I am a slow learner. I graduated from college when I was 46 years old. Education was not a value of my family system; education was seen as job training. This seems to be a predominant ideal in America. And to reinforce the idea – it is nice to have a job that one enjoys. I had no education beyond high school but I did have a great deal of luck. A good job in Information Systems stumbled into my life and granted the freedom to learn anything I wanted. (In 1972 one did not have to have an education to work with computers, I learned ‘on the job’). Like most young folks with a growing family and the increasing pressure of responsibility, I sought salvation in a variety of Christian Churches. I was lucky in work, not so lucky in faith – or so I thought at the time.
My job required some job specific education, so I attended the local community college in the evening. I studied math, accounting, finance, economics, and business management. While I seem to have the intellect to manage these disciplines, I never had much desire. It was a time of laboring to feed my family. The unintended consequence of exposure to college was my being made aware of the world of higher education. My imagination was sparked by the idea of studying Archaeology and the Land of the Bible, Reformation Europe, The Humor of Mark Twain, The High Renaissance, and the discipline of Humanities. But these classes were only offered during the day, and I had to work.
I was conflicted. I had been to several churches along the way and found all of them wanting. Some individual preachers impressed me, some discouraged me. I wanted faith, but I was afraid of losing my sanity. There are people in christian churches who will believe just about anything the preacher says – if by believing they find comfort in their daily struggles. Belief in God seemed hollow to me if there was no truth attached. If the particular faith system meant disregarding scientific truth then I was very skeptical. But those darn people of faith seemed so happy in their blissful disregard of facts – what a quandary. Some said I had to disregard the idea of evolution and that wacky Big Bang thing if I wanted to be saved. I wanted faith and facts to fit together.
I was in my early forties when I finally contemplated the idea of driving sixty miles a day to the big city down south where a University offered evening classes on almost everything. Actually, there were two universities, one was a seminary and the other a secular school. The seminary required that I be sanctioned by a church congregation – they somehow thought this was necessary to grant legitimacy to my desire. At that time I was unable to reconcile my differences with any particular christian denomination – so my option was secular. The adventure was too compelling and I signed up for a journey toward a Bachelor of Arts in History.
The university had funny ideas about learning – they thought that a degree in history also required a balanced study of the other academic disciplines. Most of that was OK with me, I wanted to also study literature and philosophy. Rather than learn from any single contemporary individual I wanted to learn from all of the great minds of mankind – I wanted the collective wisdom of humanity rather than a slice of contemporary cake. Contemporary cake is sweet and moist and offers immediate gratification, but has little nutrition for a sustained journey. The university insisted that I study math and science along with the liberal arts. Not a problem; I resolved that I would do whatever it took to get to the truth. My journey began.
After three years of driving sixty miles (one way) four nights a week, and Saturday trips to the University Library, I was getting tired, but had not found the silver bullet of theology. My undergraduate studies were coming to an end. There was one science credit to be fulfilled and the only class offered in the evening to meet that need was Chemistry 210 – a sophomore class. I had never studied chemistry in my life and frankly, was a little intimidated. But I needed the credit to graduate.
The Chemistry professor was of German origin – he had been a Hitler Youth – at age sixteen he threw down his gun and escaped Europe. He found his way to America and earned a PhD in Chemistry (note here my natural interest in his humanity). I was in that class for the credit, not for the learning of chemistry. The first few weeks were an examination of the Periodic Table, the chart of all chemical elements. The class progressed into a mathematical understanding of how the elements interact in different environments. I was surprised that this all made perfectly good sense to me. The math was relatively simple and straightforward.
After several weeks of studying theory, we were ready to graduate to the lab. The Professor took us through a theoretical chemical experiment in the classroom. We calculated what might happen if we combined different elements and added heat. The math was indisputable. My life was about to change. We went to the Chemistry Lab and took the real elements of our mathematical theory and mixed them together. Then we applied heat. The outcome was exactly as predicted in mathematical theory. Over and over we predicted outcomes. We gained such confidence in our math that we no longer felt the need to go to the lab every time – except to marvel again at the possibilities of prediction. I learned to have faith in mathematical predictions. Nay – I learned the truth. Faith is belief without proof, truth requires proof. One might accurately say that science is prophetic.
I remembered my early introduction to computers. I had to study binary and hexadecimal math. We used what was then called ‘machine language.’ Machine language was the manipulation of ones and zeroes, on and off, binary mathematics. I remember being struck with the simplicity of computers – simplicity that was given mystique by speed alone. Very simple calculations were made mystical with sheer volume over short periods of time. The mystique of computers was gone. Computers became simple machines, like an ax or a saw. Axes and saws process wood, computers process information. Primitive Native Americans marveled at the steel that Europeans took for granted. People today marvel at computers that are taken for granted by science.
Many people of Christian or Islamic faith marvel at the complexity of nature, of life, of the universe. People attempt to explain natural phenomenon with superstitious mystique. People are afraid of science because they feel their faith threatened – if evolution is true, if the Big Bang is true, then their idea of Genesis, of God’s creation, is false. Given the choice of denying a scientist or denying God, it seems reasonable to deny the scientist. The comparison is wrong. One does not have to deny one to accept the other.
I had read Plato and Aristotle and Des Cartes, I studied Dante and Goeth; I studied archaeology and the land of the Bible; I studied Luther, and Sadoleto, Calvin, and even Joseph Smith. I studied governments, from dictators and kings to republics. I studied war and peace. I studied music and art. I studied the collective wisdom of man.
What have I learned?
Humans are unique among life on Earth. We alone have been granted the capacity to contemplate our world, our universe. We have learned that there is specific order in our universe. There is no chaos, only mysteries that we have yet to unlock. The Bibles reports that we have been made in the image of God. That image is not of a creature with two arms and two legs and walking upright. The image is one of order, of understanding, of thinking and seeking knowledge – of seeking truth. This is the challenge put to us by a loving God – a God that graciously gave us the capacity for understanding – or at least the capacity to understand that we do not yet understand.
Early theologians used the mystical elements of literature to explain phenomenons of life and nature. In the process they used anecdote, allegory, metaphor, and simile to validate and present their understanding. The Bible represents collective wisdom – presented in allegorical form. The Bible was not intended to be a book of history or science – it is a book of theology – perhaps the best ever conceived.
I had to study history to put the Bible in context. I had to study literature to understand the value of allegory. I had to study philosophy to understand logical thinking, to grasp the logic in human presentation. I had to study mathematics and science to understand order – to remove the idea of chaos.
The study of science does not contradict God – rather science affirms an intellectual and purposeful order to our Universe. This Earth, and the life on Earth, did not just happen. We are the products of a grand scheme, not yet completely understood.
One might think of the Universe as containing natural laws of chemistry and physics, understood through the dynamic of mathematics. We find purity and truth in E = MC2 (squared). This formula was not a happenstance of evolution, but rather directed evolution.
We cannot study theology alone, separate from the science of history, literature, philosophy, mathematics, chemistry, and physics. Each of these disciplines compliment the other – none stand alone.
My notion today is that the greatest sin is to have a lazy intellect – to not actively seek truth. Our quest, that challenge given to us uniquely among the animal kingdom, is to learn. It is a sin to accept any given theology without question.
This is not to say that my journey is a prerequisite for faith or learning. People learn in different ways. Vonnegut said that many people go to college to learn to do what Mark Twain did naturally. Some people are more fortunate than me – they seem to grasp the world without having to fight every idea that comes along. Some people, like Einstein, grasp the world much more quickly than me. I have known some preachers who seem to grasp the fundamentals without having to go prove every single idea. But all of us are called upon to question the world around us.
I am only certain of one thing: The greatest reward will be given to those who actively seek truth with an open mind. And that, my friends, is the essense of being a liberal.