An Unlikely Pair

Posted by on October 3, 2011

The boys were born on the same day in the same year: February 12, 1809. Both were intensely private. Each boy lost his mother in early childhood. Neither was close to his father.

The two never met but together they tipped the world on its axis and made it wobble for 100 years.

You know the story of the first one; born in a log cabin, taught himself to read by the light of the fireplace, wrote with charcoal on the back of a shovel because there was no paper in the house, became a lawyer, had a big heart, kept the Union together. He accomplished his axis tilting because he believed the soaring words Thomas Jefferson had written 87 years earlier. He even made reference to those majestic ideals in the opening line of his most famous speech:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

The other man believed precisely the opposite. He held a different set of truths to be self-evident. I find it strange that so many people consider him to be the greater hero.

Robert was raised with privilege, servants, independently wealthy.  He toyed with the idea of becoming a doctor, then flirted with becoming a minister. His father said, “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.”

At the age of 22, Robbie convinced the captain of a ship that he could provide intelligent conversation at the dinner table and was thus allowed to tag along on an adventure that would free a different kind of slave.

Five years later, a much-changed Robert returned to the shores of England where he began to edit the journal of his journey. After two decades of agonizing refinement, the story of his voyage was published: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

This book that elevated Charles Robert Darwin to god-like status was built upon his observation of “the survival of the fittest.” Lincoln held to the belief that all men are created equal, but Darwin insisted that some are a little more equal than others. His theory of natural selection tilted the earth again on its axis.

When humans use “survival of the fittest” as a model for making decisions, we lower ourselves to the level of animals. These conversations usually conclude with an agreement that “the end justifies the means” because of something we call “the greater good.”

Natural selection would justify every pogrom and ethnic cleansing in our history.

But the real earth-wobbling of Charles Robert Darwin was that he gave us a belief system that empowered us to triumphantly dismiss God from our thoughts. We say, “If God does not exist, then we are no longer subject to him.” This shedding of our need for a deity is generally regarded as “the next important step” in human evolution.

Most of us, I believe, are captives of bad theology. We often escape one slavery only to be captured by another master even more demanding than the first. And each of us believes his or her own theology, or anti-theology, to provide the truest and best answers. Personally, I consider modern Darwinism to be a religion, or more accurately an anti-theology, a belief system that argues against a creator.

I believe in science and am devoted to its principles. I depend upon the reliability of physics. I acknowledge that evolution can and does happen. But I also believe that God spoke a universe into existence as is written in the book of Genesis and I believe “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” as is proclaimed in the Gospel of John. I am saddened by most televangelists and I deeply resent the annexation of Christianity by the religious right.  I am suspicious of anyone who claims to speak for God.

You, too, have a theology or anti-theology, a belief system about God: whether he is or is not, and if he is, whether he is like this or like that. Most people believe in a God who is a lot like them. And this God can usually be trusted to do what that person would do if they were God.

God obviously prefers your political party. After all, he’s not stupid, right? And he enables the athletes of your favorite sports teams.

I do not mean to be irreverent.

An atheist believes there is no god.
A theist believes there is.
An agnostic tries not to think about it.

God is a big thought, a big question, often inflammatory, always uncomfortable, never to be brought up in polite society.

I guess I’m just not feeling that polite today.

Roy H. Williams

PS – If you’re thinking “What was Roy’s point in today’s memo?” I can say only that I bought a book by Christopher Hitchens in the Vancouver airport and was both appalled and delighted by the clarity of his communication and his choices of subject matter. The man seems to have no taboos.

Christopher Buckley writes, “Christopher Hitchens is the greatest living essayist in the English language.”

Ian McEwan says, “If Hitchens didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be able to invent him.”

Michael Kingsley said in the New York Times, “Hitchens is an old-fashioned village atheist, standing in the square trying to pick arguments with the good citizens on their way to church.”

I am one with whom Hitchens would delight to argue. He would, I am certain, pat me on the head as though I were a little child who still believed in Santa Claus. I would smile with kind understanding and then give him a quick knee to the groin.

I found the key that unlocked the mystery of Hitchens at the end of his Introduction to this 788-page book: “Then, about a year ago, I was informed by a doctor that I might have as little as another year to live. In consequence, some of these articles were written with the full consciousness that they might be my very last.”

A sentence like that introduces a very interesting thought: “Is there anything you need to say that you haven’t already said?”

Well, is there?

I suppose Stephen Levine said it best: “If you were going to die soon and had only one phone call you could make, who would you call and what would you say? And why are you waiting?”

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