Category Archives: science and religion

The right kind of pride is calling us all back home

On a flight out of London recently my goal was to use the time flying across the country to study the English landscape. Now that I had visited the country and seen its hills and creeks, listened to its birds singing in the hedgerows and wandered the streets of London in the sunshine, I wanted to see the country from above. To put it all in perspective. The visit. The return trip home from the land of my ancestors.

English skies

We were fortunate with weather all week. The English skies were clear and the temperatures cool and wonderful.

But there was something more. Coming east from America the country of Ireland had been obscured by clouds and I had not seen that landscape at all.

Going west again we soared 34,000 feet in the air and crossed the channel between Great Britain and Ireland. There was nothing but a few strings of clouds to block the view.

The coastlines were fascinating to me. They illustrate that habitable ground really does come to an end. From high up in the sky you can see the giant shimmering patterns of waves rolling up against the shore. It is humbling to realize that our view of the ocean by foot is always so limited. Yet there are truths to be revealed even in that narrow perspective. The breaking waves at our feet reflect principles of physics and laws of gravity replicated billions of times every second of every day, and for all eternity as long as the earth and water and sky have existed.

Fragile existence

The Canadian escarpment in late April windswept and snow laced
The Canadian escarpment in late April windswept and snow laced

We know much about the visible consistency of our universe, our solar system and our planet. We also know that human beings evolved in concert with a very narrow band of physical properties that make life on earth possible at all. Some call that a miraculous circumstance. Others go a step further and credit it all to the power of God.

Science takes a parallel yet more verifiable view of such things, for our sciences measure the limits of all things as well as take measure of the infinite. That distinction is critical to our understanding of how things work. Yet it proves somehow unfavorable to people incurious about the material world and its deepest secrets.

An ideological divide

That divide between some brands of religion and the fields of study we call science is causing real problems with our collective understanding of our real position in this universe. Some people seem to have so much pride vested in the notion that human beings are specially created that they refuse to understand the real workings of creation at all. Yet nature truly is a creative, absolutely infinite source of invention if we consider both its power and its fragility.

Talk show enlightenment

An image of space from the Hubble telescope
An image of space from the Hubble telescope

On the radio this morning a pair of talk show hosts was leading a discussion with an astronomer from the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. They discussed how much information the Hubble Telescope has provided the human race about the cosmos. It has helped us detect and trace the effect of Dark Matter, a source of activity and energy that is being studied for its effects on the expansion rate of the universe.

For 25 years the Hubble Telescope has also enabled astronomers to look for planets similar to earth that might hold life in other solar systems. That’s a pretty huge numbers game to be playing, with views from Hubble spanning eons of time. As light travels to us at astonishing speed it can tell us what was once there, but not what is there at this precise moment. It’s a conundrum of sorts to know whether anything truly exists or not.

Yet there is evidence of other planets out there, the astronomer admitted, but it’s so far away it would take perhaps million of generations of human beings to reach it.

purple_hills_by_beth25491white-d3c42a6This led to a short but revealing discussion about life on other planets and whether human beings will some day be forced to colonize other planets in order to survive. Our immediate choices aren’t that great. To our knowledge there are no other planets in the solar system that even offer oxygen as a breathing option. Human beings have evolved to need oxygen to live. So there’s not much encouraging news in the idea that we can travel to Mars or Venus and survive.

Those planets are also so far away that the first travelers will have to agree that they are going away and not coming back to Earth. They’d be chartered to somehow set up camp and possibly breed, while living on what? There are also no known sources of food or water (other than ice, perhaps) on Mercury or beyond. You want to live on a gaseous planet like Saturn or Jupiter? Pretty cold places people.

Considering the globe

The entire notion of creating some sort of time travel to reach distant planets has not one shred of possibility now. Our movies and shows such as Star Trek and Star Wars are fantastical lies designed to deceive us into thinking space travel is some sort of entertaining soap opera. It’s not. It’s a deadly universe in which we live compounded by a disgusting pride that makes us think we’re so important we can impose our pattern of existence on other planets.

That rude assumption makes it difficult for some people to take any sort of pride in in the notion of protecting and maintaining the one planet where we know that life can exist. That is, if we don’t screw it up. That’s planet Earth.

Yet there is long and conclusive evidence that human activity is adversely impacting our global climate system. We’ve already proven we can pollute the air at a local level to make entire regions of the world nearly uninhabitable. Look at China right now with its air pollution and water pollution problems. The more dense their population gets, the more demands for energy and its resultant waste products.

Profit and loss

Northwestern University stadium in Evanston Illinois north of the City of Chicago
Northwestern University stadium in Evanston Illinois north of the City of Chicago

The ugly pride that says near-term profits are more important than the air we breathe and the water we drink is the ultimate form of arrogance. Yet there are entire political parties formulated around these very ideologies. It comes down to a simple matter really. Would you rather be rich or alive? Because those are the choices we are making and have been making since the advent of human awareness. The acceleration of technology, miraculous as it is, cannot keep ahead of our wasteful consumption.

The earth can seem like a pretty big place if you fly around in an airplane looking down at the ground below. But go a little higher where the atmosphere runs out, which is where the Hubble telescope sits 360 miles above the earth, and you can begin to appreciate that the universe is as finite for the human race as it is infinite for God. The Earth is a very small planet.

We don’t need science or God to appreciate that if we mess up this planet badly enough, the entire human race is screwed. If that prick of awareness is not enough to warn us, and if our little light in the universe blinks out, perhaps only God will really care. But according to the Bible, there have been moments before in history when God has either let life be destroyed on earth or even rubbed it out in God’s own purposes. The Old Testament God was one rude sonofabitch.

But maybe God will not really be alone if the human race goes extinct. Perhaps we’re just one of many social and spiritual experiments he’s got swirling around in infinity. Perhaps God doesn’t really even want us to mix with life forms until we have actually figured out that being good stewards of creation really is the right kind of pride.

End Times

Eastern Coast of IrelandThere are a whole lot of signs pointing toward that end. That if we cannot get along and be gracious to each other and the earth, then we do not deserve to exist. If that’s too depressing a thought for you to consider, then may I suggest writing your Congressman and telling them to stop denying the plain fact that protecting ourselves from self-annihilation and suffocating the human race in heat and poisoned air may just be the most important thing we ever do. That is true on a spiritual, ethical, social, political and religious level.

Or else you can tell them to pray, and hope to hell that God has the time and space to listen. But God track record is somewhat disturbing in that category. If the legend of Noah’s Ark is proof of anything, it’s that God does not have infinite patience with the arrogance of the human race. And like it or not, God does mess around with promises quite often. Hence the negotiations with Lot over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, which suffered a fiery fate not because of homosexuality but because the towns were so abusive of human rights in general God no longer felt they deserved to exist.

Soul searching

It’s time to stop foisting our arrogant pride on God and turn inward a bit. We need to do some real, productive soul-searching instead of the kind that depends on platitudes and political dogma. And we need to include science on this inner conversation to do the subject justice.

Because the real answers about why the earth is suffering under our hand do not come from God or the notion of original sin, but from our presents sins being committed toward creation. These are based on selfish aims and short term whims of profit and extraction. We’re taking (and emitting) far more than we’re giving back to the Earth. And the Bible always tells us that it’s better to give than receive. But that’s really true when you consider the possibility that our receipts may add up to a bitter and eternal end for human life on earth.

A sobering thought. Yet the right kind of pride when it comes to determining where to place our priorities.

Christopher Cudworth is author of two books. The Right Kind of Pride is a chronicle of cancer survivorship; character, caregiving and community and is available on Amazon.com. His first book The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith inthe Modern Age, is being republished on Amazon in early July. 

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On the gains of dealing positively with loss

IMG_8031This coming Wednesday, March 4th I am speaking about the subject of loss for Lenten Services at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. I have already met with the Pastor to orient the discussion, which will center on how our family dealt with the loss of my wife due to cancer. So the topic is fully on my mind.

Last night I woke up at 2:00 with thoughts rolling through my head. I grabbed my iPhone and entered them into the Notes app. If you don’t write these thoughts down somewhere it’s so easy to forget what they are.

This was stream of consciousness stuff, so it’s not grammatically correct. Not even complete sentences. In some respects it’s better that way.

Sometimes your gain is your loss (hiding cancer) and your loss is your gain (blessings from caregiving and community). Blessed to be a blessing to others. Loss of activity. Loss of identity. Careful to recognize loss of hope. Blessings are miracles in real time versus miracles out of time.

Here’s what it all this means.

I have a friend whose husband had cancer and chose to hide it from everyone for two years. She was imprisoned in this world where he suffered through treatments and she could not talk about it to anyone. His concerns over his own vulnerability were what motivated him. He did not want to be seen as a cancer patient. This approach was actually part of a larger pattern of controlling behavior stemming from his unwillingness to accept the very real fact of his underlying depression. His “gain” in protecting himself from outside scrutiny was actually a loss in terms of letting others truly help him and their family. That made it all the tougher for my friend to endure.

Sharing burdens

How different (and difficult) that approach was compared to choosing to share your burdens with others. The very first week my wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer one of her friends (actually her boss) reached out to our family. We were so grateful to have that support. To her enormous credit this woman guided us through multiple rounds of treatment and needs over the next eight years. That was a gift that can never be repaid.

At times the blessings of that care were so great we felt compelled to share our blessings with others. That opened up channels of communication for people who confided in us. Some of these needs were simple. People actually apologized for expressing concerns about their situation. “I know my troubles are nothing compared to what you’re going through,” they’d often begin. “But I’m worried…”

Worry is almost always over losing something in our lives. We worry that we might lose our jobs with an illness or other difficulty. We worry about losing money. We worry about losing friends or relationships. We worry about losing the respect, trust or love of our friends and family members. The feeling of loss in our lives is almost constant. We’re always losing something, aren’t we? And we worry about it.

Recovering from loss

There’s a great passage in the Bible where a woman loses a coin and tears her house apart trying to find it. When she does recover the coin she calls her friends together to celebrate. That’s a metaphor for how God feels about lost souls. There is a universal tie that binds us when it comes to loss of spirit. We even speak of “losing our way” in life. That feeling of being lost and knowing loss is most difficult to transcend. Some people never pull free. They live with the feeling they are losing the battle. God doesn’t want us to live that way.

Maple leaf in rainBut even if you are not religious, there is sustaining hope in the very fact of life. You are here. You exist. You are the miraculous product of billions of years of evolution. You have free will. The choices you make do matter. You can choose to live in accord with all of human life and all of nature.

I choose to draw strength from both those scenarios. For me, the defining unity between God and material reality is love. It’s a very real thing, you know. It exists. It does great things. It sustains hope and heals wounds both physical and material. And as far as I can tell, God is love.

It is what it is

In our case we objectified our losses to gain some grasp of where the blessings still abided. Our phrase was “It is what it is,” That meant the cancer. The treatments. The loss of activities and joy in life. All that constituted loss

Cancer even caused us to lose insurance. Lose jobs.

But we never lost hope. That was the one thing we refused to lose.

Identifying with hope

Ultimately my wife lost her life to cancer. But she never lost her identity in the journey toward that moment. She retained her character. Refined it, in fact. At times it was something to witness. At other times it was something to support, encourage and even cajole. It was not always easy.

When she lay in bed after dying I touched her lips and told her that I was very proud of her. Hence the title of this blog and my book about our survivorship journey. The Right Kind of Pride.

Miracles happen

We’d seen miracles in our lives together. These were not miracles that necessarily broke the laws of nature. But they were miracles of love and beneficial consequence. Favors of love and care that transcended expectations. Money that arrived through gifts when we desperately needed it. All sorts of things transpired that left us in grateful, happy tears.

So you can see why that stream of consciousness at 2:00 in the morning feels rather profound. It may seem jumbled in the cold light of day. In fact it is clear that loss is real, but you can thrive in the face of it. We all must do that, for loss is everywhere. From small objects to entire dreams, hope and loss stand in delicate balance. Choose not to lose hope and loss becomes something you can handle.

Sometimes life does not seem fair. We still need to take responsibility and pride in our hope when facing difficult circumstances. Then loss does not possess us.

The Right Kind of Pride is available on Amazon.com.

RightKindofPridecover

On contentions and being content in what you know

purple_hills_by_beth25491white-d3c42a6In college our dorm room was on the 7th floor of a tower overlooking the Oneota Valley in Decorah, Iowa. Our windows faced west and winter sunsets over the valley were often quite dramatic. When the sun went down and twilight was complete, the hills lining the Upper Iowa River a mile away turned purple in the evening light.

Or so it appeared one late afternoon to the eyes of all those sitting together in our dorm room as the sun went down. “Look how purple the hills are…” I pointed out the window.

“No they’re not. They’re black,” one person responded. We all looked at him.

“Are you color blind?” someone asked.

“No. I can see colors,” he insisted. “But those hills are black.”

The hills clearly appeared purple. But everything this fellow knew about the world was telling him the hills looked black.

We all argued the point for a few minutes and then someone changed the subject. We were getting nowhere in our efforts to help him understand the principles of shadow, light and the color spectrum.

Other than reality

His contention that the hills could not be anything but black once the sun went down were based on something other than a reality perceived by everyone else in the room. Perhaps he truly could not see the color purple and did not know that he was color blind in that way. None of us had any way of proving that to him at the moment. So from his perspective, he won the argument.

That tendency to argue something cannot be a fact unless you can immediately prove a contention wrong is quite common in this world. It helps explain why so many people have trouble grasping basic scientific principles as part of their worldview. Over time, people tend to build up a brand of pride in affirming their own worldview, no matter how wrong or shortsighted it may be. If they find enough people that share their narrow perspective, it becomes even more powerful a way to think.

Content in what they think they know

vfiles24241In other words, people tend to be content in what they feel they already know. Many feel like they’ve worked hard to assemble their worldview. They don’t really want to hear contentions to the contrary. They grow proud of their ability to defend this worldview to the death. One thinks of well-known creationist Ken Ham, whose arguments about biblical truth through literalism are popular with all who find solace and contentment in a simplified view of the world where God created the universe and nothing has changed or evolved since the beginning of time.

That’s very much like contending that the hills are black rather than purple at sunset. Or that they were green during the day, so how could they be purple at night? Nor could they be orange at dawn. Perceptions confined to simple rules quite easily rule out so many possibilities on grounds that cannot be argued away. They are matters of faith in how something is meant to be perceived. It’s a confining way to think, but some people like it that way. They’re proud of their surety, firm in their convictions, and nothing can make them change.

Not even the purple hills of sunset 

Yet we also know from the Bible that not even God is depicted as changeless. The deity that appears in a cloud in one book and a burning bush in another takes apparent pride in shifting and playing with the perceptions of all those who would fix the Creator in one place, one form or one time.

God transcends all of that. So does nature. It is very clear that our perceptions of both are organically intertwined. It is also acceptance of one does not automatically cancel out the other.

New understandings

PaversWe all proceed at times with theories that ultimately get proven wrong. It happens in faith as well as science. Among Christians the old religion gave way to a new understanding with the advent of Christ. Then Martin Luther came along to shake up the Catholic order and traditions. Now there’s a new wave of Progressive Christians tugging at the sleeves of believers to reform around an organic view of the Bible that allows scholarship into the mix to determine a better understanding of what scripture really means, and what it doesn’t.

The trick to a establishing a better understanding in life is to never be content in what you know. That’s what’s taking place every day in science. Some people point to that fact as the source of an idea that science cannot be trusted. But that’s a mistake in perception too. We depend on science for all kinds of trustworthy activities. From medicine to industry, biology to economics, our sciences deliver dependable if not changeless information about how we view and interact in this world. Without this source of humanistic culture, we are in essence reduced to tribal beings caught in a blind play in which we have no control at all over our destiny. And shockingly, some people still think God wants that for us too.

We need our moral traditions to be equally open to change. One could say that God expects that of us. The right kind of pride is having the humility to be awakened to new ways of thinking. God has never liked stiff-necked believers.

Proverbs 21: 9–– “Whoever remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed–without remedy.”