My Embrace of Science and Politics is Not a Denial of God

faith science politics christianity

There’s an awakening among young and young-ish adults about all the narratives we were handed growing up and how deeply they’ve affected us.

One of the big ones I’ve bushwhacked through the last couple years is the relationship between faith/beliefs, science and reason, and civic engagement.

A major narrative I picked up from my religious upbringing is that people who really put God first won’t get too mixed up in politics, and won’t trust science more than spiritual knowledge or the Word.

Sometimes it was explicitly stated; other times it was implied with tone or enforced with unspoken social reward systems.

The problem is, this narrative is built on a slew of false paradigms. Here are two of them.

False Paradigm #1: Either every word of the Bible is true and fits perfectly, or none of it is!

Actually: The Bible is an anthology of humans in history writing about their experience of coming to understand metaphysics, origin, morality, humanity, and spirit (in short: God). If parts of it are not empirically or historically true, like literal 7-day creation, or if there are contradictions between accounts, that doesn’t actually mean the entire anthology is untrue or worthless.

In fact, seeing as none of us know everything in the universe, it should be comforting and inspiring that we can still interact with the spirit of God and talk about it in a meaningful way — fallible and non-omniscient as we are.

The glass house of inerrancy is unnecessary and self-defeating.

But worse than that, it is deeply damaging.

It makes those of us who value observable science and peer-reviewed evidence think that we can’t learn anything from some of the greatest, most influential texts of all of history.

That we can’t find camaraderie in the guttural psalms or comfort in the hope that saturates the New Testament.

That we can’t learn from narcissistic power-obsessed kings like Nebuchadnezzar or badass unlikely heroes like Rahab.

That Jesus’s upside-down inside-out kingdom and the incarnate grace that heals and liberates should be discarded right along with the violence and pseudoscience of the Old Testament fundamentalist apologists.

That’s the fruit of fundamental religion. It fails to distinguish between God the Creator and God the Character. One is knowable all sorts of ways, not the least of which is through the beauty of the natural world and communion with other humans made in God’s image. The other is the product of the writer’s time, culture, and evolving worldview at that moment it was written.

Without room for nuance and adaptation, we inadvertently throw out God the Creator with the fundamentalism that was suffocating us.

And we miss the power of scripture as a diverse, dynamic, full-throated exploration of God and humanity two-stepping throughout time, with their mysterious and climactic fusion in the body of a poor brown Jew from the boondocks of Israel who somehow changed the course of history forever.

We miss an anthology that can actually teach us a whole lot about
growing up
changes in culture
corrupt governments
strained family relationships
violence and betrayal
loss and grief and redemption
sensational romance
existential dread
and what makes someone a good neighbor.

Genesis was poetry written by humans in exile. It wasn’t written as a science textbook; it was written to share the hope of a monotheistic creator (super progressive at the time) who created all things with loving intention and wisdom and for a purpose.

That Genesis isn’t a scientific text doesn’t make it any less inspired or valuable. Or true. Its’ polemic (rhetorical thrust) is a claim that stands entirely on it’s own two feet without the need for validation from textual scholars or anthropologists, although we can learn a great deal from both. It’s there for you to pick up, inspect, poke holes in, reject, or take with you: God created, with intention.

The more that religious leaders push the glass house of biblical inerrancy, the more the faith of young people will either shatter by education and experience or congeal into fundamentalism and extremism.

But it doesn’t have to be like that.

There’s another way to live out Christian faith besides doctrinal gatekeeping. We can wrestle with texts instead of clobbering with them. We can develop spiritual practices and spend time in prayer and contemplation. We can repent and confess and forgive and be unnaturally generous.

We can engage with science as a window into the awe-inspiring complexity and intelligence of our creator, instead of making idols of our doctrines and theologians.

We can — and I know this may seem crazy — try to live like Jesus
by engaging with parables
calling out corruption
lifting up the marginalized
and balancing our time between solitude and community.

Not a single one of those things depends on inerrancy.

They are tangible and testable.

And we don’t have to repress our doubts or pain or anger or dissent to try them out (unless our communities are systematically designed to punish doubts and pain and anger and dissent).

The best part? All the energy that would otherwise be spent gate-keeping and confabulating can be channeled into innovating and friendship-building. (Can confirm, it is a 1000% better way to live.)

False Paradigm #2: Spiritual matters are more important than politics. Spiritual people don’t get mixed up in politics.

This one is composed of lots of mini-paradigms. Ones like:

  • Politics at large is a realm entirely controlled by the devil.
  • Civic anger and protest is un-spiritual.
  • Politics and spiritual work are separate forces that are at odds with one another.

The tricky part is that each of these have a seed of truth to them, but they’re so slanted and generalized that they do way more harm than good. They inspire political apathy (complicity) or lead to exhausting cycles of emotional repression and explosion.

Here’s how I would revise them:

  • There is no political party that is completely free from corruption. That does not mean that all corruption is equal, or that political engagement is fruitless. In fact, it means we need MORE good people with integrity working to dismantle the corruption and build new systems that foster justice.

    People who can play the long game (by practicing self-care along the way) and keep engaging.
    Not people who give up because it’s hard.

  • It is possible to get lost in the injustice of the world and lose all sense of emotional balance, which typically leads to burnout. However, righteous anger and disruptive protest are not un-spiritual: let us not forget pissed-off Jesus in the temple courts, driving out the religious gentry who were financially profiting from people seeking spiritual solace (John 2:13-19).

    Anger and protest are healthy responses to injustice. The important part is to make sure that these spikes of cathartic outpouring are interspersed with quietness, solitude, gratitude, and life-giving community. Rhythm and cycle are built into the blueprint of creation: full-time anger isn’t healthy, but neither is full-time apathy.

  • “Politics” means civic affairs. I think when we use the word in a derogatory way, we usually mean to criticize partisanship/tribalism or corruption, not “civic affairs.” Unless you live in a self-sustaining cabin in the woods year-round, you can’t escape politics. Sorry.

    The economy is politics. Schools are politics. Public parks and land conservation is politics. Food distribution and hospitals are politics. Technology is politics. Basically any engagement with our neighbors and the public sphere is a matter of politics. How can our spiritually-informed worldview NOT affect how we engage with our neighbors, local community, and participation in government? How can our sense of morality NOT shape our definition of justice?

They do affect each other. The integral thing to do is to be honest about it and interrogate how.

I think the most dangerous thing we can possibly do is to look for spiritual leaders who are never political.

(For one thing, Jesus wouldn’t make the cut by a long shot.)

Instead, we can look for spiritual leaders who demonstrate a sense of centered wisdom and self-awareness amidst their fight for justice. Not in the absence of a fight for justice.

Leaders with the fortitude to call out corruption bluntly AND speak hope to a better way. Then model it.

Leaders who feel all of their feelings and lead us through corporate rhythms of gratitude, reverence, anger, action, and silence.

Leaders who respect science.

Leaders who understand that there’s a third way between complicity and counter-violence.

Leaders who want to inspire you, not control you.

Here are just a few worth checking out:

(Note: for the purpose of this blog, the following list comprises leaders with a connection to Christianity. By no means do I think the pool of inspiring moral and civic leaders is limited to Christians; my goal is to dismantle a false dichotomy fallacy between Christian faith and political engagement.)

For Nonviolent Protest and Civic Action
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II
Shane Claiborne

For Understanding Racial Justice
Lisa Sharon Harper
Ta-Nehisi Coates (wrote Black Panther)
Rev. James H. Cone (read: The Cross and the Lynching Tree)

For Dismantling Evangelicalism’s Hijack of Christianity
Rachel Held Evans who is dearly missed
Jonathan Martin
Pete Enns

TL;DR: Science and politics are not opposing forces to God and faith. Science is a lens to understand and improve our physical existence. Politics is a means to understand and improve our cultural and social existence. Neither threatens a universal God (God the Creator), only a fundamentalist one (God the Character). Science and politics can be powerful expressions of our faith and a witness to those who are desperate for hope in this life, not just the next.

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