By Eugene C. Scott
Several thousand years ago dung beetles enjoyed god-like status. They earned this high honor by toiling day-long collecting balls of dung between their tiny horns and rolling them across the hot desert floor. Some observant Egyptian noticed this little rolling ball of dung resembled the sun’s movement. Soon the belief was born that the sun was moved across the desert sky by a huge, invisible dung beetle.
The Egyptians–and most other ancient peoples–considered the powerful, life-giving forces, such as the sun, water, fire, fertility, in nature gods–or, at least, directly controlled by a god such as a dung beetle. Thus they developed religious and sacrificial systems that they hoped would please these capricious gods. In Egypt essential crops flourished or failed based on the Nile River. If the gods were angry it might flood and wash all their food away. Or dry up. If the gods were pleased, the Nile might over-flow its banks just enough to water even the most distant fields.
These ancient religious systems became what people turned to when life got difficult.
But it did little good. Unfortunately, still children died, crops still failed, life–like the Nile–still ebbed and flowed seemingly without respect to religious sacrifices.
Today scientists laugh at such superstitious beliefs. We know the sun is not the god Re but a star, not pushed across the sky, but a point earth orbits. Science replaced superstition. We watch the weather patterns explained and pin-pointed on the nightly news. Science has given us cloud seeding, en-vitro fertilization, the cure for polio, and brilliant inventions and technologies by the thousands. When life gets hard we have doctors, pharmaceuticals, technologies, and governments we can turn to.
A phrase from my childhood embodies this faith in science most of our world holds. “If they can put a man on the moon, they ought to be able to __________(fill in the blank).”
Unfortunately, children still die, crops still fail, tornadoes devastate, new diseases spring to life and confound and kill us while paying little homage to our scientific advancements and prowess.
Christians call such total dependence on science foolish. Christians believe there is one God who created all these things science has discovered and mastered. In line with this belief we have designed sophisticated worship liturgies that give people access to deeper meaning and connection with God. Theologians have developed systematic theologies that attempt to answer the big questions about life and God. Gifted preachers lay out the five keys to life with purpose. The promise is that when life gets hard these liturgies, systems and practices including prayer and other spiritual disciplines bring Christians healing and wholeness.
Unfortunately children still die, crops fail . . . .
Depending on your perspective and belief system you may read the three world views above and sing that sweet song from the children’s show “Sesame Street,” “One of These Things is Not Like the Other?” And each–superstitious, scientific, or spiritual–is a very different way to understand and live in the world.
But they also each have a foundational similarity. Control. Or more accurately a desire to control. The ancient Egyptians lived in a dangerous, unpredictable world. Any thing that promised even a modicum of control over that world was welcome. And their superstitious practices fit the rhythm of the seasons of life just often enough to hold out the promise of control over the mighty Nile like a carrot on a stick.
Science too, especially in its naive early days, flat-out promised to wrest control from nature and lay it in our hands. And the promise has often been fulfilled. At least tentatively. Antibiotics, heat and air-conditioning, cell-phones, air travel all put us above and beyond nature. But just as often, or more so, science has not fulfilled its promise of control. We did put a man on the moon but we often cannot fill in the blank that would give us the cure to this or that disease or the answer to so many questions. Never-the-less, most of us believed and still may.
Christian spirituality also often degenerates into attempts to control God and his world. Systematic theology unwittingly promises that if we understand God we may know how to get him to do our bidding, purpose driven lives are lives we can likewise understand and control, prayers of Jabez seem to bind God to expand our borders, and five keys to a happy life, word of faith theology, pocketbooks of God’s promises, frenzied scripture memory programs all–even, like science, though they contain some truth–appeal to our deep desire to live in a world we can keep under control.
The truth is from ancient Egypt to modern science to today’s Christian spirituality we are control freaks.
But superstitious behavior nor mighty dams nor words of faith will tame the Nile much less God.
“Vanity, vanity, all is vanity,” wrote King Solomon. By this the great king did not mean that the pursuit of knowledge scientific or spiritual is vanity. But trying to use that information to gain control over things, people, and especially God is foolish.
Fear grows in neat garden rows fertilized with the promise of control. What if I lose control? is the weedy question that grows here. And it strangles faith. Because faith flourishes in the open fields littered with rocks and pot holes and dung. In this field faith is not the thing we use to control God and life but the thing we use to believe God is good and loves us in a life that sometimes is not under control and is not going the way we expected.
How do you know if you’re a control freak. Pinch yourself. Are you human?