Tribalism and Christ

Miriam called her mother with some great news. “Ma, I just met a wonderful man. He’s kindhearted, really smart, great sense of humor, very successful, and he is crazy about me.” Brief silence, and then her mother speaks. “Nice, dear. Is he Jewish?”

While that is in the format of a Jewish joke, the exact same conversation could be heard from a pair of Pakistanis, Catholics, Latinos, Japanese, or Russians. Or anybody else. I knew a woman from Milan, Italy, who complained that all three of her daughters had married stranieri – foreigners. The men referred to were an American, a native of Venice and a man who hailed from a particular suburb of Milan that most Milanese looked down on.

Tribalism is an innate and universal characteristic of humanity. Pre-literate tribes often call themselves by a word that means humans or “the people,” and many refer to other tribes using less complimentary language. Tribalism is of course at the root of racism, nationalism, and a great deal of the wars and miseries in human history.

We don’t know the origin of this sense of belonging to an exclusive group, but we do know that it manifests itself in childhood, and becomes a critical feature of social interactions throughout adolescence. Tribalism expanded at some point beyond the extended family unit to encompass actual tribes and eventually even nations. But at its root it remains what it was inherited by early humans from a long phylogenetic ancestry going back to the dawn of mammals at least. And that is a recognition of familial ties as paramount in the definition of individual worth.

You are a bona fide member of a tribe if your biological parents were members, and that gives one a connection to all the other members, since all can be connected to each other through birth.

This family connection principle is so firmly rooted in our inner instincts that evidence for it is everywhere. The question “who are you” generally means: what is your tribal history, who were your parents, and what tribe were they part of? “Where are you from?” has the same general purpose. When a white person meets someone they have spoken to on the phone and see that they’re Black (even though they didn’t “sound” Black) the first reaction is “Oh, you’re Black” (or Asian or white or whatever you didn’t expect). But racism is only most extreme form of tribalism.

The concept that a person’s membership in a tribe is inherited makes a lot of sense, actually, since early on everyone could see that parental traits were inherited in offspring. The Biblical phrase “each according to its kind” is a very early biological understanding of the principle of inheritance of characteristics, whereby animals only give birth to animals that are just like them. This was also seen in human beings, and it became visibly obvious that tall tribes had tall children, hairy tribes kept having hairy kids, and so on. In modern days this observation has become the well understood science of genetics. In older days the term used was “blood.” When people used to say, “Of course he’s clever – it’s in his blood” referring to the intelligence of his forebears, now they would substitute the word genes for blood.

This is why detailed genealogies, usually oral, but later written down, have been so important everywhere in the world from Pacific islands to the Middle East. As empires spread and nations conquered each other, it became crucial to be identified as a member of the conquering tribe vs. the losers, so one would not be cast as a slave by mistake.

In a small backwater of the Roman Empire, amongst a very difficult tribe with some very odd religious beliefs, a teacher or prophet began preaching a number of strange and entirely subversive ideas. Among these was a certain message of love that seemed to transcend tribal boundaries. Jesus Christ certainly was a member of his own tribe and a follower of their holy books and historical religion. But his claims and his call were different from those of most of the other itinerant preachers who could be found everywhere in those days. He defied the authorities of his own religion, and proclaimed himself the Son of Man, leading many to consider him to be the long-promised king who would change the world for his tribe. But Jesus had other messages as well. He told people that they should love their neighbor, which in those days could mean people belonging to other tribes. He told a story about how a foreigner (the good Samaritan) was just as worthy as the members of his own tribe. He even ministered to a Roman officer. This was something new and simply revolutionary.

After his death, his followers took this new idea further. The Apostle Paul wrote, “In Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female.” Probably the most revolutionary and idealist words ever written.

Christianity continued on the path of anti-tribalism for the next millennium, and despite the inborn human drive to define us and them as opposing tribes, has rarely officially strayed from that path. Missionaries have never said “Oh, no, we don’t want to go there. Those people are not really like us, and we see no reason for them to hear the word of Christ.” Just the opposite. From Patrick who landed on the island of terrifying savages called the Irish, to the more modern missionaries who went to Africa, Japan, and many hostile parts of the earth, Christianity has added every nation on the planet to the list of Greeks and Jews, Barbarians and Scythians.

What is the real significance of this revolutionary refusal to consider tribal or national identity when if comes to finding the path to God? It’s a refutation of the importance of blood (or genes, or inheritance or genealogy) when it comes to anything important. What Christ and his Apostles taught the world was that it doesn’t matter if you can trace your lineage back to David or Moses or Abraham. All are equal in Christ. It doesn’t matter if you were born into a family with a proud legacy of good deeds, high education, with devout and well regarded ancestors, or if you were an orphan born out of wedlock to a prostitute and a thief and grew up in poverty and ignorance. Either way you are an equal member of the tribe of man, and therefore a child of God, and you, even you, are worthy of the love of Christ.

This message is still as crazy, controversial and radical as it was 2000 years ago. It goes against all of our inborn instincts, and of course we all know that in practice many Christians have failed to heed it.

But there is no denying that God sent His son into the world to tell us and show us many things, and this is one of them.

And so the question is, if it doesn’t matter whether or not you are the “blood” or genetic or genealogical descendant of Abraham or Caesar or Charlemagne or whoever, does it matter if you are a blood descendant of Adam? This is in a way a trivial question, because of course we are all descendants of everyone who lived 6000 to 10000 years ago, as Joshua Swamidass (in The Genealogical Adam and Eve) and others have clearly demonstrated. But if there were some isolated people who perhaps didn’t get to be part of the blood relations of Adam’s descendants, does it matter? Not to Christianity, it doesn’t. Sin is not a genetic trait. Knowledge of God is not a genetic trait. The Fall affected all men not because as Adam’s descendants we somehow inherited a gene for sin. Original sin along with the image of God has indeed been passed down through the generations, because of who we all are biologically, and because of who we are as God’s creation. Bloodlines do not matter for a Christian. Christ destroyed “us against them” ideology. Christ washed away the idea of blood with his blood and promised salvation to all.

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Life Changes

It certainly does, as every biologist will tell you. And so do individual human lives. Certainly we have all experienced a great deal of change in this remarkable (generally not in a good way) year of 2020.

The change I want to talk about here is about this blog, and my own life of writing, internet posting, YouTube speaking, and my ongoing career in general. Apparently I still do have a career, even though I officially retired five years ago.

In order to keep up with changes in that career I need to make some changes in my blogging life and webpage presence. This post will explain those changes.

I began this blog five years ago, right after my retirement, and for a while was posting several times a month. After the publication of my book The Works of His Hands: A Scientist’s Journey from Atheism to Faith (Kregel Publications) in November 2019, I was advised to use a new website devoted to the book for marketing and publicity purposes. I therefore started a new site: The Works of His Hands for that purpose, and transferred all my new blogs as of early November 2019 to that site.

Not wanting to lose my readers and subscribers from this site, I posted the first paragraph of each new blog (there have been five since that time) here, followed by a link to enable readers here to read the full text of the posts at the new site.

I am now in the process of building a new (third) website – This website will be mostly for the purpose of marketing my current book, as well as any additional books that may be published in the coming years. The new site will also be the repository of much of the information about myself and my history of publications, presentations, videos, and other aspects of my present life in science and faith ministry.

The new site will NOT contain a blog, but will have links to this site, so that readers of the new site can easily access current and previous blog posts here. I will no longer be posting only the first paragraph of new posts here, nor will I be posting any new blog posts on The Works of His Hands. I have already included the full texts of the last five posts on this site.

The following Pages that currently reside on this blog site will be transferred to the new website: About Me, Publications, Presentations, FAQs, Curriculum Vitae, and these pages will eventually be removed from this site.

The webpage currently devoted to my book, The Works of His Hands, will be terminated, and information from that site including About the Author, Contact info (and forms), Endorsements and Reviews, Event Calendar and Excerpts will be transferred to the new site.

So to summarize, in the near future I will have two websites, The Book of Works, which will be limited to blog posts only, and a new comprehensive website –, which will be my main website for everything except blog posts.

Subscribers to this site will continue to receive notifications of new posts, which will be shown in full here. I strongly urge all my subscribers to visit and sign up for the new website, including joining the mailing list for Newsletters available on that site.

Finally I want to thank everyone for their loyalty over the years, for the many wonderful, insightful and uplifting comments you have made to posts during those years, and also express my hope that you will continue to visit this site, read new posts and add your insights.

I also welcome any comments, questions of idea you might have about these changes. Peace be with you.


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Remembered Love

What can we think of God during tragic and terrible times? Is He cruel? People dying alone, with no loved ones around them. People forced to jump from high buildings to avoid being burned. People burned alive in ovens, How does God allow this misery and suffering. I don’t know. But maybe God is sometimes trying to get us to remember. We are created from the dust of the earth, but we are infused with love. And this is what we forget in normal times. During times like these we are forced to remember.

I saw that kind of amazing love on Sept 12 2001 in a New York City supermarket when a small girl shopping with her mother picked up a very delicious looking box of chocolates and dropped it into the shopping cart filled with bottled water. “Mommy,” she said “Maybe the firemen would like this candy along with the water”.

I saw it a few weeks ago in the first videos made by musicians, each singing or playing alone, but shown in a mosaic of talent and beauty. I saw it in the face of a woman who could not speak at all, when my wife and I delivered four bags of groceries to her home. She just shook her head and smiled through tears. “Your welcome”, I answered her.

I saw it when a soldier came off a plane and while walking through the terminal, heard people clapping and cheering. He turned about to see what famous celebrity was being honored, and it took him quite some time to realize the crowd was clapping for him. And there it was on his weary face, that long forgotten knowledge of love.

And 50 years later, I saw it in the respect and love shown to  another veteran, arms and hands crippled by a booby trap bomb, as he stood and delivered a brilliant lecture on his own medical specialty.

I don’t know how to describe or characterize this type of love. I think it’s what Jesus meant when He told us to love our neighbors, and to love our enemies. That kind of love shows up in those terrible times of suffering and loss. It’s not the reason, God doesn’t make us suffer so we can remember that kind of love, but we do remember it at those times despite the suffering. Jesus prayed for forgiveness for his murderers as he died on the cross. It is that special love, the love that was infused into us by God the creator of all, that we remember today as we reach out, cry out, watch out, and wait for the inevitable glory, either in this world or the next that we know awaits us. And we know that when we do arrive at the world where there is no more suffering, toil or danger, we will hear a mighty chorus of joyous cheering, and we will know that all of that love is meant for us.



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I Believe in Green

How do you explain green to a tribe of completely color blind people? You can point to a leaf and explain that for you, it has a color, different from gray, but those words will have no meaning for the tribe. They want evidence. You can say “OK, you are scientists, right? You know about the electromagnetic spectrum. Here in the visible light region, we go from ultraviolet to infrared, and in between are all these colors.”

They will look at you like you are nuts. “Of course we know about the visible light part of the spectrum.” And they will show you how (in their version of it) the spectrum includes all the subtle shades of gray. They will patiently explain to you that you cannot see this mythological, supernatural quality called “color” in the microwave or radio wave regions, so it is illogical to assume such nonsense exists in the visible portion.

“Light is light,” you will be told. “When it is bright it’s white, when its dark it’s black, and in between are all the shades of gray. This color nonsense is completely unnecessary to see the world”. You would have to agree, especially if you were old enough to remember watching black and white TV, and having no problem making sense of the images.

You will be asked to furnish proof of the existence of color. You cannot do so according to their standards for proof. In fact simply by providing the radiofrequency for green, you have demonstrated nothing. Its still gray to them.

You think of a great experiment. You find two identical objects which differ only in that one is green and one is red. They see them as the exact same shade of gray. But since you can tell them apart, you demonstrate that you can differentiate the two objects while they cannot.

“It’s a trick” they tell you. “It’s a fraud, you must have marked one of the objects in some way. Since its impossible to distinguish the two objects, you have clearly engaged in some form of deception. Or you were just lucky. Or you have been able to detect a very slight difference in gray scale that our instruments haven’t detected yet. But with further research and technology they will” (and they probably will).

Then they take the offensive. “OK, if you believe in this supernatural idea you call color, which you cannot prove, at least describe it. What exactly is green?. We can tell you that light gray is lighter than dark gray. What is green compared to red? You cant even explain what this thing you believe in is.”

Finally you get exasperated and you just say, “Look, Im sorry you don’t understand me, I cant explain it further. But I know that green exists because I can see it. I wish you could also.”

They will simply shake their heads. And tell you that without evidence, you are dreaming of supernatural things that don’t exist. “You simply believe in Green”.

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As We Forgive Those…

My childhood was not a happy one. It wasn’t my parents—they were fine, and I was never abused or mistreated by my family. They were militant atheists, and I grew up with no concept of God or anything beyond a materialistic world, but that didn’t bother me until much later. The problem I had as a child was where I was living. Brooklyn, New York, is not a gentle place, and it was perhaps even less so in the 1950s and 60s than it is now. The boys in the neighborhood played rough, as boys tend to do, but there was a deeper menacing presence surrounding us as children. Many of the adults we knew were connected in some degree to the pervasive crime families that dominated parts of New York City at the time.

And then there were the gangs. I remember arriving at school one day to find a young man hanging on the fence, where he had been left the night before as a punishment and warning. The police arrived and took him down. He was badly injured but alive, and he refused to speak a word. It was a powerful message to the whole neighborhood.

Shortly after I reached adolescence, something changed on my block. The guys I had hung out with all decided to form their own gang. I wanted to be a part of it, but my parents put their foot down and forbade it. I tried to defy them, but in the end, reason (and perhaps the hand of God?) prevailed, and I told the guys that I would not be joining them in their exciting plans to spread mayhem through the neighborhood.

While this was obviously the right decision, I suffered for it for several years. I became the new gang’s primary target. Getting home from school became a terrifying and dangerous daily adventure. No matter how many new routes I came up with to avoid them, I was attacked and beaten several times over the next few years, and it wasn’t until I finally left Brooklyn for college that I had any sense of safety in my life.

While I no longer felt the kind of fear that had tormented me, what I couldn’t leave behind was my anger. The one time I had gotten the better of my tormentors was when I became so angry that I let loose and actually hurt one of them badly. As an adult, I retained the sense of rage that I felt against the gang, and particularly the leader. I would fantasize about meeting him somewhere and doing him great harm. At different times, I told some of the details of my childhood experiences to people close to me, and each time I received sympathy and understanding. I also would add how angry I felt, and how that anger had given me strength and the iron determination to never be a victim, to always fight for the safety and security of myself and those I loved. I was a pretty tough guy, and I was proud of it.

I never thought that the way I felt about that part of my life would or could ever change, and I had no interest in it changing. But it did. In my 40s, I was not a believer, but I had managed to go from the strict atheism of my youth to being an agnostic questioner of the purpose of life, and to considering the possibility that science did not actually have all the answers to every question.

One day, I told the story of my childhood to a Christian friend, as an explanation of how I had become such a tough guy. She expressed sympathy, but she added something I had never heard or even imagined before: “You need to forgive them.” The words provoked an angry reaction from me. “Never!” I told her. “I hate them for what they did. If I saw them today, I would kill them!” She looked at me in silence for a while. She then said, “Do you hear yourself? Your rage is killingyou, not them. Let it go. Forgive them. Jesus asked for forgiveness for those who crucified Him. He taught us to forgive our enemies.”

I sat there stunned, and somewhat hurt. I was thinking, “Why doesn’t she respect this anger that is so central to my very essence?” Then it struck me: What kind of person thinks of an emotion like anger as part of their essence? How can I be that kind of person? And then I felt a kind of breath, something I couldn’t recognize, come over me. It happened in an instant, and it left me with a vision of joy and peace washing away the dark anger in my soul. I started to cry, and with great emotion I said the words that could never have come before: “I forgive them” and once out of my mouth, everything changed. There was an immediate sense of relief and lightness as a heavy weight inside me disintegrated and left me feeling—free.

I didn’t become a Christian at that moment. I still had a ways to go on my journey. But it was an enormous step for me to take, and the Holy Spirit was there, waiting for me, ready to hold me and guide me. Some years later, the Spirit again showed mercy and presented me with the experience that removed all doubts and hesitation, and I devoted my life to following the risen Christ. Praise God for His grace that saved a sinner like me.

This post was first published as an article in More to Life Magazine, Dec 1, 2019.

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My Literary Collaborators

I am very excited about the release of my book, and I hope and pray that it gets into the hands of those who need it, those whose lives will be improved by reading it. There are, of course, many other Christian books out there. I’m thrilled that so many great Christian books are being published, some written by friends and people I admire.

I don’t think of these books as competition with my own book, but as collaborations in a common cause to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. In the following list, I have highlighted books authored by people I have met, some of whom I count as friends, and some I have only spoken to once or twice. Either way, I am happy to showcase their work here. All are recently published or coming out soon. My listing them here does not mean I necessarily agree with everything they say, but I do think all these books are well worth reading. In addition to my own, of course!

The first two on the list, by Gregg Davidson and Carol Hill, were released on the same day as mine by the same publisher, Kregel.

Friend of Science, Friend of Faith Gregg Davidson

A Worldview Approach to Science and Scripture Carol Hill

The Story of the Cosmos Daniel Ray and Paul Gould

The Genealogical Adam and Eve S Joshua Swamidass (Coming in December)

A Theory of Everything (that Matters) Alister McGrath.

Confronting Christianity Rebecca McLaughlin

God Can’t Thomas Jay Oord

Faith Across the Multiverse Andy Walsh

Science and Faith Hannah Eagleson

Mere Science and Christian Faith Greg Cootsona

God’s Good Earth Jon Garvey

Christianity and the (R)evolution in Worldviews in Western Culture Joel Edmund Anderson

Bringing the Exodus to Life: Book 1 Phillip Cottraux

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Why, How, and When did this Book get Written and Published?

I suppose it’s appropriate that this post  has a title that contains several questions, since the book itself opens with a chapter called “The Importance of Questions.” The answers to the (six) questions posed by the title could take the space of another book, but I will try to compress a bit.

As all writers know, writing a book and getting it published are two entirely different things. I don’t have a terribly clear answer as to why I began “writing” this book, other than I have always loved writing (this is not my first book) and at some point I thought it would be good to put many of my thoughts about science and my growing Christian faith on (what has now become metaphorical) paper. I put the word writing in quotes in the previous sentence, because what turned into this book began about a decade ago with putting together a bunch of paragraphs and snippets from earlier writings. From then until my retirement in 2015, the book grew slowly as I added more material, moved stuff around, and began thinking about what I really wanted to say.

With advice and help from my wife (more about her below), I started working on the book in earnest after retirement. I started constructing chapters, threw out a lot, and tried to develop some themes and consistency.

A couple of years later, in the summer of 2017, I began showing the chapters to my wife, Aniko. Although not a native speaker, she is an expert linguist, writer, and editor in English, as well as a brilliant researcher (which is the only reason that some of my initial errors in the science part of the book were corrected). She began to edit the chapters as I finished what I thought was the final version (Ha!). I had another reader/editor, a friend from my church, Mark Meredith, the husband of our pastor (Pastor Martha Meredith wrote one of the endorsements of the book). Mark was and remains a huge supporter of the book and is also a skilled editor with a slightly different perspective on some of the material that either Aniko or I had. During the late summer and fall of 2017, I was sending chapters to Mark, and then giving those edited pages to Aniko for the (as we began calling them, somewhat prematurely) the “final final” versions.

In late 2017, I began to think about the terrifying process of seeing if I could find some way to get the book published. My initial thought had been self-publishing, based on a realistic appraisal of the chances of any new, unknown author finding a publisher or an agent. Those odds have been estimated at around 1%, but I decided to at least give it a try before going the self-publishing route. I found a list of Christian literary agents and began writing proposals. From my experience as a research scientist and then an administrator of the review of research proposals at the NIH, I had learned the most important thing about writing proposals: FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS!!!

This meant writing a different proposal for each agency, since, of course, they all have different requirements for what to include and how. One size definitely does not fit all, and the chance that an agent will even look at a book proposal, which is already quite low, drops to zero if the supplicant does not follow the submission guidelines precisely.

So I wrote about a half dozen different proposals and sent them out in two batches. The first batch of three got one reply: “Thank you—this looks interesting, but I cannot take it on.” I focused on the “interesting” part and was encouraged. The next set of three included one to an agent at the Steve Laube Agency, which everyone on the internet seemed to agree was the best Christian literary agency in the country. I sent the proposal to Dan Balow, a relative newcomer to the agency who specialized in non-fiction, and whose blog I liked. Yes, when pitching to an agent, learn who they are, and what they want. It’s worth the time and effort. At least it was in my case, because on  January 16, 2018, I got a reply from Dan telling me he found the proposal interesting—and could we talk on the phone the next day?

I was stunned, flabbergasted, amazed, grateful, and totally euphoric. (Aniko sometimes says I am prone to what she calls Syperbole—I don’t know where she gets that idea.) The next day Dan and I had a great conversation, and he became my agent. We quickly finished the final edits on the final chapters, sent him a full manuscript, and began the next phase of the publication adventure—waiting for news.

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The Human Effect

In the 1960s, a climatologist named Edward Lorenz worked on developing a set of difference equations to study weather forecasting. This type of equation is used to model what happens to a system as a function of time: a variable is traced from the beginning (time = 0) in repeating steps (iterations) at each time (t = 1,2,3, etc.).

Lorenz found logical, expected results when a constant used in the equation was set at a particular level, but at higher values, the results showed a strange, oscillating pattern with time. The higher the value of the constant, the more irregular the cycles became, and at a certain point, they lost all semblance of regularity and fluctuated wildly in a chaotic fashion. Chaos theory was born.

Lorenz also found that when he rounded out the value used for the starting condition, using 5.21 instead of 5.21332, for example, the solutions over time showed a completely different pattern. This extreme dependence on initial conditions is sometimes called the “butterfly effect,” after the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in China could create a storm in Texas a few days later. Chaotic dynamics occur in many, if not all, complex dynamic systems, like the stock market, national economies, heart physiology, and so on. And, of course, the most complex of all systems, human society, is totally ruled by chaos theory. I call this the “human effect,” and I believe it has some interesting philosophical implications.

Humans have been compared to a collection of gas molecules randomly colliding and going in unpredictable ways but en masse forming a highly deterministic and predictable system. But gas molecules make no choices; their individual behavior is truly random. Ours is not, which is what makes history so fascinating.

It’s entirely rational to propose that everything any of us do or say can have enormous effects on the state of the world. If I decide to stop during a walk and look into the window of a store, I will arrive at the bookstore five minutes later than I would have if I hadn’t stopped. That means I will enter the store just as another customer is leaving. I bump into him, we both apologize, he stops to pick up the books he dropped, I help him, we exchange a few words, and he goes on his way. That 45-second delay makes him too late to flag the taxi he would otherwise have gotten, and he needs to wait a good 15 minutes before he gives up on finding a taxi and calls Uber. The Uber driver picks him up. If the man had found the cab that I made him miss, the Uber driver would have picked up a woman a few blocks away. But since he didn’t, the woman gets into another Uber and finds that the driver looks familiar. It is in fact a man she knew in college, and after some conversation, they remember each other. They exchange numbers, meet a few days later, begin dating, fall in love, get married, and have children. Their children grow up, and the oldest becomes a scientist and discovers a cure for a disease. So the lives of thousands of people are saved by the child of the woman who took a different Uber because the man I bumped into was a few seconds later than he would have been if I hadn’t paused to look at the store window.

I just made that fantasy up, but such things happen all the time, and with some thought and research, examples are easy to find. The idea of the human effect is wonderfully illustrated in the film It’s a Wonderful Life. Aside from the film’s other great qualities, it is quite special in that it represents the first, and still one of the very few, example of a detailed and rigorous thought experiment on the basic principles of chaos and complexity theory. It has some pretty profound scientific and religious implications, which is why, of course, I like it.

As in all experiments, there is a model system—in this case, a typical small American town. The hypothesis to be tested is that the existence of a single individual (Jimmy Stewart’s character) has major, unpredictable, and irreversible effects on the behavior of the system. It provides an early glimpse of  the revolutionary idea (unknown at the time the film was made) that complex systems are highly dependent on initial conditions.

I know, this isn’t science—it’s melodrama. But my point is that this story should make us think about the reality that for good or ill, we are all critical to the reality of everyone else.

Humanity is a huge system. And everyone who is part of that system (which is everyone) has a role in what happens next. What this means is that nothing we do or say is ever lost, because the effects or ripples of our actions continuously rebound throughout history. I know that sounds silly. Imagine the millions and millions of people who have ever lived, and all the words and actions of all those people, all but the tiniest fraction of which are lost forever to our knowledge. But that is where my faith comes in. I don’t think they are lost.

All human lives are important, valuable, and (in my own religious view) holy. So choose what you do and say wisely, my friends. My life depends on it.


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God and the Rain

Why doesn’t God step in and stop bad things from happening?

On a cool cloudy day in Manhattan, a young mother walking with her three children (one in a stroller) was caught in a sudden downpour. She was pushing the stroller, holding the hand of her little girl, and juggling a bag of groceries on top of it. When the rain came down, she started to hurry, because she was afraid the baby, who had been sniffling, would get sick. The oldest was giving her trouble, and she yelled at him to be quiet while she hurried to cross a side street before the light turned. The rain was heavy, and visibility was bad. She didn’t see the car turning, and the driver, also in a hurry and not completely sober, didn’t see her. She and all three of her kids were killed.

Except that didn’t happen. Here’s the true version. I had gone to do some shopping, and having checked the weather forecast, I brought a small folding umbrella with me. When I got to the store, I was surprised to see my wife there, shopping. (This was before cell phones.) She was on the way home from work and also had an umbrella. We started walking home together just as the rain began pouring down in buckets. In the hope of staying dry, we each opened our own umbrellas. As we got to the first cross street, I saw the woman with the three kids bent against the rain and rushing to get out of it.

I was not a Christian at this time, but I had been going to church occasionally, and I was in the process of thinking about Jesus, the Gospels, and the possibility that God was real. Without more than an instant’s thought, I crossed the avenue, went up to the woman, and gave her my umbrella. She gave me a smile, said thank you in Spanish, and I could see the relief on her face. She held the umbrella over the stroller, and continued more calmly on her way, joking with her kids, and stopping at the corner for the light to turn back to green. My wife caught up to me and gave me a smile. We walked the rest of the way home under one umbrella, which was fine.

Did God prevent a tragedy there? We will never know. The first paragraph is clearly derived from my own imagination. Did the Holy Spirit come to me and whisper the suggestion of a charitable and selfless act? That is probably the case—first, because this was a time when the Holy Spirit seemed to be actively engaged with me; and second, because such charitable acts toward strangers were not among my habits. I had been born and raised in that city, where interactions with strangers are not part of the culture.

Perhaps this story is only one of millions of stories of God’s interventions to prevent tragedies that we can never know about, and the tragedies that do occur are those where the intended agent (in this case, me) chose not to follow the whisper of God’s urging. What I think is crucial is that if my fantasy is actually true and God used me to save four innocent lives, then we must all always be open to doing acts of kindness and mercy, because we, humans, acting here in the physical world, are one of the ways in which God intervenes for good. Theologian Thomas Jay Oord, in his new book God Can’t suggests that this is always the way that God works in love to bring about transformation in the world. I don’t know if that’s always true. But now, as a follower of Christ, I certainly do believe that at least once, many years ago on a rainy New York street, that is exactly what He did, and I was blessed beyond measure to be His instrument.

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Love and the Ocean

Last week I was standing at the ocean’s edge on a beach in eastern Long Island, and I remembered that at an earlier point in my life, while still an agnostic, I used to (in a way) worship the ocean. Whenever I would get to a seashore, on whatever continent, whether a sandy beach or a rocky coast, I would think “Here I am, sea, once again, back to be with you.” I would watch the waves and think in some way that they were expressions of friendship, much like the wagging of dog’s tail, or the wave of a human.

This kind of pantheistic nature worship is not at all uncommon among atheists or agnostics with some degree of spiritual connection. Even some theists, including Christians, will occasionally succumb to the marvelous beauty of God’s creation and lean toward worshiping the creation instead of the Creator. As Denis Alexander says in his book Is there Purpose in Biology?, quoting theologian Aubrey Moore:
“For the Christian theologian, the facts of nature are the acts of God.”

Alexander goes on to demolish the extreme forms of “natural theology” that hold nature to be an entity worthy of worship. He discusses the brilliant Christian pioneer of chemistry, Robert Boyle, who demythologized “the idea of nature as a quasi-independent entity.”

I had a rude awakening regarding the imagined friendship between myself and the sea. Those who read my post “How I spent my Summer Vacation” last year might recall my telling of an incident with a pair of dolphins off the coast of Maine that I interpreted as a positive spiritual experience with God’s creatures. But a few years before that event, I was in the same boat off the same coast and had an altogether more sobering and in fact life-threatening encounter with the reality of the ocean.

A rare hurricane was threatening the coast where we were spending our vacation, and I had to move the boat into a safe place. I decided to bring it back to the launch ramp where I could easily put it back on its trailer. This entailed going from where the boat was moored near our house to a small inlet a few miles along the coast. I started out with no problems, even though the outer bands of the hurricane were already hitting us. There was a heavy rain and the water near the mooring was choppier than usual. But we were on the leeward (protected) side of an island, and when I passed under the bridge that connected the island to the mainland, I immediately entered a different world, one that I was unfamiliar with.

The sea was rough, rougher than I had ever seen it, with swells 4 to 6 feet high and coming rapidly. After 10 minutes, I realized I could make no progress against the wind and current, and that I had to give up my plan and turn around. My 12-foot boat was barely under the control of the 20-hp outboard engine, and it was all I could do to keep the bow pointed into the wind and waves. I realized to my horror that turning around would be almost impossible, since as soon as the boat was broadside to the waves it would capsize.

At that point I called out in desperation, “Stop!” Of course, it didn’t, and I thought “the ocean doesn’t care about you at all.” I had no options— there were no other boats around, no people on the shore or the bridge. There was nothing I could do. Finally, I took a deep breath, gunned the engine to top speed, and turned the boat. Sure enough, one wave hit just as I was 90 degrees to the wind, and I almost went over, but the momentum of the turn brought me around. In another three minutes the waves propelled the boat back under the bridge, and I was safe. Exhausted, terrified, soaking wet, and a bit wiser, I dragged the boat up onto the dock of a neighbor.

So I no longer talk to the sea. I still love it, but I no longer think of it as anything other than what it is, a marvelous part of this splendid planet, in turn, created as a small part of this universe by God. The shock of understanding that nature doesn’t really care about us humans has long worn off. What counts is that God does care for us, and even more, that we care about each other, and that’s all we need.

Last week, as I watched the waves crash onto the shore and looked out at the vast ocean, I was not thinking about any relationship I once imagined I had with the world- wide seas, but instead I focused my attention on the distant figure of a swimmer as she (my beautiful wife)  moved in the water, and felt the real wonder of true love.

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