Bizarre things are happening to dinosaurs. They keep showing up to gatherings covered in feathers. “What changed?” I asked a fluffy velociraptor, cornering him next to the buffet.
“Well, the science moved,” he muttered, preening a little and ruffling himself.
I turned away in disgust.
Dinosaurs are turning increasingly chicken-like the longer I stare at them. Terrible lizards? Mostly just terrible.
Still, I am accustomed to this sort of thing. In general, news that science has advanced means only one thing: something I learned in elementary school is now embarrassingly wrong. My basic sense of the shape of the world has to shift again. Ditch those plastic dinosaurs. It’s plush or nothing. Barney, in that velour jumpsuit (was it velour? It looked velour.), had the jump on us, it turns out.
In fact, I wait quivering in dread every time scientists emerge from their lair (I picture it underground, with lots of ominous fog and creaking pipes). It makes me yearn for the halcyon days of 16th-century Italy, when people who came up with new ideas about the shape of the Earth or our place in the cosmos were duly punished. What they did to Galileo back then pales compared to what I want to do to the people who excluded Pluto from the list of planets.
In general, I am opposed to the expansion of knowledge.
And now it’s not just elementary school that’s being undermined. It’s Sunday school.
The recently unveiled, much-ballyhooed scrap of parchment from (they think) the fourth century AD, presumed to be a Coptic translation from Greek of a passage in which Jesus uses the phrase “my wife,” just adds to a galling pile of Things We Are Expected To Rethink.
But religion is another kettle of loaves and fishes. If it were solely dependent on the historical lives of saints and saviors, there wouldn’t be much of it still going around.
Update it in light of new findings? What do they think this is, science? Didn’t we cover this in “Inherit the Wind”?
If you were expected to alter your doctrine based on scientific discoveries, we wouldn’t have lasted long into the age of Darwin.
The neat thing about religion, I always thought, was that you were not constantly holding your breath lest new science come in. That was one of the merits of the exercise. If anything truly ground-shaking reared its ugly head (whoops, the Earth is much older than we initially supposed!), you could simply point out that a passage must have been intended metaphorically. Otherwise, you stuck to your theological guns. Let the T-Rex grow feathers, if it wanted. See if it altered your life — or your liturgy.
One of the central concerns of those who seem excited by the new and still not-quite-perfectly-verified papyrus is its potential to shape the contemporary discussion. “This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married,” Dr. Karen L. King, who made the fragment public, told the New York Times. “There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married, caught up with a debate about whether Christians should marry and have sex.”
But just because there was a vigorous theological debate about something in the fourth or second century does not necessarily mean we should be incorporating it into our discussions now. I still have vivid, painful recollections of the days when people threw whole schisms over a single iota.
It’s a question of what’s germane. Learning the exact dimensions of T-Rex’s insole changes our understanding in a way that learning the precise height and weight of the historical Jesus and the fact that he liked to eat whole dates while making loud smacking sounds would not.
“Religions die,” Oscar Wilde said, “when they are proved to be true. Science is the record of dead religions.” Dinosaurs have feathers whether I believe they did or not. But religion depends on its believers. If people ceased to be Episcopalian, then Episcopalianism would wither up and die. Science only matters to religion to the degree that it renders it impossible to believe. And it takes a great deal more to do that than one piece of papyrus. Just look at the Young Earth textbooks.
In fact, if I came waltzing up from the Science Lair one morning with absolute literal proof that Jesus was not only married but had six kids and a pet pterodactyl, the church would change rather less than you might expect. Some beliefs change as believers change their minds. Some believers change their minds to fit their beliefs. The merits of religion and science are wildly different — what in the world they seek to explain, the benefits they hope to convey, the criteria they demand in order to change. A new scientific discovery can upend our understanding of the world. New information — even if accurate — about historical religious figures, at best can throw fuel on the fire of what has already been almost two millennia of discussion. Beliefs alter less easily than theories.
So take that, New Discoveries! You won’t win so easily. Go back to feathering the dinosaurs and leave religion alone.