Science doesn’t ask you for faith. It’s happy to show you it’s homework.
At the end of the day, we want to be alive. Everything we do is an attempt to live. We want the best of what our time on Earth can offer us. This is a part of our humanity; survival is not merely for survival’s sake. We do more than survive and this is an ancient drive. We want to know why we’re here and we want being here to matter.
For those of us born into a faith tradition, those deep existential quandaries always had pat answers. I learned as a small child that my presence is purposeful and that I matter to my Creator. But I also learned a lot of other things.
I learned that the Bible is infallible and it’s stories literal, that God is a man and his favor is toward men, that Hell is an actual place for those who don’t believe the specific teaching of the Protestant church (presented as the teaching of Christ). I learned that the Earth was created in six 24-hour days, humans formed from dust, and that the entire world was covered in water in order to kill off every man, woman, child, and animal except for a select few. Also that the God who orchestrated the death of babies on more than one occassion is good. Questioning any of those things is sinful (and sin is the evil we cannot avoid inheriting, but are nonetheless responsible for).
At some point these things needed reevaluating. Being alive had to be fuller than this one closed system. It had to include the breadth and width of the human experience, across cultural and historical and psychological divides.
LikeMike McHargue (colloquially known as Science Mike), author of a new book called Finding God in the Waves, I deeply value science (though, I’m not nearly as obsessed or studious as he is… I also can’t imagine myself ever going by Science Krysann – which is fortunate since that is a terrible word couple). And like McHargue, I have cringed at the irreconcilable differences between a good portion of Evangelical dogma and the empirical evidence it defies. I have had to find ways to hold the faith I’ve cherished my whole life while also honoring the naked eye truth we observe in our universe and that has not always allowed me to keep things other members of this tribe believe are vital for Christianhood.
When McHargue’s dissonance reached a climax, he felt unable to hold onto his lifelong beliefs at all. He became “the world’s least interesting secret agent – an atheist under deep cover in the Baptist church,” even continuing to teach Sunday School and hold position as a deacon in his congregation. He describes his experience in genuine, humble detail, shedding precious light for those who have never experienced this level of doubt. I can’t overstate how crucially needed this is. He talks about it in terms of grief; it is a loss more akin to “hearing that a dear friend had died unexpectedly” than a person walking away from the God he loves. McHargue humanizes something so often dismissed as either a dry season or worse, outright sin. He breathes courageous spirit into an experience many are scared to admit to and opens up a space for them to say however timidly, “Yeah, me too.”
I remember realizing that the faith I had always identified myself with was no longer something I could claim. While I didn’t get quite as far as complete atheism at the time, I still found my spirit in utter discord. Now, as I am in the midst of grieving the literal death of someone I love, I can see that what I was experiencing then was also grief. McHargue’s words resonated with me that “God had been the embodiment of love, who cared for humanity with unknowable depth – and by extension, cared for me as well.” Losing touch with that is not something one does flippantly – or even purposefully – and people enduring this loss need their experience to be seen and honored.
McHargue found a safe place among what most Christians would consider an unlikely source. Compassionate unbelievers caught him in his free fall and helped him find something to begin to stand on again. When he turned to an online forum for help in processing what turning away from his faith would do to himself and his loved ones he was met with affecting kindness from the atheists. McHargue opens the closet door on the boogeyman of the Hateful Atheist and reveals their “shared humanity” instead.
McHargue’s experience with atheism is surely tied to one of the most remarkable things about his work at large – particularly in Christian circles: he is utterly uninterested in converting anyone to anything. McHargue writes from a place of compassion and shows grace to all the players in the book – atheists and Baptists alike. He does not try to disassemble the conservative believer’s worldview nor does he try to convince the non-believer that she should give faith a chance. He simply shares his story. And it is a beautiful one. McHargue is a gifted storyteller who relays a very personal and complicated journey in a straightforward way while preserving an acutely intimate nuance.
He also weaves scientific findings throughout the narrative. In completely accessible terms he reveals the brain functions responsible for how we see God and the complicated dance our mind does with faith and doubt, rationality and emotion. He boldly states the philosophical dilemmas which present themselves pretty quickly in even a cursory reading of the Bible. McHargue is obviously thoughtful and the Science is incredibly helpful. I would even recommend the book just for it’s factual merit, but it’s the Mike part which makes this a book worth reading. His teaching engages his reader’s prefrontal cortex, but it’s his personal insight which lights up our anterior cingulate cortex. ;)
McHargue posits several axioms for people wanting to practice the Christian faith, but are unable to buy in to all the common assumptions. You can find them here, but couched in McHargue’s experience and thought process fills them in and gives them much more gravity. So buy the book. Really.
At it’s heart, Finding God in the Waves is a couple of weathered, outstretched hands holding the tension of the faithful. In the one hand, none of this makes any sense: a personal consciousness in the vast universe caring about us as children, wanting good for us, making itself human and directing existence toward goodness despite undeniable, inevitable entropic demise. Yet in the other hand we can’t shake feeling pulled toward Something bigger and yes, even personal. Sometimes we are convinced beside reason that we’ve intimately connected with this consciousness: that it knows us, even loves us.
This tension between science and faith frustrates us, it engages us in a variety of ways, it serves as a reminder of what we feel incapable of understanding. And maybe that very tension is what allows us to be fully alive.