God is Bigger Than …

I just finished taking a Soul Beliefs class through Coursera. When talking about the course to my husband, I would jokingly refer to it as, “The class that’s teaching me that I don’t have a soul.”

You see, I went in expecting a comparative religion class. What I got was something along the lines of “the psychology of spiritual belief,” and I probably would have taken the class even with that title. But it was essentially a psychology class, most of which covered ground I’d already covered (the only thing that kept me from a major in psychology was my unwillingness to take upper-level stats classes, so I ended up with a very heavy minor). What’s more, it essentially used psychology to “explain away” religious beliefs. In addition to the class lectures, we were required to watch a two-hour discussion amongst the four leading atheists thinkers, and then another full-length documentary about the battle of evolution vs. intelligent design. The conclusion was essentially this: God doesn’t exist because everything we used to attribute to God is now explained by science; and the soul doesn’t exist because everything we once attributed to the soul we now know happens in the brain.

 

Yes, but.

Nothing in the course was new to me. Continuously being confronted with these challenges, along with my recent migration from “practicing Catholic” to something I don’t quite have a name for, did force me to take a long hard look at my “soul beliefs.” I think such long hard looks are good, although they’re scary. Still, something in my gut that holds to the existence of God won’t be easily denied. The course had explanations for those feelings, too, which I won’t go into here. But now that I’m done with the course, now that I’ve just reviewed all sorts of things I already knew as if they contradict religion (where I’ve never seen a contradiction before and, really, still don’t), I’ve come to this conclusion.

The only thing “disproving” our ideas about God “proves” is that our ideas about God are wrong. So what? I’ve always suspected our ideas about God are incomplete at best and damaging at worst. God is not to blame for all the ways we humans get God wrong.

Even though I’d never thought evolution and belief in God were opposed to one another, and even though the Catholic Church backs me up on this, watching the Nova documentary for the class did make me look at it more closely than I’m used to, when the implication came out that we are who we are based on a series of events and adaptation over time, and not that we are made in the image of God.

This kind of thinking assumes that more primitive versions of ourselves, whether homo erectus or a single-celled organism, could not have been made in God’s image.

But what in the world precludes that? If God is in all of creation, what does it matter how an individual member of that creation functions? Just as species change and evolve over time, I like to believe that our understanding of God also continues to ascend, perhaps even that our minds evolve toward God’s purpose and that, as a species, we are ever growing closer to a fuller understanding of who or what God is.

I believe in evolution, I believe in God, and I believe that it isn’t just our bodies and our minds that evolve. I believe our souls do, too. Scientific discovery only threatens God when you believe that God is small enough to be confined to 1700 pages written thousands of years ago (and often badly translated). The God I know is much bigger, much more unknowable than that. The Catholic Church instilled in me an appreciation of God as The Great Mystery, and everything we learn, in any discipline, brings us closer to understanding that mystery.

There is so much about the world, the mind, human nature, that we understand now that people didn’t understand when the Bible was written. The mysteries of the Bible’s writers were not the same mysteries that we face today, and yet, a great deal of mystery still remains. It is not in all the answers, but in that infinite question mark, that I find God.

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4 thoughts on “God is Bigger Than …

  1. Pingback: Young Adult Catholics: God & Evolution | Lacey's Late-night Editing

  2. Some thoughts:

    The other day I was reading some stuff by a noted science writer, who is an atheist. He said he could not see a place for a God in a universe where we now know what happened from within a trillionth of a trillionth of a second of the big bang.

    Yes, I thought, we know what happened. But we do not know why it is beautiful, or why our experience of it is beautiful, which is something else again.

    (As author and former evangelist Frank Schaeffer put it in his autobiography, Crazy For God: “Perhaps we are somehow more than the sum of our brain chemistry. Maybe science explains the ‘how’ of the brain but not the ‘why,’ in the same way that a chemical analysis of the pigments used by van Gogh only explains what a painting is made of, not why we like it, much less what it is.”)

    The science writer did concede that if there is a God, then God would necessarily be outside of space and time, and therefore nothing within space and time could finally prove or disprove a God. He allowed that atheism, including his own, is itself an act of faith.

    And just a little while ago, I read today’s Gospel reading from Luke about the walk to Emmaus. The disciples’ “hearts burned within them” while Jesus was talking. For my part, all I know is I still have the “heartburn,” and I have to keep journeying with it, astonishing Nova documentaries or no.

    Thank you for writing this because clearly I too am thinking about this right now.

  3. Excellent post. Thank you for the summary of the “Soul Beliefs” course. I had looked at taking it but had also signed up for the Coursera course “Human Evolution, Past and Future” and am already too busy to take both at the same time :-).

    Your article summarizes a very real problem of Western Society: a belief in naturalistic “scientism” that argues that science is able to explain items that were previously explained by religion and spirituality. This reductionist philosophy is hostile to religion and in its most virulent form is represented by the “New Athiests”. As Adam Frank said last fall:

    “Part of this misappropriation comes from thinking that, since science is so good at providing explanations, explanations are all that matter. It’s an approach that levels human experience in ways that are both dangerous and sad. In discussions of human spirituality and science, for example, it leads to cartoon arguments between Richard Dawkins and fundamentalists about who started the universe. Missing are the varieties of reasons people feel “spiritual” longing that have nothing to do with asking how the moon got there.”

    http://tinyurl.com/m9ocool

    One of the reasons I like Catholicism is that, despite some embarrassing public misfires, has a long history of supporting science and the integration of faith and reason. Here is a link to some famous Christian scientists:

    http://wp.me/p3pJsV-Ff

    Peace,
    W. Ockham

    • Thanks so much for your comment — I apologize I didn’t reply to it sooner. I wanted to make sure I had the time to check out both your links.

      I think you have a really good understanding of the beautiful synergy that is possible between religion and science; I saw your blog through Twitter last week and was glad that someone is writing about these issues on a regular basis. I, too, am drawn to Catholicism because of its history of scholarship and acceptance of scientific inquiry, as well as its teaching that we must make room to understand science alongside and within our faith. I only wish it would apply this same openness to issues of sexuality, of which the science often contradicts official church doctrine. (i.e.: homosexuality IS natural, sex between humans is just as much a bonding mechanism as a procreational one, etc.) But that’s a whole ‘nother post. :)

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