SERMON: “New Snakes in Old Skins” by the not-so-reverend bob

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. — 1 Corinthians, 13:11 (New International Version ©1984

Let’s be honest about this one thing: it often feels like there is something “greater than ourselves” at work in the world.  Whether in the thrilling experience of inspiration (when an idea seems to come to us unbidden), or when something good happens to us just when we feel certain that we needed it the most, or when we stand, enveloped the deep feeling of awe that can arise as we behold things vast or beautiful, such as a sunset or the birth of a new life.

Such experiences of the transcendent or the numinous are a part of being human.  The problem that you and I run into, however, (living as we do in an age of scientific discovery and testable evidence), is that there is absolutely no evidence to support the belief that there is any sort of transcendent personality that exists outside of the brain-filled skulls of the sentient living beings that we are.  (The other mitigating force against a warm and fuzzy view of the universe is the recognition of the more harsh realities that have carved the canyons, for instance, or the extinctions that provided opportunity for other species — such as our own — to flourish, or the many births that are neither wondrous nor “perfect”)

And it is the clash of these two realities that marks, I think, humanity’s halting progress from superstition to true awareness.  We are born into a natural conflict between the emotional power of numinous experience and the demands of our ever-better informed reason.  Such questions are not open-and-shut because we humans are not solely one or the other (meaning that we are not all brain, nor are we all heart).  Each of us is a blend of the two (and, according to recent research, necessarily so — for more on this see “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathon Haidt — reviewed this blog).

Personally, I’m at a time in my life where I am experiencing what I might describe as a “molt”.  I feel like a snake shedding his old skin — a metaphor that describes both the excitement as well as the deep (present) discomfort that accompanies the beginnings of such a process.  I’m guessing about the whole “molt” thing, of course, but based on my previous life experience, I think I may be reaching an age where the man I am today is no longer so well served by the habits of the man I have been for the last stretch of years.  Of course, I’m not changing from a caterpillar to a butterfly — nothing on that dramatic of a scale.  But it feels as if this passage might be more than the regular adjustments we make as we move through our days, weeks and months, like a hiker who pauses to confirm that she has not lost the trail.  No, I think this middle-aged snake is getting his new duds for the next stretch of slithering along in the desert.

In the same way that snakes outgrow their old skins, we can outgrow old ideas.

In the same way that snakes outgrow their old skins, we can outgrow old ideas.

As I wrote in an earlier sermon, I’ve been feeling (in many ways) like I’ve simply come full circle — returning to a temperament that was mine from the “get-go”.  But since coming that conclusion, I’ve read reports of a survey that shows that people actually change over time much more than they believe they have ( ).  And being someone who has been made aware of my own brain’s tendency to “put two and two together and get five”, I pay attention to these evidence-based hints at my cognitive biases.  And so I work at applying this new knowledge to my own perceptions of my experience (in this instance, my perception of my cognitive self as not having changed all that much over the years).

And so I have to admit that one of the more unexpected aspects of writing this weekly blog (about my own process of existential navigation) has been an increased awareness of just how much my views and feelings have changed in a relatively short time.  At first this fueled a fear that I  might just research my way back into God (but that turns out to have been more an artifact of past experience than an indicator of what my future explorations would uncover, and this “fear” has dramatically diminished over time and with accumulated experience of life freed from the bias of belief).  But, still, the speed with which new understandings have penetrated my consciousness over the last several years is rather astonishing.  Part of this I attribute to being in the unusual position of having “made it my job” to think about and study this nexus of scientific evidence and irrational belief, not unlike, I suppose, the progression of knowledge one might acquire while completing a masters degree in a subject.  That may be an apt metaphor, actually, especially when you look at how many books I’ve read (and how many “papers” I’ve published) in the last three-plus years of this blog.  (In fact, I think I’m pretty close to being able to add a fake “Doctor” to my existing fake ministerial title).

(The humbling “flip-side” of this whole scenario is that I can count on my current understanding being replaced by a better one over time.  So, as smart — and well-informed — as I think I am today, I must accept that I will never get it “all” right for all time).

But let me get to the point of today’s sermon, which is this: In order to truly see the grandeur of life (as Darwin properly named it), I think we have to move beyond the twin fears of whether God does not (or does) exist.  Both of these fears are equally strong in our minds, depending on which side of the question you are coming from.  Leaving these fears behind is no easy task, as there are several powerful forces that work against such a state of mind, the most powerful of which is the reality that we have brains that are deeply susceptible to cognitive biases (that often default to incorrect conclusions based on certain attention-grabbing stimuli).  Add to that the fact that it can often feel as if our awareness extends beyond our physical body and skull.  This is interesting, especially as we consider the fact is that we can only sense the stimuli that actually make contact with our body (photons hitting the eye, sound waves the ear, tastes upon the tongue, smells in the nose, etc.).  And yet if feels as if we really can sense things from a distance.  Some of this is the action of instinct (a combination of experience, subtle smells and sounds picked up by the sub-conscious parts of our brain), but even acknowledging that, it is difficult to accept that we actually only exist inside our own bodies.  Another force against accepting this reality is that we are natural believers in any and all sorts of magic.  Magical or miraculous notions give us a thrill of pleasure or excitement simply to contemplate (and we enjoy that)!

But the reality seems to be that all of our experience of existence can be explained and described in purely biological terms.  On this level we are no different than the laboratory rat that avoids pain and seeks out pleasure.  The rest are the embellishments and flourishes of a highly complex and profoundly social brain that is very good at searching out pattern and intention in it’s natural environment (even though there is, most likely, nothing else going out “out there”).

These are the kinds of insights that only we humans living in an age of science have had access to.  But it’s just really really hard for many of us to get to a place of actually accepting the implications of the knowledge regarding our world, our bodies and our minds that we are now confronted with.  Yet I have to say here that getting to that place has rewards that are, frankly, unimaginable to the uninitiated.  This sounds very much like a religious claim of the kind I heard many times in my Christian youth: that an acceptance of God would open up a heretofore unseen spiritual world to an earthly “blind, but now seeing” soul.  That’s nice enough, as far as it goes.  But religion is a product of a much younger humanity and, not unlike the young man I once was (compared to the more mature man I now am), the conceptual tools that served us well in our civilized adolescence are not the tools that will serve us now.  We are like a snake that has outgrown its old skin but who refuses to leave it behind.  And so the snake is constricted by what was once its living self, but is now a dead, inert, hollow shell.

It seems ironic that the bare, naked, “dirty secret” of all of this is that our existence on this spinning planet of aching beauty is far more miraculous and wondrous than any God-focused worldview could ever even imagine.  Whatever its useful beginnings, religion, it turns out, has become more limiting than liberating.

Like the slithering snake stuck in its old skin, it takes some time and effort for us to get beyond the gravitational pull of our ancient religious impulse.  The irony bears repeating that religion has consistently fought against science as an enemy of truth and the liberation of the human spirit, when science turns out to be our ticket out from under the cloak of ignorance that religion continues to weave out of imagination and conjecture.  We can no more hate religion, however, than we can hate our younger, less mature selves (or our “old” skins).  Religion is part of the way that we were able to get to where we are now.  And religious belief is but one of our “old skins” that we have had to shed as we have matured over the last fifteen thousand years.  Many, of course, are not now — nor will ever be — willing to let it go.  That is a choice we can make (unlike the snake).  And so perhaps the best that we can do is choose, as individuals, to continue to learn and, when the time is right, recognize when it’s time to crawl out of our old skin and inhabit the new.

t.n.s.r. bob

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