Monday, August 20, 2007

Flock of Dodos

While we are working like slaves to get our house ready to put on the market, this is supposedly my vacation! So the other morning when I was exercising and ran across an interesting documentary on the television called Flock of Dodos, I felt no guilt about sitting down for a couple of hours and watching it.

This movie was an attempt to talk to both evolutionists and intelligent designers to get a clear picture of what the conflict is between these two ways of perceiving the origins of the created world.

It was put together in an engaging manner, and managed to talk at least somewhat seriously with everyone from the conservatives who used to be on the Kansas School Board, and who had opposed the teaching of evolution in the state's schools, to professors at the Ivies and beyond. What I appreciated was that although the narrator/interviewer, Randy Olson, was by training and inclination clearly an evolution activist, most of the time he managed to handle everyone appropriately and get them to present their position in a digestible and gracious manner.

However, every now and again interviewees got out of control and in those moments revealed their true colors. For example, there was a discussion between various professorial types who had been friends of Stephen Jay Gould, and during the conversation one of these gentlemen suddenly fulminated against the "ignorant yahoos" who could not see that evolutionary thinking was the only approach that held any water.

In that one moment he made it clear that he had absolutely no respect for those who asked questions of Darwinian orthodoxy, and the manner in which it has developed in the last 150 years. One of the basic principles of a serious intellectual discussion is having respect for those with whom you disagree.

As far as the evolutionists were concerned the bete noire was the Discovery Institute in Seattle, an outfit that I have visited and enjoyed several times. There are a lot of very bright folks associated with Discovery, and they have over the years put a lot of funds into advocating intelligent design, underwriting scholars and publications, etc., but Discovery refused to allow the filmmakers access or an interview. Not talking to your opponents is another way of blowing off where they are coming from.

This also made them seem much more sinister than they really are. Then when the figure of $5+ million was being thrown around as the annual budget of Discovery, it was made to seem that these folks were using money from conservative and reactionary deep pockets to buy a huge hearing for their cause. What the filmmakers didn't say was that Discovery's budget covers a lot more than just intelligent design, including, for example, issues to do with the environment in the Pacific Northwest.

As someone who does not have the problems with evolution that some other orthodox Christians do, as I watched Flock of Dodos I realized I was observing the dynamics more than the content because it is a fight in which I do not have a dog. I believe in an Intelligent Designer and while I can see the difficulties inherent in the more classic developments of the Darwinian thesis, do not find it hard to believe that the Designer used evolution to enable the creation to reach the point where it is today.

So, I found myself fascinated by the manner in which these two sides faced off against each other. What made it enthralling was that the dynamics were in many respects similar to those we see within the divides of North American Anglicanism. The truth is that with a few exceptions, there seemed to be little genuine engagement between the two sides of the debate.

On the one hand the evolutionists, as the "ignorant yahoos" comment suggests, had little patience for the scholarship of the intelligent designers, a good number of whom were not trained biologists but came from other disciplines and used the intellectual tools developed in those disciplines to look for the inconsistencies in the generally accepted evolutionary models. Perhaps the evolutionists were right, but their unwillingness to take seriously the positions of their opponents was itself shortsighted.

This is precisely what we see in the church fights going on. We are now at a point where there is virtually no genuine intellectual engagement between those opposed to one another happens, and it is clear from the manner in which we treat one another that there is little respect for the positions of those who disagree with us. There is a strong bias in the Episcopal Church. I have spent a lot of my life over the last thirty years being dismissed as an uneducated and narrow-minded theological wacko, an "ignorant yahoo," as it were, not because I necessarily am, but because I bring to the table presuppositions that are not respected by those who use this language of me. The result is that I am dismissed as irrelevant.

Both sides are guilty of such a thing because in the church context those on the right sometimes function as if those who disagree with them are not just wrong, but are dead wrong, and because they won't listen to what is being said to them are beyond the pale. So, with ears closed and megaphones in hand we scream our propaganda at each other, rather like evolutionists and intelligent designers, and there is never a meeting of minds from which something substantial and creative might possibly come.

But more than that. By not engaging one another it is as if we are free then to dehumanize (even demonize) those who we are against. A good cartoon takes certain characteristics of an individual and exaggerates them. This is what happens in much of our characterization of those with whom we disagree in the church conflict. In the process in our minds they cease to be the people they really are but a misrepresentation of that reality. Once we have set someone up like this, then it is easy to knock them down or to put ourselves in a position where we do not have
to have a serious relationship with them.

When we create such circumstances of non-relationship then there is no way of any kind through any impasse except conflict. The conflict we are experiencing has turned into civil war, and as history shows, whether it be the war between the American States or the battles in the former Yugoslavia, civil wars or often the most hostile, bloody, and damaging, leaving the most lasting scars. The question we should also be asking, too, is whether they glorify Christ.

As I watched Olson's representation of the evolution debate it was clear that these kind of dynamics were not only at play, but they were preventing either group from finding a way forward in any kind of relationship with the other. With but a few exceptions each side ridiculed the position of the other.

I was reminded of Francis Bacon's comment in his Essay on Truth, "'What is truth?' said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer."

Bacon goes on to talk about the giddiness of fixing a belief but not allowing discussion of the intellectual questioning of that belief. This, I think, is how battlelines get drawn up, shooting begins, homes are burned to the ground, much blood gets shed, and many lives are hurt. Those of us who are pastors are living with that hurt and its long-term consequences.

Whenever notions like these are raised there is an immediate outcry that the one presenting them is soft, flaccid, a theological and ideological wimp, or worse, a turncoat. Sometimes this may be so, but often it is an individual suggesting that ortho-doxy must be married to ortho-praxy. That is, true believing and true acting go hand-in-hand with one another. Grace and Truth belong together, but in the fight that is destroying the church today either one or the other tends to be the victim of all the combatants.

Somehow or other, and before it is too late, we need to get beyond this stand off, but, alas, I do not see anyone with the courage, the position, or the ability to do so.

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