The Age of Reason

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It happens sometimes that our fingers slip on Sunday morning as we fumble through our Bible to find the passage that the pastor refers to us today. Of course this is only true for those attending a church whose pastor uses the Bible, a smaller and smaller minority to be sure. Rather than our eyes falling on a more familiar part of the book, we might find ourselves in Genesis. Because our Sunday morning mind has already begun to wander, we might begin to read what is before our eyes rather than recognizing our mistake and quickly moving away to the correct passage. To be sure, this is a rare event, as only the most sleep fogged mind will make this serious a mistake, as Genesis is far removed in a thick book from where we usually referred. Given that occasionally an inexperienced or venturesome pastor will attempt something from Psalms, which are closer to the front of the book, such mistakes do happen.

It is also true that ambition strikes on rare occasions and we are struck with the desire to read the Bible in its entirety. Having grown up in a Western culture and spent many hours in school, we know that you start a book in the beginning. As Genesis is in the beginning, pun intended, we start there. All too often, those first few chapters quench our naïve ambition and we retreat to the relative safety of American Idol. For those few who grit their teeth and make it through Genesis, Leviticus, if not Exodus, provides the coup de grace.

But no matter how we get there or why, almost all of us have read some part of Genesis. It is different. It is unlike anything else that we read. Of course Genesis is religious in nature and thus we bring an expectation of stilted language and concerns that are alien to our every day experience. Our experience of religion in the West is that it is an arcane subject. We really don’t expect to understand it. What we expect is for the pastor or author to present the Bible to us in understandable and digestible chunks that give us either an easily remembered rule for our lives or allow us to feel hopeful. Much like broccoli, we know that the Bible’s words are good for us, but like broccoli, it is not anything like ice cream. Continuing the metaphor, while we might imagine the Bible to be broccoli, Genesis is definitely more like artisanal kale.

I hope a smile touched your lips as you read the above paragraphs, meant to be ironic as well as commentary on the modern church. But there is no doubt that the Bible, and most particularly the Old Testament, speaks strangely to our 21st century minds. Those of us of a certain age remember when we were exposed to a media and culture that still used the stories and metaphors of Sunday School in our public discourse. We have a certain familiarity with them denied our children, because we heard them used, both in and out of church. Terms such as “coat of many colors” or “patience of Job” were in common use and understood.

For our children, this is not the case. Images derived from Old Testament stories that were once in every day usage have become concepts and ideas that belong in the past along with “Red China” and “dial telephone”. The Old Testament is now unfamiliar territory to our children. There is now no public discourse, outside of insular Christian circles, where there is a familiarity with the stories and concepts in the Old Testament. They have all passed into the arcana of the “religious” and so are increasingly seen as quaint or more often, disturbing.

We have come a long way baby. Indeed we have. But even to those who spend time in the Old Testament, it is not an easy read. The Books of Wisdom, particularly the Psalms and Proverbs, are readily available to our modern mind. The Prophets are comforting, as long as we stick to the passages prophesying about Jesus. The historical sections of the Old Testament give us a sense that we are part of something with deep roots. But the Pentateuch is really on the edge of our ability to accept or empathize with. As part of the Pentateuch, Genesis is totally out of synch with our sense of reality.

 For starters, Genesis is full of supernatural presence and miraculous events. The educated class of Western Civilization’s 21st century doesn’t believe in miracles or the supernatural. Not really. We don’t read our horoscopes and we don’t read the Old Testament. It is not that we do not live in an age of miracles. We walk through a snowy parking lot into a market in January and buy fresh tomatoes. We touch the screen of our telephone and Skype with our mother who is 6,000 miles away. We are increasingly used to seeing photos on our screens of the Martian landscape or ice volcanoes on one of Saturn’s moons. We check into a hospital and leave with a new knee the next day. By the standards of any earlier age, these are indeed miracles.

And in fact, we do give lip service to the wonders of our age being miracles. It is the expected answer and shows proper deference to our pride as a people. We are being properly humble when we call the occurrences of our every day life miraculous. It is what we are expected to say in polite society. And not to be mistaken as a hopeless nerd, we readily admit that we really have no idea about how all this wonder is accomplished. But we do know deep in our gut, that it is all the product of science and technology, harnessed by the power of economics. No matter what wondrous things we might see in the future, we know beyond a doubt that those wonders will also be the products of science and technology.

A great but little appreciated thinker by the name of Arthur C. Clarke formulated some laws of technology some decades ago that I find to be insightful expressions of our modern view of reality. In an aside about Mr. Clarke, though not a Christian, he pondered the question of God in a number of insightful and sometimes disturbing ways. I would recommend his short story, “The Star”, to any Christian as food for thought.

Mr. Clarke set down some observations about science that have come to be known as his laws of technology. They are:

Clarke’s First Law: When a distinguished scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is almost certainly wrong.

Clarke’s Second Law: The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to attempt the impossible.

Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

His Third Law neatly captures how our understanding of the world is different from that of our ancestors. No matter what we might see, do or experience at some future time, we will understand it to be the product of technology. The idea that any wonder we might experience is not a product of technology, or at least explainable by science, is inconceivable to us. It simply does not compute. J

When we read the Old Testament, when we read Genesis, this understanding of reality shapes our minds. We cannot escape it. We are like the fish in the bowl that asks, “What water?” The idea that there might be realities different from that we conceive is beyond our ability to conceive.

We read Genesis with the mind of 21st century Western man, assuming that Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Joseph understood their world as we do. Granted, they were ignorant of what we know, which allows us to forgive or gloss over the disturbing parts of what they did and said. But we are comfortable in the assurance that if they were in our place and knew what we know today, they would think of their experience just as we do. How else could they think? How else could they perceive of their reality?

The Bible contains mention of miracles. Miracles are told of in the New Testament such as The Star of Bethlehem and Jesus turning water into wine. Miracles are told of in the Old Testament such as Moses calling down plagues on Egypt and Jonah living in a whale.  A substantial body of Christian literature is concerned with providing a scientific explanation of how those miracles occurred. Every miracle in the Bible has been explained in inventive ways by well meaning people as expressions of natural phenomena. While as Christians we believe that it was part of God’s plan for those events recorded in the Bible to happen, we also believe that God is part of our same reality and constrained to work within the rules as we understand them.

We know that if we publicly confess to belief in the supernatural, we will lose what little remains of our credibility with our neighbors and co-workers. As Grandpa told the Lost Boys in the 1987 movie of the same name, “We got rules around here”. As the movie and its ilk make clear, vampires may be acceptable objects of fascination for our young people. But actual rational belief in a supernatural is against the rules.

We live in an Age of Reason. It is an age of the rational and the material. This has not always been the case. It is within our culture’s historical memory to remember differently. It was once common to submit those accused of a crime to an ordeal in order to determine their guilt or innocence. If you were thrown into the fire and you burned to death, it was because you were guilty. It was only a few centuries ago that witch trials condemned women to painful deaths. The same pilgrims that we honor at Thanksgiving also put on the Salem witch trials.

We are properly horrified and appalled by the ignorance and prejudice displayed by our distant ancestors in doing these things. When we hear stories today of ignorant shamans and witch doctors that practice the art of healing, our scientists look among their herbs and potions for possible medicines.  Stories of voodoo in Haiti make us deplore the sins of the slave trade and how it consigned entire nations into depraved poverty. My grandmother believed one of her neighbors to have an “evil eye” which made me chuckle at the old woman and her superstitions.

Depending on our faith, or lack thereof, we believe that God can work miracles.  We profess to pray for miracles, and in desperate straits actually believe those miracles can happen. I know, for I have been there. But it seems to be only in my foxhole that I can believe in the ability of God to supersede the reality that I see. And when in his grace, God intervenes in my life and performs that miracle for which I prayed, I am quick to find the logical reasons that actually made it happen.

This is the burden that Genesis bears. We are an enlightened and reasonable people. Everything in our reality can be explained. There is simply no need, or room, in our reality for a supernatural being that intervenes in human affairs. The Universe runs nicely on its own, thank you, without any need for any external agency.  Those who seriously consider what came before the Big Bang might tolerate the idea of a supernatural God that created the Universe; but the idea of a God who moves things around like pieces on a chess board after the act of Creation is surely out of bounds. It is outside the fishbowl for modern man.

To those with a sense of history, it seems a natural enough progression. The march of civilization has been a long slow journey from ignorance to knowledge. It has been a painful journey with many stumbles. We have left our mark on the world that God gave us. That mark of our presence and our passage is often ugly.

But we are proud of our achievements along that march. Our world supports over 6 billion people. These people are better fed, live longer and have more opportunity to better their lives than at any time before in the history of the world. More people live at peace, with freedom from the disease, hunger and violence than ever before. By any measure of material wellbeing, our age stands at the pinnacle of human experience.

This material wellbeing is the signal achievement of Western Civilization. Western Civilization is built upon the three foundation stones of Rome, Greece and Jerusalem. We are a unique blend of the three; a hybrid civilization that by any material measure is the highest expression to date of the human race. Other cultures, not a part of our heritage, are raising themselves by emulating the practices and beliefs of our own.

But how did Western Civilization come to achieve this success? Those other cultures with whom we coexist on this planet are equally long-lived and complex. They are composed of individuals just as smart and perceptive as us. They too have an ethos and a culture that has proven successful on its own terms. But no other culture discovered the keys to material success and wide spread wellbeing that are the unique possession of Western Civilization.

It was not always so. If we return to the time of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving talked about earlier, we see a very different picture. Europe, the home of Western Civilization, was an embattled place. The great city of Vienna, capital city of the greater part of Europe, would be surrounded and besieged some fifty years in the future by the great civilization of the Ottoman Turks, a hybrid of Islam, Central Asia and Babylon. The Pilgrims themselves undoubtedly knew countrymen that had been taken in slave raids by the Ottoman’s English coastal towns. Asia hosted cultures that were in every way comparable to the best that Europe, or the Fertile Crescent could put forth.

What changed? Those of us who think about such things all have answers. Occasionally we agree. But we all would agree that the period of time when that change occurred was what we now call the Enlightenment. Those in academia will debate the precise when, how and why of this era, but it happened. Like beauty, it is difficult to say what it was, but we all recognize that it happened. Science and technology, as we know them, were born.

Our world would never be the same again. Men of ideas were no longer akin to sorcerers or magicians, seeking out formulations that gave them advantage. Ships, buildings and other instruments of progress were no longer built by rules of thumb handed down from fathers to sons. Instead men discovered that there were logical ways in which the world worked. These logical ways could be discovered by men and used to build larger, faster, cheaper, safer, to create things not ever thought of before.

It was not only in the world of material things that the Enlightenment drove change. Law became a structure of logic and regularity. Government was able to grow a coherent and permanent structure. Money was free to escape the bounds of gold coinage because of ideas about accounting that built upon each other. It has been argued persuasively that England became pre-eminent in Europe because she mastered the art of public finance and was able to build her incomparable navy through the issuance of public debt.

The Enlightenment changed things. Some, dissatisfied by the state of the modern world, daydream of the idyll that existed before the Enlightenment, but those daydreams ignore the reality of that idyll. If you had the misfortune to be born female before the Enlightenment, you would be a drudge, doomed to a life of serial childbirth and menial servitude at domestic tasks. If you did not die of childbirth fever or from any one of numerous diseases and lasted into what might pass for old age in that era, it was likely that your life would end during the next hard winter when the “old and infirm” would be denied food and shelter.

If you had the fortune to be born male during that idyll before the Enlightenment, you would have a wider range of opportunity. You might spend your life at backbreaking labor in the field or craft shop. Perhaps you might be afforded the opportunity to fight an armored knight with a hoe or pitchfork during one of the interminable medieval wars that simmered like a centuries long outbreak of the flu season. Of course there was always the possibility of debtor’s prison, or even enslavement, if you had a little bad luck. While some older women could look forward to a death from starvation or the cold, it was a very improbable future for the men of that time. They would simply not last long enough to meet such an end.

To say that the Enlightenment and its consequences did not result in the betterment of human life is a very hard argument to make. The Enlightenment brought logic and order to human culture that was based on knowledge and objective material facts. Western culture became the first culture in human history that was built upon knowledge. Knowledge became the common property of all who lived in that culture. As the knowledge base that grew out of that era became more widespread and used by more of people in that culture, the success of the culture in the following centuries grew exponentially.

Which takes us back to Genesis. One way to look at the Book of Genesis is as a manual for how we are to live, not only as individuals, but as a culture as well. Genesis contains few absolutes about action or thought we are required to take, or to abstain from. Instead it offers stories about people that are uncomfortably human. If we engage with the stories and the people in them, we recognize that they are very much like us. Instead of absolute “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not”, Genesis shows us the consequences of behavior.

It is a book of advice, advice that we would do well to heed. Genesis displays people and cultures modeling virtually all of the vices that we are prone to as human beings. In narrative form, it then gives us a view of the possible (probable?) results of that behavior. It reminds us again and again that vice exists and that there are consequences to engaging in that vice. Those consequences are not always immediate and they do not always happen to us.

It is a sobering reminder to me that irresponsible or sinful behavior on my part will not necessarily hurt me or result in my downfall, at least in this life. Genesis makes clear that what I do will have consequences for my children, my grandchildren and the culture that I live in. My vice, or sinful behavior for those of you who believe in sin, has consequences beyond what it does to me. It stands as a powerful testimony to the lie of the victimless crime.

Genesis makes clear that we are all human. Each of us, both as individuals and as cultures, engages in sinful behavior that has harmful consequences. Adam and Eve are faced with the challenge of our sinful nature in the 3rd Chapter of Genesis. It is not God’s advice that they are tempted to disobey but His direct command. They disobey, each in their own sinful way, with the result that they are cast from the Garden. Here Genesis makes clear that each of us is born in sin, lives in sin and dies in sin. Without salvation, without a Savior, we are without hope of anything better than our own sordid existence.

But what was the command of God that Adam and Eve disobeyed? They had direct knowledge of God. They walked with Him in the Garden. What possible temptation could cause them to disobey in the face of such prohibition? They did not doubt God’s existence or feel estranged from Him. He was an everyday direct physical presence in their lives. They did not think that God’s command was ambiguous or subject to interpretation. While Eve in her speech with the Serpent is disingenuous about what God commanded, her very modifications to what God had said make the fact clear that she understood the prohibition very well.

Again, what was the command of God that Adam and Eve disobeyed? If we return to the 2nd Chapter, we find that it was given as:

“And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die””  Genesis 2: 16  NKJV

Adam and Eve were to leave the tree of knowledge of good and evil alone. I betray my own sinful nature by the thought that immediately jumps into my mind when I read this passage. I cannot help it. A single word comes to my mind before I even think or can consider a rational response. It is the word and the question; “Why?”.

Why does God command Adam and Eve to not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Why does God put such a tree in the garden if Adam and Eve are not to eat of it? Why, why, why, why? The question echoes through my mind without answer.

I am a man of my age and culture. I have spent a life and career in the pursuit of knowledge and reason. I have spent a career participating in the building of great industrial facilities, harnessing the power of energies undreamt of in previous ages, constructed for the betterment of mankind. I have spent much of my free time in life reading books in a search for knowledge and wisdom. I have seen the good that comes from the proper application of knowledge and reason, tempered by wisdom.

How can God say that we must not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil? It appears to me that Man; Western Civilization in particular, has been eating from the tree of knowledge for a long time and has created great good for mankind by doing so. I am convinced of the good created by knowledge and its application. What is the point of this prohibition by God? Reason fails me. The wisdom of the Age of Reason is unable to deal with this apparent paradox. The understanding that knowledge, of any kind, is good is fundamental to our culture; it is our water. Yet our God told Adam and Eve not to sample knowledge; that we are to stay away from it. I, and we, cannot deal with this paradox. It flies in the face of our beliefs and our ethics.

It is tempting to think God a trickster. Such a god, one who delights in temptation, is envisioned by many cultures and given names such as Loki by the Norse or Pan by the Greeks. To put some good thing on an easily reached shelf and then to deny it be touched or used is the act of someone desiring to create mischief. We know in our bones that we, or any other human, can’t stay away from something desirable and accessible. We are only human, which God knows only too well.

But I cannot believe that of my God. Our Bible tells us again and again that He loves us and seeks to be in relationship with us. He sent His only Son to die an agonizing death that I might not suffer the ultimate consequences of my folly. That Son told us that God longs for us to be intimate with him. He asks us to call him “Daddy”, not “Father”. I find no reason to believe that God is a trickster, or that he tempts us so that He can delight in our punishment. I believe that God told Adam and Eve to stay away because it was dangerous, but necessary.

To know the mind and reasons of God is beyond us. To presume to know why God acts is to be foolish, as well as court blasphemy. But it is also very hard to read Scripture without wondering. Our culture, in its ignorance and unbelief, points to our Bible and calls it full of error and contradiction, with a god both harsh and arbitrary. If we are to witness to our culture as a testimony to the Truth, we must endeavor to engage in an exposition of the Truth to that culture that is both humble in spirit and in the nature of the God we serve.

I think that as we live our lives, God gives us insight into himself through our experiences. As parents of our own children, I believe we are given a hint as to God’s relationship with us.  We love our children with a love that knows no reason and has no bounds. At our best, we would give up our lives for those children. We do our best to ensure that they are safe and well away from any possible danger.

But we do live in a world where possible dangers exist. There is traffic on the road, fatal electrical shock in the outlets in our house, even lightning during the life giving rain. All of these things can hurt our children, but they are necessary to the world that we live in. We do our best to protect our children, but if they are to be real human beings, they must go out among these dangers if they are to live full and rewarding lives. We are left to simply tell them to stay on the sidewalk and keep out of that inviting open road. Until they gain greater age and more experience, dealing with crossing roads at the proper time and place is not possible.

We are left to wonder at the danger posed by knowledge. Certainly a moment’s reflection provides many possible answers. It is not so long ago that we were frightened that one finger would cause annihilation of our entire species in a nuclear holocaust. Many among us worry that our civilization cannot endure because of the poisons created by its existence. There is surely no shortage of facets to the dark sides in the Age of Reason. Knowledge is a two edged sword, as easily used for evil as for good.

But the Bible speaks of a specific knowledge, the knowledge of good and evil. As so much in Scripture, we are left to prayerfully consider what this means. Many learned men have given thought to this distinction and answered it in a reasoned and serious way. Understanding that it is one man’s thoughts rather than God’s Truth, I have found “The Beginning of Wisdom” by Leon Kass to be helpful to me in my reading of this Scripture.

Perhaps I might return to my earlier thought about the experiences of our life giving us insight into the infinite and eternal God we serve. I have spent my life in the pursuit of knowledge and the attempt to gain wisdom. God has given me the great blessing of allowing me to work with many other people, both shoulder to shoulder and as a leader. Many of those people were fellow engineers or other learned crafts. I have spent a large part of my life around people that possess great knowledge.

As a result of that life experience, I am left at this time with a profound appreciation for the distinctions between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is neither good nor evil, it simply is. But in having knowledge, one is given greater power. It is in the application of that power that good or evil is done. There are surely among us those who seek to consciously do evil with that power. But my experience of life is that most of us exercise whatever power we possess in the pursuit of that which we think to be good, whether that good be our own personal good or the good of our society. But Genesis points out to us our lack of the wisdom. We do not know the result of that which we do. We are not wise. We are seldom able to truly distinguish between good or evil.

The knowledge of good and evil is a knowledge that gives us the will to use our power, both as individuals and as a society. If we believe that we are doing that which is good, there is no limit to what we will do to further that good. If we believe that those we oppose are evil, there is no limit to what we will do to oppose that evil. If one looks at the great evils that have been done, one cannot help but see that people who believed in the righteousness of their cause did those evils. Whether we speak of witches burning at the stake, Jews dying in gas ovens or office workers dying in their crumbling skyscrapers, those killing them were convinced they were doing good.

God knows us. He knows who we are. In spite of that, He loves us. Indeed what provides us better proof that He lives outside the Age of Reason than the love He has for us? He has created this world and given it to us in which to live, to exercise stewardship over it as long as we are here. He knows that this world contains much that can hurt us. He knows that our knowledge, and our lack of wisdom, give us the power to do much greater damage to ourselves than if we lacked that knowledge. He knows our knowledge of that which we deem to be good or evil gives us the will to exercise that power no matter the cost.

Genesis records that our distant ancestors, Adam and Eve, disregarded God. They ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Perhaps that same choice is given to us as well, both as individuals and as a society.

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