When I was a kid, Saturday mornings often involved watching cartoons. Of all the cartoons I would watch, the hour-long collection of Bugs Bunny cartoons stands out more than any other. Bugs and all of his friends – Yosemite Sam, Elmer Fudd, Sylvester and Tweety – banded together each week to put off sixty minutes of the best sketch comedy I had ever seen.
Maybe it’s a deep-seated love of slapstick, but some of my biggest laughs came from the yet unresolved pursuit of the Roadrunner by Wile E. Coyote. How many times do you have to get blown up, crushed by an ACME anvil, or run over by a semi before you start chasing something you’re more likely to catch? Like a wounded deer?
One of the failsafe schticks sure to make the laugh was the liberally applied immunity to gravity routine. Usually, this involved a chase up a mountain towards the precipice and the Roadrunner’s uncanny and perfectly-timed stop just in time. Wile. E. Coyote would run off the edge and, so long as he remained unaware that there was, in fact, nothing directly below him he could stand there suspended hundreds of feet above the canyon below. It became altogether predictable (and remained inexplicably funny) that Wile. E. would look down, shoot a look of exasperation towards the camera, before eventually succumbing to his – quite literal – downfall.
I learned later in life that my belly laughs relied on something called the suspension of disbelief. As it turns out, whether you’re watching a cartoon chase that appears only loosely bound by the rules of physics, reading a fantasy novel about far away planets, or whole-heartedly listening to someone else’s story, suspended judgement based on what you know to be true is critical. It’s critical for many of the things that we enjoy as entertainment. Imagine watching those same chase scenes play out as a child and, instead of getting lost in the absurdity of it all, you became hyperaware of the logical inaccuracies. There are websites devoted to identifying the impossibilities of physics in movies like Star Wars and, to many of us, that seems like altogether a waste of time.
By not applying critical thinking in these scenarios, we allow ourselves to really enjoy what’s happening. It doesn’t mean we forget how the world actually works. Mind over matter is an interesting idea, but our own ignorance that we are not standing on solid ground is insufficient to keep the law of gravity from making sure that we connect as quickly as possible with the closest plot of earth directly below us.
More than enjoyment, though, we can also learn really powerful lessons. We know that Icarus of Greek mythology didn’t actually fly close enough to the sun that his waxed wings melted causing him to fall into the sea. We would bet our lives on it. But, by suspending our disbelief of the facts surrounding the story, we are able to find something deeper. We can connect with a lesson – a truth that is beyond the literal presentation of the story – that we can internalize and apply to real world scenarios.
In the end, a suspension of disbelief implicates that reality rushes back in at some point. This is precisely why we don’t expect to be able to defy gravity in any cartoonish sort of way. When we’re reading a story or watching a film, suspending our criticism can help us become aware of many layers of meaning rather than the simple concrete ideas presented by literal words. However, if we continue to suspend our disbelief outside of the realm of the story so that we forget that real-world rules actually apply, what do we call that? Pathological? Counter-cultural? Irrational? Silly? Dangerous?
There are times that suspending our disbelief can serve a greater purpose.
Science & God
I was a relatively smart kid. I don’t know that I was particularly gifted in any one area, I just seemed to have a knack for learning and retaining knowledge. Whether it was math or science or memorizing lines to a play, my brain just seemed to be able to absorb and reproduce information well. Science was a real love of mine. I was never particularly good at research but I really enjoyed reading about what others were discovering and learning. Something about it seemed to stick with me and I was able to filter the world through that lens. I enjoyed physics and learning about electricity and circuits and how different components worked together to create lights and radios. I loved chemistry and it seemed almost magical that two substances could be mixed together to create something new. The idea that all of this was because of atomic particles that couldn’t be observed individually was fascinating. With biology, I loved the diversity of life and how all of the various systems of the body worked together in harmony to create a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.
At the same time, I was a deeply religious child and retained material about faith and Christianity in a similar way. In the rural area in which I grew up, if you weren’t involved in a faith community, there wasn’t a ton of other things to do during the week. So, I was heavily involved in our church which included a regular routine of Bible and discipleship classes. I was taught that the stories of the Bible were largely historical and that, even though there might be some discrepancy in terms of translations from various languages, the Bible could essentially be taken as fact. As I remember, I don’t ever recall being told that that Bible was perfect or inerrant but that it was highly respected and that there was really no reason to doubt it. Whether or not people actually believed them as such, stories like the creation of Adam & Eve were taught as though they literally happened.
It was a high school biology class when I was first formally introduced to the ideas of evolution and natural selection, initiating the classic dilemma for the young Christian. Simply put, from generation to generation, subtle variations are introduced in an organism’s off-spring. Some of those variations might help a particular offspring survive longer and, possibly, have additional offspring with similar characteristics. Over a very long time indeed, enough variation might occur and we can consider that thing a new species.
Imagine a bird that lives on an island where the main source of food are worms that live under the bark of trees. In order to get to those worms, a bird uses its beak to break through the bark and pick out its dinner. Now, just like you have longer legs or shorter fingers than your parents, when that bird mates, its little chicks will grow up to have beaks that are some combination of mom’s and dad’s. Some will be longer and more slender, some will be shorter and stubbier. Let’s also say that, because of drier weather in the area, the worms have burrowed slightly deeper into the trees to find enough moisture. If that’s the case, the birds with a slightly longer beak are able to dig deep enough to find food, while the shorter-beaked birds have a harder time with the whole ordeal. They’re less likely to be healthy, less likely to be attractive to the other birds, and less likely to mate. The longer-beaked birds, on the other hand, are extremely healthy (and powerfully virile, might I add) so the next time a gaggle of birds are born, chances are there will be more long-beaked offspring. Long-beaked birds beget long-beaked birds.
Now imagine that those same processes are happening for the bird’s overall size and body structure, the pitch and timbre of their call, and their instincts around fleeing danger. The concept is elegant and demonstrable and accounts for all of the biodiversity that we see – trees and plants and animals and people. But it potentially leaves a good Christian boy like me with a fairly profound conflict to resolve.
Suspending My Disbelief
If the world is purely about literalism then, yes, it would seem that science and faith are in direct conflict with one another. If it is true that God created two humans about five thousand years ago, then what we know about the world around us through careful study and scientific rigor just doesn’t add up. If we are sure that human conception requires two to tango, then there is no way that it can also be immaculate. It’s logically impossible.
Facts – the real kind, not the alternative varieties – are interesting little ideas. They are tiny kernels of truth. They aren’t subject to interpretation or debate. We can discuss the implications of facts and use historical data to project into the future, but the facts of the matter are solid and immutable. You don’t believe in facts; you either know them or you haven’t yet learned them.
But facts can sometimes be limiting in our pursuit of greater meaning.
Richard Rohr was the first person I heard say that, “Literal truth is the lowest form of meaning.” It is an incredibly profound lesson and is something that I encourage everyone to incorporate into their own lives. Here’s a basic example to get us started. Suppose there is a literal truth that a rock is hard. We take it as factual. We can develop scales to measure exactly how hard a given rock might be but at the end of the day, rocks are hard.
We can stop there and be perfectly fine. But there can be so much more meaning attached when we go beyond this literal description of a rock. Because a rock is hard, we can use it as a tool to form other items. It can serve as a weight or we can stack them or arrange them into symbols or altars. Or they can be weaponized and cast by those who are innocent towards those who are thought to be guilty.
There is a lot more meaning than just what is on the surface.
This is why I believe God is a cartoon.
In order to become immersed in the story of scripture and to learn its lessons, it is critical to suspend our disbelief. Of course a skeuomorphic man-god did not create two people from soil in the middle east a few thousand years ago. The story is far truer than that. If you get hung up on the facts, it’s possible to miss that mankind’s unique place in creation also comes with great responsibility to care for the earth and all of its inhabitants. It’s possible to miss the idea that we are all connected by the energy and atomic particles that forms the sun and moon and the people all around us. It’s possible to miss that all life is sacred and worthy of respect.
Of course a flood didn’t wipe out all of earth’s creatures but the few that could fit on a boat that a man made just in time for an epic rain storm. You can spend time trying to locate the remnants of the ark to confirm facts, or you can celebrate the lessons that this story represents. Sometimes, when you feel a deep-down urge to do something big, it can have an impact on all of humanity. Sometimes, when things feel impossible, you can draw great strength and energy from all sorts of places.
It seems ludicrous to most people that a woman who has never had sex could give birth to a human man who, incidentally, would grow up to become the savior of the world. And, we can get tied up in finding a rationale to justify whatever position we take on this but perhaps there’s a deeper message. Perhaps, the world just needed an example of a man who lived life differently, who had compassion for people who were poor and struggling, and insisted that this was a better way to live. Perhaps we needed someone to represent an alternative to the repressive power systems of the day and to counter the story of the Caesar by creating a blow-for-blow parody. Making the star of such a story a man from one of the most marginalized groups in the empire might just be the way to give this story a few thousand years of play.
I don’t know what God looks like. I don’t know what form she takes or if she can have a personal relationship with the people she has created. If God were here in a literal human form, I don’t know if he could run off a cliff and suspend himself in the air or walk on water and really not sink. Believing those things in the Bible as they are written and talked about requires me to suspend my own disbelief in a way that feels clunky, and silly, and irrelevant to the more beautiful points that are being made. This is energy that I would rather direct towards thinking about the great mysteries, and finding deeper meaning in the stories of Jesus than whether or not he could restore someone’s vision or calm a storm with his hand.
What I do know is that my particular brand of faith has me connected to every single other person who has lived or will live. The fact that there are atoms in my body that were once ejected from an exploding star connects me to a great and universal mystery that goes beyond the story of a snake charming a human to eat some fruit. In that way, the story of Adam and Eve is not unlike the story of Icarus. They are not factually accurate in any way that would withstand intellectual scrutiny.
But they contain great truths.
Of all the lessons that we gain from the Garden of Eden, the most compelling for me is the idea that we are all connected. The author of the creation poem sensed deep in his bones that there is an unknown, mysterious energy that holds everything together and connects us to every generation and every person. The poet lacked the scientific knowledge to express it in as direct and as factual a way as we might today, but it doesn’t make it false.
I grew up in the Christian tradition. It is the language that I am familiar with and that I can use to access these deeper, more mysterious aspects of life. Contrary to what your intuition might lead you to conclude, there is no universal definition to God. If there were, it would be no more inspiring than the notion that rocks are hard. If I grew up in a family in the Middle East, or in China, or of scientific researchers, the language that I would use to access mystery would probably be very different.
But it would be no less mysterious.
Another of Richard Rohr’s quotes that has become meaningful to me is how he describes himself as being “on the edge of the inside” of what it means to be a Christian. If faith is a bubble that people find themselves in, with those at the center being the most fundamentalist, Rohr considers himself somewhere near the outer limits – near the surface. If he’s in, it’s just barely and most of those at the center see him as so far away as to be on the outside. He’s with those that see things differently, the heathens and the doubters, those that can play with disbelief without fearing that their world might come crashing down.
There is a lot of resonance in my own spirit with this idea. I have no trouble knowing that the Bible is not the inerrant word of God. I know the things that are written may not have happened, at least not in the factual sense. Some people – those that might consider themselves mature in their faith – might tell me that this is juvenile, or short-sighted, or faithless or wrong. They’ll tell me that if I’m going to believe then I’ve got to commit – that if my faith is weak then I’m in danger of losing everything.
Maybe. On one level, I’m OK with having to take the side of fact and reason and scientific proof when it comes to questions about how we got here and what we have to do to sustain ourselves as a human race.
But I also still really get a kick out of a good cartoon.