"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Theistic Evolution: a reflection for Compline

24 And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.
26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
27 So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

(Genesis Chapter 1)

Given the fact of human evolution, here is a good question for a quiet Sunday evening: if we last shared a common ancestor with the chimps between 5-6 million years ago, and humans have been gradually emerging through a series of hominid intermediates ever since, then why did Jesus die? The connection of thought here might not be immediately apparent. But behind the question lies about 1,600 years or more of church history.

Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, the most commanding intellect of all the early leaders of the Church, whose influence, both brilliant and perverse, continues to the present day, is an informative place to start. Augustine believed that the Adam and Eve of the Genesis text were the progenitors of all humankind. When they disobeyed God and were cast out of the Garden of Eden, their sin was then inherited by all succeeding generations: the doctrine of "original sin". Their disobedience became known as the "Fall" (a worked theology not found in the Bible) and Augustine's doctrine of original sin was soon ratified by successive church councils, the Council of Carthage in 418 declaring that human mortality was a consequence of the Fall. The focus of Christ's death on the cross – the Atonement – then became Christ's sacrifice for the sin of Adam, whose disobedience had led to the consequent physical death of all humanity.
If the Augustinian account is correct, then there is clear incompatibility with evolution, in which anatomically modern humans first start appearing in Africa about 200,000 years ago through a process involving countless deaths over thousands of generations.

 So do we then just shrug our shoulders and say "well so much the worse for theology – science wins in the end"? Surprisingly, perhaps, not: nearly 1,500 years before Darwin, Saint Gregory of Nyssa (331-396) taught that the Creation was potential - that God imparted to matter its fundamental laws and properties, but that the objects and completed forms of the Universe then developed gradually, under their own steam, out of primordial chaos: a long way away from the traditional Creation Story of Genesis.

St Gregory, it would seem, is the father of Theistic Evolution, a term that refers to that part of the overall range of beliefs about creation and evolution which sees God creating through evolution: a view generally accepted by the major churches, including the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church and most mainline Protestant churches outside of the United States. American Creationists are not just arguing against an atheistic understanding of the process of evolution but, more generally, against the very possibility of evolution itself. For them, the pre-human world is no older than six literal days. The Earth is incapable of evolutionary development, even in response to a call from the Creator.

The tradition of interpreting the early chapters of Genesis figuratively – as a theological essay, not as science – goes back to two great thinkers from Alexandria: the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo, and the third-century church father Origen. In 248 Origen wrote that Genesis references to Adam are "not so much of one particular individual as of the whole human race". Figurative understandings of the Genesis text have been part of mainstream theology ever since. The literalist viewpoint is a recent phenomonen.

The first mention of Adam in Genesis 1.26-27 is clearly referring to humankind and the definite article in front of Adam in chapters 2 and 3 – "the man" – suggests a representative man, because in Hebrew the definite article is not used for personal names. Eve then becomes the representative woman.

The Genesis narrative tells the story of humankind going their way rather than God's way. On the day that Adam and Eve sin, they do not drop dead but proceed to have a big family, but now alienated from friendship with God in such a way  as to cause spiritual death. Nowhere does the Bible teach that physical death originates with the sin of Adam, nor that sin is inherited from Adam, as Augustine maintained. But the New Testament does teach that humankind stays true to type – all people sin by their own free will – and Christ dies for the sins of all. Christ is the second Adam who opens up the way back to friendship with God through his sacrifice for sin on the cross. The result is the "at-one-ment" that the first Adam – Everyman – is unable to accomplish by his own efforts.

Evolution's gift is a complex brain that endows humanity with free will, enabling personal moral responsibilities towards our neighbour and towards God. We are not puppets. God's gift is forgiveness and new life through Christ for those who realise how far we've fallen from using that free will responsibly.

1 comment:

  1. Long time no speak old chap. I've read this thoughtful and enlightening piece. Thank you. The cartoon attracted my attention too. The "find the facts and back them up" argument is, sadly, one being used by the "scientific" community now. And they seem to have the same cavalier attitude to the definition of "facts" as do the worst extremists from any religion. "There is no God, and this is how science proves it" it fatuous. As is the knee-jerk Christian response of "yes there is, and this is how science proves it." A diversion from the main point of your blog, sure. Just wanted to get it off my chest. Rev'd Ian.