As promised, I want to comment some more on evolution and Christianity, starting with my comment to Vaughn’s post.
Some commenters have said that the whole issue isn’t very important. They’re more interested in politics, personal morality, charity, and so on. And I respect that, because there are certainly many important things for churches to be doing. But I still want to stick up for the importance of natural theology, because I know I’m not the only person who, growing up in a nonreligious environment, turned to science to explain my place in the universe and what it means to be a human being.
Obviously, I wasn’t totally satisfied with what I got, or I wouldn’t have moved on to church. But my interest in science did give me a certain perspective that I found Christians were generally ill-prepared to deal with. Very early in my blogging life I got into a debate with Telford about this. Here was my first post about it; Telford’s response; and my follow-up. That was the last that I blogged about it, though Telford and I continued to talk and argue about it. It’s not really his subject, but it doesn’t seem to be the subject of very many Christians. So my bad attitude toward Nancey Murphy has mellowed somewhat since then: at least she’s trying. (This is a good thing, since she’s actually my fellow congregant now at Pasadena Mennonite Church, although I have yet to meet her.)
Anyway, I think the implications of this actually redound beyond those of us who are interested in science for one reason or the other. In the last couple hundred years there’s been a real change in the relationship between humanity and nature, not just because of science but because industrial life means we no longer live and die by it the way we used to. And this divorce has led Christian thought in a number of different directions. Two of them we discussed at Icthus: a hardline literalism that distrusts all science, and a quasi-dualism that more or less concedes the material world to science and restricts religion to an ever-shrinking “spiritual” realm. The latter view, which Stephen Jay Gould dubbed “non-overlapping magisteria”, holds that religion is there to provide moral instruction, and perhaps a broad sense of meaning, while it’s up to science to explain the facts of life.
The problem as I see it is that you can’t really separate your morality from your understanding of the universe. Morals aren’t plucked randomly from the air; they’re grounded in our understanding of human nature and our place in things. Hauerwas wrote the Christianity goes “with the grain” of the universe, and to think that way obviously requires a particular understanding of the universe.
Certainly, it’s not a terribly obvious understanding of the universe. If you look at the universe in its present state, it’s not at all clear why loving your enemies, giving away your possessions, refraining from adultery and so on will accomplish much of anything. From a Darwinian point of view, it may help your reproductive superiority to cooperate with others, but only within limits. Unless you buy the Priory of Sion stuff, Jesus left no descendants, and many of his early followers didn’t either. As I said before, Jesus was really something of a family-buster.
Another symptom of the human/nature disconnect shows up in apocalypticism. Jonathan wrote a while ago that he thinks dispensationalism is a heresy because it promotes dualism, in its sharp divide between earth and heaven and evident contempt for the earth. This contempt can conveniently dovetail with the interests of capitalism, as with the former Interior Secretary James Watt, who figured the environment wasn’t really worth much care because it’s all going to burn anyway.
But even Telford, who falls into none of these errors, I found difficult to talk to because of his blithe anthropocentrism. A lot of Christians (and a lot of non-Christians, for that matter) are so used to assuming that the important thing in the universe is the human drama, and the rest of it is just wallpaper, that they don’t quite get how radically scientific materialism has de-centered them. Although the ancients certainly felt puny compared to the forces of nature, even they didn’t realize quite how big the universe is, and how much of it seems to be nothing at all like us. The pagan gods were often capricious and mean, but they were recognizably humanoid. That’s quite a different picture from the vast, impersonal grinding machine that science pictures the universe to be.
And it’s also worth saying that I like nature, even with all the negative things I said about it to Telford. I recognize its beauty and its magnificence, and I think I felt an instinctive kinship with it even before I learned all the science. And I believe that’s true of humanity in general. For millennia, people have been imputing human intelligence and feelings into animals, telling stories of talking animals, human-animal hybrids, even animal gods. They knew animals were their relatives long before Darwin told them about it. I think this instinctive reverance for nature is part of what leads people in my demographic to Wiccanism and that sort of thing. Christianity really doesn’t provide a very friendly environment for it.
So what would an up-to-date Christian natural theology look like? I’m still not sure, but over the course of reading and discussion I’ve gotten some interesting hints. In that comment of Nate’s that I highlighted yesterday he said this about the early Genesis stories:
I have no problem with believing that the Garden of Eden and Cain and Abel and Noah were not literal realities, but that a servant of Yahweh used the prevailing myths of the time (myths in ancient times being “science”–that is, seeking to explain how the world worked and how things came to be) and applied Yahwehistic theology (which I affirm) to recontextualizing these stories. So he, she or they rejected the notion that the world was created through gods procreating or gods killing one another and chopping up their corpses, but that there was one god who created everything through his sovereign power. The myth that the gods created a flood to kill off all of the humans but a few escaped by building a boat was probably so widespread that it was accepted as scientific fact at the time, but the writer of the biblical story decided to retell it based on what Yahweh must have really done. So, instead of the gods killing off the humans because they were too loud, Yahweh must have decided this because they were unrighteous, for Yahweh is just. Instead of the survivors escaping against the will of the gods, Yahweh must have willed them to survive, because Yahweh is all powerful. So on and so on. The importance of the creation stories is not the stories themselves, for they belong to an earlier age of understanding, but the theology that influenced the way they were told.
I’d never quite thought of it like that, but this sounds very right to me. The textual analysts believe the first four books of the Bible were written all of a piece, and therefore after the liberation from Egypt and move to Canaan. It’s entirely plausible that Jewish scribes would have sought to rewrite the known history of the world through the lens of what the Exodus experience had taught them about God: he’s a deliverer, lawgiver, keeper of promises, smiter of evil etc. After the revelation of Jesus, his Jewish followers reinterpreted their history again in that light, seeing Eden as the scene of original sin and subsequent Jewish history as God laying the groundwork for his big redemptive act.
As Nate says, this all indicates that God isn’t going to reveal the technical facts about his creation to us, even if we have them wrong. He just wants us to get him right, and to remember his basic character and singularity. I think this idea that God plays along with our misconceptions bothers some people (Progressive Christian says that if Jesus literally “ascended,” even though heaven isn’t really “up there,” God must have been engaged in an “unusual charade”), but whatever the reason, scientific understanding doesn’t seem to be big on his agenda. So perhaps rather than trying to reinterpret God through the lens of science, we should take a look at how God regards the natural world in the Bible.
The Bible, unlike many ancient texts, does not anthropomorphize animals. Other than the talking serpent in Eden and the one-liner from Balaam’s ass, the animals in the Bible act just like animals in real life. In Romans 1, Paul also explicitly condemns the worship of animal gods. But there’s also a premodern bond between animals and humans that is sometimes very subtle. We’re so used to the image of God as shepherd that it’s easy to miss the implied relationship. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” says Jesus in John 10:11, as if everyone knows that’s what good shepherds do. It’s a long way from that to factory farming, eh?
The Old Testament sacrifices of animals, which seem barbaric to us now, also actually imply a greater respect for animal life than our current mechanized slaughter. OT analyst Richard Friedman wrote: “Modern readers often think that sacrifice is the unnecessary taking of animal life, or that the person offering the sacrifice was giving up something to compensate for some sin or to win God’s favor. But in the biblical world, the most common type of sacrifice was for meals. The apparent rationale was that if people wanted to eat meat, they must recognize that they were taking life. They could not regard this as an ordinary act of daily secular life. It was a sacred act, to be performance in a prescribed manner, by an appointed person (a priest), at an altar.”
It is true, however, that animals in the OT were often forced to bear the sins of people. That’s why the NT frequently compares Jesus to a sacrificial animal. And so his sacrifice served not to just liberate people, but animals. When Telford and I were talking about this he told me that the idea that Jesus’ salvific power extended to the natural world used to be a lot more accepted, especially in Eastern Christianity. One image the conversation imprinted on my brain was from an Orthodox painting of Jesus’ baptism that showed the Jordan’s fish leaping for joy because he was blessing their water.
What that salvation looks like, no one really knows. Isaiah had his famous lines about predators eating plants and lions lying down with lambs, but of course you never know how literally to take those things. Either way, though, there’s a definite implication that not just humanity but “nature red in tooth and claw” will be profoundly changed by the Kingdom.
I think this is an important idea for the West to recover. For one thing, cutting the animals out of salvation also cuts our own animal nature out of salvation, and implies that only the upper cortices of our brains will really be “saved.” For another, so long as nature is assumed to be the way God ultimately wants it to be, it gets very difficult to claim that God has the sort of personality that Christians ascribe to him. Why would a God opposed to selfishness and killing approve of a world that runs on a Darwinian struggle for survival? Even if people actually followed his commands and stopped hurting each other, we would still be in a world that frequently hurts us.
Actually, this kind of brings me back to the discussion I’ve been having with Progressive Christian about why the bodily resurrection was “necessary”. For me it’s necessary because without a physical eschatology, Jesus’ moral instructions are an exercise in futility. They become, like Gould’s non-overlapping magisterium, principles plucked from the air, designed for a perfect world and not the real one.
So anyway, those are my beginning musings in search of a Christian natural theology. What are your thoughts?