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Pillar and Cloud

As the season changes from summer to fall I am feeling nostalgia for the autumn leaves of New England and New Jersey. Different hues of red and gold as far as the eye can see are an unforgettable sight. I also miss going apple picking and having fresh apple cider and apple butter. And the crisp fall air of New England smells so good.

I don’t miss raking leaves, though. This time of year my former lawn and sidewalk, like all of my neighbors’ lots, would be a sea of maple, oak, sycamore and other leaves; way too many for me to rake and bag them all. During the winter months frozen leaves would make harsh music in the streets of my neighborhood, as they were blown every which way by the wind.

The onset of fall also nostalgically reminds me of the beginning of the academic year. I feel for the thousands of students who are taking their next steps into the world of adults, many living away from home for the first time in their lives. I remember my own feelings of being thrust into the alien world of grown-ups, of thinking how new and exciting it felt. And scary at the same time.

At this time of year, in almost every town and city in our country, new friendships are being forged, fresh ideas are being exchanged, and knowledge shared between generations. It gives me hope that the current state of affairs in our national dialogue is transient, a hiccup on the road to social progress.

For me, education is one of the great miracles of life, one of the few constants that human existence can claim. Each generation makes new discoveries and passes them on to the next generation, no matter what the political climate, the state of the economy, or whether there is war or peace.

Today’s scientists and engineers and doctors who were born in the ‘50s and ‘60s would never have been, but for the education they received from those who came before them. And now my generation, the baby boomers who came of age in the 1970s, who knew nothing about computers or other technical wizardry, are passing the baton to the next generation. And one day it will be our grandchildren’s turn to pass along the mantle of knowledge that enables humankind to live in a world that has power lines and running water and automobiles, and all the things my generation would likely not have built but for the legacy of what came before us.

New discoveries, of course, change our theology, our understanding of the holy. When the seemingly inexplicable is explained new theological ground is broken; new questions are raised as intuition and belief continue to give way to lived experience and empirical evidence. That is a good thing. To borrow a line from the song Blue Boat Home, new discoveries are an opportunity to cast new questions into the deep. It is part of the human experience to question, and to seek meaning wherever questions are raised.

And yet ....

A couple of Saturday mornings ago I had a conversation with a gentlemen who told me he believed that the Bible is the inerrant and literal word of God, that there is no such thing as evolution, and that only Christians whose name is “in the book” will achieve salvation and go to heaven. Our conversation took place while we were both enjoying a cup of coffee outside a store on Gurley Street. Although we were polar opposites in our beliefs and in our appreciation of science, I enjoyed meeting him very much. At the end of our conversation we prayed together.

This conversation with an evangelist was troubling for me, however. It highlighted the extent to which suspicion of modernism, and fear of progress, is deeply embedded in the culture of certain religious communities. So deeply embedded, in fact, that reason and knowledge have been ineffective in encouraging many Christians to ask new questions, encouraging them to cease to defend the indefensible.

And so I continue to pray that the seeds of knowledge will find a place to live and grow on those craggy, windswept cliffs that were formed by the molten rocks of Bronze Age mythology. As the new academic year gets into high gear, and as my generation passes knowledge to the next, may new ways of thinking about the divine, about what is holy, pave the way for a new era in liberal religion. May new ideas about pluralism and tolerance replace the worn out theology of the past.

Kids, it’s up to you now. May it indeed be so.