Friday, April 02, 2010

A Doctrine of Evolution

I think I've finally figured out a way to fit evolution in with Easter.

This hasn't been the most pressing question of faith to occupy my mind these many years, but it has been one I've never entirely satisfied with. Easter, you see, is the beginning of the Resurrection. To the Christian, it's the evidence that God is committed to restoring all of creation to what he intended it to be; that, on the last day of history, the dead themselves will rise and all the suffering of this world will end. Tears will be dried, bitter soul-aches will mend, hunger will be satisfied, and justice will be established. And, as John Donne immortally put it, death itself shall die.

In the Christian faith, this is the restoration of the Golden Age found in the mythic Garden of Eden, but of course, if Eden is a myth and not a bit of actual history, we have a problem. Genesis 2-3, where the Eden myth is related, tells us that God didn't intend for Adam and Eve to die, but that death was the consequence of Adam's sin in eating the forbidden fruit. Evolution, on the other hand, tells us that death has always been a part of the process. From the first monocellular organisms up to the earliest hominids, creatures have been living and dying, sometimes individually and sometimes in mass-extinction events, but either way, there's nothing unnatural about it.

This is why some people, like Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis, view evolution as an attack on the very foundations of the Christian faith, and insist that a literal interpretation of Scripture is the only responsible one.

Of course, there's more to responsibility than just that. Responsible reading of any text, especially a sacred one, means understanding the context the story was written in, and grasping authorial intent when possible. The story of Noah, in Genesis 6-9, which creationists often use to explain the fossil record, is an adaptation of the older story of Utnapishtim from "The Epic of Gilgamesh," one where the Deluge is due to humanity's wickedness, rather than to the caprices of a god who can't take a nap because of the noise of all the people. Similarly, the loss of immortality in the account of the Fall of Man in Genesis 3 is due to a moral failing of Adam, rather than to a chance encounter with a snake that happens to eat magical flowers.

And there's that pesky problem, that a lot of Darwin's observations just make sense. Natural selection does occur, and species do change over time. A quick survey of dogs and how they have changed after several thousand years of domestication should establish that beyond dispute; but if that is not enough, consider how much woolier sheep are than just 4,000 years ago, consider that bacteria have adapted remarkably well in just 100 years to antibiotics.

Interpreting the Genesis account literally is a popular thing. According to a report by CBS in 2005, no fewer than 51 percent of Americans believe that God created humanity in our present form. Three in ten believe in theistically guided evolution, and only 15 percent believe that humanity evolved to our current state with no guidance or assistance from a higher power.

One site I read claims that about 40 percent of all Americans believe that the planet itself is fairly young, about 10,000 years old, as compared to the 4.5 billion years asserted by the scientific community.

I'm with the three in 10 who believe that God has guided humanity's evolution.

The reconciliation I see is this: As N.T. Wright points out in his book "Surprised by Hope," death in the Hebrew Scriptures often is used to refer to exile. Ezekiel described the Babylonian captivity as a form of death, with Israel becoming as a valley of dry bones that would be recalled to life when God pleased to bring the captives home. And in Genesis 2, when Adam is warned not to eat the forbidden fruit, he is told he will die; when he does, he is exiled from God's presence, and leaves Eden.

If death was a part of God's creative process, which it would have to be, with evolution on the table, the question becomes one of how death changed, once people had removed themselves from the presence of God. Now it's a work of fiction, but bear with me here for the sake of illustration. In the appendices to "The Lord of the Rings," when the time comes for Aragorn to die, death is something that holds no terror for him. He simply goes to the tomb where he is to be buried, stretches himself out upon his deathbed, and allows himself to die. He is completely at peace with it.

J.R.R. Tolkien imagined Middle Earth as a world that was as yet free of original sin, and I think that in doing so, he may have given us a view of how death should look. It is not an event marked by terror, but by calm acceptance.

How does that fit in with the Resurrection? I mean, it's great if Christ can make us so that we feel no terror when we shuffle off this mortal coil, but if all he does is to restore us to a point where death doesn't terrify us, what's the point? The Apostle Paul even argues that "If the dead do not rise, then we are to be pitied above all men." (And he wasn't referring to spiritual or disembodied resurrection where our souls flit around the afterlife strumming on harps. The Christian faith, like the Jewish faith it grew out of, historically has believed in a physical resurrection of our physical bodies on the last day of history. And of course it's a ridiculous idea to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, since people just don't do that. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that anyone in the first century could have told you that, including his disciples.)

One of the more intriguing ideas I've come across in the last few years is that even if there were no Fall of Man caused by Adam's sin, the Incarnation still would have happened. Forgiveness of sin was only one part of the Incarnation, after all; the main intent was always for us to know God better. So then, in a world without sin, Christ still would have come. He still would have lived. And he still would have died, though not, I should think, from crucifixion. And he still would rise -- and everyone would know that one day they would be raised too, and the revelation of God would become that much clearer to everyone.

Speculation? Of course. A new creation myth? Undoubtedly. But I think I'm on solid ground here, theologically, and I can get here without doing violence to the Genesis text by insisting that it be a literal record that it was never intended to be, or without engaging in the hubris that dismisses every scientist who believes in evolution as foolish, ignorant of scientific principles, or engaged in a great coverup to suppress the truth about God.

And in the end, I think I'm OK with that.

Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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