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From Calvinism to Freethought: The Road Less Traveled

Meeting Minutes and Commentary for May 24, 2006; #208

Howard Van Till

Announcements

Check our website: www.freethoughtassociation.org for the most up to date information about upcoming events and opportunities. And for questions regarding specific items of interest, send e-mails to: info@freethoughtassociation.org. Meetings are held at 7PM on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month at the Women’s City Club, 254 E. Fulton Street, Grand Rapids, MI.

CORRECTION: In the last minutes, this Secretary, in listing Board changes, neglected to include supportive and insightful member, Robert Clark, who sits on the Advisory Board, along with Dr. Forbes and Dr. Collins. We appreciate all his efforts to promote and enhance freethought and our organization.

SPRING FLING: Saturday, May 27, is the date for the Freethought Spring Fling at the Seaver Farm; 10721 52nd Ave., Allendale. Starts at 6PM. A great time for the whole family. Please BYOB and a dish to share. For more information: jeff@freethoughtassociation.org or (616) 892-9300.

FMG: Sunday, June 4, is the next Freethought Meditation Group meeting held at 1416 Wilcox Park Dr., SE, GR. Begins at 6PM. Check the website for more information: www.freethoughtassociation.org/meditation . June 11 and June 18 are the next two dates.

FMN: The next Freethought Movie Night is on June 7, starting at 7PM, at 740 Lockwood St., NE (GR). BYOB and a snack to pass. Please RSVP or for more information: jason@freethoughtassociation.org or (616) 634-2471. June 21 is the next FMN date.

GARAGE SALE FUNDRAISER: Please remember to donate to the upcoming Garage Sale Fundraiser to benefit the FA. This will be on June 10, opening to begin sales at 8:30AM. Location between 736 and 740 Lockwood, NE off Eastern near E. Fulton/Eastern intersection. If you can help run it, that would be appreciated. It should be a fun social time too as it was last year, while earning funds for the organization. Contact this Secretary, Charles, for more information or if I can help load up donated items for you. charles@freethoughtassociation.org.

OUR NEXT MEETING will be on June 14 (Woman’s City Club; starting at 7PM). It will be on the topic: Sex in Politics—How the Religious Right Perverts Social Science Research on Sexuality. This will be presented by FA member Luke Galen, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology, GVSU.

FWG: The next Freethought Women’s Group meeting will be at Jennifer and Amanda’s house; 736 Lockwood St., NE. This will be on June 17, starting at 10AM. For details, contact Jennifer at jennifer@freethoughtassociation.org or call (616) 706-2029.

FREETHOUGHT ANNUAL RIVER PADDLE WEEKEND: This will take place on June 17 and 18 at the Pere Marquette and Pine Rivers (near Baldwin, MI). Paddle the P. Marquette River on Saturday with fellow freethinking families and friends, then on Sunday, go on the P. River. Adventurers may participate in one or two days and can either drive up for the day or camp with fellow FA members in a USFS campground along the river on Friday and/or Sat. nights. Small cottages and budget motels are also available in nearby Baldwin for those who prefer a bit more comfort. Canoes are available for a discounted rental fee to FA members. RSVP necessary for pre-planning. Also for more information, contact FA member and paddle coordinator, Greg Forbes : greg@freethoughtassociation.org.

DINNERS FOR 8 are done for now but will be starting up again. Contact FA Board Treasurer, Jan at jan@freethoughtassociation.org for more information on how you can take part in this fun occasion for adults to get together for good food, drinks and socializing. All who have participated have enjoyed these times very much.

FUNDRAISING UPDATE: FA Board member and member of the Fundraising Committee, Jason, gave us an overview regarding our fundraising efforts, goals and about the matching dollar amount anonymous donation. At the time of this meeting we had nearly $8,000 and have raised, at the time of this writing, almost 8,300! This does not count the matching money. So we are off to a terrific start and we wish to thank everyone who has contributed. ALL donations are greatly appreciated, whether large or small and our illustrated fundraising gauge is available to view on our website and is frequently updated.

By visiting the site, one may actually see one’s contribution edging us closer to our $25,000 goal; one that initially seemed improbable to achieve but now is a goodly bit over a third of the way there, since beginning a short time ago. Checks and PayPal donations will trigger the sending of a receipt that one may use at tax time, since we are a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization (so all donations to the FA are tax deductible). Please consider any donation that you can make to ensure a robust future for our organization; one of the largest of its kind in the nation already, and to help us make it the best it can be to meet your needs for various services and programs, recreation/social events and intellectually stimulating lectures.

THESE ITEMS JUST IN! The Freethought Association is co-sponsoring two upcoming events. The first one is the showing of the PBS documentary film Point of View: The Tailenders by Adele Horne, at the Wealthy Street Theatre on Wednesday, June 7 at 7PM(doors open at 6:30PM). The Wealthy St. Theatre is located at 1130 Wealthy, SE, GR (616-451-8001). Global Recordings Network, founded in Los Angeles in 1939, has produced audio versions of Bible stories in over 5,500 languages, and aims to record in every language in the world. They distribute the recordings, along with ultra-low tech hand wind players, in isolated regions and among displaced migrant workers. GRN calls their target audience the tailenders because they are the last to be reached by worldwide evangelism. Filmed in the Solomon Islands, Mexico, India and the United States, The Tailenders is an unusual filmic essay that examines the missionaries’ strategic use of media and the intersection of missionary activity and global capitalism. Our own FA executive director, Jeff Seaver, will be on the panel following this film presentation for discussion, along with someone from Bible Radio Ministries. And we will have an informational table set up regarding our organization.

The other event that we are co-sponsoring is presented by the ACLU of Michigan and Cooley Law School, called: Spying, Secrecy and Presidential Power, A Town Hall Meeting on the Illegal Spying of the National Security Agency. This features John W. Dean, former legal council to President R.M. Nixon, and Michael J. Steinberg, of the ACLU of MI, and co-council in ACLU v NSA. This will take place on June 10, 2006 at the Ladies Literary Club: 61 Sheldon, SE, GR, from 7PM–9PM (doors open at 6:30). Seating is limited, reserve your seat online at www.aclumich.org or by calling 313-578-6810. Suggested donation at the door: $5–$20. Besides our own FA, sponsors include the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Council on American Islamic Relations- MI Chapter, the Grand Rapids Community Media Center, and Michigan Peaceworks. As a co-sponsoring organization, for this occasion, too, we will have an informational table set up with our brochures, banner, business cards, sign up sheet etc. available.

Presentation

THE TOPIC for this meeting was: From Calvinism to Freethought; The Road Less Traveled and was presented by Howard Van Till, Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin College. Howard J. Van Till graduated from Calvin in 1960, he earned his PhD in physics from Michigan State University in1965 and his research experience includes both solid state physics and millimeter wave astronomy. Should the reader wish to learn more about these subjects, feel free to consult with this Secretary—yeah, right!

Since 1980, he has devoted a considerable portion of his writing and speaking efforts to topics regarding the relationship of science and religion. Having concluded that the usual creation/ evolution debate is the product of serious misunderstandings, Van Till’s goal is to encourage a non-adversarial and mutually-informative engagement of Christian theology and the natural sciences. He is the author of several books, book chapters, and essays on this theme and has spoken at many universities and colleges. One of his books: The Fourth Day, was available for purchase at this meeting. He is a Founding Member of the International Society for Science and Religion, has served on the Executive Council of the American Scientific Affiliation, and is a member of the editorial boards of both Science and Christian Belief and Theology and Science.

Born into a Calvinist family, shaped by Calvinist catechism training, educated in the Calvinist private school system, and nurtured by a community that prized its Calvinist systematic theology, Van Till was a Calvinist through and through. For 31 years his teaching career was deeply rooted in the Calvinism he had inherited from his community. In the main, it was a fruitful and satisfying experience. Nonetheless, stimulated in part by the manner in which some members of that community responded to his efforts to practice what he had learned from his best teachers, he eventually felt the need to extend his intellectual exploration into philosophical territories far outside the one provided by Calvinism. These experiences formed the backdrop for Professor Van Till’s presentation to us; describing his intellectual journey from Calvinism to Freethought.

Since writing his book, The Fourth Day, Dr. Van Till’s personal attitudes, beliefs and orientation to the institutional doctrines he was brought up have changed but the book remains a good point of reference to his thinking at the time and introduces interesting questions regarding the cosmos, from the lens of theology as well as science—two magisteria that he was well steeped in. Dr. Forbes introduced our speaker and, summarizing some of the questions that arise from his talks and writings, asked us if the two ways of approaching the cosmos were disparate or complimentary. Is more of a totality found when they are offered together? He also touched on the evolution/ creationism debate, Dr. Van Till’s work with the Templeton Foundation and the Grand Dialogue, both having the stated goal of bridging science and theology in a mutually respectful approach. Dr. Forbes used a search engine for Professor Van Till and came up with an extraordinary number of hits, as he has been cited in, or been a contributor to, a vast number of publications as well as his own lectures and presentations; books and articles.

Dr. Van Till started off by saying that that this was a different sort of audience than he typically speaks before. Usually, those in attendance to hear his views are comprised primarily of what he called anxious Christians. By way of explanation, he said that they worry about the sciences encroaching ever more upon the sphere of theology and feel the strain from the conflicts that emerge from this. For those whose theology is governed solely by faith and who base their world view and approach to life on issues that science is unable to address, there is no problem—at least not for them personally. But those who seek to bolster their beliefs by citing the findings of science, or hang on to antiquated beliefs that are no longer valid regarding the natural world and its operations—they find themselves on that old God of the Gaps platform—one that is ever shrinking—so they feel the squeeze. Their old premises no longer explain what is discovered in the natural world and there is ever less for their god to do. The anxious Christian wishes to be told that his faith has no reason to be shaken; that all is well still. Science will never and can never answer the questions regarding the manner in which he is to conduct his life according to his religious tenets and doctrines for morality.

He focuses more in his talks these days, including the one he gave to us, more on personal experiences and his own intellectual trajectory rather than on debating contentious issues (IDT, stem cell research, etc.) that typically come up when religion and science are put face to face in the same arena. Dr. Van Till brings the larger community into both his quest and his discussions with others, since they shape the views of people so strongly and since he often speaks to those who have come out of a similar tradition to his own. He termed the community and influences in one’s upbringing: one’s tribe. The tribe has a collective belief system, clear expectations and roles for its members, unquestioned rituals and ways to behave. Fitting in is pleasant, cordial and seen to benefit all within the tribe. Tribes tend to be homogeneous and mutually supportive, but also rather intolerant and mistrustful of other tribes, and feel a sense of justification and righteousness in their belief systems.

When fully integrated into the structure of one’s insular tribe, there are few ideological conflicts and the Big Picture questions—how one fits into the larger scheme of life—are mitigated somewhat. All one needs to know is answered satisfactorily by the tribal leaders and authoritative textual or oral dogma and doctrines. Some of the Big Questions Dr. Van Till proffered were: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is the universe the way it is? How did it get here? Was it always here or is it part of an endless cycle or multiverse? Is the physical universe all there is? Are there other categories of reality... ones that science does not yet have the vocabulary or conceptual core to address? Does the universe need some ultimate source of Being? Is this God? What is It like? How would we find out? Why is there suffering, death and grief? Is there life after death?

But there is another order of queries besides the Big Questions. These are Personal Questions, and while not having the scope of things universal, they are nonetheless of paramount importance to the questioner, since they regard him/her directly in his/her daily interactions with his/her immediate reality. Such questions Dr. Van Till gave of this kind were: Does my life have meaning? What will happen to me when I die? What tribe do I belong to (who are your people, what is your community—that which provides a sense of where you came from and personal and cultural identification)? Who is friend and, conversely, who is enemy? Dr. Van Till elaborated on the tribe designation by saying that this may take in things such as ethnicity, geography, religious or non-religious affiliations, professional alliances/membership, and so on. This personal identification with a tribe brings about more related questions: What do I owe the tribal powers? What would happen to me if I am in conflict with tribal beliefs? What if I develop different beliefs?

Sometimes, as what happened with our presenter, one is brought face to face with questions regarding purpose and what happens after physical death when a close friend or family member dies. Questions of justice bob up to the surface of consciousness then too. How could such a good person end up suffering so? Questioning one’s faith is a typical response and even the trained religious leaders’ words often fall hollow upon the ears of the questioner at these times.

At this point, Dr. Van Till introduced what he called Portraits of Reality and how we craft them. The P. of R. is our world- and life-view. These are built from our experiences within a tribal tradition and culture and how we address those experiences; what we do with the authoritative information we imbibe. One approach is to use the authority claims to answer one’s questions. This works well when swimming in the same intellectual/ideological pond as others in your tribe, but can be threatening and disconcerting when butted up against the portraits of reality painted by those from a different tribe. Another approach, one that many who are aligned conceptually/intellectually with the approach taken by the Freethought Association, for instance, is one that Van Till called the Do-It-Yourself method in one’s quest for answers. This approach is one that assumes personal responsibility in exploring questions and will generally run counter to the larger community’s (tribe’s) way.

His own tribal membership—professional, as a Calvin Professor and theological—as a thoroughgoing Calvinist Christian to his bones, brought to bear the full power of conformity within the group. Its unyielding bindings came to the fore of his consciousness when he was called upon to once again sign the Form of Subscription for the Professors and Instructors of Calvin College and Seminary. He had begun to experience conflicts regarding his passive and unquestioning participation in this form of institutional control once he started to expand his intellectual horizons to begin to encompass other portraits of reality and to critically and honestly evaluate his own.

The first and second paragraphs of the Form of Subscription are as follows: We the undersigned, professors in the Sacred Theology and we, instructors and professors at Calvin college, an institution of the Christian Reformed Church of North America, do hereby, sincerely and in good conscience before the Lord, declare by this, our subscription, that we heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine contained in the Confession and Catechism of the Reformed Churches, together with the explanation of some points of the aforesaid doctrine made by the National Synod of Doredrecht, 1618–1619, do fully agree with the Word of God.

We promise, therefore, diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine, without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same by our public preaching, writing, and/or teaching. End quotes.

The doctrine of the 17 th Century Synod of Doredrecht, written about in the Form of Subscription is also known as The Canons of the Synod of Dordt and contains five main doctrinal points, all dealing with the veracity of the Christian core concepts of God being the creator of all, who sent His only Son to die for our sins and who represented one third of the Godhead, and was the only way to salvation; life after death in Heaven, and who sits at the right hand of the Father. Also the ideas of sinfulness leading to eternal damnation and so on are contained therein. There are also distinctly Calvinist ideas, such as those regarding predestination, for example. And the Canons address errors, as they are called, stemming from the influx of other Christian concepts. These needed to be quashed and shown to fall outside of the Dutch Church teachings. There was no allowance for assimilation of any thoughts save those that were unanimously elected to be part of the doctrines by the Dordt Synod, and this is what the Calvin Professors had to vow to defend and give unswerving allegiance to.

One of the hallmarks of science is that it changes and grows as new and better information comes to be known. Older, erroneous concepts are discarded when they no longer support the theoretical structure of naturalistic knowledge. Professor van Till wondered if perhaps one should now, almost four centuries after the Synod of Dordt, countenance newer theological and naturalistic understandings and be free to express views that are not bound lockstep with 17 Century papers, themselves not varying appreciably from texts from nearly 2 millennia before that time. How does a body remain robust; how does it search for truth or grow and develop; how does it maintain intellectual curiosity and sharpness when all questions are answered for all time and all who sign certain papers much speak and think with one voice for all the days of their lives?

Traditions are important to a people, to a community and culture—to a tribe. But when rocking the proverbial boat in any negligible manner can cost one one’s place in that society and negatively impact one’s professional life—even in maintaining gainful employment—there is a problem. Signing the Form is still required today by Calvin College. The doctrines Dr. Van Till spoke of included ones from the 1500’s, including the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, which were endorsed by the aforementioned Synod of Dort (another accepted spelling). The Belgic Confession drew its name from Belgica which at the time took in the whole of the Netherlands but is now divided into the Netherlands and Belgium, and is the oldest of the doctrinal standards of the Christian Reformed Church. It was written by Bras, a preacher in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands, who died a martyr for his faith in 1567, six years after writing the B. Confession (in 1561). Some of what is included in it (it was written, by the way, to show that the Reformed Church did not deviate in its teachings from the orthodox Christian tenets and dogma, so was itself not rocking the boat and therefore posed no threat) was that there is only one God, the stated belief in the authority of the scriptures and in Original Sin, the Creation tales as well as the Fall of Man, what the obligations of church members entailed, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper and about the Last Judgment.

The Heidelberg Catechism was written by Zacharias Ursinus (1534–1583) and Caspar Olevianus (1536–1584) in Heidelberg, Germany; published in 1563. It, too, was endorsed by the Synod of Dort and embraced by Reformed Churches in many countries. It runs to 129 teachings including such minutia as how to conclude a prayer and the meaning of the word amen, but also includes issues such as how we belong in life and death to Jesus Christ; recognition of the greatness of our personal sins and how to be delivered from them; that everything is based upon the Law of God; that we must love the Lord God completely; that we are inclined by nature to hate God and our neighbors, even though we are created good and in God’s image; that our depraved nature stems from the Fall, and that for those who do not adhere to the tenet of Jesus being the only path to salvation—eternal suffering awaits them. There is even the concept of the devil in this catechism, who serves as an instigator of sinful deeds.

All these writings are still very much a part of Calvinism and the institution of Calvin College today, Van Till declared. He contrasted this with the Freethought Association which states in the Mission Statement that it provides a community for freethinkers to explore ideas from a rational, scientific and non-theistic perspective. He contrasted it, too, to the basic freethought premise that rejects the dogma of institutional religion, critically evaluates belief systems and strives to engage in civil discourse in discussing all concepts. There are no sacred cows (texts or doctrines) or off-limits/taboo subjects that are afforded special immunity from the scrutiny of the freethinker. He summed this up as the aforementioned Do-It-Yourself approach.

In an interview with Science and Theology News, when asked what it was like to teach science and evolution at a Christian college, Dr. Van Till told them, as he told us, that one must place intellectual candor first and to do the best one can while being respectful of the institution. Such institutions can focus too much on the preservation of certain translations of specific texts and creeds and the writings of founding people. Science and evolution is about change (via paradigm shifts when enough new data is gathered in the former, and about change through time; descent with modification, regarding evolutionary biology) not about preserving old views that are seen as inerrant or divinely inspired and irrefragable and viewing the natural world as static and created at once, for all time in a divine fiat. Science records the contributions of it’s brightest lights but also notes their errors. They are not seen as divine oracles for the ultimate Truth, but, as Newton is to have said, merely seeing a bit further due to standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before them. They themselves will be surpassed, while the foundational blocks that they laid abide and support the vast edifice of accumulated, dynamic knowledge.

When he first started teaching at Calvin College in ’67, his approach was what he calls astronomy for the masses, and this was approached in a way that he did not think challenged the institutional core values. When dealing with stellar evolution, he defined his terms carefully but never avoided the subject. He experienced no friction or unease from his students, who appreciated his candor, and no friction whatsoever from the institution. However, when he published his book, The Fourth Day: What the Bible and the Heavens are Telling us about the Creation, twenty years ago (’86), things changed. Before getting to the reaction this book incited, it may be useful to address what this book considers and how the ideas are expressed. As one might gather from the title, it should have been a Christian-friendly exploration of the cosmos (the heavens), referencing God’s fourth day of creation where He was to have made the stars, also, as well as looking at the Bible text for insight into how the universe came to be.

Of course even the only mildly curious—or critical—modern mind should be able to recognize that the Genesis accounts (there is more than one account, and they contradict each other—something else that should be easily discerned by even a casual reader) are ancient mythology; fabricated before there was awareness that our sun is just one of the countless stars (not a greater light) just as our moon is but one of similarly countless moons (not a lesser light) and that our planet is but one in the ubiquity of such in the universe. We know now that there is not just one special planet that is flat with a dome over it and waters beneath the Earth and above the firmament. The Days of Creation truly can not be reconciled with even the most simplified rendering of what is long established regarding biological or stellar evolution. It should not have been controversial in a First World country in the late 1980’s to regard the Genesis tales as ancient myths that may have other value to we moderns but is not to be taken as a literal, scientific account. But alas such was not the case.

Professor Van Till, in his book and lectures to his students, got his audience comfortable with stellar evolution. The vast expanses of time, the cycles of stars and their evolutionary formation was not a problem for his listeners/readers, but when the leap in their minds ventured to biological evolution, things became controversial. For some reason stars evolving were fine, but starfish doing the same was taboo. He discusses in The Fourth Day (which, to reiterate what was stated earlier, does not reflect his current thinking as it came to evolve during the course of his intellectual journey) what he called categorical complementarity. With this construct, science and religion do not engage each other in an adversarial way, but complement each other by addressing different aspects of the natural world and how it came to be. Religious sources, for instance, regard concepts of ultimate origin, governance, value and purpose in the cosmos. Science, on the other hand, complements this by dealing with the internal affairs of created things, such as their properties, behavior and history.

Dr. Van Till’s take home message regarding Creation at the time of this book’s publication was that God creates in the natural world via natural processes, but that the Creator Itself and Its Creation process are not, themselves, natural. The natural world represents the supernatural agency and a supreme Creator working within that natural realm. Regarding Creationism, he observed that the proponents of Special Creation become easy targets for the scientifically informed, and that the Fundamentalist approach in general is one that seeks answers in the Bible to questions that it does not address in the first place. Later in his talk, the Dr. Van Till of 2006, expressed the thought (paraphrased here) that if one believes in a Supreme Being who created the universe and all that is in it, why limit this Being to the constrictive mold of ancient fables, with days rather than billions of years of creation; sudden and static forms, rather than wondrously evolving and adapting ones; and only a single planet of note with a greater and lesser light rather than the infinite universe that continues to unfold in splendor and grandeur before our eyes as we probe deeper into it?

Dr. Van Till expected that the reaction from his Calvin colleagues and those presiding over that institution for higher learning, would have a polite and fruitful engagement with him over the ideas expressed in his book, and that they would have prepared intellectual and carefully crafted arguments. But what he faced was angry objections and from-the-gut, not the head, emotional reactions. An ad hoc committee was set up by the trustees to probe into his convictions regarding the 1619 decrees. When he got questions in writing, he responded with a well crafted and full (10 pages; single-spaced!) reply. He also questioned the necessity of the requirement of signing the Form of Subscription still, and this brought about its own backlash. Finally, feeling like a mouse in a roomful of cats (as he put it), he no longer would agree to take part in the interrogation which went beyond the pale in both scope and duration. He was attacked—sometimes in full page writings, in an ill-mannered way—by ill-informed detractors, who had often at best only a feeble grasp of the academic issues that they took him to task with.

Ultimately, what he had written was not only accepted but came to be supported and encouraged. He was honored, in 1999, with the Faith and Learning Award, for his work in integrating faith with true knowledge—including knowledge gained about the workings of the world from discoveries made SINCE the 1700’s! Van Till told us about how a colleague and friend he had known for some three decades, was reduced to tears due to having his worldview threatened (as he experienced it) by his (Van Till’s) honest opinions and writings. The changes he had made in his journey of discovery (self-discovery and about other portraits of reality) had been subtle and incremental as Van Till perceived it. So he was shocked to find himself being seen as so different, threatening and emotionally provacative to those he had had such a close personal and professional relationship with. All these experiences took their toll and caused him to re-examine his personal portrait of reality further, to expand his thinking to include more and more ways of interpreting the world around him and to ponder how we each create our own portrait of reality from our backgrounds and genetic endowment.

When his thinking grew and changed sufficiently, he wondered why it had taken so long to finally question what he had been given by way of creedal authority. Was he dull of mind? No, living by a set of perceptions and views—all supported and reinforced by his tribe—was not something unique to him. Most normally-functioning people do this to one degree or another. There is a complex interplay that finds its nexus where the forces of personal temperament, societal expectations and cues, and one’s experiences, come together to create one’s portrait of reality and how one behaves in accordance with/reaction to society and the larger world.

As Dr. Van Till presented it to us, our portrait of reality is generated by a number of factors, including our genetically-based proclivities, parental and familial influences, tribal/communal inheritance, institutional religion, formal education, personal experiences, rational and creative explorations, etc.

He then introduced the acronym ODoR, which stands for one’s Operative Depiction of Reality. The term operative regards the actual belief system, rather than the public expression of one’s beliefs. Dr. Van Till used the double meaning for the term amusingly when he listed some features of ODoRs, including that whether we are aware of it or not, everyone has one; part of one’s ODoR is intentional, most however is not; there are pleasant and noxious ones; we are attracted to ones that are most like our own; we are aware of the ODoR of others more than we are our own, etc.

While the brain may be examined, modified and its functions evaluated, what we are able to explore in this way about how we form our operative depiction of reality represents the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The process whereby the brain crafts its ODoR is far more elusive and submerged and is therefor difficult to scrutinize and work with. The brain is a storytelling machine; even without conscious guidance, we generate stories that explain our individual interpretations of reality, help reconcile problems and mitigate the discomfort that comes from cognitive dissonance. This occurs beneath the surface, or under the radar of our consciousness, in a way that Dr. Van Till illustrated by saying that it is what our brains do when we are not looking. We may look at how we came to be storytelling animals; ones constructing elaborate ODoRs, from a biological evolutionary perspective, and indeed other presentations to us have addressed how our deep past and historical and genetic inheritance has shaped our behavior and perceptual experience right up to the present. It is important to understand the stories we tell ourselves in order to comprehend better the process—using inheritance and history—by which we formulate our worldview (portraits of reality), religious beliefs, etc.

The construction of our operative depiction of reality has numerous and diverse functions. Some of these include: to survive in the competitive and busy world; to provide comfort and reassurance; to demonstrate and secure tribal identification—our need to belong to and be part of a group united by some commonality—often seen as a social glue within religions. They (ODoRs) help us function as members of a society; provide a reliable basis for expectations and satisfy basic intellectual curiosity and yearnings.

To push the acronym further, Dr. Van Till talked about Good and Bad ODoRs. They are, on the one hand, essential to human culture and having normal human experiences, and serve as stabilizing factors in life. On the other hand, the desire for stability can lead to bold, dogmatic claims and assertions, where the need for certainty impedes critical examination, intellectual discovery and becomes rather addictive. This lust for certainty, as Dr. Van Till had it, can promote exclusivity, with the belief that one’s tribal idea is the RIGHT one—(i.e.: our tribe knows The Truth). It also fosters a sense of competitiveness, where one’s own tribal view MUST win our over another’s view of reality. Some operative depictions of reality are life enriching—such as that exemplified by Gandhi for example, while others are toxic and lead to crusades, Sept. 11, the Holocaust, gay bashing, etc.

Utilitarian value; how members sustain and assist each other, does not in and of itself ensure truth regarding the portrait of reality. While we naturally desire affiliation, and shared portraits of reality provide a strong bond; when they are imposed upon the tribal (societal, communal) members, blind, uncritical obedience may result. Tensions can form when the desire for autonomy and the need for belonging to something larger than oneself come into conflict. Unexamined or misguided loyalties may lead to serious problems, especially when yolked to powerful engines such as politics and religion.

As noted, there may well be a difference between one’s operative and one’s public, or professed, depiction of reality. The disparity between them need not be a conscious lie, since we operate with the subconscious need to maintain tribal identification, which suppresses disparity and inhibits the examination of our subconscious motives. Even with science, there is a difference in the structure—how it describes its methodology and how it works—with that of how it is actually done, which is a messier and less pristine affair. Ultimately, what works wins out, no matter what egos and errors may hinder the process along the way, but the process itself is not an entirely antiseptic one. The retired Professor Of Astronomy and Physics, Van Till, spoke of the work of Jerome Ravetz who calls his approach to science a post-normal one which transcends the old simplistic ideas of perfect certainty and objectivity in science, which can lead to its own sort of dogmatism and value loading.

Dr. Van Till also spoke of folk-science, which regards the formulation of beliefs that one deems to be based in solid scientific research but which are really made to provide comfort and assurance that one’s worldview is on firm footing and not easily challenged. Young Earth Creationism is one example of folk science that he gave us. It was constructed to prove the inerrancy of the Bible and thereby support a particular religious belief system. Its latest evolved species, Intelligent Design Theory, was formulated for much the same reason but its proponents attack what they claim are the inadequacies of evolutionary theory in explaining the development of natural systems, with useless incipient stages having no survival value and therefore unlikely to be preserved as phenotypic parts to evolve further.

This, of course, always sounds logical at first blush, but it is a wholly-formed-parts-based argument. The sudden appearance of body parts firmly fixed upon a progressive route toward a desired outcome does not occur in evolution—this is more the thinking seen in the theistic constructions. However, forms that emerge for one function may be co-opted into another function, with slight changes within a population enhancing the genetic fitness of the organisms that possess those alterations, pushing adaptation. The forms themselves are potentiated from ancient master genes; not arising as in divine fiat, as novel, newly created add ons. The IDT scheme has a coy and disingenuous Intelligent Designer to avoid using the G-word, and does great violence to the term theory as used in its scientific sense. But in trying to poke holes in evolutionary science, it can set up a false alternative (if THEIR idea isn’t perfect, then OURS MUST be the RIGHT one!), lending credence to their claims for fairness in presenting their alternative theory in classrooms. But the bottom line is to try desperately to preserve a portrait of reality that is based on a literalist interpretation of the biblical creation myth, to comfort and assure the believer in this that all is well with the world and his P. of R. This is one of the outcomes that occur when folk science is expanded into an ODoR.

It is helpful, Dr. Van Till stated, to try to understand those with other world views, to be open to criticism and tentative in one’s propositions. He threw out a number of thoughts to reflect upon, including thinking about the nature of reality, sets of religious beliefs, the concept of God and the Sacred, and Ultimate Mysteries; concepts of self; conceptual constructions of the world and how it operates; and our set of attitudes and the reasons we have for our beliefs and feelings.

The awareness gained by his own honest introspection, allowed him to see how his own portrait of reality had shaped his views on things, gave him the perspective to see the portraits of reality in others and allow him to be open to other views. It caused him to detect more clearly his own and other people’s ODoRs and, most significantly, to really comprehend how we all go about painting our own portraits of our own personal reality. Tolerance for other approaches to reality grew out of this disciplined journey. In casting his net wider, beyond the scope of his tribe—which had, you’ll recall, turned on him when he stepped outside of their established parameters—he found he needed that larger expanse of territory in which to craft his expanded worldview, encompassing many other ideas and ways of being. Dr. Van Till was very honest and open with us. He said that such a journey uncovers many bad ODoRs that would otherwise have been left unexamined or else explained away and minimized in regular daily life.

One’s perceptions over time, with long reinforcement from one’s tribe and other influences, makes our portraits devilishly difficult to paint over. Van Till recalled Sydney Harris’ assertion that one cannot be persuaded out of emotional beliefs by rational work. That may be a bit stark, but we operate more than we care to admit out of our unconscious, emotional state of mind and biased perceptions built up over the years.

This Secretary read a neurologist’s statement that the emotional limbic system reacts in the basic fight or flight manner and the process is already started before the higher executive functions of the brain have a chance to get hold of the emotion and cool down our heads. This results in us telling ourselves stories to account for our emotional and visceral reactions, rationalizing the emotions rather than mitigating them. After a while, repeated similar stimulations carve out neuronal pathways so that the emotions are triggered in a conditioned response more readily, while we have some handy excuse also bobbing up to our consciousness to explain ourselves with, even though the reason is not based on rational contemplation.

Now, almost twenty years later still (from the initial turning point of ’67 to ’87 and now to 2006), Dr. Van Till finds himself on new conceptual territory and he finds that he still has respect for those who hold strong loyalties to Calvinism, whether he agrees with them or not. The shifts in his portrait of reality have not eroded the friendly relationships he has with them. Bob Dylan, in his song My Back Pages says: I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now. Dr. Van Till expressed much the same sentiment when he said to us that he does not know as much now as he had before. He has less certainty than before, when there were ready answers to all questions—at least all that he would have been able to ask without incurring the rancor of his tribe. He is giving this stage of his life his best shot and taking personal responsibility for his views and approach to life.

As Robert Frost expressed in one of his well-known poems, Van Till said that he had taken the road less traveled and that made all the difference. He followed that by saying that life is good!

Secretary: Charles LaRue.


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FROM CALVINISM TO FREETHOUGHT: The Road Less Traveled (PDF) by Howard J. Van Till May 26, 2006


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