I don’t usually write about cultural events – at least nothing too specific or too current. (I feel like I should then say, “but when I do, I drink Dos Equis.”) But last night’s debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye has resounded in my mind all day today. Not so much the actual content of the debate, but the method and trajectory of the debate. And, in the name of full transparency, I didn’t watch the actual showing. I did pay attention through the vicarious tweets and Facebook statuses, making this truly not a critique of the specifics of what was argued, but the arguing itself.
The debate itself seemed reminiscent of the Scopes Monkey Trial and the ensuing Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy of the early 1920’s. Pitting the legal and educational systems of the day against the religious institution was an exercise including rationality and hermeneutics, theology and public policy. Prior to, throughout its proceedings, and even after the court’s dust had settled, the focus fell upon the origins of humankind. The magnitude of this event was far too large to kept within the courtroom. Regardless of the details, influences, and outcomes, culture at large was now engrossed in the search to understand Genesis 1.
To this day, we haven’t been able to escape the grip of this search. The creation/evolution debate has long stood the test of time – at least modern time – in holding our attention to the minutiae of detailed case studies and fossil records on the one hand and the Ancient Near East context and Hebraic cosmology on the other. We have been unable to loose ourselves from this cultural battlefield ever since, despite its absence from everyday conversations. However, it has loomed heavily in the minds and imagination of people on both sides of the fence. Bring up creation by using the term itself and see what happens. In my experience, once anything relating to creation (or evolution) is brought up, definitions are often sought in order to rout out the potential heretic among us. Just try it.
This search has been primarily intellectual and last night once again affirmed this. Historically speaking, the Scopes Trial took place at what was perhaps the height of American rationality. World War 2 had not yet occurred, progress was the impetus behind the American milieu, and science and religion were in the throes of competing for dominance. Intellectual rigor and strength were highly valued in that day; values still sought after today regardless of its arena. Power comes along with this rigor making it an even sweeter fruit to obtain.
Last night seemed to be another futile exercise in obtaining this dominance. If only we can prove so and so. If only axiom A will be shown to be true(r) than axiom B, then our side will win. Yet in the end, I wonder if it only fanned the flame of a bygone era, namely one where intellectualism reigns. I wonder if it was a bringing the remnants of yesteryear out of the dark for a moment of shining. Even the postmodern world we inhabit, modernity can still rear its enlightened head. As my friend said yesterday, “There are incredibly strong modernist currents that still prevail upon these postmodern seas.”
Furthermore, debates in our day and age have taken on a different embodiment than their predecessors. Rather than being events of persuasion that affect life change, they have become vaudeville circus acts engendering sentiment bereft of action. The social imagination of yesteryear understood and valued the import of such events due to this. Now, debates fill the parts of our imagination where political figures feign allegiance to their constituents. Coupled with the amusement factor inherent to television – and screens in general – modern debates only reinforce the notion of consuming the material being presented. There is no intention of actually acting upon the received information. Television and its steroid-induced cousin, the internet, produce consumers, not participants. Combine this with a predominantly intellectual exercise and this is even more so. (This is what I was alluding to by the method and trajectory mentioned above.)
This is where we have allowed ourselves to get stuck. Our insistence on “getting the origins question correct” at an intellectual level has kept us from turning our attention elsewhere. The memory of basing our existence off of this rational understanding has paralyzed us from moving forward. Coalescing forces of winning the culture battle and being theologically correct as God would want have left us bereft of actual practices pertaining to creation. Ironically, this same tradition of reading Scripture and the spirituality it rendered have sought to prove the method of creation yet with the end goal being individual souls reaching heaven’s shores. With one side of its mouth it wants a creation made in six days while simultaneously praying for its destruction by fire some future day.
All of this has allowed us to keep creation itself at bay.
So I wonder:
What if instead of arguing over the creation texts, we moved our preoccupation a few verses further along in the story? What if instead of arguing over the meaning of “In the beginning” and “day” we pondered anew what it meant (and means) to “cultivate” and “keep” creation? What if we moved beyond compartmentalizing ideas from practices and figured out how they are two sides of the same coin? What if the Church shifted away from its often myopic dependency on things of faith being taught and towards lives of interdependency where they can be caught? What if instead of debating over creation we questioned how to live with creation?
What if local churches began sharing their land? What if they started to hold trainings to understand the geography and ecology of their shared regions? What if instead of paving parking lots, they planted gardens? What if they held neighborhood-wide meals from the food they grew? What if instead of using stale bread and cheap grape juice they used organically made breads and vibrant wines?
In short what if the Church became known for its new creation-centered methods in the midst of an intellectually origins-obsessed world? What sort of trajectory would that put us on?
Until then, creation will continue to be the loser.