Moving On

(for Juja)

I feel “taken out of context.”

For 21 years, I lived, taught, thought, and worshipped in an intentional intellectual and spiritual community—a small Christian liberal arts college in Massachusetts.  In this place, I grew to know myself intellectually, spiritually, politically.  I developed treasured friendships.

I raised my family in this community.  My children also came to know themselves within this context.   Their closest friends were the children of my colleagues.  Some of their favorite traditions involved annual college events.

This changed when an administrator, with the blessing of the trustees, decided to eliminate the English major and my department, including those of us who held tenured positions.  The high cost of living in this area forced us to move to a different state, to buy a new house, to find new work.  For a long time, I only felt a devastating loss.  But now, I recognize these changes for what they could be—serendipity.

As a college professor, I often discussed future career plans with my students.  One bit of advice I frequently repeated was to let serendipity into the picture.

We can map out the desired course of our careers.  We can complete a major, comb through internet list-serves of open positions, and pump out cover letters and resumes.  We can interview and accept positions.  In the process, however, we should also pay attention to unimagined possibilities and opportunities that excite us and give them a try.

At this moment in my life, serendipity is a function of evolution.  Being “taken out of context” refers to a change of environment.  According to the principle of evolution, the friction between an organism and its environment results in changes to that organism.  Organisms that adapt most effectively to the environment thrive and reproduce.

Thinking about the feeling of “being taken out of context” in relation to the theory of evolution has helped me recognize these changes in my life as opportunities to ride the wave of serendipity into the future. Considering this relationship has helped me move beyond my grieving into a new phase of reflecting upon the differences between my current and former contexts and identifying how this new environment can help myself, my family, my children to for thrive in previously unimagined ways.

I still feel loss when I think about the community that rejected me, the community that I left behind.  I miss the rhythm of our life there.  I miss the recognition I found in the faces of my students.  I miss finding the seat my colleagues saved for me in the cafeteria.  I miss the office that made available all the tools of my profession.  I miss the satisfaction of my work.  I miss my pastor and my church.

But now I am moving forward, and the excitement grows within me as I keep my eye out for opportunity—for serendipity.

I don’t know where it will carry me—us.  But I will let you know when we get there so you can visit.

Evolution is Theologically Delicious

Scientific subjects are just as theologically delicious as scripture and literature.  Consider, as a case in point, the theory of evolution.

My first window into today’s debate between conservative Christianity and science was when I came home from school and told my grandmother what we were studying in science class.

“Your grandmother isn’t a monkey,” she told me, in her own version of the Ken Ham song, patting herself on the chest.  “And your ancestors did not swing by their tails from the trees!”

This surprised me greatly, and my views on science suddenly became another topic I scrupulously avoided discussing with my grandmother, a list that included whether nice girls played sports (no), if dancing was a sin (yes), and the length of my hair.

When I entered a liberal arts Christian college as a freshman in 1981, I was equally surprised to discover the heated nature of the debate on campus.  Thankfully, my professors did not refrain from teaching the history of evolution, though they carefully allowed time for students to air their views that God spent six days creating everything and then stopped.

A literal reading of scripture, of course, is at the bottom of this reaction to Darwin’s work and the science evolving from it.  Such a reading rejects the validity of labeling the Bible’s creation stories as “myths,” equating this ages-old category of story with falsity,  as in “25 Popular History Myths Debunked” (at or  “10 Myths of Psychology Debunked” (a TED Talk video featuring a speaker named Ben Ambridge).

My choice of major (English), as well as my upbringing by a journalist and an English teacher, “saved” me from this point of view.  My  life-long relationship with language and story made me aware that one of language’s greatest tools is the power of saying multiple things at once, of expanding one’s understanding, of connecting seemingly incompatible things to arrive at a fresh insight.   Karen Armstrong, who wrote the wonderful A Short History of Myth, explains how English majors such as myself think of myths.  In a Nov. 7, 2005, National Public Radio interview with “Talk of the Nation’s” Neal Conan, she stated that myth “is something that in some sense happened once, but which also happens all the time” (“Karen Armstrong: Myths and the Modern World,”

When I refer to the very different creation stories in the opening chapters of Genesis as myths, then, I do so not because I understand these stories as lies, but because I recognize the truths they convey transcend fact.  Thus, Genesis 1 does not tell me how God created everything and then stopped.  Instead, it depicts creation as the way of God’s being, as the way God interacts with our world and the beings continually changing and growing within it, as a way of God that never stopped, as a way of God still at work in the world today.

God, we learn as children, is perfect.  One persistent thread of thought suggests this means God is static—never changing.  This view rejects the idea that an awareness of changing cultural realities might allow us to understand scripture, as well as God, more powerfully than our ancestors.  If God never changes, then any requirements God makes of the Israelites in scripture bind us still today.

Yet is this the best way to understand the “perfect” nature of God?  Is it possible to conceive of perfection as dynamic rather than static?  As interactive and responsive?  Perhaps God’s “perfection” derives less from historical fact and rigid adherence to a code of conduct than it does from a desire for relationship with creation, an orientation that allows God’s understanding of creation and even Godself to evolve as God contemplates God’s image in our faces.

The theory of natural selection grounding Darwin’s ideas about evolution is theologically delicious in relation to such an understanding of a dynamic, mobile God who interacts continuously with creation.  Indeed, why would we expect any less from a dynamically “perfect” God than that the creator would imbue all of creation with the power to continuously change and remake itself?

Early theologians considered God as having created two “books” through which we can come to know God better.  One of these “books,’ of course, is scripture.  The other is nature.  In my view, this means that scientists, whether Christian or not, are doing important—even sacred—work for believers because, if we want to know God better, we should pay attention to God’s handiwork.

When I study the world around me, I find continuous evidence of a dynamic, creative God, one who not only continues to create but who bestowed a similar creative power on creation.  This creativity becomes visible when I look at the children born from my body, at the new plant life sprouting in spring out of the piles of leaves we raked in the fall, and about the coevolution of the sword-billed hummingbird and the passiflora mixta flower, which stores its nectar at the bottom of a long flower tube matching the length of the hummingbird’s bill.

The power of the theory of evolution lies not only in what it tells us about nature.  It also helps us to understand better how languages evolve, how cultures emerge, and the effect of a culture upon its environment.  It can help us better understand the roots of problems confronting the human race, such as the toxic effects of some technologies on the planet.  It can help us wrest control of the situation and develop creative solutions so we can serve as better stewards of God’s creation.

What kind of God do you worship?  I find evolution to be theologically delicious because I cannot fathom a frozen, immobile God.  My own observations of evolution convince me that creation did not stop on the first seventh day.  An infinity sculpture, the world keeps moving and changing.  Environments press against the organisms, the bodies, the culture of a species and the process continues, on and on, from Alpha to Omega, Genesis to Revelation, Boston to Japan.