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A New Year, A New Beginning

Serendipity is my favorite word and speaks volumes to me about life as I have come to understand it. Serendipity is defined as, “The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.” This word defines a certain levity that combines both uncertainty and beneficence that encapsulates much of what life is all about. However, this is not to deny that some chance events produce untoward consequences. Allow me to expand upon this.

Having been brought up in a liturgically rich denomination (as a third generation Swedish Episcopalian), I have an appreciation for that tradition. However, the scientist in me has opened for me a different “lens” through which to view what I am participating in. Liturgy is essentially a play in multiple acts, complete with dress, postures, gestures, and above all stories. This play is about the Christian myth, not what literally happened.

Myth is not at all about falsehood, to the contrary, it is about the richness of story. So, simplistically, in our tradition, we “tell stories and have a meal” (Eucharist). What could be a more meaningful reason to gather with people who mutually care for each other. If you want a capsulized version of the Christian myth, you only need to read the Apostle’s or Nicene Creed. To read them literally is a failure to understand that they are more mythological than factual. I willingly participate in these weekly rituals because I have come to understand what I am experiencing.

Religion, as we have come to understand it, has not done us a favor because it has not invited us into the questions. Instead, many religions have seen their role to provide answers to life’s most perplexing questions. Most religious traditions have not embraced science, seeing it as a threat instead of a new way of visualizing how the universe evolved nine billion years before our solar system appeared. Religions have chosen to depict God as the Creator of all that is or will become. It is more likely that the universe began as a quantum event, for which there is no predictable outcome. This is why some think that the Big Bang emanated into a “multiverse” of which we happen to be on a universe that has the “right stuff”, the four physical constants that govern all physics.

About a billion years after our solar system formed, life began on planet earth that had conditions ripe for life to evolve. Self-replicating life appeared after many aborted attempts. There was no designer, or plan and there was much detritus along the path of evolution. Life evolved through many failures and evolution continues with no pre-determined or preferred outcome (telos). Life on earth as we know it, virtually started over after the chance impact of an asteroid 66 million years ago. Evolution was reinitiated from the small amount of animal life that survived the impact. Small mammals were among the survivors and are basically our closest relatives. What science can say with some confidence is that we are related to every organism that lived long enough to reproduce. Therefore, we share an interrelatedness, to our living past. Likewise, having come from that singularity in space-time at the Big Bang, we share an interconnection with everything in the universe. These acknowledgments offer a meaningful eco-theology of nature. Many Christians have failed to acknowledge our serendipitous beginnings, choosing instead to invoke the power of a Designer God. Georgetown theologian, John Haught offers the following: “The image of a vulnerable, defenseless, and humble deity may seem shocking to some, but it is critical to the primordial Christian sense of the nature of ultimate reality.”[1]

If God is no longer the literal Creator, what is the role God, if anything? What follows is, of course, speculative as no one can answer life’s ultimate questions: “Where did I come from; How did I get here; and Where am I going?” Placing God in the role of Creator invites the notion that we humans were intended and are the pinnacle of a master plan. If we place God in the role of privileging human life, how then can we justify God’s role in genetic disease, Covid-19, birth defects, and premature death, or death by any untoward cause?

Thus, we face a dilemma as to whether to accept or reject God, or do we visualize a completely different theology? It is easy to simply reject the God concept, however, if we choose the former option, we need to struggle with the question, what role God? What follows is the theological “What If” game. Christians are familiar with the statement that God is love, but what does this mean? Although there are many definitions of love, the love of God is a one-way street, a total gift, given without question or expectation of any return or reward. This is called kenosis, or an act of emptying. Applying this act of love to the creation is to imply that God simply loved the universe into existence and let it be.

Being loved and accepted for no reason is an awesome realization that can only be manifest by giving it away. Christian responsibility is then to use our gifts and talents in the service of others, without expectation of return. God is no longer viewed as a supernatural being, almighty, king, judge, ruler, or as a “crutch” upon which we lean for support. What this implies is that we are liberated from notions of sin against God and eternal punishment/judgement. However, this does not mean that we are blameless for our behavior. We are accountable to our neighbor as well as to ourselves. Rather than seek forgiveness from God, our role is to forgive our neighbor as well as ourselves.

Some may be offended by the suggestion that when we gather together, we are celebrating the Christian myth. Participating in liturgy is intended to be an invitation into the story. It matters not whether the story is literally true, for to literalize the myth is to turn it into something it was never intended to be. My favorite definition of myth was offered by a child, who said, “A myth is a story that is make believe on the outside, but true on the inside”.[2]

In reality, it is impossible to know the literal nature of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. What we read in the Gospels are second or third hand accounts of Jesus’ ministry written by different communities in the Middle East. What we have is the Gospel about Jesus, not the Gospel of Jesus. None of the gospels were written by Jesus’ apostles, as they were written 40-70 years after his death. However, in the genre of myth as described by the child above, a central message rings true. That message is that Jesus’ life was about love, justice, and equality toward all people. This is what we celebrate and emulate in how we use our gifts and talents in the service of others. Jesus of Nazareth is our ultimate role model, not God incarnate.

Thomas J. Lindell, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Arizona. He has taught courses in Bioethics and also Science and Theology. He is currently an instructor in printmaking at The Drawing Studio in Tucson and is a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. He is also a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists (SOSc).

POSTSCRIPT

A previous bishop heard me give a brief statement on science and religion. He was asked by someone else in attendance if that was what Episcopalians believe? His answer was, “No, that is just Tom Lindell”. Shortly thereafter I was invited (commanded?) to visit with him at which time he strongly suggested that when I speak, I should provide a disclaimer that I do not speak for the Episcopal church, but for myself (which I usually do).

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[1] John Haught, God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution, Westview, Boulder, 2000, p. 47.

[2] Robert Atkinson, The Gift of Stories: Practical and Spiritual Applications of Autobiography, Life Stories, and Personal Mythmaking, Bergin & Garvey, Westport, 1995, p. 22.

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