Friday, September 13, 2013

When the Scriptures of Science Fail

Sometimes the best part of the book comes out after it's published. Rebecca Skloot's book on Henrietta Lacks led to many fascinating developments after it came out, including a remarkable agreement on her genome publication with Lacks's family, something that would never have been possible without the book. Into the Wild by John Krakauer is now another example. Why did Chris McCandless starve in a bus walking distance from a highway? Krakauer originally had a biochemical explanation for this, but recent evidence has come out that refocuses and implicates a different biochemical cause. Read about it here.

What strikes me about the story now is that McCandless trusted his field guide. He had to. He was right to. It represented centuries of experience. But that field guide did not include the fact that, in a weakened state, eating this one plant would have enough of a neurotoxin to take out the nerves, moving your legs in a slow, weakening erosion of your ability to keep yourself alive. The field guide was flawed. (I'm even leaving out the part about how he could have crossed the river to safety if he had a good enough map ... )

McCandless trusted his book, and his book let him down. This can happen with any book -- all knowledge is incomplete. Scientific summaries of experience may be more reliable but they are still incomplete.

This is true with the Hebrew Scriptures, too. When Israel trusted their rituals and the presence of the temple in Jerusalem, trusting that this would protect the nation from invaders, they were shown to be wrong. (Well, right with Assyria, wrong with Babylon, it's complicated.) Both stories show that books can let you down.

But the story with Israel is more complicated. Israel was ignoring the book as it trusted in the building. Particularly brushed under the rug were passages in the Torah against idolatry and worship with the heart. Prophets pointed this out; false prophets reassured that it was OK ("The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord"). Then judgement came, and the unique place on earth where the Lord of the cosmos was worshipped was leveled. Even now, that feels wrong, unfair, disproportionate. The sheer cry of lament in Lamentations shows just how horrible it was. My heart takes Israel's side in this, probably as a defensive maneuver for my own coverups.

Yet, in the face of a cataclysm, embers survived, waiting for breath to glow again. The Jewish faith survived the destruction of the temple, rising from the ashes. And then the second temple was destroyed -- and Israel survived, and Christianity rose as well. The second destruction led to two religions where before there had been one. Who could predict that?

Faith is not faith that nothing bad will ever happen. Faith is faith that when the bad things happen that God remains faithful. Even when death happens, times thousands.

I don't know how it all adds up. There are always false prophets and idols in every person's own mind. There are times of adundance and times of abundance. A time to be born and a time to die.

When you're going out by yourself, a science field guide is the only community you have. It, like any community, can let you down, and may be more likely to let you down than a living, breathing community, as messed up as that community may be.

In the middle of all this "letting down" -- books letting us down, friends letting us down, ourselves letting us down every hour -- faith says, despite what it looks like right now, I know God holds us in his hand. It's a simple point, but it's a point I hear in the story of McCandless as it's now told. Rest in peace, Chris.

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