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theology

Being Grumpy

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I’ve always admired great curmudgeons: men—they are always men; there is no polite word for a woman curmudgeon—who are at once witty and wise and aloof. They have both inspired and excused my own grumpiness. Of course, there’s more to being a curmudgeon than grumpiness, but an ungrumpy curmudgeon is as oxymoronic as a gloomy Pollyanna. Grumpiness is a necessary but not sufficient condition for being a curmudgeon.

Showering is a good time for thinking deep thoughts, and I was meditating on the character of the Bishop of Digne in Les Misérables, when a question popped unbidden into my head.

Was Jesus ever grumpy?

This question had nothing to do with Victor Hugo’s saint.

Clearly Jesus became angry. He overturned the tables where the bankers were exchanging money. He drove the sheep and goats out of the temple. He laid into the people who were buying and selling with a whip made of knotted cords. But anger is different from grumpiness. Jesus’ anger had a well-defined object. The Jews were effectively barring Gentiles from the one area of the temple where they were permitted to worship. Grumpiness is a diffuse irritability. It has no particular object but tends to take whatever comes. Someone who is grumpy does not want to be bothered, and nearly everything is a bother. It’s hard to see Jesus as grumpy.

However, it’s easy to see God as grumpy. In fact, most people, Christian or not, have had an impression of God as an irritable old man, sifting through people’s lives like a fastidious beggar going through other people’s trash. They see him take a discarded chicken leg, sniff it, grimace with disgust, and toss it aside. Or maybe he’s like your own father, always searching out your flaws, never satisfied with you, muttering under his breath when you come in the room and exuding an air of fault-finding and pickiness wherever he goes.

Jesus demolishes these images. (One of his favorite pastimes is smashing idols.) “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” “I do nothing except what I see my Father doing.” Or my favorite: “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” God is not grumpy.

Maybe my admiration for grumpy old men is misplaced.

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Walking Backwards

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A Parable

I saw the devil in a desolate land walking backwards as fast as he could. He was making good time looking intently behind.

“Why do you walk like that?” I asked.

“So I can see the mistakes I’ve made and the pitfalls I’ve avoided,” he said. “I am what all my past choices have made me.”

Falling in beside him, I was soon insensibly matching his pace, and I could see what he meant. The landscape stretched away from me bathed in a crimson glare. I could see quite near where I had lied, and further off where I had betrayed a friend. In the distance were monuments of my childhood: the time I was falsely accused, the time when I cheated on my homework. All my past lay before me, and I felt the terrible weight of its certainty.

Suddenly, I heard a loud voice saying, “Turn toward the light.” I realized with a start that I was walking backwards like the devil, and I remembered that “to repent” means “to turn.”

I stopped and turned around. The land before me was very dark, but in the distance a great light was shining. The devil was nowhere to be seen. I looked down and saw that I could make out my way for only a few steps. As I crept forward, I found that my way was always lit but only for a step or two. I began to walk with greater confidence and soon broke into a run. The light was before me, and I felt like I could fly. I could see indistinctly the figure of a man up ahead, and I knew that it was me.

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What if Evolution is True?

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Nothing in science provokes controversy like evolution, especially in America. Despite more than 80 years of evolution teaching in America’s schools, Americans remain doubtful that all life now on earth developed from less advanced forms of life. Among scientists, however, and especially among biologists, the verdict is nearly unanimous: evolution occurs. Why such a serious disconnect? Is the evidence for evolution not compelling? Is it too abstruse for non-specialists to understand?

Opposition to evolution from evangelical Christians has been particularly strong. Some, such as popular speaker Ron Carlson, still cling to the notion that the world (and presumably the entire universe as well) is less than 10,000 years old. Such people remain untroubled by evidence because they start with accepting the literal truth of the bible. Evidence contrary to the bible is dismissed as unconvincing or dishonest. The whole scientific enterprise is seen as a means for eliminating God from public discourse rather than a means for discovering the truth about the universe we live in.

There can be no doubt that science attracts atheists or encourages atheism. Belief in a personal god is rare among scientists. But I think it is disingenuous to claim that scientists do not care about truth. Many early scientists were men and women of faith. They expected that their investigations would confirm the truth of scripture. Early geologists, for example, sought everywhere for evidence of a massive worldwide flood, and it seemed at first that fossils of sea creatures on mountain tops might bear out the biblical account. But as they examined the evidence, they became more an more convinced that the layers of fossils they were seeing were millions of years old, laid down when the mountain tops were sea beds and then thrust up by the slow motions of the earth’s crust. This process of being convinced by evidence was not driven by the desire to get rid of God. It was driven by the universal human desire to understand.

Many evangelicals have concluded that the truth of evolution is incompatible with the truth of scripture. If evolution is true, they claim, then the bible is not true. I think this is a very dangerous position because it gives excellent grounds to the enemies of Christ for rejecting the gospel. The bible has never been nor was ever intended to be a book of scientific claims. When the psalmist says, “you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13), he is not making a factual statement about the process by which human beings are formed. He is claiming that human beings are specially created by God no matter what processes are involved in their making. This is a claim that science cannot verify. It is a claim made by faith. Most of the claims made in scripture—and surely all the most important ones—are similarly claims of faith.

If evolution is true, it has consequences for faith. But the consequences need not be catastrophic. Throughout history Christians have adapted to the intellectual climate of the times. During the middle ages, for example, the orthodox view of sex was that it was solely for procreation. Enjoyment of sex even by people married to each other was considered evil because it encouraged the desires of the flesh. Similarly, food was meant to be eaten for sustenance and not for enjoyment. (We could probably do with more restraint in both areas nowadays, but I digress). Evolution poses difficult problems for understanding ourselves in relation to God. At what point did human beings become spiritual beings? What are we to make of the creation stories in the bible? How are we made in the image of God if we share common ancestry with other creatures? In fact, what does “made in the image of God” mean?

I don’t know whether evolution is true. I do know that I do not want to tie my faith in a changeless God to scientific explanations, which have changed time and again.

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