Tag Archives: science

Consider the Days of Old

New WorldOn the verse, “Consider the days of old, the years of the many generations (Deut. 32:7),” the 13th century scholar Nachmanides explains that “Consider the days of old” refers to the Six Days of Creation and “The years of the many generations” refers to the time from Adam forward.” Many leading rabbis who lived centuries before Darwin understood that when Adam appeared on the scene, the universe might have already been much older. Most notably, this is the opinion attributed to Rabbi Nechunia Ben Hakana who lived some 2,000 years ago, which is quoted by many mainstream, medieval commentators such as Rabbenu Bechaya, the Recanti, Tzioni, and the Sefer HaChinuch. Rabbi Yitzhak M’Acco, a student of Nachmanides, suggested based on kabbalistic calculations that the universe is thousands of millions of years old.

With regard to humans arriving on the scene, the Talmud (Chagiga 13b) states clearly that there were 974 generations prior to Adam. The famous Tifferes Yisrael commentary to the Mishnah wrote in 1842 (prior to publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species): “In my opinion, the prehistoric men whose remains have been discovered in our time and who lived long before Adam are identical with the 974 pre-Adamite generations referred to in the Talmud, and lived in the epoch immediately before our own.”

Of course, the key point where Torah and evolutionists diverge is on the question of “accident versus design.” Evolutionists say that life happened by accident; Judaism says that God made it happen.

from the “Ask the Rabbi” column
“Evolution and the Bible”
Aish.com

I know I’m going to get “heck” for this, at least from conservative Christians and Orthodox Jews. Evolution and Creation are supposed to be incompatible in both religion and science, but the Aish Rabbi crafts a response to the question of Evolution that allows for both.

Up to a point.

I just finished re-reading Gerald L. Schroeder’s book Genesis and the Big Bang (and just started reading his more recent book The Hidden Face of God ) and Schroeder seems to believe something similar (also, see my previous blog post For God Rolled the Dice and the Universe Came to Be for more).

One of the problems comes along with trying to reconcile the six days of Creation in the Bible with the 13.7 or so billion years science says the universe has been around. According to present scientific theory, the Earth has been in existence for about 4.5 billion years.

How do six days fit into billions of years and vice versa?

Schroeder suggests a rather complicated interplay involving time dilation and relativity to explain that, from the Earth’s point of view, billions of years passed, but from God’s perspective, it was only six days. Schroeder spent an entire chapter laying the foundation for his belief and I can’t find any way to compress it into a paragraph or two in this blog post and still have it make sense. Suffice it to say that both science and the Bible are right as Schroeder sees it.

But what about life and evolution? According to the Bible, God created all living things as they are known today, including human beings, in just a few days. There were no previous and less developed forms of life, that became more complicated over time as they adapted to environmental changes, resulting in the creatures we have on our planet right now.

The Aish Rabbi refers to the Talmud which states that “there were 974 generations prior to Adam” and that those generations describe the lives of those beings we refer to as “prehistoric man.” Presumably, during that time, other creatures were also created, existed, and faced extinction.

It all makes a sort of sense, but I’m still struggling with seeing Genesis as being able to wholly map to the observations and interpretations we have about our universe based on astronomy, geology, and paleontology.

ancient_skyI admit, that whether you believe the Earth is ten thousand years old or 4.5 billion years old, devotion to God and love and charity to human beings shouldn’t be impacted to any degree in the life of a Christian or observant Jew. Still, it’s a compelling issue because the extreme literal stance on Creation taken by conservative Christians is one of the barriers to evangelizing more educated secular atheists. Educated unbelievers can’t be past the “Christians are ignorant buffoons” factor and I myself feel embarrassed when I hear a Christian trying to convince someone that Earth is a mere ten thousand years of age.

Christians aren’t likely to take the Talmud as an authority but it’s telling that “the famous Tifferes Yisrael commentary to the Mishnah” was written in 1842, prior to the publication of Darwin’s famous “Origin of Species.” Darwin, like the stream of Judaism the Aish Rabbi represents, believes in some sort of evolutionary process but that it was not random. God was always the causal agent, the Master Designer.

According to Dr. I. Prigogine, recipient of two Nobel prizes in chemistry: “The statistical probability that organic structures and the most precisely harmonized reactions that typify living organisms would be generated by accident is zero.”

Darwin himself wrote in Origin of Species: “…If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications — my theory would absolutely break down…”

The jury is still out regarding the sequencing of how life developed, over what time period, and the mechanics God employed. I believe God made human beings independently and as we are now without prior evolutionary forms, but what about animal life, which was never intended to have the unique position of man?

The Bible is well aware of evolution, although it is not very interested in the details of the process. All of animal evolution gets a mere seven sentences (Genesis 1:20-26). Genesis tells us that simple aquatic animals were followed by land animals, mammals, and finally humans.

That is also what the fossil record tells us, albeit with much more detail than these few biblical verses provide. The Bible makes no claims as to what drove the development of life, and science has yet to provide the answer.

In paleontology’s record of evolution, first came the discovery that life appeared on Earth almost 4 billion years ago, immediately after the molten globe had cooled sufficiently for liquid water to form. This contradicted totally the theory of gradual evolution over billions of years in some nutrient-rich pool. The rapid origin of life remains a mystery.

Then we learned that some 550 million years ago, in what is known as the Cambrian explosion, animals with optically perfect eyes, gills, limbs with joints, mouths and intestines burst upon the fossil scene – with nary a clue in older fossils as to how they evolved. It is no wonder that Darwin, in his “Origin of the Species,” repeatedly implored his readers (seven times by my count) to ignore the fossil record if they were to understand his theory.

The overwhelming weight of evidence tells us that something exotic certainly happened to produce life as we know it. Historically one of the most compelling arguments regarding the existence of God comes from the precision design found in nature. Design implies a designer, and Darwin’s proposal that evolution could have occurred without a Designer (by means of natural selection through random mutations) changed things.

The Aish Rabbi’s opinion is certainly controversial when considered from a fundamentalist Christian position and likely when seen from an Orthodox Jewish viewpoint (my wife says the local Chabad Rabbi believes the Earth is roughly 12,000 years old).

world-of-extinct-mammals

I’m writing all this, not to yank anyone’s chain (though I’m sure it will) but to explore my own thought processes on this matter. I didn’t become a believer until I was past forty years old, so all of my educational foundation is based on Earth being very old and that the basic process of scientific examination of our environment is sound and designed to produce more or less reasonable results (although history has shown that those results aren’t always correct upon subsequent examination).

Religion, for its part, has had to make up some rather fanciful stories to explain the fossil record, to explain our understanding of the size and therefore the age of the universe, to explain our understanding of the age of various geological formations on our own planet, and to explain a myriad of other findings from the world of science that seems to radically contradict an absolute literal reading of the Bible’s Genesis account.

I really enjoy reading about the sciences, though I’m quite the amateur. I enjoy astronomy. I like hearing about the latest “adventures” of the various robotic probes on the surface of Mars. I have an interest in reading about the journey of Voyager 1 at the edge of interstellar space. I think God created us with an insatiable curiosity about the universe around us and a drive to explore it with the intelligence he created in us.

Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”

Genesis 2:15-17 (NASB)

It is said that there was no death before the Fall (which happens in Genesis 3) so how could there have been life on a long-term scale before Adam and Eve? How could life in some form or another have existed for hundreds of millions of years before Adam and there not be death?

When God describes the consequences of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, how did Adam know what “die” meant? How could the serpent convince Eve she wouldn’t die (Genesis 3:1-5) from eating the fruit if dying was unknown to her? Why would she fear death and why would she have to overcome that fear in order to eat?

Reading the various consequences God visited upon Adam, Eve, and the rest of Creation as listed in Genesis 3, none of them say that all life was immortal before the Fall and suddenly became mortal afterward.

Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”

Genesis 3:22 (NASB)

Gateway to EdenIt seems as if the two humans in the Garden were mortal (along with all other forms of life) and only by taking and eating from the tree of life would they become immortal! The presence of death wasn’t dependent upon the Fall. All life in the Garden was mortal.

Why couldn’t any life that may have existed as created within the span (as the Aish Rabbi suggests) described in Genesis 1:20-26 (the millions and millions of years prior to the creation of modern human beings) have been born, lived, and died, and born, lived, and died, and born, lived, and died?

Yeah, I expect to get some static over this blog post, but I’m writing it to explore my own thinking process in this area and also to (hopefully) inspire others to think as well. We need to take a look at the evidence presented by our environment, take a look at the Bible, take a look at our dogma, and struggle with what all that is supposed to mean.

I believe God created us to think, to explore, and to struggle with the meaning of everything we see. I think He wanted us to wonder and to experience wonder. I don’t think He wanted the Bible to be some sort of cosmic solution machine spitting out all the answers to all the questions in bite-sized chunks, like eating from a bowl of Christian-Jewish fortune cookies.

We don’t have to get all the answers from the Bible. God gave us other tools to use as well. Telescopes, microscopes, and the Large Hadron Collider aren’t the enemies of the Bible. They complement it. They are the lens through which we examine the world which reveals God, just as the Bible is the story of the relationship between God and human beings.

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Collision

Criticizing another person is not out of the question. It’s just that there are a few conditions to attend to before you start.

The first condition is to make sure this person is your close friend. Those are the only people worth criticizing—not just because they may actually listen, but also since you run a lower risk of making them into your sworn enemies.

If this person you feel an urge to criticize is not yet your close friend, you’ll need to spend some time with him. Find out everything that’s good about him, and go out of your way to help him out. Eventually, a real friendship will develop.

Also, you’ll need to ensure that this person has the same knowledge, understanding and perspective of right and wrong as you do before you can attack his decisions. If he doesn’t, you’ll need to spend some time learning and discussing together until you see each other’s point of view.

Once the two of you are in the same space in Torah and observance of mitzvot, and he’s your good friend to boot, then it’s okay to criticize—if necessary. And if you can remember what there was to criticize.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
from How to Criticize and More on How to Criticize
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do.”

-Benjamin Franklin

I was recently involved in a Facebook conversation started by a fellow who took exception to the King James Version of the Bible and, by inference, all of Christianity. He was very nice about it, but just because someone says “please” and kisses you on the cheek before punching you in the face doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.

OK, that’s a little unfair and he did say something about his motivation for “sharing” the photo criticizing the KJV Bible:

…if something can’t stand inquiry at every level, do we have any business basing huge belief systems on it?

I suppose that’s true and there are many people, both atheists and Christians, who spend a great deal of time examining the Bible and offering critical analyses of the text. I don’t mind serious scholars investigating the writings of Judaism and Christianity and providing illuminating and challenging questions, but at one point does the motivation of those who criticize people of faith become less than scholarly?

And then there’s reddit or more specifically, the sub-reddit on atheism. For those of you who don’t know, reddit is a social news website where the registered users submit content, in the form of either a link or a text “self” post. Other users then vote the submission “up” or “down”, which is used to rank the post and determine its position on the site’s pages and front page. (source: Wikipedia) Sub-reddits are pages within the larger whole that address specific topics of interest, such as music, movies, science, and atheism. However, the atheism sub-reddit isn’t defined so much by what atheists believe as by what they’re against which is, for the most part, Christianity (although the atheist sub-reddit page is probably doing it wrong).

I only bring up reddit because I read it daily and because they go out of their way to bash Christians daily. The fact that popular online social venues regularly criticize not only religious beliefs but religious believers shouldn’t exactly come as a shock. After all, atheism is probably the predominant “religion” in the west today (I say that last part somewhat ironically).

Besides, weren’t Christians told to expect this sort of behavior?

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. –Matthew 5:11 (ESV)

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. –James 1:2-4 (ESV)

However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t consider the other side of the coin. Just why is there so much criticism being directed at Christianity? There are a few reasons.

You can’t really be an atheist unless you are defining yourself against a theist, someone who believes in a god or gods of some sort. Since belief in a god or gods requires a belief in the supernatural, something you can’t examine objectively using the scientific method, atheists who are scientifically oriented define themselves in opposition to religious people who are considered irrational, superstitious, or just plain stupid.

Atheists who may or may not be scientifically oriented have another, wider motivation for not only refuting religion, but particularly being really angry at Christianity. Christians tend to be viewed (and not unjustly in many cases) as being pushy, self-righteous, opinionated, bigoted, hostile, narrow-minded, and generally “in-your-face” about what they believe.

The basis for some of this is “the great commission,” which we find in Matthew 28:19-20:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.

In other words, Christians are commanded to carry the “Good News of Jesus Christ” to everybody who will listen. That’s fine as far as it goes. If someone is curious about me and my faith, I’ll be glad to explain to them why I believe what I believe and to suggest (if they’re still willing to listen) that a life lived in relation with our Creator has many benefits.

But it doesn’t stop there for many believers.

I mentioned before that atheists tend to define themselves in relation to who they’re against. So does Christianity. Christianity defines itself against sin, or so it says. Christians pursue this definition to the degree that they can be very outspoken (depending on the denomination and how conservative they are) against the values and people currently held in high esteem by popular western culture.

The current popular debates between Christianity often are not based on whether God exists or not, but on the so-called “culture wars” between what some consider Christian values and the more popular, progressive viewpoint. These topics tend to center around social issues such as the rights of women, people of color, and particularly (since it’s been in the news a lot lately) gay rights and what is referred to as “marriage equality.”  Each side accuses the other of heavy-handed tactics in promoting their agenda and attempting to manipulate the minds and beliefs of the next generation.

As an example, I’m presenting an interesting photo (no, not the one below, you’ll have to click the link) I found on the atheist sub-reddit page. Although there’s no explanation regarding the photo of this person’s facial bruise and his bumper sticker, since it is posted on the atheist sub-reddit page, I can only assume it’s meant to indicate that a person of faith, possibly a Christian, assaulted this man because the person of faith believed the man in the photo was gay.

This plays into the reputation Christians have in the secular world relative to gays (even though the Bible doesn’t specifically command a Christian to give a gay man a black eye). To say that this particular (assumed) example of “Christian hostility” is unfair and possibly inaccurate is obvious, but to be fair, we have been rather oppressive at times in our treatment not only of gay people, but of any person who doesn’t measure up to the particular standards of the church, however those standards are understood.

In other words, religious people and non-religious people are capable of being unfair and critical. Religious people and non-religious people are easily offended and need to strike back against the person or organization that offered the offense. Religious people and non-religious people believe their particular system of beliefs are right, correct, represent basic reality, and are not only fact but truth.

What do religious people and non-religious people have in common.

They’re all people.

It’s important to remember (curb your dogma for a second) that we all operate inside of systems. Having a particular religious orientation means you are operating within that system and are subject to all of the conditions imposed by that system. Having an orientation toward atheism means you are operating within that system and are subject to all of the conditions imposed by that system. Sure, religion tends to believe that it is a container for truth while atheism tends to believe that it is a container for fact, but both are systems and the people within them will go to great lengths to defend their beliefs including attacking people who hold differing beliefs.

If you’re a Christian and an atheist says or does something that offends you, hurts your feelings, or makes you angry, that happens because you are human. Your faith is important to you and when it’s attacked, it’s like someone has just jabbed you in the eye with a sharp stick. If you’re an atheist and a Christian says or does something that offends you, hurts your feelings, or makes you angry, that happens because you are human. Your beliefs are important to you and when they’re attacked, it’s like someone has just jabbed you in the eye with a sharp stick.

I’m not here to “prove” that Christianity is right or wrong or that atheism is right or wrong. I’m here to say that we are spending a tremendous amount of time defining ourselves by who and what we are against and going out of our way…all of us, to hurt as many people as we can in the process, whether we think that’s our motivation or not.

Since atheism has no formal moral or ethical code attached to it, I can’t hold atheists to any standard of right or wrong. If an atheist wants to go out of his or her way to hurt a Christian, Jew, Muslim, I can’t blame them too much. After all, they are only acting according to human nature.

However, Christianity does come with a formal moral and ethical code (which varies a bit depending on denomination) and I can (and will) hold Christians to a moral and ethical standard. If you’re a Christian and you’re going out of your way to hurt someone just because you can, I’m going call you on it. That’s not “church bashing,” that’s calling believers to return to behaving as we were taught by Jesus and his example.

As I recall, when Jesus became angry, he was usually criticizing the religious authorities around him, not unbelievers and sinners. He used to hang out with sinners, eat with them, talk with them, and provide charity for them. If he defined himself at all, it was in comparison to the standards of the One who sent him, not against the people around him.

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. –John 5:19 (ESV)

No one is born a Christian. Unlike Judaism, we don’t have a biological, genetic, inheritance from our “fathers.” We each come to know God through the example of our Master and teacher at some point in our existence. Then we spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out what that means by acting out of our understanding and Christ’s example. We don’t always do such a great job of it, unfortunately.

But since no one is born a Christian, that means anyone who isn’t a Christian might come to faith one day. If we are obligated to share our “good news” with everyone else, we need to make sure we are really sharing good news and not criticism, judgmentalism, hostility, and bigotry. We must remember that we have been taught to share the good news by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and imprisoned, and there are penalties against us when we fail to do so. (Matthew 25:31-46)

Rabbi Freeman said, The first condition is to make sure this person is your close friend. Those are the only people worth criticizing—not just because they may actually listen, but also since you run a lower risk of making them into your sworn enemies. In other words, all of the time we (believer, atheist, whatever) spend on the web criticizing other people and their beliefs isn’t going to change anything. No one will listen let alone change their minds just because someone they’ve never met thinks they’re either godless or superstitious.

I have no hope of changing anyone as a result of today’s “morning meditation,” either. But who knows? Maybe by advocating that all parties put down their guns, knives, and boxing gloves, maybe we can temporarily arrive at an uneasy truce. In the end, we all want to know the same things.

Who am I and what am I doing here? Is this all there is, or is there something more?

I’m pretty sure bashing people who don’t share our belief system won’t answer those questions.

This is the first part of a series that continues in Repairing Life.

 

The Tent of God

Downtown Dewey Square is crammed with tents and tarps of Occupy Boston protesters, but organizers made sure from the start of this weeks-old encampment that there was room for the holy.

No shoes are allowed in the “Sacred Space” tent here, but you can bring just about any faith or spiritual tradition.

A day’s schedule finds people balancing their chakras, a “compassion meditation” and a discussion of a biblical passage in Luke. Inside, a Buddha statue sits near a picture of Jesus, while a hand-lettered sign in the corner points toward Mecca.

“Religion claims its place in Occupy Wall Street”
-by Jay Lindsay
found at news.yahoo.com

We tend to think of religious and secular activities as isolated from one another. Secular people rally around “separation of church and state” (though that’s not exactly what the Constitution says) while at least some Christians say that the United States was founded as a Christian nation (which isn’t really true, either). However, there is a distinct impression of polarity between what some might think of as “faith vs. facts”. Reality isn’t quite so clear cut, though.

For instance, a number of weeks ago, I came across an article at Network World called Science and religion can and do mix, mostly. The takeaway blurb says:

Rice study shows only 15% of scientists at major US research universities see religion and science as always in conflict.

That’s not the impression you get from the news media, at least when religion and science come up in the same story. There’s a tendency to believe that people of faith and people of science are mortal enemies. One avenue of evidence many atheists use against religious people is that the various sciences “prove” or at least support, an origin of the universe and of the earth that does not match up with how Genesis describes those events in the Bible. Science is also used in some manner or fashion, to support natural rather than supernatural processes for the creation and development of life, and of course, there’s no direct, scientific observation that supports the existence of God.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book God in Search of Man : A Philosophy of Judaism said that science was not an adequate tool for determining the existence of God, since science, as a method of examination, can only investigate those things that are available for examination within the scope of our universe. God is “extra-universal”, so to speak, and escapes all methods of man trying to capture God and put Him under the microscope.

That probably sounds like a convenient excuse to some, but I’m not going to present a detailed defense for God’s existence against the various scientific disciples. They operate on completely different playing fields. To be fair to the Biblical rendition of the Creation event in Genesis though, I don’t believe it was written as a “cookbook” on how God created the universe, nor do I believe it can be understood outside of a deeply mystic frame of reference. I’m not the only one with this viewpoint. For instance, Rabbi Joshua Brumbach on his blog Yinon, recently replied to a commenter:

I don’t believe the intention of Genesis is meant to be a scientific account, but rather a theological one. As such, I am not necessarily a literal 6 days person. IMHO, like you, I don’t think the Biblical text and Science are in conflict with each other.

There’s no real reason to say that the “big bang” theory, which is accepted by the vast majority of the scientific community as the most likely explanation for the origin of the universe, should be at odds with the acceptance of the Genesis story in the Bible. And while the scientific understanding of the big bang event has evolved over time, it still has some uncertainty attached to it as reported by Space.com:

“The problem is, there’s no reason whatsoever to believe general relativity in that regime,” said Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at Caltech. “It’s going to be wrong, because it doesn’t take into account quantum mechanics. And quantum mechanics is certainly going to be important once you get to that place in the history of the universe.”

So the very beginning of the universe remains pretty murky. Scientists think they can pick the story up at about 10 to the minus 36 seconds — one trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second — after the Big Bang.

So in the time that existed just prior to “one trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second” before the big bang, could the hand of God have been at work? I believe so, but then, that’s an opinion based on faith. To say that God absolutely could not have been involved requires as much faith, if only because there’s no way to be so definite on that point without invoking faith, either in God or in God not existing.

So we find God in odd places, places we wouldn’t expect to find Him, such as at an Occupy Wall Street demonstration in Boston. Of course:

The tent is one way protesters here and in other cities have taken pains to include a spiritual component in their occupations. Still, Occupy Wall Street is not a religious movement, and signs of spiritually aren’t evident at all protest sites.

So we discover God, or our faith in Him at least, is involved in human affairs because God is involved in us. If the world was not created for the sake of humanity, would the universe exist? That’s like the old “if a tree fell in the forest and there was no one to hear it, would it make a sound” question, and as there are no observers at either event (except God), we have no way of knowing for sure.

To fly in the face of science, God is not a God of facts, but a God of experiencing. We know He is real because we experience Him in ways that defy logic, science, and traditional observation. We believe He has inserted Himself into the lives of human beings and into the course of history, but it still requires faith to see His face shining and His hands working at places like Eden, Sinai, and Jerusalem. Although God is omnipresent, He is most likely found in the places where we carry Him. His being can and has and does manifest anywhere, but He is most often seen, and heard and felt where the people of God are. We are His emissaries to those who have no other method of experiencing Him. The people of God allow the invisible God to be seen by the righteous and the unrighteous alike.

Right now, in downtown Boston, He is sitting in a small tent along with a statue of Buddha, a picture of Jesus, and a hand-lettered sign pointing to Mecca. He was carried there along with those objects and He would be there, even if those other objects didn’t exist. For the method of transport for God into that small tent in Boston, and in all the other places we find God, wasn’t by hands, but by the container of faith He has helped us build within ourselves. And we people of faith, though hardly 99% of the population, are not always who you would expect us to be or where you would expect to find us.

Addendum October 30, 2011: Christians are supporting the “Occupy London” protests. Read about it at guardian.co.uk.