SERMON: “Existential Redecorating” by the not-so-reverend bob

It was one of those moments that could so easily have been missed.

I was describing to a friend the metaphor I use for our existential situation, living as we do in this age of science.  Specifically, that we spend a lot of our time in an “existential living room” that has a rather large hole in the wall that is open to the enormity of the universe.  And so every time we walk by that “hole” our eye is pulled toward the vast, gaping void lurking beyond the security of our (n0-longer solid) four walls and we are immediately gripped with discomfort, even dread.  The upshot being that we live with a constant reminder of our actual size (and, therefore, significance) on a cosmic scale.  It is a very real “Total Perspective Vortex” (for you “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” fans out there).  (It can also be a reminder of how remarkable it is that we are even here to have such a reaction in the first place, but this is not, I think, our primary response to reminders of our mortality).

Having described this “hole in the wall” metaphor, I said to my friend: “God is the picture we hang to hide that hole”.

I went on to say, however, that this “picture” of God does not really answer any of the questions that trouble us about the unimaginable distances in both space and time that await to challenge our mammalian brains whenever we look outside of our parochial selves.  God, for instance,  may tell us that He created us only a few thousand years ago (right after he created the Heavens and the Earth) but God Himself is eternal, omnipotent, and omnipresent.  So all that we have done is substitute God’s incomprehensible vastness — which can be no smaller, certainly, than that of all of creation — for the equally incomprehensible vastness of that creation.  What is the difference?

And that’s when my buddy said, quietly: “Because we put a face on it.”

And I was stopped in my tracks by the power of that straightforward statement.

I had to turn it over in my mind.  Was it really that simple?  Could it possibly make that much difference to our response to the incomprehensible to just stick a face on it?  I tried to find a way around the idea, seek out the weaknesses in the argument, but there was none to be found.  So simple, so elegant in its simplicity.  Yes, I realized, we human animals are so finely attuned by our eons of social evolution to reading each others faces that it turns out all we have to do to calm our terrified souls is imagine a face like ours between us and all of that unsettling void.

That is a part of why God — improbable as the idea of God actually is — works.  Because it is not just the idea of God that we are dealing with: it is the image of God.  Through God we are able to put a face between us and all that is unknown.

I have to admit that with each sermon (even as I move ever toward more clarity about how the world seems to actually work) there are often little, nagging corners of doubt in almost every assertion I make.  Not because my assertions have proven to be false, but because it is the nature of exploration that each discovery brings the discoverer to a plateau where new landscapes — previously unseeable — become visible at the edge of one’s newly-acquired field of vision.

And so even as I have substantially answered the “big” existential questions for my own life, there remain other questions to answer.  Perhaps it’s like science in that way.  Let me explain. I take the view that we live in a post-evolution age, meaning that this foundational biological theory is well-established and extremely unlikely to be turned on it’s head by future discoveries.

(I say this recognizing that there are surely dramatic discoveries to come that will make us refine the theory in important ways.  For example, just look at how our understanding of dinosaurs has changed dramatically in recent years: one scientist made the breakthrough discovery that gave a real boost to the idea that some of the dinosaurs did not die out, but evolved into modern birds.  This discovery was joined with a seemingly sudden breakthrough in fossil discoveries that show that many dinosaurs were covered by “protofeathers”.  Many of the signs of this may have been sitting in museum drawers for decades, un-noticed, until the paradigm shift got people looking for what they hadn’t been looking for before.  This is dramatic stuff.  Like the modern understanding that not all of the hominids whose fossils have been found are on the same branch of our modern-family tree, and that our “cousins” the Neanderthals, died out only a few tens of thousands of years ago!)

But none of these recent discoveries have shaken the theory of evolution.  In truth, they only make sense when seen through an evolutionary framework.  But I expect that they — like all such discoveries — have made many scientists sit up and take notice of what other possible traits and clues they may have been missing because they weren’t expected!

And it’s the same with my own existential adventure.  Because it is one thing to answer (for oneself) the question of whether God does, or does not, exist.  But such a personal existential achievement does nothing to alter the reality of the ongoing human experience of God that plays such a huge role in lives of most of my fellow humans (which makes the “question” so “big” in the first place!).  So the questions change as our understanding moves to a finer scale that is (one hopes) better suited to asking the next right question.

So I often ponder why, with the knowledge we now have about our evolutionary origins and the formation of our planet, there seems to have been so little impact on the phenomenon of individual religious belief.  Even many who fully embrace the findings of geologists and paleontologists miss nary a step in maintaining an active belief in divine agency.

I glanced at this rock wall as I drove a mountain road, and immediately saw a face (just left of center, above “.com”) in the stones.

Of course, there are scientific answers for this now as well.  We have evidence from genetic research, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology (among other fields) that have gone a long way toward explaining the peculiarities of human behavior.  This science answers many of the “second-tier” questions that come after the “big” ones are answered, namely, the “why” of our continued religious behavior in an age of science.

The sum of this research tells me that there is no real mystery to our tendency toward belief in agency in the world, even where it is clear that none exists.  Science tells us that we find intention in nature because our brains are wired to find it (our “Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device”).  As has been said by others, the evolutionary path favors the animal with more false positives than false negatives.  We’ve survived because we are animals wary of intention in other animals, the weather, and even disease.  And wary animals are rarely punished by natural selection (on a species-wide scale, at least) for erring on the side of caution.

And so here we are, so-called “modern” humans, convinced that we have now beaten nature by somehow completing the process of evolution by evolving to a point where we are — thanks to our technology and overall smarts, well, “done” with all of that.

This is an expression of the companion to our “Agency Detection Device”: our natural human self-centeredness — the solipsism that makes it unbelievably easy to see ourselves as worthy of the attention of a vast and incomprehensible sky god.  The god whose face we hang over that troubling hole in our existential living room wall.  The hole that — as long as we are the mortal animals that we are — we know we can never really make go away.  So we drape it with the framed face of benign divinity.  Or — if we feel we can’t do that bit of cognitive redecorating — we just go ahead and find a way to live with our destined-to-be-incomplete understanding of who and what we really are, and make whatever peace we can with the wonder and vulnerability of our existence.

t.n.s.r. bob

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