Saturday, November 30, 2013

Moving with the Wind

We spend our lives under power,

leaning into the wind.

Sailing on San Francisco Bay  [Flickr page]

Our jaws are set

in grim determination

to overcome it, to push past it,

toward some elusive, never-ending goal.

Golden Gate Bridge from the Bay  [Flickr page]

But every now and then

we can make peace with the wind,

declare our kinship with the here and now,

San Francisco Bay Astern  [Flickr page]

And sail with the easy currents

of unhurried time.

U.S. Coast Guard Station, Golden Gate  [Flickr page]
Written after sailing in San Diego, California in February 2008. Photos from a sail out the Golden Gate and back in San Francisco in July 2013. Click on individual images to enlarge, or check out my entire set of San Francisco on Flickr. All are Copyright © 2013 Edwin A. Suominen. You may freely use them for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Walking Upright

The final chapter of Evolving out of Eden, interspersed with some of my photography. The images are of one of my favorite places, with its silent green giants that sprouted long before I was born and will likely live on long after me.

Our ancestors got up off their forelimbs and started walking upright more than two million years ago. Now it’s time for us to walk upright intellectually and accept our origins and place in the universe for what they are. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, not by the micromanaging deity of Psalm 139 but by a fascinating and elegant naturalistic process.

Dusk Approaches  [Flickr page]

Think of it! Undirected, random variation rises upward from the mindless froth at the floor of an indeterminate universe and percolates through the screen of selection. That filter—natural and sexual selection—is a roulette wheel of replication probability whose numbers are determined by physical constraints and the products of previous evolution. It’s all chance and necessity, as far back as we can see. No deity compatible with evolutionary science is triggering the mutations, spinning the wheel, or determining the odds.

Late Summer Larch  [Flickr page]

Yes, our existence is fleeting, and can seem insignificant. We are, each of us, just a single one of the uncounted trillions of organisms resulting from evolution, and the longest of our lifetimes will span the tiniest fraction of the billions of years that life has existed on this planet.

Lichen on Larch  [Flickr page]

Annie Dillard faced that reality with the same profound elegance as her many other observations at Tinker Creek: “I am a sacrifice bound with cords to the horns of the world’s rock altar, waiting for worms.” That is our fate, too, and we might as well accept it with the same equanimity: “I take a deep breath, I open my eyes. Looking, I see there are worms in the horns of the altar like live maggots in amber, there are shells of worms in the rock and moths flapping at my eyes. A wind from no place rises. A sense of the real exults me; the cords loose; I walk on my way.”

Pine Needle on Moss Bed  [Flickr page]

Her courage in facing the void was shared by the Preacher of Ecclesiastes. He acknowledged that the dead “know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.” Their love, and their hatred, and their envy—all are now perished. Eternal reward? God’s ultimate plan for our souls? Forget it, says this Bible writer: The dead will not have “any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun” (9:5-6).

Moss and Lichen  [Flickr page]

The Preacher’s conclusion (Eccl. 9:7-10) is pragmatic, but cheerful. Go your way, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, advises the Preacher, for God now accepts your works. Let your clothes be always white, and let your head lack no ointment. Live joyfully with the wife whom you love all the days of your fleeting life, which he has given you under the sun. That is your reward in life, for there is “no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.”

Forest Floor in Dusk Light  [Flickr page]
Click on individual images to enlarge, or check out the entire set (with others of these woods) on Flickr. All are Copyright © 2013 Edwin A. Suominen. You may freely use them for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License. Evolving out of Eden is Copyright © 2013 by Robert M. Price and Edwin A. Suominen, All Rights Reserved: Excerpted here by permission of Tellectual Press.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Freedom to Doubt

Book review (and promotion): Freedom to Doubt by Charles Shingledecker. Tellectual Press (Valley, WA 2013).

A few years ago, when I was beginning to actually think about the religion that had occupied a central place in my life for decades, I began listening to Robert M. Price’s The Bible Geek podcast. Dr. Price provides detailed answers to the varied questions listeners ask him about the Bible and theology, Christian or otherwise. One of those listeners whose questions really resonated with me in my fearful, doubting state was some anonymous guy who called himself “Chuck the agnostic Christian.”

I emailed Dr. Price and asked if he would put me in contact with this Chuck character, who seemed like a kindred spirit. At that point, there were precious few such people in my life, Christians who were honest enough about their doubts to even admit the possibility that our cherished beliefs might in fact be wrong, who could nod their heads in understanding instead of shaking them in judgment. We corresponded, compared notes about our dark nights of the soul, traded stories about some people in our respective branches of Christianity considering themselves the only true Christians, and each of us felt just a little bit less alone.

Since then, I have put Christianity aside—reluctantly but firmly—while Chuck has not. I’ve also met many more people like him, to whom honesty is more important than mere piety. Some of them can only afford to be honest with themselves. Others express their doubts and disbelief more openly, sometimes paying a steep social price for doing so.

For many, changing the religious label has been important, even a long-sought milestone. They can finally claim an authentic self-identity. Chuck’s current view of himself seems to me like a healthy one, even if there remains some tension in it:

Why do I remain a Christian despite all of my doubts, having so much in common with the doubters, skeptics, and religious critics out there who dig into the foundations of Christianity, only to discover that the entire structure is held together by nothing more than a thin and tattered piece of twine that appears as if it might snap at any moment? The answer is that I simply remain a person of faith.

[D]espite all my doubts, and the intellectual knowledge that there might not actually be anything beyond the shadows of this world, my faith is not something I could easily discard. Nor would I want to. It is a part of who I am, as much as my doubt is.

Charles Shingledecker, doubter

That confession of emphatically lukewarm faith is from Chuck’s new book Freedom to Doubt (p. 186), which my tiny publishing company Tellectual Press has made its second project. Chuck approached me about possibly publishing his work after reading Tellectual’s first book, Evolving out of Eden. I looked over his manuscript, and liked what I saw.

After thoroughly examining and getting tired of making excuses for my childhood religion, I wound up ditching the whole thing, unlike Chuck. But I appreciate depth of thought, humor, and honesty, and saw all of those qualities in Chuck’s writing. And he doesn’t make excuses; he discusses quite a few of Christianity’s trouble spots in all candor.

This is not a book of canned reassurance for fundamentalists, nor is it some angry atheist attack on religion. It is a source of light and comfort for those who have already started down a difficult journey of questioning their faith. While editing the book, I thought many times of various friends stuck in my own old sect of very conservative Christianity, and how much they might benefit from reading it. Here’s one passage (pp. 176-77) that I would particularly like to highlight for troubled Laestadians:

Some days, my mind tells me that all religion is bogus while at the same time my heart tells me there simply must be something more to this earthly existence. And through it all, I’ve come to one conclusion: For those of us who constantly wrestle with doubt, the famous words of Mark 9:24 (“Lord I believe: help my unbelief”) will surely “remain our constant prayer right up to the very gates of death” (Ware 2001 [The Orthodox Way], 16).

Such honesty about our faith may not be what others want, or expect of us. It may not be enough to convince our friends, neighbors, priests, and pastors that we’re “good and faithful Christians.” But it may very well be the best we can offer. Unfortunately, sometimes the best we can offer simply isn’t enough for some denominations. Especially those that claim they are the “one true Church,” by which they mean the only true Church. Often the truth claims of these fundamentalist communities are intolerant of doubt, and sometimes openly hostile to it. For them, the act of questioning is opposed to their entire religious worldview.

Why might they feel that way? Well, doubt is often the intuitive side of our brain telling us there is something wrong with what it is we’ve been taught. If your Church is opposed to honest inquiry about its particular doctrines or even the depths of Christian belief itself, you might find it necessary to look for a more balanced community. Not only out of respect for the faith that you once held close to your heart, but also out of respect for yourself. Why should you force yourself to remain “in communion” with people who won’t accept you for who you are—doubts and all? After all, if the prayer of Mark 9:24 was good enough for the one who truly matters—Jesus Christ. It ought to be good enough for our Christian brethren, too.

Yes, it should be, and in many branches of Christianity today, actually is good enough. There are “balanced communities” of Christians out there, where doubt and honest inquiry are tolerated. Even the Finnish counterpart to the Laestadianism inherited by many readers of this blog has, it turns out, quite a liberal subculture full of doubters and practical piety. (Despite the wishes of the old guard who have been itching for a “heresy” to clean house, many of the marginal Laestadians in Finland are happy to remain in the pews, singing their hearts out at services without taking the dogma or rules too seriously.)

Figure 3 of the book: “Jephthah’s daughter meets her father. Oops.” Apologies to Gustav Doré.

Liberalizing one’s faith without losing it entirely is not for everyone. I personally couldn’t deal with the horrible old Bible stories like Chuck does, retaining a sense of devotion while shrugging about Old Testament heroes burning their daughters to thank God for allowing the slaughter of enemies in their thousands. (See Figure 3, the travesty I helped Chuck make of the Bible illustration by poor old Gustav Doré.) For me, when I got done peeling the onion, there was no core left. And for many in my old sect and many other “only true churches” like it, there simply is no other form of Christianity that would provide a plausible alternative.

It’s either this or nothing, I’d said, and heard other Laestadians say as well. But for them as well as those who are seeking some safe ground for a graceful retreat, either in another church or at least in the honest silence of their own minds, I warmly recommend this book. I think it will help, no matter what you decide to do, and give you a few smiles in the process.

See for more information. Available in trade paperback (208 pages), for the Amazon Kindle, and for the Barnes & Noble Nook.