“Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:17). This is it right? This is the big question we continue to debate within ourselves and with others. This is the reason we don’t talk about religion at dinner tables. This is the question that continues to divide us into categories: Those who believe like we do and those who don’t believe like we do?
This question haunted the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness. The questioning in the desert contained a common theme that we see in our world today quarrelling (Massah) and testing (Meribah). The Psalmist describes the results of this Massah and Meribah as hardened, restless hearts that have gone astray. In a society where militant atheistic and fundamental Christian voices dominate the newsreel, we continue to witness this quarrelling, hardening, restlessness, and testing today. This drama encourages us to tune out, stop caring about, and stop bothering with any productive discussion around this amazing question posed by ancient Israelites. “Is the Lord among us or not?” Our poor ability to communicate cordially with each other hardens all our hearts and gives us no rest.
The problem with being human is that we often feel the need to be right. We require that our answer to the proposed question be based on truth. As we learn in John (4:24), “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” Should someone else offer a different truth aside from the existence of our own conceptualization of God, we appear compelled to feel threatened, a violent affection. Instead of engaging the other in conversation, we write off our fellow human, so we can protect ourselves and continue to live in our isolated bubbles.
But first a note on truths. Thomas Kuhn (1962) in his pivotal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, analyzed the history of science and its evolution. He noted that paradigms (scientific jargon for truth) are maintained by the particular methods used to support them. These paradigms can only be shifted if there are methods to drive that shift. A similar parallel is found in theological understanding. Beliefs (theological parlance for truth) are maintained by interpretation of sacred scripture. Shifts in those beliefs can only happen if there are new interpretations to drive those beliefs. We are in fact human after all; thus, it is reasonable to conclude that our heuristics for both theology and science are quite similar.
Consistently, Czech theologian Tomas Halik denounces the “believer” and “non-believer” dichotomy as not useful. He suggests that a better juxtaposition is seekers and dwellers. Seekers search for deeper meaning in this reality, while dwellers are rigid in their logic (or illogic) like many we find in both in organized religion or militant atheism. Thus, both “believers” and “non-believers” may be seekers or dwellers, but seekers acknowledge that there is more to this reality beyond that which is explained by empirical science.
On a recent plane ride, I had the opportunity to read two superb books: One theological, and one scientific. The first, What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Rob Bell, provides an easy to follow interrogation of common misconceptions of God and a refreshing approach to using language appropriately to understand God. (Remember: All thoughts and memories we form are based on the language we use to encode them). Bell also comingles the wonders of modern science and its vastness with the eternal being that is God.
The second book, Presence by Peter M. Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski and Betty Sue Flowers, also discusses the wonders of modern science and the importance of understanding that wholes are greater than the sum of their parts. These prominent organizational management consultants and theorists explain that you cannot know what is known without acknowledging the unknown. They do so through a series of conversations between the four and a wealth of case studies. They lament the lack of methods to explain and predict the holistic natures of humans and organizations; however, they emphasize that both, humans and organizations, need to move forward with more holist approaches rather than working only on those parts that appear to need tinkering.
Both books emphasize that an open mind is necessary for a truer and fuller understanding of this reality. There is no knowing without unknowing. In fact, there may be no methods for assessing everything in this reality. What we need to do is stop fighting about the parts and the particulars, and just let it come.
My father once told me as a young child, “If you want to close an argument, close your bible. If you want to open your mind, open the bible.” His words continue to ring true in my heart today. Bell reminds us to listen to how God is at work in on our lives. The authors of Presence suggest that we must listen to our connectedness in this reality; they encourage us to be present. So let us stop our quarrelling, our hardening, our restlessness, and our testing, and just let what is already at work in our lives come. Maybe if we can do this, we can together discover, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
To learn more I encourage you to listen to This American Life Episode 290: Godless America and I leave you with this quote by Thomas Merton.
It is true that neither the ancient wisdoms nor the modern sciences are complete in themselves. They do not standalone. They call for one another. Wisdom without science is unable to penetrate the full sapiential meaning of the created and the material cosmos. Science without wisdom leaves man enslaved to a world of unrelated objects in which there is no way of discovering (or creating) order and deep significance in man’s own pointless existence.