Life, the Universe, and Everything: The world and the world view

Posted by on 05.02.08 | No Comments
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As I was meditating on “life, the universe, and everything” just as Douglas Adams encouraged us all to do, it suddenly occurred to me that both fundamentalists and people of progressive spiritualities experience some strife at least periodically that emerges as a direct result of their faith systems. But that strife is of two very different sorts and helps to explain why it is so difficult to communicate across the spiritual divide between the two. Progressives tend to find themselves at odds with their world, while fundamentalists tend to find themselves at odds with their world view. They are two very different things.

I, for example, find myself at odds with my world. The ongoing rape of the earth, the war in Iraq, a tax structure that favors the very rich, a health care delivery system rationed not on the basis of need, but on the basis of ability to pay, American claims not simply to commercial and military hegemony, but to spiritual hegemony as well, and a bunch of other things are distressing to me. A good part of this stress is a result of my spiritual perspective, for my faith leads me to believe that all of this is not quite right, and does not accord with the will of Whatever-Made-Life-The-Universe-and-Everything possible in the first place. I can find nothing in my particular tradition, Christianity Episcopal style, to suggest that Jesus would have nodded approvingly at the way we are doing things now.

On the other hand, I am at peace with my world view. I am not merely comfortable with the idea that the universe is roughly 14 billion years old and expanding at more or less the speed of light, I am excited by that notion. I accept evolution not simply as the best explanation of how we got here, but as the very core of all biological sciences. I rather like the idea of the water cycle, and am deeply indebted to the notion of cause and effect as a sufficient explanation for all sorts of things. As a result I tend to believe that earthquakes are not caused by an angry god, but rather by shifts in tectonic plates. While I am not a scientist, my world view is profoundly shaped by science, and I understand my whole spiritual experience within the world view created by science. Thus, though I am often in conflict with my world, I am rarely in conflict with my world view.

It strikes me that very nearly the opposite is true of my fundamentalist brothers and sisters. In order to interpret the sacred scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam as literally and historically accurate in every detail these good people need to reject much of the modern scientific world view. The laws of physics, for example, are quite expendable on occasion, if we are to believe in the physical resurrection of Lazarus and Jesus, and if we are to believe that people walk on water, and float up into the air as Elijah, Jesus and even Mohammad did. When we get right down to it, the Copernican view of the solar system becomes suspect as well, since in Joshua the sun stood still for an hour while Joshua’s troops mowed down their enemies. To sustain a literalist approach to texts that are between fifteen hundred and three thousand years old, it becomes necessary to adopt selectively the world view of that era. Beyond this, when scriptures of these sorts are the only criterion of judgment, then whatever science teaches us about, for example, human sexuality, must be rejected as irrelevant at best, deliberately false and misleading at worst. Thus, what looks like the fundamentalist conflict with the world over things like evolution and human sexuality is not that at all, but rather these battles are manifestations of a deeper conflict with the modern scientific world view. If fundamentalism made peace with the modern world view, these conflicts would fade away as in a dream.

On the other hand much of fundamentalism today seems quite sanguine about the world itself. Social, economic and ecological justice are not crucial, both because the real issue in life is a saving relationship with God and because we are in the end times. The Spiritual hegemony America has been trying to assert is not a problem at all; it is the solution to the problem of radical Islam, and the way forward into redemption for those who would otherwise be lost. Seen in this light, fundamentalism has no real problem with the world. It is the modern world view that presents the problem.

It is therefore no wonder that progressives and fundamentalists have so much trouble with each other these days. We are all under stress, and both sides claim that stress is in reality a kind of divine discontent. But that stress comes from two entirely different sources, the world for progressives, and the world view for fundamentalists. I don’t know how this will all work out, no one does. But I do believe that if we are able to treat each other with love and compassion then we will weather the current storm and emerge with a vigorous spirituality and a renewed sense of purpose. This of course will require us all to abandon the abstraction of claiming that it is sufficient to believe that God loves everyone even as we denigrate each other, and instead to concentrate on loving each other as we claim God loves us. If we cannot do that, and instead continue to see this as a battle between good and bad that we must win at all costs, (whoever “we” is) then we will not deserve such an outcome, and God will not vouchsafe it to us.

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