It’s Not That Easy Being Green

This semester, I was a TA for a Systematic Theology class, and I had my first taste of grading papers. It was a strange taste. I wouldn’t call it entirely unpleasant, but it’s not a flavor that I would want in my ice cream. Having read 35 of these papers, I was most distressed by a typo that I found in nearly every one of them. This might sound trivial, but almost every student neglected to capitalize “Earth”.

“Jesus came to earth to save us from our sins” is NOT the same thing as “Jesus came to Earth to save us from our sins”. Lowercase earth means dirt. Uppercase Earth means our beloved planet that gave birth to us and to which we will one day return. You know, the only planet that you will ever live on? That one? The big blue thing with all the people on it? Oh yeah. That thing. I guess I should capitalize it.

Now I hear you saying, “Calm down, Zack. It’s a typo. It’s not a big deal. You know what they meant. Just focus on the theology”, and I would agree with you to a degree except that I think I am focusing on the theology. I think that this is symptomatic of a larger problem within the Christian world. We’ve all been taught so often that the world is wicked that we have somehow assumed that the Earth itself is inherently evil. On top of that, Christians generally do not consider this planet their final home. No one treats hotel rooms and rental cars as well as they would treat their own property. The Earth is like a stuffy, overcrowded waiting room with bad music and old magazines. In college, I heard someone actually use the argument that because God was going to burn the Earth at the end anyway, it didn’t matter what we did with it today.

“Oh no. He’s gonna get all Al Gore on us and make us feel bad for driving cars and dumping poison in the rivers. I’ve heard this one before, so if you’ll excuse me, I have some endangered animals to hunt!”

It’s ok, friend. I’m not here to make you feel bad for anything that you are used to feeling bad about. I am fairly distrustful of most people with a “green” agenda because it has become such a political issue. Many times, saving the Earth is merely the vehicle for which to transport anti-corporate ideals. I am not interested in being dragged into anything that has been hijacked by politicos. The fact is that the Earth is getting noticeably warmer and it seems to be due to an increase in CO2 emissions, but that is it. It only seems that way. Science is a slow process with long testing periods, painstaking re-testing, and a long system of peer review. When someone finds a piece of evidence that supports what they want to support and runs away from the scientific method to the press, we find ourselves in this mess. Give scientists some time to work it out, and until then, don’t say anything definitively about what is or is not happening on a global scale.

“You can’t hurry science. No, you just have to wait. Science don’t come easy. It’s a game of give and take”

That being said, we are not at risk of destroying the Earth. Even if we go into nuclear war that kills everyone, there will still be life on Earth. Even if the only life remaining is on the bottom of the sea, there is a good chance that life like us could someday evolve again. However, if that happens, the Sun will likely be at the end of its life when they evolve intelligence, so that would be unfortunate. The Earth is durable. She is wonderful. She is tough. She has survived asteroids, plagues, and boy bands. She will survive until the Sun explodes and destroys our solar system. Humans, on the other hand, are very fragile. We are soft, naked beasts with weak jaws, no claws, poor senses, and weak immune systems. Our brains are what keep us on top, but if we use those big brains to accidentally change the ecosystem such that it stops supporting us, we are done for. We will go the way of the other 99% of species to ever live on the Earth. Your carbon will just go to some animal that can handle the new Earth better and you can hang out for the next billion years with the dinosaurs.

So am I advocating caring for the planet just because it will keep us alive?

Yes and no. I have two main reasons for caring about this lovely rock.

Reason #1: When the environment is abused, the poor are always the ones that suffer. Case in point: West Virginia. Coal mining is undeniably bad for the environment. Water supplies get polluted, local workers get cancer, and sometimes they cause cities to burn forever. If coal were found in an area where wealthy people lived, they would fight it tooth and nail. However, the poor do not have the same kind of power and many of them are happy for the opportunity to feed their families even if they know it will kill them. Take the people of Ghana whose country has been used a dumping ground for all of the “e-waste” from the West. It is not the wealthy that suffer because of the poisonous smoke. It is always the poor. Jesus would not approve of this. The prophet Ezekiel wrote that Sodom’s sin was that “she and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy”. Got it? God did not destroy Sodom because of “sodomy”. God destroyed Sodom because they had the means to help the poor and decided to take care of themselves instead. How much more evil is it to exploit the poor by sucking the very life out of the Earth around them? Destroying the Earth that God made AND abusing the people that he loves in one fell swoop? God save us all.

Reason #2: When I was a kid, I thought that I was an artist. All kids think they are artists until someone tells them otherwise. One day, I drew my dad a picture of some guys playing baseball. They looked a lot like potatoes with arms, and I signed my name on the bottom like it would someday hang on the wall of a gallery. My dad had that picture hanging up on the wall of his studio for years. Why did he have it on the wall? Was it because I was an incredible artist? Let me assure you that this is not nor has it ever been true. My dad loved it because I made it. His love for me translated into love for what I had created. To this day, he is my biggest fan, and that is not because everything I make is solid gold. It’s because he loves me. In the same way, I want to care for the Earth because God made it. I will not abuse the Earth because God is going to destroy it anyway. I will love and cherish life wherever I find it because God is its source and I love God. Abusing His creation would be like throwing away a gift that my wife gave to me.

So here is my main point. Don’t invest in green energy because you saw “The Day After Tomorrow” and you got scared/guilty. Don’t clean up your local park or fight fracking because the world is ending. Protect the environment because that is not a luxury that many in developing countries have. Do it for those who can’t do it themselves. Also, do it because God said it was good. If you are arguing about the global effect of CO2 emissions, then you are having the wrong argument. That is the same argument that abusive spouses use, “I didn’t hit her THAT hard”. Don’t hit the Earth at all! She made you and she will take you once you are gone. Treat her with respect and love those who live on her. God said that she was good, and I believe that she still is.

Onward to the Edge!

I’ve had a number of great conversations recently with people about theology, science, and sometimes both. I get a lot of crazy looks when I tell people how excited I am to get a PhD in this and spend my life teaching and writing about it. Here are the four responses I usually get…

“Science and religion can’t work together. Science is reality and religion is fairy tale”
“Science and religion can’t work together. Science is godless and religion is the true reality”
“I thought I was the only one who was interested in this! We should talk about it sometime”
“Zack, please stop yelling about black holes. Glee is on!”

Ok. I’ll stop yelling. Finish watching Glee and finish this blog post when you’re done.

I do not want to combine science and theology into some kind of Frankensteinian monster. I will never get a job working at the Creation Museum. I also do not want to use science to prove the Bible or (more dangerously) use the Bible to prove science. No matter how much we can prove with the Bible, it can never prove the existence of God. Even if we discovered King David’s tomb and found his body holding a sling, a bloody stone, and a note that says, “I’m King David and I approve of this tomb”, that would not prove God. Finding King Tut did not prove that he was a god. Faith in God will always be just that, faith. That’s why it angers me when people try to prove the existence of God by proving the Bible. Even if we do have plenty of non-biblical corroborating evidence for the life and influence of Jesus, that doesn’t prove that he was the Son of God.

Of course, the opposite is also true. Even if science disproves some of the literal readings in the Bible and proves that many of the “demons” in the Bible were illnesses like epilepsy and schizophrenia, that doesn’t disprove God. That just proves that God did not think it was important enough to teach the ancient Israelites microbiology before He gave them the 10 commandments. Take Joshua 10 for example. The text says that God stopped the Sun in the sky for an extra day so that Joshua could finish the battle. That would mean that the Earth itself stopped spinning and everything on Earth would continue moving at 1,040 mph, killing every living being on the planet. One would think that even if God compensated for this, some other culture would have written about it. Does that mean that God is a fake? By no means! God, being entirely “other” than the created order is neither able to be proved nor disproved by any means. Faith in God must begin with faith or it is essentially useless. St. Anselm based his philosophy on “faith seeking understanding”. I don’t agree with him on everything, but that is right on.

By now you’re probably wondering how I want to engage theology and science if not in the ways that they are traditionally done. Well I’m glad you asked…

Poets are exceedingly talented at using their words to create realities that we may not have otherwise imagined. Poets have long used their propensity for creative communication to delve into the depths of theology. Songwriters have done more to shape popular theology over the last 20 years than any theologian. Philosophers are trained to ask “why”. They begin with whatever philosophical method is popular in their day and interpret their reality in light of that. They then use reasoned arguments to convince other people of their philosophy and the implications for their lives. Historians see all of Church History, the highs and lows, and are able to help us plot a course that will avoid the theological pitfalls of our past. Are you a storyteller? The Church has historically found a place for you as well (see: the Gospels and Acts). Wait, you’re a scientist? Oh… Hmmm… We know how to do theology as all of those other types of people, but as a scientist? How does one do theology as a scientist?

Allow me to show you.

Scientist do not know if there was ever life on Mars, what is the smallest form of matter, how gravity works, or what happened before the Big Bang, but give them time and they will figure it out. Why are they so singularly focused on pressing into the unknown? For some of them, they are thinking about the immediate implications for the sake of humanity. You might put AIDS researchers, climatologists, missionaries, and relief workers in this category. The rest of the scientists (who are not on some corporate payroll) are exploring because they simply cannot help it. There is a spirit of adventure, wonder, and excitement that is obvious if you talk to them for more than a few minutes. If I meet anyone with a PhD, the first thing I ask them is what their thesis was on because I love hearing people talk about what they are excited about. In the same way that NASA scientists continue to beg Congress for money to send up more satellites whose data has little to no “real world value”, I do theology. Why do I continually press into the mysteries of God? I am not looking for any “real world value”. I do not want to discover proof that can never be disproved. If what I discover helps me to spread God’s love around, then that is wonderful, but if sometimes, my little discoveries only impress myself, then that is equally valuable. I’ve never been in a worship service that has filled me with as much reverent awe as I am when I happen to see a flock of starling all flying as one.

I do not want to mix science and theology. I want to explore what it means to do theology as a scientist. Theology is nothing really except talking about God, and I can do that too. In fact, I’ve talked to a lot of science/math minded people who have had a hard time relating to the Church as a whole because scientists/mathematicians are not encouraged to worship God in their first language. Scientists are as awe-inspired as poets, but are far more impressed with truth and reality than clever words.

In my mind at least, science and theology share the same motivation and the same pitfalls. They are both motivated by the unquenchable desire to press into the mysteries around them, and being equally inspired by the questions as the answers. They are also both often co-opted by people with a lust for power and twisted into something terrible (see: the atomic bomb and the Crusades). If I had to boil it all down into one word, I would call it “wonder”. Did you know that the eternally “other” divine God somehow became one of us and still is one of us? Did you know that the Kepler telescope just found a planet that could possibly harbor life? What!? This is what I think Jesus meant when he encouraged us to have a child-like faith. Every child is a scientist. Just watch a baby as they discover their hands or take a toddler to the zoo. Everything is still amazing to a child, and I’m here to tell you that everything is still amazing. You just stopped looking. I have heard plenty of scientists who still have this sense of excitement and reverence, but have found few theologians. Perhaps the Church has spent too much time focusing on crafting the perfect argument, sales pitch, presentation, or polemic that it has lost touch of the child-like wonder. A quick YouTube search will bring up countless videos of Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Feynman, Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Brian Greene, and plenty of other scientists getting really excited talking about what they love. Off the top of my head, the only such theologian I can think of is Rob Bell.

Two questions: Can you point me in the direction of some theologians with this kind of wonder? If not, will you become that kind of theologian and do this with me?

My Brain Says “No” But My Heart Says “Thump Thump”

“Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.”
~Albert “the man” Einstein

I’ve been thinking about hearts a lot recently. My cardiologist is not happy with my ticker nor with the content of my blood. Basically, there is too much junk and not enough good stuff. Also, my heart itself is not behaving itself. It’s somewhat of a lazy free-spirit. So as I was being sucked into a rather impressive looking MRI machine yesterday, I couldn’t help but think about that hyperactive muscle hiding behind my ribs. I was trying to distract myself from the fact that I was in a tiny, enclosed tube with no room at all to move. As much as I would LOVE to go into space, I’m just too freaked out by enclosed spaces to ever actually become an astronaut. I’m holding out for space-SUV’s. Anyway, as I was laying in the tube, this old Christian worship song popped into my head,

Change my heart oh God
Make it ever true
Change my heart oh God
May I be like you

I chuckled to myself because I really meant the words to the song, but not in the way that the author had originally intended. I would literally like God to change my heart into a better heart. It would be great if it would be “ever true” instead of “always messing up”. In between bouts of ridiculously loud jackhammer-esque imaging sessions, I was thinking about how we abuse the word “heart” in Christian circles. Actually, we abuse it everywhere. Most of the time I don’t even think we realize what we are saying. Let me explain…

“She broke my heart”
“Let’s get down to the heart of the matter”
“He has a great heart”
“My brain says no but my heart says yes”
“Just follow your heart”

I really doubt that anyone who said those things actually believes that their feelings are coming from their heart. The ancients were convinced that all thoughts and feelings came from the bowels, the stomach, or the heart depending on what people you are talking about. Most of them had little to no concern for the squishy, wrinkled stuffing behind their eyes. It makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. When you are feeling some huge emotional surge, you get “butterflies in your stomach” or your “heart skips a beat”. It’s a very natural, chemical response to external stimuli that your brain initiates and your gut feels. That’s all well and good, but I think that many Christians are stuck there. Here’s an example…

I was in a class recently in which a person said that reason can only get you so far because only God can change a person’s heart. I pressed them further and asked them what they meant. After about 5 minutes of pressing, they basically came to the conclusion that they believed in a deeper consciousness that did not reside within the brain of a person but existed in some kind of metaphysical form within them. It was as if they had a brain that took care of everything that they understood and then a super-brain that took care of all of the deeper stuff. This doesn’t sit well with me. When you feel something “in your heart”, you are feeling that thing in a deeply emotional and chemical way. Love is a crazy potent drug that releases all kinds of good chemicals into your brain. Actually, back it up. The feeling of love is a drug, but love itself is a choice that you make even when the nice chemicals aren’t flowing like they used to.

So when someone says “my heart wasn’t in it anymore” or “i just need a change of heart”, I say, “you just miss the high from the dopamine overload that you used to get”.

But I don’t want to talk about love in this post. However, if my wife is reading this and buys me a chocolate brain instead of one of those hearts (that aren’t even shaped like real hearts) for Valentines Day, I think that would be wonderful. ::hint:: ::hint::

What I want to talk about is the idea of “changing your heart”. I’ve heard it said time and time again that no one can change the heart except for God and no matter how many times you logically present the fact, a person will never change unless God changes their heart. What is this mysterious heart that we keep talking about? It’s obviously not the real heart, so we must be talking about a part of the brain. Do we mean that a person’s preconceptions are so deeply embedded that no amount of reason can convince them otherwise and it would take a miracle for them to see the world differently? I can move with that. In a talk at a skeptic’s convention called TAM, astronomer Phil Plait said, “No one can be logically reasoned out of a belief that they didn’t logically reason their way into”. (check out the whole talk here. i’m a big fan of his). I run into this constantly in seminary. When you are brought up in the church, you are taught certain things so often and with such unwavering conviction, that you never think about doubting them. They become deeply embedded in your belief system and, like a tree that has grown around a street sign, cannot be removed without some serious pain. You would think that I don’t believe in gravity when I tell some people that I don’t believe in a literal, eternal Hell. When a particularly belligerent fellow-student continually asked me how I can believe that there is not an eternal Hell, I asked them how they could be so sure there is. They replied, “I just know it in my heart”. What that says to me is, “I just know it in a deeply embedded part of my brain that I have not questioned and have therefore become too comfortable with to consider any other options”.

So what does it mean for God to “change your heart”?

Here is how I see it. Your conscious mind is really good at dealing with what it has always dealt with, but it is terrible at thinking outside the box. Have you ever had a big argument with a person only to talk to them in a day or two and say, “You know, I thought about it, and you’re right”. That’s because your subconscious brain is REALLY good at thinking new thoughts and not relying on old paradigms and it keeps problem-solving long after you think you’ve finished thinking about it. If you are stuck on a problem, try doing a crossword puzzle for 15 minutes and coming back to the problem after giving your subconscious brain some time to think about the problem without your conscious mind getting in the way. Countless studies have shown that it works wonders. So when God gives people a “change of heart”, I think there is something much more beautiful at work than just a God who flips the switch inside of you so that you are now a different person. God know how the brain works. God has been dealing with the human brain for a LONG time. I’m proposing that when we have those life-altering “changes of hearts”, God has actually been prepping our subconscious mind for a long time. When we finally feel the change is when the subconscious mind is done with it and it hands it over to the conscious mind. Essentially, I believe that even before we ask, God is working on the deep, meaningful parts of our mind. God is slowly forming us before we even know it. This is the God who called out from the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”. Jesus forgave his killers before they knew to repent. I’m no Calvinist though. I know that there is some free will involved here, but I genuinely believe that God is always shepherding our subconscious mind, helping us to adapt to situations we haven’t faced yet, and preparing us for the times when we cry out, “Change my heart, oh God”. Though it may be more accurate to cry out, “Change my neural networks, oh God. Quiet the embedded prejudices of my conscious mind so that I might be truly changed”. I doubt I’ll ever see that in a worship song though. Oh well…

Billions and Billions

It’s ok if you want to hold off on reading this blog for a minute and just do a quite Google Image search for “night sky”. It’s alright. Don’t worry. The blog will still be here when you come back.

Welcome back!

What did you think? The night sky is a big reason why I don’t think that I could live in the city for my entire life. Right now I can see about a handful of stars in the entire sky. That is incredibly depressing. I remember one time when I was a kid, my dad got us all up on the roof of our house to lie down and watch the Leonid Meteor Shower. We were up there for what seemed like an eternity staring intently, waiting to see those streaks of light. I remember that moment as the first time that I really recognized the vastness of existence. The Earth is a giant spaceship that is hurtling through space at 67,000 MPH and sometimes it collides with objects that burn up in our atmosphere and grant us wishes. That was the first time that I can remember realizing along with Copernicus that the stars aren’t circling me, I’m the one that is moving.

(blog footnote: I recognize that the stars are also moving and that space itself is expanding, but the apparent movement across the night sky is a result of the Earth’s rotation, not the stars’).

Aaaaaand we’re back. Do you love the stars as much as I do? They guided the ancient travelers, inspired the poets, and lead a couple of very rich men to the baby Jesus. Why do we love them so much? What is it about the shimmering sea above our heads that fills us with such reverent awe? Why have so many religions sought the answers to life’s most pressing questions hidden within their elegant, circular dance? I think it’s because in some way, we all look up at sky and see our home.

Do you have kids? When they inevitably ask you where babies come from, I dare you to tell them this…

Billions of years ago, stars were burning brightly like they are today although they didn’t have any friends to keep them company. There were only a few elements in the universe and that made them sad. So they all decided to run out of nuclear fuel, become highly unstable, and explode in enormous, unimaginable supernovas. These cosmic fireworks were where carbon was formed. Carbon is the main reason why anything is alive. Your DNA is made out of carbon, your body is made out of carbon, and everything that walks, swims, flies, and squirms on this Earth is made out of carbon. The carbon from those supernovas was drawn together with other heavy elements by gravity and eventually formed planets. One planet in particular also attracted gas molecules to form an atmosphere, and over the course of millions of years and God (currently) only knows how, that carbon started to walk around. Eventually that carbon gained consciousness in its big carbon-brain and was able to learn about its long and difficult journey. Now that carbon is able to look up at the stars at its home and think about itself in a way that it never could imagined before it could imagine things. Those carbon-beings also have sex and that’s how babies are made!

How does it make you feel that you are literally a star? The molecules in your body can be traced back to supernovas all over the galaxy. It apparently makes Neil DeGrasse Tyson “want to grab people in the street and say, ‘Have you heard this!?'”. I tend to agree with him. This is amazing! Why do I treat my body with such low regard? Why am I so self conscious about how I look? I AM MADE OUT OF STARS THAT EXPLODED! What?!

Does looking out at the stars with this revelation make you feel small? Do you feel insignificant? If so, then you might have had an inflated ego to begin with. The entire span of the cosmos, all 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars that probably exist are your family. You may be a tiny speck in this kind of picture, but that’s ok! You are a PART of that expanse. All of those stars are your aunts and uncles, your cousins, and your grandparents. St. Francis was right on when he talked about nature as his family. It makes me think twice about discrediting panentheism. Breathe that truth in. Let it sit with you for a moment. The stars are your extended family. The night sky is your family portrait. You are among a very small portion of your family that is able to recognize that. Breathe in the bigness.


Want more bigness? Here is something that never gets brought up in Christmas homilies for some reason. God is 1/3 human. Yes you read that right. The Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century were fascinated with this, and so am I. The real miracle of Christmas is not that God became human but that humanity was assumed into the Godhead. After Jesus was born, everything changed. By whatever kind of divine wonder, God humbled Godself to become one of us. In fact, God did more than that. Jesus was born in a pile of manure to an unwed teenage mother in an occupied territory and became a homeless vagrant who was killed by the government. That’s serious humility. After he was killed, he was raised from the dead and after hanging out with his friends for a while, went back up to be with his Father. Jesus never stopped being human. He is still human. My feminist theology professor in college was fond of snapping the class back on task by saying, “Jesus has a penis”. Jesus has a body. God has a body. God took hold of a lump of carbon and made for Godself a body to live in for all eternity. Not only are we all made of stars, but so is God. We can actually relate to God now. It isn’t just a creator/creation relationship anymore. We’re family in a very real and substantive way. The arms that He wants to hold you in are literal arms. He sees you with eyes that probably have a color. What color are Jesus’ eyes? God is 1/3 human.


So that is what I see when I look up at the stars. I see my family, I see God, and I see an enormous story of which I am a small part. While I may only play a very small part in the story, I can still claim the story as my own. What a wonder it is to be made of carbon.

Jesus Loves You Charlie Manson

When I was in elementary school, one of my teachers (at my Christian school) told me that people who commit suicide immediately go to Hell because murder is a sin and the last thing they did was sin. This seemed really unfair to my young mind. People who killed themselves seemed really sad with no way out, and sending them to Hell seemed pretty uncaring for such a good God. I remember being pretty distressed by this and talking to my mom about it. One of the things I’ve always loved about my mom is that her answers have this uncanny way of being both incredibly simple and deeply profound. She told me that a healthy brain is unable to kill itself. If a person had gotten to the point where they were able to kill themselves then their brain was chemically unbalanced, and God who sees their chemicals would understand and have mercy on their poor, broken soul.

See? She’s wonderful.

I’ve been thinking a lot about brains recently. I did a presentation in my prophets class last night about psychosis and whether we can psychoanalyze the prophets. The short answer? No. Not very well. But let’s talk about brains for a minute here. Do you know how awesome your brain is? No? Let me enlighten you.

Your brain is thinking about things right now that you don’t even know about. Remember earlier when you couldn’t remember the name of that TV show you used to watch when you were a kid? Your brain is still processing that, and when it figures it out (probably right before you are about to fall asleep), you’ll know. Have you ever been hit by a sudden burst of creativity or came up with a brilliant solution to a problem seemingly out of thin air? While I’ll allow for the possibility that you were given a divine nudge, chances are, your subconscious had been working non-stop while your conscious mind was working on something else. At some point, the neural pathways were opened and you had that brilliant idea! That amazes me. Even when I’m not actively creating, my brain still is. It can’t help but create at all times no matter what. When I think about what it means to be created in the image of God, this is one of the things that stands out to me most. I’m only here because God can’t stop creating either. When I think about that, I imaging a little boy with a toy lawn mower following his dad around the yard imagining that he is just like his daddy. “Hey Dad! I made a blog post today! Isn’t it pretty? It looks just like you, doesn’t it?”

At this point in my fantasy, God puts my blog post on the refrigerator of Heaven and I continue drawing pictures of dinosaurs.

Back to the point…

There are documented cases of stroke victims suddenly discovering hidden musical or artistic talents that were in their brain all along but were only accessible when the rest of their brain was damaged. The brain has this wonderful way of compensating and improvising. We’re resilient creatures. Humans as a species are experts at survival. We’re also far too powerful for our own good, but that’s a post for another day.

What happens when the brain is broken, but the results are not pretty pictures? What happens when people are hurt because of it? Here’s an example. The right temporo-parietal junction (RTPJ) is a part of your brain that is right above your right ear. This is the part of the brain that makes moral judgments. Using a powerful, focused electromagnet, scientists are able to turn this part of the brain off. First of all, can we all agree that this is awesome? The Egyptians thought so little of the brain that they used to throw it away when mummifying. The ancient Hebrew people didn’t even really have a word for the brain. Now we can use electromagnets to manipulate how people think! I love living in the future. Anyway, scientists from MIT took 30 people, presented them with fictional stories, and asked them to make moral judgements based on them. When the RTPJ was turned off, people made choices that they would have never made otherwise. So just by using magnets to stop the electrical impulses within a tiny part of the brain, normal people were turned into amoral monsters.

Now imagine that a person was born with a malformed RTPJ. This would be a person who would be physically unable to discern right from wrong. Plenty of sociopaths have experiences like this. They kill people and they feel no remorse. A classical understanding would be that they are pure evil, demon possessed, or human monsters. Are they? If a person is physically unable to do anything else, can we hold them accountable? That would be like calling a lion evil for killing its food or calling an earthquake evil. That’s crazy talk. When I’ve talked to people about this, the next question that inevitably arises is, “Where do you stop? Is anyone accountable or are we all just machines?”. Here’s my answer. Are you ready? I hope you are, because it’s a good one…

I don’t know.

It would seem that some people are born with bad brains that just can’t help it while other people are born with super-brains that want nothing more than to help people and better society. Other people seem to be somewhere in the middle. Maybe there is a spectrum of accountability. What I mean by that perhaps there is a spectrum along the brain-health continuum in which a person is able to comprehend the gravity of their actions and decide to act accordingly. The human brain is constantly rewiring itself and adapting to situations, so a person’s brain could conceivably move around the continuum. Maybe a traumatic event, drug use, or sickness could cause a brain to tip over to the wrong side of the scale. On the other hand, the touch of God, corrective therapy, or proper medication could bring a person back from the brink.

What does all this mean? I want to make two points here…

1.) Moral culpability is not as easy to discern as once thought. We can’t simply assume that someone who does evil things is intrinsically evil. That difficult person that you work with, the woman screaming on the subway, the crazy driver in front of you, or the latest murderer on the news might not be as “evil” as you once thought. There’s a chance that Hitler and Charles Manson couldn’t help what they did anymore than a fire can’t help but burn trees down. Evil is a choice. It can only happen when someone makes it happen. If you actually believe this, then you can’t help but become a more gracious person. It becomes exponentially easier to forgive people and turn the other cheek. You haven’t seen their brain scan. Don’t assume that their brain works as well as yours does.

2.) The God who wrote the digits of pi and who has counted the bacteria in your stomach knows your neurological state. This is the God who will ultimately judge you, and God knows better than anyone what you are working with. Are you struggling with depression, bipolar disorder, or some other chemical imbalance? God knows. Are you unable to discern moral judgments or figure out social situations? God knows. Are you constantly messing up and have lost hope in yourself? God knows. Regardless of whether your brain is ever healed, God knows. be comforted. God knows.

Such a Great Cloud of Witnesses (in my DNA)

Hey friends. First of all, thank you so much to all of you who shared my first post last week and gave me such kind words of encouragement. I often feel like I’m the only one who cares about this stuff, but I guess that’s not true! So I’ve been thinking about where I want to start with this blog. I have about 50 ideas floating around in my head, but there was one nagging idea that kept coming back. “Don’t you dare write about that as your first real post! You’ll spark a flame war and never have another reader again!”, said one part of my brain to another part of my brain. “You need to ease them into the idea of seeing the divine in the world of science. Talk about something unoffensive like stars, flowers, or electrons. Whatever you do, don’t talk about evolution!”. Oops. Too late. I already started. I guess I can’t stop now…

Let me once again reiterate what I said in my first post. God does not live in the clouds, God does not exist in an alternate dimension, God did not leave his signature on the bottom of a rock in the Amazon for us to find, and we will never “find” God in His creation. God is not a thing as we experience “thingness”. At its current pace and with the exponential burst in computer technology, humans will probably understand the universe if we don’t destroy ourselves first. They will not find God there. They will also not find out things about God by just looking at the way the universe works, and evolution is a great example of this. We learn from the life of Jesus that God loves us more than anything. Jesus told us that God is even watching out for the sparrow and the lily, and he cares about us enough to come and die for us. Wonderful. I’m a big fan of this. Unlike God, the universe that God created is BRUTAL! Black holes are ripping universes apart, asteroids are pulverizing planets, and lions are eating babies. In fact, 99.9% of all species of plants and animals are extinct. Nature is wasteful, heartless, and cruel.

So why am I writing about it? It sounds terrible.

I’m so glad you asked!

It’s also wild, uncontrollable, and awe-inspiring. Darwin’s theory of evolution was one of those revolutionary, world-changing ideas that shook the foundations of academia and forced the Church to decide whether it would accept that it didn’t know everything about everything or reject Darwin as the Anti-Christ. I think we all have experience with the repercussions. There’s an enormous group of people who were non-religious who finally had the permission to become atheists and legions of Christians who were raised to check their brains at the door to keep their faith. They’re probably all wrong. I’m probably wrong too. However, I am willing to be wrong, and that is something that plenty of people can’t seem to figure out.

If you don’t really know what evolution is all about, check out this wonderful NOVA special…

For those of you who didn’t watch the video and who don’t really know what evolution is all about, evolution basically works like this. Every once and awhile, random genetic mutations are helpful for a species in a particular place (color-changing chameleons, birds with long beaks, extra thick blubber, etc.) and that creature becomes more likely to survive and pass on their genetic information. Over time, those with the mutation that allowed it to thrive will take over. Darwin saw this in the Galapagos Islands when he discovered that the finches on each different island had beaks that were uniquely adapted to the available food source on that island. Now take this principle and apply it to billions of years and you have all of life on Earth!

Ok, it’s not that simple, but this isn’t just a science blog, and I don’t have the time to get into it all.

Suffice it to say, evolution is not some half-cocked atheist plot to kick Jesus out of schools. It is one of the best tested theories that we have in all of science. The plain reality is that evolution is happening and while we don’t understand it fully, it is still happening. It’s happening right here in the good ol US of A. When we colonized Hawaii, we also accidentally introduced crickets and flies. like any introduced species, things are not balanced, so it can get crazy (see: the rabbit population of Australia). So the crickets would chirp to attract a mate but the flies would buzz in first and kill them, laying their eggs in their bodies. This was perfect for the flies, but the crickets were not that happy about it. Imagine if you rang your girlfriend’s doorbell but a giant monster injected its eggs into your chest instead. Worst. date. ever. Anyway, at some point in the last decade, some cricket was born without the ability to chirp. Normally, that would mean that it would be doomed because it couldn’t attract a mate. However, this cricket waited in the wings while normal crickets chirped, were eaten, and then took the females that came as their own. Brilliant! Within a decade, a huge amount of the cricket population of Hawaii was unable to chirp even if they wanted to. Eventually, all the normal crickets will die and then the new crickets will have to figure out how to get females without chirping. If they can’t they will die off too! Evolution is not always friendly.

Hebrews 12:1 talks about being surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses”, and that is the beauty that I see in our evolutionary history. The creation narrative in Genesis 1-2 tell us that we all came from Eve who came from Adam who came from dirt. We all came from the same place. Evolution teaches us the same thing. You still have a tail bone! Chickens still have the same genes that their dinosaur ancestors did. They’re just turned off. There are scientists who are working to create Jurassic Park by isolating the genes in birds which are turned off now and switching them back on. They’ve already created chickens with teeth, scales, and a tail. Our DNA tells the story of where we were and who we were. The DNA of Humans and Chimps are 99% similar, and the majority of the differences do not come from the genes that tell the body what to make, but the genes which are known as “switches” that turn certain genes on and off. Written into our very being are all of the genes that made our primitive ancestors who they were. The “missing link” is written in our genes. (see this wonderful article here) There is a species of whiptail lizard that has evolved to be only female. They reproduce within themselves, but they are still hard-wired to think they need a man in their life, so in order to conceive, they have to first be mounted by another female even though all the magic is happening inside itself. Evolution can be sexy too.

No matter how vastly different living creatures look, we all came from the same source. I share a common ancestor with the tuna. If that doesn’t change the way that you look at the world, you might be monster. Not only that, but the “stuff” that makes up your body used to belong to something else. Nothing in you is new. You are part of something MUCH bigger than any one ideology or national identity can claim. We can build all the artificial materials, chemicals, and climate-controlled buildings that we want, but as both the Bible and science teach us, we’re earth. The whales that are being hunted to extinction are our cousins and the animals that we are killing to build our cities are our family. We need to take care of the Earth because we ARE the Earth.

At this point, you’re probably thinking, “That’s all fine and good, but this is a post about evolution and you didn’t even talk about the intelligent design debate!”

To that, all I have to say is that if you are reading Genesis as if it were a history text book instead of an ancient book of compiled oral histories about the origins of an ancient people, then you are doing it wrong. It is insulting to the Scriptures and to the God that gave them to us to make them say anything more than they were written to say. Do I think that creation happened in 6 days? Nope. Genesis 1 is poetry, not science. How could God have created light on the first day but the sun on the fourth? I also don’t believe in a literal Adam and Eve who ate the fruit that a talking snake gave them. It’s insulting to the text and to the entire scope of what we know about life on Earth. Do I think that God created everything? Certainly. Do I believe that humans sinned against Him and brought all kinds of terrible things into this world? I live in Philadelphia and I see signs of it every single day that I walk past refineries, trash heaps, drug addicts, and death. The whole evolution vs creationism debate is WAY too highly politicized and is not something I am terribly interested in. Here’s what I am interested in…

Life is amazing. God is so creative that He created his creation to keep creating! How much more awesome can you get? We live in a world that has the freedom to develop, improve, and make mistakes. What is good will last and what is not good will die off. The sheer diversity of life on this planet is awe-inspiring enough, but when I think about how connected to everything I am, I am absolutely brought to my knees. I’m not filled with a sense of smallness. I am consumed by the overwhelming “cloud of witnesses” around me and that have existed throughout the millions of years of Earth’s history. I am a part of something MUCH bigger than myself. In fact, living inside of my digestive tract are over 100 trillion different, living bacteria. That’s more bacteria than there have ever been humans. Life is everywhere! Make sure you pet a dog today, say hi to a squirrel, and do something to help your cousins in the ocean. We gotta look out for each other. God only gave us one Earth!