Is the dress white and gold, or … (shining a new light on how we see things)

If you’ve been connected in any way to social media since Thursday night, you’ve undoubtedly come across this ridiculous question. I have the answer for you. And I’ll get to that at the end of this blog. But first I want to deal with a related matter …

Black holes. Stars so tremendously dense that their gravity sucks up everything around them including even some forms of light itself. Hence the name … they just look like black holes in space. Actually, the name is misleading, because high energy forms of light do in fact escape their gravitational pull, and so Black Holes do in fact ‘shine’ when you look at them wearing the right kind of sunglasses.

This week, a group of scientists from China, the USA, Australia and Chile announced their discovery of a massive Black Hole. But they weren’t simply announcing that they’d found ‘yet another’ one. This one:
– is massive … twelve billion times more massive than our own sun
– is one of the brightest found yet (bright because of its mass)
– formed within the cosmic equivalent of a blink-of-an-eye after the Big Bang happened.

You can read the original announcement in Nature, one of the biggest science magazines for scientists, if you have a subscription. Or you can pick up more public-friendly versions for free at the Washington Post, The Guardian, CBC, CBS News, or dozens of other media outlets.

This is big news! Not because of the size, or age or brightness of this new Black Hole. What makes it newsy is that this Black Hole shatters the current theories of how our universe formed. As one of the authors of the announcement put it, the existence of this thing “presents substantial challenges ” to our current cosmology.

“… substantial challenges… ” !?

You’d think that this would be something they’d want to keep to themselves, wouldn’t you? I mean, why trumpet the news to everyone that our best minds had it all wrong? “Imagine what will happen to our funding, guys. Even worse, imagine what Creationists will do if they find out about this!? This is something we’re going to have to put into The Vault. Lock the door, and walk away nonchalantly whistling Dixie. Issue a memo to all the other scientists about what the party line will be on this matter.

The same kind of thing happened a short while ago when physicists found evidence for particles travelling faster than the speed of light (you can read a great summary of this story, and how it was later retracted, in this article from the BBC). Or when biologists found evidence that human nerves can re-grow, or that genes can be shared between completely different types of organisms (‘horizontal transfer’), and not only passed down from one organism to its daughter cells (‘vertical transfer’). I could give you many other examples of scientists loudly proclaiming the results of experiments that knocked the legs out from under their science.

This is exactly the kind of thing that scientists love to do. It excites them. Discoveries that shatter theories are solid gold to them.

Why? Because it means we now have a better handle on truth, or at least are cracking the door open on a new understanding. We can hold on a little less tightly to ideas and theories which we now know weren’t quite right, and re-design experiments to help us find out where we went wrong. Good science holds everything up to scrutiny and criticism and rejects or modifies failed hypotheses.

Some see this as a fault of science. “Science is always changing and therefore can’t be trusted.

But the end result has always been a greater understanding and a better grip on what is actually true. And often leads to new advances that had never been anticipated, and wouldn’t have happened until we freed ourselves of faulty ideas that held us back.

I wish the same were true for religion.

How many religious disagreements are rooted in the argument “That’s not been the traditional understanding of the church fathers ”? “We’ve always done it this way ”? “A plain reading of Scripture says that …”?

One of the oldest of these disagreements has been the debate between the church and science over the origin of the universe, and of life itself. Poll after poll tell us that half of Americans still believe it all happened 6,000 years ago, over the course of six consecutive 24 hour days. Despite an overwhelming abundance of evidence collected from God’s creation that tell us clearly about billions of years and gradual evolution. Their solution is to reject science as anti-Christian.

Another irrational view is of God as a great cosmic vending machine, and related to that a theology that some call the Prosperity Gospel. Both views hold that if you ask something from God, or if you find a verse in the Bible that you can manipulate to your benefit, then he’s obligated to give it to you. Despite the fact that the vast majority who pray for a miraculous healing continue to suffer with that disease or even die of it. Or the fact that the wealthy and prosperous believer is surrounded by thousands of equally believing but unprosperous peers; in fact, in many cases, those many unprosperous are forwarding their meagre coins to the prosperous one in the hopes that their giving will be “pressed down, shaken together, and running over ”.

And then there’s ‘End Times theology’. Apocalypticism. That stereotypical image of the guy on the street corner waving the banner ‘The End is Near’. The idea that we are the last generation this Earth will see: all of human history has been pointing at you and me. This thinking affects the way people vote, their view on nuclear deterrence, cleaning up the planet’s pollution, what they do with their money, the decision to get education and start a family, and many other mundane but important things. Yes, I too can see that current world events fit perfectly into many of these End Times passages. But that’s always been the case: we’ve been hearing this refrain for millennia, going all the way back to the early Apostolic Church (2nd Peter 3). Previous generations have been just as convinced that they would be the last generation. It’s easy for us to conclude they were wrong because, well, it didn’t happen … life continued on as normal. What makes this particularly ominous for our generation is that it’s our generation. And yet things continue on as normal. (I’m sure some are now thinking or quoting 2nd Peter 3 right now, but that’s exactly my point … people have been saying this for nearly 2,000 years).

A fourth, and the last example I’ll give here, is the idea of inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. Big words which simply mean “if I can read it there in the text, it must be true”. There are just so many examples of verses saying completely contradictory things, or obvious historical mistakes, or things that defy a general understanding of science. To say it has no errors is denying a mountain of evidence. Some will concede this, but then go through all kinds of hand-waving exercises to explain how these are only ‘apparent errors’ (as if that adjective changes anything) and that we can still call the text inerrant and infallible. I strongly encourage anyone who still values the Bible, as I do, to do a little bit of digging into how we got the Bible. Who were the authors (which will include when and where they wrote), how were the texts translated, and how were the ones that made it into our version of the Bible selected. If you do this with an open mind and heart, you’ll see how the texts are both human and divine (which is the same thing said about Jesus, who is also referred to as The Word).

Why can’t we let go of theological ideas that conflict with the data at hand or that you simply have to believe but can’t actually test, and reach for a theology that resonates with reality? Theology based on general experience: it’s very important to distinguish between things that happen sporadically to a few people from those things that all believers can say “yes, I can relate to this directly from personal experience”.

We’ve done it before. For millennia it was thought that God was only interested in the Jews. It was to them that he revealed his truths, sent his prophets, parted seas, manipulated world events, and otherwise showered his attentions. When Jesus came, he said “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel “. And immediately after his death, his disciples reached out only to the Jewish community around them. It was only when Peter had his vision of the blanket from heaven full of unclean animals that the church took a step back, revised their thinking and accepted that the Good News was for Gentiles as well. That’s a complete paradigm shift!

We also managed to step back from dogma and revise our thinking about minor things like working on Sunday, and major things like the role of women.

But we have far to go. Are we exactly right about things like Original Sin, judgement and the nature of Hell? Does God really hate gays? Is Scripture the dictation from God, or is it more like the human diary or notebook detailing our on-going search for God? What should be our Christian response to ISIS?

I know that asking these questions will get some people concluding the worst about me … doubting my salvation … “Luke’s going to hell ”.

And that’s the point of this whole blog post. Scientists are encouraged to doubt and be skeptical, and can be awarded a Nobel prize when they overturn the current thinking. But religion is overly discouraging of doubting, and threatens people with Hell if one asks questions, or even goes so far as pointing out the flaws in a certain way of thinking. Often, questions of “Did God really say …” or “Does the Bible really say …” are quickly silenced with a reference to the serpent in the Garden of Eden hissing “Did God really say …”. But even Abraham, the father of the faith, asked “How can I know …” (Genesis 15:8). David frequently asks in the Psalms “Why, O God …”. Many times in the gospels we hear Jesus telling people, including the learned and much-studied religious leaders of the day, about Scripture: “You have heard it said … but now I say …” Many pillars of the faith have asked questions or revised old ideas. And hung on to their faith. In fact, found their faith strengthened by digging in and exploring.

But a stronger faith doesn’t mean a more evangelical faith. Many Evangelicals look down on Liberal Christians as being little better than atheists. The funny thing is that many Liberal Christians were at one time Evangelicals. They just made the ‘mistake’ of actually believing the Bible to the point of wanting to study it. They went to seminary, or Bible College, or began reading books. And in the process found themselves like Dorothy pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz (spoiler alert: the wizard is still real, just not who/what she thought it was …. hmmm). Mark Twain said: “The best cure for Christianity is reading the Bible”. This revelation leads some to reject the Bible and their faith entirely. Others, like myself, have adjusted what we believe. And have felt more convinced than ever about our faith.

Truth should be able to stand up to scrutiny.

Finally, to bring this blog back to its title … black&blue versus white&gold? If you too are perplexed about this ridiculous craze, and can’t understand where the confusion is, I’d refer you to this link, which gives an absolutely brilliant explanation. But at the same time, I found it precisely explains the question I raise in this blog: how can two groups of people see the same thing so differently? It’s all about our biases and preconceived ideas. Try watching this video a second time, but replace “blue, black, white, gold” with “Faith, science, scripture, truth”.

Here’s another video that gets to the point more quickly and visually. In the process, it emphasizes that what you perceive depends on the surrounding context.

In that sense, I suppose truth is indeed relative.


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One thought on “Is the dress white and gold, or … (shining a new light on how we see things)

  1. Quite true. Scientists are as human as anyone, so there are plenty of them that object to new ideas and new theories that overturn the ideas that they believed. But, I suppose a healthy level of skepticism is fair. Rejecting tradition doesn’t need to be taken lightly. However, as you point out, it does still need to be done, when that tradition is unhealthy.

    I do find it frustrating that so many religious people feel that truth can’t stand up to scrutiny, so one should not scrutinize it. I know I was always told that questioning could lead me to being deceived more easily, but honestly, if the deception is that convincing, why shouldn’t I believe it?


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