Spirit Quest

Spirit Quest

'People of faith ought to be involved in movements to a future'

By The Rev. Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan
True North Perspective 

When I was seven years old, still living in prewar Czechoslovakia, my parents enrolled me in an atheist Sunday School, only we met on Saturdays instead. Both my parents had left their respective churches, mother the Roman Catholic and father the Lutheran  but they wanted me to have “something to stand on.”

My teacher was a gifted young man who could not only tell a good story but also illustrate it on the blackboard. He drew pictures of cave dwellers and the primitive  pictures they put on their walls, also of their tools and weapons.

Most memorable, however, was his story of the domestication of fire. Those thunderbolts from heaven that set fire to grass and trees, they discovered, were not only from an angry god punishing his disobedient subjects, but became the means of warming their dank caves and could be used to roast the hunters’ kill and cook what the women gathered from the land. We were enthralled and to this day I remember some of his teachings.

But I can’t remember that he, unlike Dawkins, Harris, Dennet and Hitchins, those modern day atheists, ever cast aspersions or ridiculed religious faith.

God and religion had been a way for people to explain the unexplainable, the mysteries of life. Of course, many of those mysteries have been dispelled over the course of human history, and continue to be so at an ever more accelerated pace. Indeed, we humans, not just nature, continue to evolve.

Our teacher spoke a lot about evolution, of the discoveries of Charles Darwin on his journeys to the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean. I knew where they were before I knew about Canada. As a child I had already witnessed evolution in all around me.

I was fond of entomology and had learned at first hand about the life cycle of insects, from eggs to larva, to pupa, to full grown butterfly or beetle, and over and over again. Perhaps it wasn’t really evolution but change. How would I morph, was a bit of a scary question, I’d say.

I knew less about human evolution but I was learning. I soon became aware of our need to grow. A croaky radio informed me about a threat from our Nazi neighbours just across the mountains where a dictator was revving up hatred in his people. Jewish visitors to our home who had just fled from that country told us about rampant anti-Semitism. And indeed, we soon became refugees ourselves and eventually found freedom and security in Canada. I came to believe very strongly that humans need to evolve from such hatred. Surely people of faith should lead the way and faith may well have had a role in the evolution of our country.

Stephen Bede Scharper who teaches both environmental studies and religion at the University of Toronto in an article in the Toronto Star (July 15, 2012) wrote that he “saw evidence of our evolution in the ending of slavery in the 19th century, the recognition of the rights of women and the UN Declaration of Human Rights in the 20th century.” I would add the acceptance of homosexuality in the 21st. He said, “All are evidence that our ethics are not static but evolving.”

There is what we call the Flintstones Fallacy. Some like to imagine that humans in earlier ages were like the characters in the Flintstones cartoons, more or less like modern suburbanites, only dressed in more primitive fashions and carrying clubs instead of cellphones. The outer world may be evolving but the inner remains essentially the same.

“The likely discovery of the God Particle, the elusive Higgs-Bosun, might well mark a new intersection of our evolving ethical journey and challenges to pursue, in an informed rather than inflammatory manner, our proper place in the unfolding universe,” Scharper concluded.

There are, of course, throwbacks, reversions to a less progressive humanity from time to time with tragic results, nor has religion always been helpful. However I place my bet with evolution.

In my studies at the university I took a course in Comparative Anatomy of Vertebrates. I am afraid that I didn’t do too well in that course. It was the only science that I had to take but it had benefits. I do remember a great deal more from that course, fifty-five years ago, more than in some other classes where I only recall that sexy girl across the aisle who had a rather disconcerting way of gyrating her ankle.

One day Professor Curran told us that if we wanted to stop a conversation in its tracks  throw in this phrase: “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” It works if you don’t mind strange glances from your fellow conversationalists.

What he wanted us to observe in our investigation of vertebrates was that by studying the development of embryo (ontogeny) scientists can learn about the history of organisms (phylogeny). In our labs as we dissected creatures we saw evidence of evolution. I believe that every student of religion ought to take a course in biology not to destroy their faith but to enrich it.

“When our eyes open up to the reality of evolution, and we can look back and see not merely thousands and thousands of years of survival and endurance, but centuries upon centuries of hard won progress, we will stop hoping for miracles.” So writes Carter Phipps in his excellent book, Evolutionaries.

Should not all this put an end to my quest for the spirit, or does not the very observation of human and natural history convince one that there is a spirit that urges us on in our odyssey. Creation is en route.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1851-1955), a French philosopher and priest, in his wonderful book Le Milieu Divin: An Essay on the Interior Life writes, “Our spiritual being is continually nourished by the countless energies of the perceptible world.” Thus people of faith ought to be involved in movements not backwards but into a future that we can only faintly glimpse. The Spirit gives me hope and courage for that kind of journey.

Hanns F Skoutajan

SQ 27/07/2012            

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