Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Laboratory and The Pulpit


While yesterday's post was obviously humorous, it demonstrates the use of creative license. A "Hearing Curve," in actuality, is the product of an audiogram, a clinical measurement of hearing loss, though it easily became something else in the service of a story. Its use illustrates how we can apply a term in a number of ways, some more accurate than others. 

Take "myth," for example. The way I used it and recently, its most common use, suggests a fairy tale at best and an outright falsehood at worst. As I've said before, however, "myth" refers to a fictional story that serves as a vehicle for truth. Notice the difference. Not a "false" story, but a fictional one that may have some connection with history. It's like a film credit attributing the screenplay to "real events" while certain details having been altered to render the story more interesting. 

The myth of Jason and the Argonauts and the pursuit of the Golden Fleece depicts the extent to which one will go and the dangers one will face, to lay hands on a treasure. For all we know, Jason may have been an ancient Greek sailor known for acts of bravery and a desire for wealth, but even if he wasn't, we can identify with him. My journey through medical school was definitely one in pursuit of "treasure." I even seem to recall facing the many-headed Hydra in the form of first-term gross anatomy. I'm sure I wasn't alone in that experience.

Myth represents a type of creative license, taken for the purpose of communicating truths that might otherwise elude us. Truths that do not lend themselves well to factual or common sense explanation. The writer of Genesis was confronted by such a difficulty. How to explain why people do terrible things, why evil seems always present, even in the very best of circumstances.

Imagine a quiet, solitary oasis somewhere out on a Middle Eastern desert, a few thousand years ago. The night sky is littered with stars and a family sits round a campfire telling stories before the children are shooed off to bed. One of them asks her father, why do bad things happen? The father gathers his thoughts and says, "Mm, well, once upon a time, before there was anything at all, there was God and everything was peaceful. Then he made humans and gave them the capacity to love and make decisions in the same way he was able. Things were fine until their choices went awry, creating a pattern subsequent generations have followed far too closely. In short, my daughter, evil is present because some of us act evilly and have done so since the dawn of time. We are responsible for much of the evil we see."

Problems arise when we insist the elements of a myth have greater significance than its meaning. The first chapters of Genesis weren't meant to explain the origin of life. They were meant to explain how humans, even when they reside in paradise, will make bad choices. An ideal environment can be the setting for murder as easily as a ghetto. Genesis was intended to set forth the basis for ethical behavior and mutual responsibility.

Science and religion really are talking about two different things. Conflict results when persons of faith mistake the language of myth for fact and persons of science believe them. Darwin wasn't the enemy and our children don't need protection lest "evolution" turn them into amoral beasts. Faith poses no threat to science because faith, from the beginning, has been about relationships. Literalism is the enemy, attacking both science and faith with equal ferocity, utilizing "divide and conquer" as its chief strategy. The laboratory and the pulpit are where this battle should be fought, faith allied with science, determined to overcome ignorance and do so together.   

(Creative Commons image by the mad LOLscientist via Flickr)
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