Monday, October 3, 2011

A conversation with the author

Here is a conversation between a bookstore owner, John Marshall, and the author of the book Christianity in Evolution, Ralph Armstrong, during September 2011. It has been slightly edited for readability.

John’s message to the author:

Ralph, you have invited me to share my thoughts about your book with you. I am doing that here.

I am uncomfortable sharing criticism of your book with you because I know that you have put a huge amount of time, energy, and work creating the book and it is not part of my makeup to cause any distress in you, or in anyone. On the other hand, I want to share with you my own thoughts about what I think is an important book on a current topic.

The first part of the book reports on recent scientific information concerning living organisms, cells, the DNAs, and other molecules. I found parts of this section breathtaking. Similar to looking up at the night sky in an area not polluted by light as the mind tries to grasp the immense size, depth, and abundance of stars and other heavenly bodies in the universe, Armstrong offers us a look at the cell, molecular functions and activity within the cell, various forms of DNA and other molecules that offer as an amazing view of the universe as does sky gazing.

Ralph, you argue, convincingly through my reluctance, that cells and even molecules act within the definition of intelligence. The biochemical molecules that sense their environment and make changes in response to the environment are, at that level, intelligent, and incredibly so.

The second part of the book describes the your view of Christianity. Unlike the first part of this book you do not reference research papers or scientific studies, but offer your own views. Most of the descriptions report first person experiences. They are anecdotal. Unlike science where anecdotal evidence is dismissed in favor of peer review studies of populations or specific analyzed experimental evidence, this second part of the book does not use the same rigorous data.

Here are some examples of my concern with the second part of the book:

1. There are many paths to and through prayer. The author’s view of prayer is one, and only one, of them.

2. Sources for data: The first part of the book relies upon contemporary books and research papers listed in the Notes for each chapter. The references in second part of the book are in stark contrast, from my perspective, by frequently referencing John McKenzie’s The Dictionary of the Bible that was published decades ago, well before the latest research results from the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi manuscripts made it into the literature. The other significant sources of material for this section are Wiki articles and images, and online dictionaries. Ralph, your use of your pocket concordance is not at all in the same league as the references in the first part of the book.

3. Your reference to the gender of God as always male does not fit with either recent theological research or with contemporary language.

My general conclusions:
It is as if there are two books that have been bound together. I can read either book with little need to reference the other book. Both books are good, interesting, and enlightening, but they do not require each other.

On a very positive note, you gave me a new definition of salvation that has been very helpful. I have come to reject the theology of salvation as meaning that God gave humankind “His only begotten son” as a sacrifice for our sinning. In order to appease God’s wrath Jesus’ suffering and death became the sacrificial offering to God that allowed God to accept us humans. This theology lacks for me the grace and love I see demonstrated for all of creation, including each individual human, by God. (See Brock and Parker’s Proverbs of Ashes and Saving Paradise) As a result I had come to the point to refuse to recite the Nicene Creed because it expresses a fourth century view of salvation that I can no longer accept. Thanks to your description, Ralph, of salvation as a form of communion with God and with one another I am much more comfortable with God’s saving grace.

With blessings to you and your work,
John Marshall

Ralph Armstrong replies:

Hi John,
I am delighted that you found the science half so engaging. I appreciate your struggle to take the idea of molecular intelligence. It goes against everything in the reductionistic mindset we were all trained with, and it takes effort to see another worldview in all the data.

I am also moved that you chose to risk offending me by criticizing the second half of the book. Your comments made me examine my self, and my motives, intents, and methods. As a result, I have a new insight into myself that I had not articulated before. So, thank you, thank you.

I agree that they are two books. But that is the way it has always been, as we talk about evolution and Christianity. The task has been to put them together. My first task was to characterize life, and that came off pretty well. As I think about the second half, I realize where I am coming from. You again are right, the second half is very light on theological data, because, I realize, I am looking at Christianity from the standpoint of a pastoral counselor or chaplain. Recall that I taught pastoral counseling at a seminary, and wrote a book about it. In chapter 7, I introduced my method of Bible study, that of the use of mentalization. The last chapter delves into mentalization even more. My references to my own difficulties and therapies, along with the mentalization parts, are part of the applied or practical theology of the pastoral counselor or the chaplain. A goal of the pastoral counselor is the paradigm shift, and the book proposed a bunch of them

I had a lot of paradigm shifts as I wrote the book. One of the biggest ones for me was the study of conflict. I have always struggled with the idea of Sin, particularly as it has been attributed to Adam and Eve. Now I am convinced that Original Sin is better characterized as Original Conflict. I saw this as I realized that conflict in life is all the back (billions of years), all the way across (every living thing), and all the way down (to the molecules). And there is no end to it. So God's saving action, culminating in Jesus, is to take us beyond conflict, so that we can indeed experience the joy of communion with God and with each another. I wrote that Jesus is the ultimate mentalizer; now I realize that he is also the ultimate conflict manager. Isn't it ironic that our ultimate move against God, crucifying Jesus (God), initiates the beginning of the end of conflict. (You wouldn't know it by reading the newspapers, but I do think we have made a lot of progress).

I look forward to your comments on the above.

I apologize for the tardiness of this reply. To receive your thoughtful reply to my critique of your book is a huge gift to me. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with me. We have been busy at the store, and in our personal lives so this reply has waited until I could think and write without interruption. As with my first message to you I am writing this from home. (I forwarded this thread to home, where on this Saturday morning, I am able to think without interruption, a rarity at the store, then send it back to the store to send to you.)

I have two responses to share with you.
1. Yes, the mentalization descriptions were more difficult for me to understand, to fit in to the discussion. I think that is because the term "mentalization" was new to me in the context in which you use it. Mentalization to me, before reading your book, had referred to the use of our mental abilities to think. I think that my view was more about "mentalizing" with the rational left-brain compared with the feelings from the right brain. So, for me, the use of the term in a new context took some getting used to, or perhaps I did not really get used to it as I read it. And, I admit that I did not stop and work on fitting the new-to-me definition of mentalization in to the context in which you were using it. This resulted in my giving the term and your use of it less importance. By giving it less importance I see now that I missed some important parts of your argument about God and Christianity. That was my loss.

2. On our website there is a section where Nancy and I display our Best Picks, of books that we find especially meaningful. I would like to display Christianity in Evolution as my latest Best Pick. I think that it would be helpful to our readers to include our conversation in this thread of messages. Up to now the descriptions of the titles that I have included in the Best Picks section have been solely my thoughts and writing. Before I include your replies to my message to you I want to have your permission. Our customers would learn more about your book, and about your thinking that resulted in the book if this thread was included. It would also be, by far, the longest description for one of the Best Picks. (I don't know if that is good, but I suspect that it is.) What do you think, Ralph?

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me,

Once again, thank you so much for sharing your inmost thoughts in the dialogue we are having. I am most touched that you want to move Christianity in Evolution to your "best pick" status. Yes, by all means use our dialogue as a part of your advertising. Our give-and-take has been most straightforward, and I think its intensity and directness should make it very interesting and illuminating to readers. I would suggest the dialogue be edited. I notice several typos in some of my responses.

In turn, I would like to ask you if I can use our dialogue in some of my advertising. I hope to persuade Henrietta Speaks, of the Episcopal Bookstore in Birmingham, to stock the book. There are some other Episcopal bookstores out there, and I want to contact them. Then there are the many independent bookstores; I just signed up with Bookmasters to distribute the book, and I can see them using our dialogue, also.

I am a month into a publicity campaign with SmithPublicity. I would like to mention you and Nancy and the Seattle Episcopal Bookstore during the course of interviews with media, should the opportunity arise. And there may be other times or venues to mention it. Immediately I think of posting our dialogue on my blog at .


No comments: