Sunday, August 07, 2011

"I was just in the neighborhood . . . " II: On sandhill cranes and the nature of faith

Not even a hundred yards south of our new residence, there's a drainage ditch; its function is to collect run-off from the Kansas Turnpike and siphon it off to the creek that lies to the west of our little neighborhood. During the time we've been here, there's been some water in it, but to Scruffy's and my hasty eye, it doesn't exactly look like it's the environment for a thriving biological web.

It's not been there every morning we've walked by, but there's a sandhill crane there often enough for me to have termed it a "regular." He stands on the edge of whatever water there happens to be in the ditch, waiting for . . . well, whatever it is that cranes wait for.

I had assumed that it was waiting for fish--cranes resemble herons, after all; these, at least, like to be near water, so I assumed that they eat fish, too. To all appearances, though, the only swimming things this ditch would be likely to host would be mosquito larvae and various water-borne microbes just itching to wreak havoc with someone's gastrointestinal system. So, here I am thinking, "Well: here is something like a metaphor for faith, no? The maintaining of hopefulness even in the empirical face of hopelessness."

Then I did some reading, and I was reminded yet again of the pitfalls of assumption.

Sandhills are actually omnivores, eating insects, small reptiles, invertebrates, and the seeds and shoots of plants, all of which are found in wetlands . . . and along drainage ditches, of course. Indeed, fish don't even appear in the "Diet" section of the International Crane Foundation's entry on sandhills. This particular sandhill, then, is no dolt.

All this has gotten me to thinking a little about the definition of faith found in Hebrews 11:1. The letter's immediate audience is Jews recently converted to Christianity who are reconsidering their decision, so it's also quite effective at reminding those skeptical of the whole notion of belief that the foundations of faith don't rest on the immediately-observable. The faithful "see" things the rest of us don't, and in the unlikeliest places.

There's nothing especially profound here, I realize. But I think that in the recent debates between believers of all sorts and some of the so-called "new atheists" (and, often, among believers themselves), there's a denigrating or a forgetting or a refusal to acknowledge from the get-go some pretty basic truths about the nature of faith. Some believers have a tendency to forget that faith isn't empirically based and that there's no shame at all in that fact; skeptics take that very fact, though, and bludgeon believers with it without being willing to entertain discussions about how empirically-based disciplines deal with questions of the unknown. But all the while, that sandhill watches, and waits, and trusts, and then will move on to another place to watch, and wait, and trust. Like a scientist, in his way. Like a believer, in his way.


Russell Arben Fox said...

John, there's a couple of sandhill cranes that occasionally inhabit the run-off (feeding into Cowslip creek) directly across from our house. I've long assumed they eat fish and frogs only as well; I didn't know they were plant eaters. Your post will make me "see" them differently, next time they come by.

Thanks for a nice thought, this late Sunday morning. Hope you're enjoying your new home!

R. Sherman said...

I recall being in Wilcox, AZ which is in the wintering grounds of the Sandhills and being told of a huge flock of same nearby. Their favorite SE Arizona haunt? The local sewage treatment settling pond.

Query whether there's some Man/Nature symbiosis philosophical stuff that can be teased from that factoid?

RE: Faith versus empiricism. It seems to me that the debate at least among the empiricists is centered on the idea that faith is not inherently and cannot therefore ever be rational, which is of course a false conclusion. Further, all science is based upon the faith that there are certain, well defined, immutable "laws" of nature and that those laws can be discovered and observed by humans. The faith based community, of which I consider myself one, does not dispute that. Indeed modern science owes a great debt to religious/Christian scholars of the Renaissance and later years for eliminating the mindless recapitulation of Scholasticism and investigating God's Universe.

Gregor Mendel (a monk) anyone?

There is no argument to the above. The argument debate centers on the
"why is it so" question. Where I say there is a theological explanation, a Richard Dawkins will say that it is, quote, "the magic of large numbers," end quote (my emphasis).

Where I am perfectly happy to acknowledge my faith and am, I hope, well equipped to argue that it is rational, a Dawkins will steadfastly refuse to acknowledge his own mathematical faith-based assumptions.

Frankly, I find it rather amusing.


John B. said...

Thanks to both of you for dropping by and leaving kind words.

Russell, we're still getting settled in, but it feels comfortable here. This week's project will be getting the pictures hung and some other boxes unpacked; the Mrs.'s parents will be down this week with a dining room table and chairs. Aside from that, we've been reading a lot. As for the cranes, what I'd like to know now is just which subspecies of sandhill we have here; the website lists half a dozen.

Randall, symbiosis in all its forms is fascinating to me. I get the feeling that sandhills are scavenger types, yet the crane website notes that sandhills are the oldest-known species of bird we have among us--fossil skeletons from 10 million years ago are structurally identical to sandhills today. Eating garbage pays, sometimes.

I'd just add this: Faith itself is (or can be) a rational act, no question. That in which we have faith, though, can never be finally, completely knowable in an empirical sense. There's no shame in acknowledging that at all, as I said; in fact, it's crucial that we do.

OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

I'm so glad you mennebted on Randall's post, because I was complaining in my comment that there was no link to THIS particular post---And now, I can read it!
I am going to have to look up the word "empirical" to fully understand what you have written....
And I so wish you had a picture of this Elegant sounding bird, as he watches and waits.

Pat said...

Popped over from Randall's.
Having looked up empirical my take is that things have to be scientifically proved before the person involved will believe. So faith doesn't come into it.
Is that so?

Pat said...

BTW I wonder if there is a special reason your font is so small?

John B. said...

More visitors! Thanks for dropping by.

OldOldLady, I truly wanted to include a picture; as I noted above, though, I don't know which subspecies of sandhill we have here, and I didn't want to run the risk of posting the incorrect one. That sounds a bit anal retentive, I know, especially in the case of a subspecies . . .

Pat, right: It's illogical to "believe" in someone/something that can be factually proven--this is why those who insist on the literal truth of certain moments in the Bible (the creation stories (yes, plural) in Genesis 1 and 2 come to mind) run extraordinary risks to their, um, faith. Finding or not finding Noah's Ark, the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, none of that sort of thing should matter to someone with an authentic faith. Randall's point is that scientists engage in faith acts of a sort, too--they put their trust in the scientific method; the theories they develop to explain natural phenomena are narratives, stories, always subject to change or abandonment as new data come in--just as happens with any narrative, be it history or fiction.

There's no shame to anyone in saying any of this . . . the shame is in denying or forgetting these things are true.

Oh: and my font size is small because I've modified the template's code to make it so. I just like it small, is all.

Matthew Kng said...

Dr. B., |Indeed| I hope people can LEARN from this blog post. It is the fundamentals of which you speak . Indeed the very definition (if language can be trusted) of faith {might it be called |intuitive|? please elaborate, I need knowledge: "an old fairy tale told me so!"} is that which, one understands apart from (the senses?). Some have called it LOVE, I call it REALITY (beauty {is} (t my healer {sorry for the reference}, but a recognition of lack . WOULD YOU WRITE A NOVEL, maybe? Of course I would buy it. PLEASE.

John B. said...


Thanks for dropping by and commenting. You have more trust in me than I have in myself that I can say (or have said) anything worthwhile about these matters. But I will say this: I do think that by keeping your eye on the question of what faith is/is not (as opposed to what you might call "applied faith": questions of doctrine, the nature of the Bible, etc.), you can gain a whole lot of clarity regarding what matters in those debates, and what can be, yes, potentially destructive to one's faith if pursued too earnestly. Which is to say: these things matter, no question, but other things are more central.

I can also recommend a book: Paul Tillich's Dynamics of Faith. His was my introduction to the idea that faith is not the absence of doubt but its regular overcoming--that, indeed, the faithful person must engage with challenges to the foundations on which faith rests in order to strengthen his faith (what Tillich calls "ultimate concern"). Without going into detail, let's just say that I have had occasion to find great comfort--and strength--in that idea. Perhaps you may, too.