“A paradigm is an overarching theory or viewpoint that a society operates by, accepting it as a basis for understanding… One of the most often cited examples of a paradigm shift is Copernicus’s theory that the Earth, along with other planets, revolved around the Sun. It took scientists centuries to fully accept this physical principle which eventually revolutionized many scientific fields.” (Encyclopedia of Management)
This quote above is referencing broad shifts within society.
What happens though when your own fundamental assumption and understanding of the world is upended by new evidence or more specifically in my case, evidence you were not ever fully made aware of?
This is the dilemma I found myself in. I had inadvertently found myself in the middle of a paradigm shift in my own understanding of God and the world and during that process I do not believe I have ever felt more alone in my life.
Yes, I had often had differences of belief with my fellow Christians and family, but they were always within the same overarching framework of Christianity. I might believe in predestination and my other friends or family members believe in free will (a never-ending debate within Christian circles), but it was still in the family if you will.
Now I was in a different place altogether. This new information did not just put me at odds inside the camp of Christian faith. It put me at odds with fundamental assumptions about my Christian faith that I had been raised with and had assumed upon my entire life. What’s even more ironic about how I got to this place was a valuing of truth that was fostered in me since I was very young. A core part of the Christian belief is in fact to value and embrace truth.
The Problem of Evil and Death
In the worldview I was raised in, death and evil were understood to have entered the world through man’s sin. As it turns out though, death is baked into the universe. In a way, this should have been far more obvious if I had ever stopped to give it much thought. Look at the animals and vegetables we eat. All of those must die so that we can live. We live within a large system of life and death, and we depend on the deaths of other things for our survival. One might speculate that something went awry from the very beginning of the universe that caused death to become part of the universe and that the story of Adam and Eve are mythological representations of such an occurrence. The ancient Gnostics (an offshoot of Neoplatonism) believed the universe was essentially created by an evil entity, that people are essentially spirits trapped inside bodies and that Jesus came to liberate us from the lie that we are fleshly creatures. Yes, that’s right, the Matrix is not an original idea. That is a far cry from what the typical conservative Christian understanding is however. For me, not only was death and evil itself a problem, but the one theory I had for explaining its existence and way out of it just suffered a major devastating blow.
The Problem of Sin
“Well, we have to recognize that we’re all sinners and we shouldn’t be critical of one another, and we need to be tolerant of each other.” (Bush, 2003)
We can all identify with the sentiment that no one lives a flawless life, even by normative standards. The concept of sin though is distinctly Christian in origin. It means to miss the mark. Sin has a deeper and darker meaning though. While people make mistakes, there are some deeds that are committed either against an individual or society that there’s seemingly no coming back from. Not only that, but less egregious mistakes can mount up over time and make community impossible to maintain. A fairly straight forward reading of the Bible will reveal that God cannot abide sin. Some see God as wrathful against sin, others see it as something that separates.
My conservative Christian framework had an answer for sin either way. Sin entered the world through Adam and Eve’s disobedience and Jesus set things right through his sacrifice on the cross. Evolution however challenged this fundamental concept. Over time it became clear to me that, when factoring in the reality of evolution, the more obvious reason people trespass against their neighbor is because people see their trespass as furthering their own desires or interests which are rooted in an evolutionary system of competition that has developed over millions of years. So strong eat the weak or the weak team up and take over the world (yes geeks and nerds, I’m talking to you 😂)
Politics and Religion
I still thought (hoped) conservative Christianity to be a haven from the normal evolutionary pressures of humanity. This was dispelled however in the 2016 republican primary and general election. In the 80’s, the Christian coalition and the religious moral right was a powerful political force in the US. Christians back then relentlessly attacked anyone found to have moral failings. Jimmy Swaggart was caught in a hotel room with a prostitute, and it was a disgrace. Jim Bakker was prosecuted by the department of Justice for fraud. That same group of conservative evangelicals excoriated Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky issue.
Fast forward to 2016. I watched conservative evangelicals do a complete 180, winking at Donald Trump’s litany of historical immoral and unethical behavior, excusing him for example of any Christian conservative moral responsibility concerning his ownership of Casino’s and strip clubs. I would have never dreamed growing up that the Christian right would support / elect someone like Trump. Later when Trump was found to have paid off a high-priced call girl, evangelicals again, (largely) looked the other way. In fairness there was a small group of evangelicals that did say something, but they were very much in the minority. Those with a platform to speak Christian moral truth to power, almost unanimously chose to remain silent.
For me this represented something much deeper than an election. It was yet another confirmation of how evolved traits of tribalism overpower loftier convictions when faced with tribal pressures. I wanted to see if Christians were different and would live up to their own standards of morality and holiness or if they would sacrifice their principles and integrity for tribal pressures. Let’s see if they truly are different than everyone else when it is not in the conservative Christian camp’s tribal interests to call out the moral failings of the de-facto political representation of the Christian right (aka the Republican party).
In fairness to Christianity, there are plenty of examples both in history and in the modern day where Christians actively have chosen to deny their self interests, freely chosen self-sacrifice even to the point of death for their faith. One fairly recent example was the group of Christians executed by ISIS and posted to their social media. Christianity is replete with these types of stories, of peaceful resistance against oppressive and persecutory powers.
There is still a large degree of nuance in these stories though that are often not readily apparent. For instance, in pre-Constantine Rome, we see that there were deep tribal pressures at play there as well. A Christian who recanted their faith under threat of Roman execution would be shamed by their Christian community. It isn’t hard to imagine that many would rather choose death than face being disowned by their family and their community during that time. At least some of the stories of martyrdom show the power of tribalism, instead of the strength of one’s personal convictions or the validity of one’s faith.
To go even deeper, no one really knows to what degree the tribal effect of acceptance vs. rejection plays within the scope of faith in general. There are certainly those who genuinely believe and would believe even if it did not gain them any type of tribal acceptance. I am suspicious though that much belief, regardless of the belief system is based primarily on tribalism and the deep evolutionarily evolved need to belong. Acceptance and belonging for ancient man into his respective tribe was quite literally a matter of life and death because of the difficulty of surviving on one’s own without the larger support network of the tribe. This feature of human nature still exists today, even in a modern, individualistic western societies. One need look no further than the data on dopamine’s release in the brain from seeing likes on one’s social media posts.
An Unexpected Journey
I needed something more substantial considering this devastating new reality of evolution, if I were going to find any satisfying resolution in my Christian faith. What I faced was a real dilemma of truth. I wanted to know what was in fact true, even if it meant disproving my own reasons for faith in God altogether.
After a deep dive into the subject, I was easily able to conclude and reaffirm to my own satisfaction that the preponderance of the evidence clearly pointed to an intelligence behind the universe. There are arguments on both sides, but on a cosmological level, I found the arguments for there being no intelligence behind the universe to be wholly unconvincing and dare I say, even grasping at straws.
There was an even deeper reason for accepting that there is an intelligence behind the universe, however. Specifically, the idea of the belief in truth itself. If there is no intelligence behind the universe and everything is random, soup to nuts, then there is no justifiable reason to rely on any of my senses or even my mind itself as being reliable for ascertaining even a partial glimpse into any sort of larger truth.
There is a broad and hard to define movement called postmodernism that (to varying degrees) embraces this type of deep skepticism. To a degree it is helpful in thinking more critically about issues and presuppositions, but as a primary foundational premise, I find it deeply paradoxical and self-refuting.
C.S. Lewis gives a great summation for rejecting the idea that there is no intelligence behind the universe that resonates deeply with me.
“Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It’s like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London.” ~ C.S. Lewis
The fact that I accept the science of evolution, requires faith in the reliability of an observable reality and faith in a reasonably reliable collective human mental faculty (scientific consensus in this instance) that can make reasonably reliable determinations based on real observations.
To put the issue more succinctly, to believe or conclude anything or come to any conclusions about anything at all, one must operate on faith. It might be faith in the reliability of science or the faith in the reliability of one’s own thinking, knowledge, conclusions, experiences, or those of others, but at the end of the day, ultimately, it is still a matter of faith. Underneath that faith is also a faith in a reasonably stable order to things that must be there to truly have reliable faith in anything at all.
There are those who would say, well just because the universe is that way doesn’t mean there has to be an intelligence behind it. When I listen to the scientific community share about things such as the fine tuning of the universe, as well as those who try to make arguments against it (poorly I might add), I’m not even marginally convinced that is the case.
As I already said, all mental ascent is an ascent of faith because we are in the same situation of not being all knowing. Therefore, based on the data, I determine, to the best of my ability that the faith assertion that there is an intelligence behind the universe to be the the most reasonable choice, given my scope of reasoning on the matter.
***To read part 3 of this four part story click here.***
Thank you for taking the time to read. If you would like to ask me any questions or interact concerning any of these topics, feel free to comment or visit the Borderland Faith discussion board for more in-depth conversation and interaction.
“Paradigm Shift .” Encyclopedia of Management. . Retrieved September 09, 2021 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/management/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/paradigm-shift Public Broadcasting Service. (2003, November 18). President and his faith – the spirituality Of George W. Bush | The Jesus factor | frontline. PBS. Retrieved September 21, 2021, from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jesus/president/spirituality.html
Lewis, C. S. (1969). Mere Christianity