for independent variables, selection pressures, that select for or against specific genetic combinations and the attendant physical expressions of new or different combinations.

Einstein is credited with defining insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  By this definition, nature and its ultimate author are far from insane.  If there were no variation, no potential for change in the face of a changing environment, then the only possible result would be generation after generation of genetically identical organisms.  If the environment changes so dramatically that survival of that immutable type were impossible, the only possible result would be inevitable extinction.  The potential for evolution is present in every population through the variation in the genetic information carried by its members.  Life has the tools to continue.

Some people think that the elegant diversity of life arose spontaneously as a result of chance.  The probability that such things might occur, even over billions of years, would be infinitesimally small.  Others consider everything in the universe to have been created in its present form never to be able to change or adapt to changing conditions.  The evidence against such a static creation is staggering. 

But there is another possibility.  It is not popular with those of either camp as previously laid out, but it is considered and embraced by a significant segment of people who open their minds to both physical and spiritual truth.  It has been called many things, but perhaps most commonly “theistic evolution.”  This position gives God the credit for creating a self-perpetuating system of and for life.  It provides for adaptation, but also allows for the possibility of extinction.  And if it is allowed that God is not some distant cosmic tinkerer, but rather actively interested in the development of his creation, then he began to reveal his mind to us in ways that we could understand when our ancestors became fully self-aware, yet lacked the sophistication to understand the subtle nuances of science.

It was then that we could begin to understand the multifaceted nature we possess, like a photon possesses both energy and matter aspects.  We began to explore the world, the universe and were able to understand more of its physical laws.  But like Francis Collins pointed out, there are aspects of human nature that defy physical law.  People have tried to explain altruism, the selfless sacrifice of one’s own best interest, which translates in evolutionary terms to fitness, but with less than convincing results.  More fundamentally, there are facets of the concept of love that defy physical explanation.  The romantic love, or eros, the familial love, or storge, may have distinct chemical signatures associated with hormonal function.  These are essential in forming parental and pair bonds to ensure that young are first produced and then reared to provide for continued success of gene lines, populations, and the species.

The supreme apex of C.S. Lewis’ tetrad of The Four Loves is that selfless expression, agape, that defies a chemical explanation and occurs in seeming opposition to the concept of Hamiltonian inclusive fitness.  There is no great benefit in seeing to the needs of another while expecting nothing in return.  Kin selection’s sacrifice in service to shared genes is one thing.  But agape is manifested to anyone, not only to close relatives.  Such demonstrations of what (from a purely naturalistic perspective) can only be illogical suggest that there is indeed “more in heaven and earth” than we can see and measure and experience through the purely physical.

Those at either end of the continuum of belief are blind to the immensity and complexity visible from the middle ground.  The interplay of physical law with spiritual truth opens a new world of appreciating God for his infinite creativity and consummate wisdom.  To deny either is to make God in our image, limiting him only to tricks outside of his own physical laws, or with greater conceit, to deny him altogether.

Every discovery from gravity waves at the edge of the known universe to the Higgs boson, thought to be approaching the most elemental interface of matter and energy itself, to the fractal geometry of nature or the laws of genetics and the intricacies of cell structure and function—all of these things can strengthen faith, if one accepts a God who tells the truth in both his revelation of nature and in his direct revelation and interaction with his creation. Whether he speaks through nature or through the revered writings accepted by faith as revealing his will for the spiritual welfare of his creation–his revelation of the spiritual facts of life, I believe him.

The truth of God is bigger than the half-truths and poorly supported arguments that well-meaning people use to defend him or deny him.  The truth is that God doesn’t need defending.  He wants us to understand him, and by understanding, to come to a greater appreciation of all that we are and all that we can become.  We don’t have to choose one or the other.  It was his mind that brought the physical and the spiritual together into this human nexus.  By opening our eyes to the possibilities in both realms we begin to see the big picture, the view from God’s eyes.  And to those who see this multi-dimensional reality as he does, the view is breath-taking.    


Spiritual Lessons from the Biological World

Spiritual life reflects biology in so many ways.  That seems an odd thought on the surface, but it is very real.  As in physical life where we are born, we grow, we die, so can we do each of these spiritually.  These are obvious points of comparison.  But on the larger scale, there are other apt comparisons to be made.   As a biologist trained in botany and ecology, with interests in environmental health, I see so many things that blend the two realms of human experience in the most remarkable ways.  To demonstrate this concept, consider the application of the following biological principles to the realm of faith: Liebig’s Law of the Minimum, Blackman’s Law of Limiting Factors, the dangers of monoculture, the effects of moderate disturbance on diversity, and reciprocal altruism and cooperation theory.  Each of them addresses specific aspects of life, and each can actually be applied to the life of the spirit, as well.

Liebig’s Law of the Minimum.  Some of the most fundamental principles of ecology involve the basic laws of survival.  According to 19th century German organic chemist, Justus Liebig, the nutrient (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, etc.) in least supply limits the success of a plant.  At the population level, this can be expanded to say that the growth and success of a population is limited by the resource (water, nutrients, food, space, etc.) in least supply.  For example, plants grow poorly in nitrogen depleted soils.  We add fertilizer to amend the problem, and our crops increase.  Sometimes, there may be enough nitrogen available, but another factor limits the plant’s growth.  Molybdenum is an element that is not extremely abundant in soils, but there is usually enough to supply plants with their needs.  Why do they need it?  It serves as a co-factor for the functioning of an enzyme that starts the process of taking nitrogen from the soil and converting it into a form that the plant can use.  Without molybdenum, nitrogen could not be assimilated by the plant, and therefore the plant would appear to have a nitrogen deficiency.

Spiritually, we have needs.  Some of these are easily understood, and the resources are always quite abundant.  For example, we need the water of life, which is always flowing and always free.  We need God’s light to bring us energy and light our paths to navigate the difficulties we face in life.  These are never in short supply.  However, there are some things that we may have more control over.  These may be unavailable not because they are not there, but because they become unavailable due to human intervention.  Among these, we need to be supplied with enough of the right food to feed our souls.

One of the most direct expression of this concept is from the prophet, Hosea, who recorded in chapter 4, verse 6, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.”

In Hebrews 5.12-14, Paul further applies this principle.  “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God.  You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”  Here, the missing resource is solid food, information on how to live and how to deal with problems, not coast along with the basic principles.  No baby that consumes only milk from birth on will grow and thrive.  We need the challenge of deeper teachings, broader applications.  A congregation that is fed only “first principle” sermons will never achieve any spiritual growth.  Yes, the first principles are important. But they are not the only thing.

Blackman’s Law of Limiting Factors.   Think of this law as the converse of Liebig’s Law of the Minimum.  Simply stated, “Too much of a good thing can be bad.”  To illustrate, plants need water.  But water-logged soils lead to distress for plants that needs air spaces in the soil.  The roots become starved for oxygen, become anoxic, and then die.  Animal life needs water for survival, to carry nutrients, transport and eliminate wastes, and for cooling.  But if a human consumes too much water, she may die.  Any farmer knows the danger of adding too much fertilizer and “burning” the crop.  Physiologists would refer to these as examples of toxicity.

Spiritually, we may see toxicity in the form of preaching and teaching that continually harps on a single issue.  When preachers develop “hobbies” related to a specific topic, the teaching is not balanced, and the people suffer.  Teaching or preaching that is too deep or focuses on esoteric bits of denominational doctrinal minutiae that most people will never encounter in a lifetime often results in glassy stares from many, and self-congratulation from others because “we got it right.”  Teaching that focuses only on getting people “into” the church is also in a sense “toxic.”  Why?  Because after they are “in,” we forget about their needs, and we leave them to fend for themselves.  They begin to wither and die (See Liebig’s Law.)  Real people need real help to deal with real problems.  How do we deal with relationships?  How do we deal with loss, stress, oppression, repression, temptation, addiction, obsession, greed, loneliness, inertia….the list of real human concerns goes on and on.

One of the worst scenarios involving the toxicity of excess deals with fear.  A faith built on fear is not a real faith.  John as much as says so in I John 4.18-19.  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.”  Our faith is expressed not merely with words, but with deeds and with love.  A faith that is built solely on fear of hell, fear of God, fear of disappointing family, friends, spouse—this is not faith at all.  It is little more than a weak attempt at keeping peace, perhaps seasoned with a little self-preserving “fire insurance.”  But “fear faith” is frequently encountered where sermons and teaching are constantly tainted with brimstone and threats.  I once asked a fire and brimstone preacher why he spent so much time on hell, and he told me I only heard what I wanted to hear, that Hell is mentioned more in the Bible than Heaven.  That may be true if you tend to preach from a concordance.  But quality is more important than quantity.  How is heaven spoken of?  And does “hell” refer to the place of the damned in all instances, or was it mistranslated?  Concordances are only useful lists of words that may help you locate some truth, but are not in and of themselves the truths to which they refer.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately on why people have left the churches of Christ.  I can totally sympathize with many of their issues.  I read one letter that in some respects could have been close to my own story.  I feel deeply sorry for these people.  They turned away from God because of the damage inflicted on them by well-meaning but misinformed, ignorant people.  Young people who reach the non-scripturally described “age of accountability” are often hounded relentlessly to be baptized.  It doesn’t matter that they may not understand everything they feel they need to, and some things just may not make sense to them.  The peace of a relationship with God, of knowing his Son, is distorted and twisted into a source of pain and contention.  Get them dunked and move on.  That kind of emotional pressure and psychological coercion (maybe even bordering on abuse) almost always backfires.  Unless a person obeys with understanding and of free-will, the obedience is suspect of insincerity.  Many of these people fall away as soon as they leave home, or worse, they stay in the church, miserable, afraid, inactive and dead inside.

The danger of monoculture.  During the middle to late 20th century, there was a movement called the Green Revolution.  Its goal was to find improved crops that would provide high yields with short growing seasons so that starving people in the third world could be fed efficiently with nutritious foods.  However, when these new, highly selected crops were planted, they were susceptible to various diseases and pests, and what may have been a nuisance where many different crops are planted became a plague that led to massive failure.  Central America produces much of the bananas we buy in stores.  In order to make them seedless, breeders have hybridized different wild bananas to produce triploid lines that are sterile.  This means that many banana trees are genetically identical, propagated from cuttings.  Not long ago, banana plantations were threatened when the sterile, seedless commercial bananas were faced with a disease that could have wiped out entire farms because all of the trees were genetically the same, and therefore all susceptible to the disease.

In religion, if we require everyone to march in lock-step on every point of disputed practice, we are in danger of a crop failure.  There are essential doctrines that we must accept, and if we are truly seeking a real faith, we will accept gladly.  But so much emphasis is placed on complete unanimity on ALL issues that we lose sight of that real faith, and of things that Jesus called the weightier matters of law—justice, mercy and faithfulness (Matt 23.23).

Spiritual monoculture typically leads to the development of a priestly caste (usually populated by preachers) that by self-proclamation become the God-approved Guardians of Orthodoxy.  The cruel, un-Christian manner of their disingenuous interactions (read, “attacks”) are so far removed from the civil dialogue of men of truly good will.  They brook no variance or challenge to the accepted catalog of doctrines, including the interpreted and interpolated laws and commands that have been scrupulously sought out, uncovered, and pieced together for all the world to behold or be damned.  Anyone who dares to assert a different interpretation to anything is immediately branded a heretic and shunned.  Preachers often issue the challenge, “Show me where I’m wrong by the scriptures and I’ll be happy to change.  You’ll be my friend if you do.”  I have never seen either one happen, because the audience knows that the preacher is right, because he has arrogantly displayed his superior command of scripture for all to see.  But the ability to parrot the party line with a straight face does not mean that the preacher is right.  And anyone who has the audacity to question the orthodoxy may have enough self-respect to avoid the abuse that will certainly be heaped upon them for their “lack of faith” and for accepting “false teaching.”

The most beautiful gardens are ones where flowers of different colors and heights are planted.  Indeed few sights can match a mountain meadow in spring or a desert after a rain, where flowers of so many different colors form an awe-inspiring patchwork.  All of these flowers are nourished by the same soil, take in the same rain, grow under the same sun, and yet are different in bloom and expression.  We are all different in our understanding, but united in a common faith.  If we could embrace that instead of press for lock-step submission to man-made traditions, we would begin to see an overflow of joy.  People would want to come together to worship, not be there out of threats and fear.  Faith and the practice of religion should be liberating, not encumbering.

The effect of moderate disturbance on diversity.  Closely associated with the danger of monoculture is the effect that moderate disturbance has on diversity.  In ecology, biodiversity is very important.  Diversity brings stability to communities and ecosystems by ensuring that there are redundant species that can fill in gaps should other species become diminished or extinct.  In plant communities, productivity is actually enhanced with the presence of more species, at least up to a point.  Some species may make resources more available to others, thereby facilitating their colonization and presence.  Too many species in a given community, however, may be counterproductive since the effects of competition will be much more pronounced.

Some disturbance actually results in a benefit to the level of biodiversity.  For example, consider a field where there is no grazing by any species.  One or a few very hardy, highly competitive species tend to dominate the community, and prevent other species from becoming established.  Where the level of disturbance is extreme, for example a large herd of sheep crowded into a small pasture, only a few species will be able to tolerate such conditions.  However, a moderate level of grazing or disturbance actually leads to more biodiversity because the competitive advantage of the few species that dominate at low disturbance is removed, allowing more species to invade.  The species capable of dealing with extreme disturbance may be present, but other species will thrive here as well.

Spiritually, a congregation with no “disturbance” becomes complacent and dominated by a few strong personalities.  Without any intellectual or spiritual challenge, views are synchronized, and diversity of views and ideas become low, if not a monoculture.  Congregations where leaders are constantly whipping the members into a frenzy over this sensational notion, that rising heresy, or some other (usually conservative) social or even political position also tend to have little diversity.  The people who stay are the ones who agree.  Anyone who doesn’t may tend to look for some other place where they can feel more welcome and accepted.  Of course, anyone who leaves this kind of toxic environment will face the wrath of the faithful, and may feel compelled to stay put if only to keep the peace.  But is it worth it to be unappreciated, disrespected, and under constant suspicion for not toeing the line?

The moderate disturbance of genuinely encouraging questions, open discussion, study, and the sharing of ideas brings far more to a spiritual community in terms of diversity.  It fosters more genuine investigation, more respect, and more depth of real faith as opposed to the veneer of faith that many unfortunately opt for when religion is imposed on them.  A friend of mine used to be fond of saying that if we are set on worshipping with a church that agrees with us on everything, we’ll be in a congregation of one.  A congregation that values genuine questioning and seeking of truth is to be applauded and appreciated.  Many may make that claim, but they are just as likely to do so with the expectation that all investigations will lead to the singular “truth” of their approved doctrine.  I know for a fact from my own experience that my conclusions on a number of issues are distinctly at odds with the majority of members of the wing of the church to which I belong.  I have suggested that we may be wrong, but that gets nowhere, because the doctrines and practices we cherish, arrived at using our Heaven’s-Seal-of-Approval stamped CENI hermeneutic are inerrant and infallible.  In essence, while we refute the infallibility of papal pronouncements when made ex cathedra, we accept as infallible the conclusions of “Bro. Black” or “Bro. White” who published in the “right” brotherhood paper using CENI as the infallible guide.  But if our wing and the other guys use the same method and arrive at different conclusions, something is wrong.  If the method is infallible and not to be questioned, then logically, it should lead to identical conclusions, no matter who examines the identical evidence or when.

Reciprocal altruism and cooperation theory.  Animal behaviorists and psychologists have studied why organisms, including humans, should cooperate.  At the most basic level, competition is actually harmful to the competitors.  The energy and resources an organism puts into competition could be better spent on maintenance and reproduction.  On the one hand, shouldn’t we just look out for ourselves, for our own self-interests?  Many people might think so, and in a single case interaction, it may be true: we may win big if we force the other guy to be a big loser.  But if we are frequently engaged with specific individuals, it is to our benefit to cooperate.  Why?  Because if we do, we “win” more in the long term.  If I don’t cooperate in this round of interactions, you won’t cooperate in the next one.  I may win more now, but lose more then.  We both come out ahead if we work together.

Isn’t that what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount?  “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 7.12)  This principle is so fundamental to civil and enjoyable human interaction that we teach it to the youngest children.  We need to refresh ourselves on it frequently.  I mean, if I disagree with you over some peripheral issue, should I attack and belittle you?  Hmmm.  Do I want to be attacked and belittled?  The obvious answer is,”No.” However, the watchdog Guardians of Orthodoxy don’t care.  They are so arrogantly secure in their doctrinally pure ivory towers that they attack, berate, belittle, and brand as false teachers anyone who disagrees with them or accepts anything outside the unwritten creed.  (Yes, we claim to have no creed, but it is there, as real as any written one.  To question or challenge these ethereal premises is to deny the faith.)  In fact, if you defend yourself against them, they accuse you of attack, and glory in the fact that they are being persecuted for righteousness’s sake.  Their self-righteousness and arrogance are practically palpable, even though they use words like love and humility.  But that brand of in-your-face Christianity is driving people away in droves.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons I have been so sensitive to much of this.

As a Christian who is a scientist and a teacher, I enjoy exploring the overlap of principles between the physical world and the spiritual.  I am thrilled when I see the concepts in God’s written revelation supported by his unwritten one.  As a scientist, I am trained to attempt to falsify and disprove hypotheses.  After we perform experiments and observations to try and disprove a hypothesis, if we have not been successful in disproving it, we accept that hypothesis as valid and move on to another investigation.  If the experiment shows a flaw in the hypothesis, if the data do not support it, we reject that hypothesis and search for one that more adequately explains the phenomenon in question.  Science never stops.  Questions lead to more questions, even as answers lead to more answers.  In religion, however, we are all too often content to accept what we have been taught without question or examination.  We are bent not on seeking the weakness of our doctrines in order to find and understand truth, but on using cherry-picked “proof-texts” to prop up and support what are often no more than traditions.  We reject any questions or attempts to view our conclusions from different perspectives to see if they truly remain valid and objective.  If we do raise a question, one of the first things some preachers sprint to is that we must “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” (2 Tim 3.23)  They fail to read on or recite the next portion, which continues, “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.”  (2 Timothy 3.24-25a)  Many of those who teach are the most quarrelsome.  Here, real science is far superior in practice, and far less subjective.  (Incidentally, there are probably fewer fights in laboratories than in church buildings.)

Life is beautiful, whether biological or spiritual.  Each realm mirrors the other.  Our greater experience is with the physical and biological, what we can see and feel; we touch the spiritual realm through the intellect and the heart.  In viewing the similarities between biology and spirituality, we should gain greater insight into spirituality.  We need to strengthen our connections with the principles of physical life so that we can understand our spiritual existence better.  Understanding engenders appreciation.  The more we know, the richer our lives may become.  We need enough of the right kinds of resources, not too much and not too little.  We need to be encouraged to think and examine and explore.  We need to understand and appreciate people of different views who share a common faith.  Without these things, our souls will wither in bitterness and isolation.  With respect and love, we can be stronger and win.  Win what? Better life. More life.  Eternal life.  It’s worth the investment in time and effort and reflection and practice.  And besides, I never like to lose.