Monday, August 15, 2011

On Brachiopods and Inner Peace by David Nilsen

The last time David guest posted for me, he zoomed into my top 10 posts. And it's no wonder. He is truly one of the most gifted writers that I've met online. He has an amazing ability to bring forth humor and beauty in his essays and I consider myself crazy lucky that he stopped by my blog one day and commented. He's one of my favorites in the virtual village and I am thrilled that he agreed to post for me again. Today he's vying for the number one spot, and if he gets it, that's fine by me. 


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A year ago this month I read Rachel Held Evans' Evolving in Monkey Town, had a minor emotional breakdown on the floor of my daughter's playroom, and decided to like God again. That's a bit over-simplified, but you get the idea.

For years I had been struggling with questions, doubts and theological contradictions that had reduced my spiritual life to a thin prayer each day that God would help me see how He was good, a truth I held onto even when I couldn't explain why. My path had moved from certainty to confusion, from confusion to anger, from anger to survival-based apathy. I ordered Rachel's book after seeing it in a magazine ad, a last gesture of hope that something would help explain all of this and let me know there was a chance I would know God again in any meaningful way.

Our house is 160 years old and has no air-conditioning, so for the hottest weeks each summer we put a window air-conditioner in our daughter's playroom and all sleep together on the floor. I sat in that room last July, reading Rachel's story that was so similar to my own, and I gasped back tears. Someone had felt this way. After each chapter I would set the book down on the floor cluttered with Lego blocks and Dora stories and close my eyes. God, am I allowed this freedom? Are you this good?

'Diminutive brachiopods' photo (c) 2009, Penny Higgins - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
While the issues that were most spiritually distressing to me had to do with our salvation and the character of God, intellectual hangups with science and history were definite problem areas as well. The scientific untenability of young earth creationism had troubled me for years, but I had always accepted it was the only thing good Christians could believe. A few years ago I began quietly accepting secular scientific explanations, but to be honest, I felt dirty and rebellious about it. To avoid this cognitive dissonance I had unconsciously silenced in my mind one of my greatest areas of interest growing up: the natural sciences, especially paleontology and astronomy.

I am a geek. I am proud this. My dad's idea of reading me bedtime stories as a kid was to spend half an hour going over a textbook chapter on atomic theory. I loved it. The concepts stretched me but were not beyond the grasp of an inquisitive nine year old mind. When I would try to explain to the teenagers at our church that everything we see around us is made up of microscopic molecules made up of even more microscopic atoms made up of even more microscopic particles they laughed at me. They hadn't taken chemistry yet, apparently. 

But as a twentysomething I stopped reading as much about new scientific findings or prehistoric life, because every field of science - biology, geology, astronomy, etc - clearly pointed to an old universe and the process of evolution, and the only way to go on believing in creationism was to ignore the entire subject.

When I finished Rachel's book and the dam burst on all the issues I had struggled with, from soteriology to scientific origins, I felt peace like I hadn't felt in a long, long time. I felt like I was coming home. And I discovered something curious - I could like science again. I hadn't even realized I had stopped.

A couple days after reading the book I took my wife and daughter to a nearby waterfall to splash in the water in the baking July heat. I remembered as a kid looking at the aquatic fossils in the rock shelves around the falls, believing they were laid down by The Flood just like my books said, the books that showed Stegosaurs climbing a ramp onto the ark. I smiled to myself, embracing this world again, realizing I could reignite my love for science while still loving God. In fact, the two were connected; to hold a piece of coral millions of years old in my hand could be an act of worship. I called my daughter over to where I was standing and showed her a brachiopod in my hand, explaining it used to be alive and how fossilization works, and she sort of paid close attention and sort of just kicked water at my face and laughed.

Interestingly, the same freedom and peace that has allowed me to dive back into my interest in science has also brought back my enjoyment of the poetry of those first chapters of Genesis. It is beautiful, no? There is a passage at the end of Karl Giberson's Saving Darwin that talks about what the beginning of the universe might have been like, how incredibly simple all matter and natural laws really are, and how out of that simplicity so much wonderful complexity has emerged. It moved me to tears. And it informs my reading of Genesis, of the delight God takes in beauty, of the spectacular variety that sprang from the simple first steps He set in motion.

It is hot this week, and once again we are sleeping in the playroom. A couple nights ago I read to Yosi the children's book Genesis by Ed Young (the illustrator, not the pastor). The book is just the text of Genesis 1:1 - 2:2, complemented by Young's dark impressionistic illustrations. There are no children riding Apatasaurs or feeding peaches to sabertooth tigers, just swirling colors that evoke the trembling power of these verses. And I read it to her with no subtext, no careful explanations. I told her when we were done that God loves beauty, loves to create, loves us. I pray she never knows the inner turmoil over Genesis that so many of us fought through. She loves dinosaurs and distant stars, and she knows God loves her.

And I hope she never has to give up one to keep the other.


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David lives in Ohio with his wife and young daughter, whom they adopted in 2008 from Guatemala. He currently works a totally unsatisfying job as an I.T. Specialist at a bank, which is a job most trained monkeys could do, except monkeys would get treated better because people would feel bad being mean to monkeys. He also runs a used and rare book business part time and is planning on opening a used book store in the next year or two. He's been writing since childhood and would love to do so for gainful employment at some point. And he make better paper airplanes than you. Be sure to check out his blog and follow him on Twitter.








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