Friday, September 28, 2007

Atlanta nights

I've been too busy being busy to pay much attention to it, much less let you readers in on it, but I have a professional meeting this weekend in Atlanta. My first official duty as a member of the AAR Board of Directors is to serve on a team that will spend the weekend brainstorming about the organization's vision for the next several years. Now doesn't that sound like something that will change the world?

Actually, it might be a step in that direction. Today I listened to one of my colleagues give a brilliant introduction to our freshman class on the topic of why Darwin matters. He pleaded with them not to allow fear to reduce their sense of the universe and their environment to a simple moral tale, or a Noah's Ark of friendly creatures. He spoke eloquently about the story told by nature, a story of change and utter strangeness -- and about the God for whom so many of his listeners wanted to call nature as witness, a God who (according to the picture painted by nature) achieves his mysterious ends through massive amounts of death and suffering and wastefulness to lavish his care on a tiny fraction of the tiny remnant of the totality of all living things that have ever existed on this earth.

As we were walking back to the office after class, I told my colleague and friend that he shouldn't have to bear the burden of awakening these students to the awe-inspiring beauty of complex explanations by himself. "My field," I said, "bears some responsibility here. We have to do a better job teaching people that religion is complex, strange, contingent, historical, and about as far away from the kind of simple message that can be conveyed through a Jack Chick tract or an Archie comic as the human eye is from the light-sensing cells of a flatworm."

Because it's not evolution that we fear. It's complexity. It's the loss of the simple answers that we can teach to everyone. It's the unavoidable consequence of a historical consciousness that reveals change and development and human motives, in all their venality and sincerity, in the message that has come down to us. Without the simplicity and finality and totalizing power of "God says it, I believe it, that settles it," we fear, how will we ever come to rest on solid ground?

Maybe the AAR can help. If scholars of religion can't do a better job of telling the world about its immeasurable richness and strangeness and awe-inspiring testimony to millennia of human effort to understand, motivate, control, and bear witness, then eighteen-year-olds will continue to show up at our doorstep clinging for dear life to their conviction that the ultimate answers are simple. Every semester I lay my cards on the table, telling students that I am making a key assumption in the way I look at the world and the way I'm asking them to try out looking at the world. Anything worth knowing, I say, is complex. Any question worth asking has a complex answer. I allow that I could be wrong about this -- that I might show up at the pearly gates and find out I was barking up the wrong tree all along. But the simple answers that have been given to me over the years have all decayed and fertilized the fascinating, developing, fractal richness of the complexity that now appears in their place. So here I stand -- I can do no other. And here I hope to act, with the combined power of my fellow scholars, to make the world safe for complexity.


doafy said...

Holy cow, Donna. That was incredibly well said. I think I may adopt "Any question worth asking has a complex answer" as my own.

I also may direct people back to this entry.

Sonny said...

You picked a nice weekend, weather-wise, to have to be in Atlanta.

the secret knitter said...

If the point of religion is to foster a relationship with God, then don't simple, irrevocable answers discourage it? After all, there's no need to think about God if this is the way it is and there's no other way about it. The searching--digging into the mystery and complexity--is the point rather than being able to tick off a list of truisms and leaving it at that.

In other words, right on.