Religion Today

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Buddhist Explanation of Extinction

A few years ago, the Smithsonian Institution hosted a major conference on science and religion. One key topic was whether nature and the universe contained evidence of having been created by divine purpose. Irven DeVore of Harvard, a professor of biological anthropology, argued that since nearly all species that have ever lived on the earth have become extinct, God's plan "isn't working very well."

Professor DeVore's comment makes clear the difficulties when representatives of science and religion have a dialogue. The problem is that however learned people may be in their own area of expertise, their knowledge of the "other side" is usually quite small and is often limited to caricature rather than understanding. This is usually obvious when theologians talk about science, but is less clear when scientists discuss theology. Professor DeVore's comment provides the opportunity to bring out this point.

The idea that God's plan is not working requires the presupposition that God had one and only one plan. The extinction of so many forms of life indicates that this "one plan" is failing. Thus, if there is a God who planned, He does not plan very well. Since the notion that God can fail so completely argues against the idea that God is "all powerful," this must mean that there is no God.

Traditional Christian theology, by contrast, would certainly disagree with the idea that God had just one plan. Most Christian churches posit at least two plans: one before the "fall" of humanity in Adam and Eve, and one afterwards. The failure of the first plan does not make God any less God than He was before.

Although this point overcomes DeVore's argument about "one plan," it does not eliminate the notion of failure. Instead, it argues that God is God even when He fails. But if we look at the extinctions in Buddhist terms rather than Christian terms, we can even get rid of the notion that the extinctions indicate failure.

In Buddhist teaching, life is represented as a journey across rivers, over mountains and through deserts. At each stage, one uses only the assistance they need for that stage. Thus a person crosses a river with a boat, but once across does not put the boat on his back and carry it into the mountains. One may need a warm coat for the high mountains, but does not then wear that coat into the desert.

Using this Buddhist analogy, the series of extinctions are not the failure of one plan, but the use of alternative means in succeeding situations. In the life of the planet, one group of species was needed at one stage, but these were then "left behind" (to become extinct) at the next stage because they were no longer needed. These responses to professor DeVore's comment suggest the discussion between religion and science will continue for a long time to come.

The Films of Christmas

Tis the season for Christmas movies! And after two weeks at number one, this year's big feature is "Four Christmases," a film full of in-law jokes, incompatible relatives, barfing babies and lots of (attempts at) humor.

Last year, the big Christmas hit was "Fred Clause," while the year before that it was "The Santa Clause 3." All three are comedies. None of them feature anything about the religious story of Christmas, namely, the birth of Jesus, Christianity's savior. Indeed, with a single exception, there have been no major release films or general audience TV features focusing on the religious story of Christmas for nearly half a century. The exception is 2006's "The Nativity Story," which had only modest box office success.

Most Christmas films and TV shows are comedies. Some feature Santa, the North Pole and its inhabitants: "The Santa Clause," "Elf," "Earnest Saves Christmas," "Olive, the Other Reindeer," and of course, the 1966 Burl Ives TV special, "Rudolf, the Red-Nosed Reindeer." We learn details of North Pole operations, and laugh at Santa, the elves and the reindeer.

Other comedies feature the interactions among families or a small group of people: "The Christmas Carol," "The Grinch who Stole Christmas," and even "White Christmas." We laugh at the antics of family members and friends (and enemies), and in doing so, laugh at ourselves.

Both kinds of films emphasize laughing. A good Christmas film is about comedy, gaiety, and light-heartedness. It's about having fun, but not above poking fun. It involves "laughing at" someone as much as "laughing with" someone.

If that is the case, no wonder films about the birth of Jesus are unpopular. The Christmas story of Jesus' birth is a serious matter. It is not a humorous tale or one for poking fun. It certainly is not for laughing at the baby Jesus. The Monty Python film, "Life of Brian," may be able to pull off a sight-gag about the infant Brian being whacked by his "Mum," but showing Mary slapping the baby Jesus would never work. Poking fun at this mother and child could only be seen as insulting.

So it clear that a successful Christmas Jesus Comedy cannot be made, but why not a serious film about Jesus' nativity? After all, that is the reason for the season. Surely, since Christmas is the most popular time of the annual Christian calendar and since most Americans claim to be Christians, a film about Jesus' birth should be a hit.

One reason is the altered meaning of the word "holiday," which comes from "Holy Day." A Holy Day is a day for performing religious activity, whether worship, fasting, contemplation or prayer. We have lost that concept and exchanged it for a more festive one. A "holiday" for us is time off work, time for celebrating, relaxing, getting together with friends and family, for having a good time and laughing. A serious film about the true meaning of Christmas does not fit with that.

Another reason that serious Christmas films about the Nativity do not work is that Americans compartmentalize their lives. They, I mean "we," mentally assign particular kinds of activities to particular places and at particular times. Religion is for church, usually on Sundays or Christmas Eve; it does not take place in the mall or the movie theater. When people want to think seriously about the sacred Christmas story, they are more likely to attend church or read and meditate about it on their own (this is the era of private religion after all). Few Americans would want to go to a noisy movie theater and watch a film while surrounded by the smells of popcorn and stale soda pop.

Such compartmentalizing is not new, it lies in the very notion of a Holy Day which can only be holy in contrast to the ordinary and everyday. In today's world, Christians have developed a new sense of the holy, one that keeps the holy out of the marketplace and out of the movie house and in the more private spaces of home and church.