Evolution and Origins – the Beauty of “Both-And” (Evolution part 2)

The issue of faith versus evolution is so old that one college professor told me recently he was “bored stiff” with it. The basic issue is the unhelpfulness of dualistic language – did we evolve, OR were we created? Contrary to popular belief , Darwinism and natural selection theory doesn’t say anything very much about how life started, so the binary language is misplaced. More and more people are beginning to realise that the displacement of God by Darwin is wholly mistaken.

We can bring it down to the individual level to see what I am getting at. I believe that I was physically “created” at a particular moment in late 1962 (it was a very cold winter), emerging into the world 9 months later. It was a physical act (we don’t need to elaborate too much!) and a known biological, scientific process. It is process we increasingly understand and can even partially artificially replicate and sometimes fix when it goes wrong. Longstanding evils like infant mortality rates and stillbirths are much less common than they were.

At the same time, as a Christian I believe was also created by God. There was a time when neither I  nor my physical body existed at all, and a single moment when both suddenly did. God formed me (Jeremiah 1:4-5, Isaiah 44:2, Psalm 139:13, Galatians 1:15), and knew me from that time, indeed from before that time. He has plans for me then, and He has them now, right down to knowing the very hairs on my head (which is not the impossible task it once was, sadly).

The point is that both of these descriptions of my origin are true, at the same time – it is not an either/or proposition. I was created BY God, granted an identity, AND formed through natural, sexual and reproductive processes. I am both a profound mystery, and eminently explainable,  at the same time. Neither explanation excludes the other, indeed they complement each other, bringing the “what” and the “why” together.

So it is with all our human origins. There will always be more and more science. In fact, this field of human knowledge is still in its infancy. But the nature of our scientific origins co-exist quite happily with the claim that God created everything from nothing. They are both true, at the same time. Each new scientific discovery illuminates what God has done through the agency of the fixed laws of the universe. What is more, suddenly the eminent scientist is now my friend and not my foe – we are now both talking about the same thing and can journey together. This is the beauty of “both-and”.

‘Are Adam and Eve responsible for bringing God’s judgement upon the world by allowing sin to enter it?’ (part 2)

‘By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.’ 2Peter 3v7

Following on from the idea of how judgement on the world has been brought about by Adam and Eve, let us take a closer look at some of the counter arguments that might be considered. Here, I am indebted to Jewish rabii and author Harold Kushner whose observation of the incident in Genesis chapters 2 & 3  which reads:

‘I can’t remember how old I was when I heard (the story) for the first time, but I can remember that, when I was still young, I found some aspects of it hard to understand or accept…Isn’t this a harsh punishment for one small mistake – pain and death. Banishment from Paradise, for breaking one rule. Is God really that strict? Why did God create a tree that He didn’t want anyone to eat from?

Was God setting up Adam and Eve so that he could punish them? Was the woman ever told of the prohibition, either by God or by Adam? Why is the story told in such a way as to make it seem that it was all the woman’s fault? What is the significance of the first humans being unashamed of their nakedness before they ate the forbidden fruit, and feeling shame immediately afterward?

And perhaps most troubling of all, if the forbidden tree was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, does that imply that Adam and his mate had no knowledge of good and evil before they ate of it? If so, how could they have been expected to know that it was wrong to disobey God? And why were they punished if they had no sense of good and evil before they ate of it?’ (‘How Good Do We Have to Be?’ Harold S Kushner).

In summary, it is clear that simplistic narratives about evil, creation and judgement, unravel rapidly when held up against the model of a loving God and His intentions. Not that the most profound aspects of truth can be found in the most obtuse scriptures but these need to be understood against the backdrop of an emerging humanity with its misunderstanings and misconceptions about God and the world in which they lived. Something which is problematic for every generation as it tries to make sense of those who have gone before them. A lesson we all do well to learn for as observed by JP Hartley’s in the opening lines of his book ‘The Go-Between.’

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

 

 

 

Evolution 1 – What’s the Question Again ?

I have been writing about various trends of Christian thought concerning what is wrong with the world, the nature of evil. I’m going to give that rest for a while, and move on to something that is profoundly right with the universe, something I believe is incredibly beautiful, but which causes all sorts of argument, namely the vexed subject of evolution.

The idea that evolution could be true, that it might be good, and that it might even be “of God”, is for many people close to heresy or even disguised atheism. The problem with that position is a fairly basic one – evolution itself, at one level at least, is manifestly true, depending on what you mean by it.  So, if being a follower of Jesus Christ means turning your face on reality then it is no longer a coherent faith. Luckily I don’t believe Jesus asks us to do this, but we must first of all decide which question we are actually asking.

In his book “Evolution: A View from the 21st Century”, microbiologist James Shapiro makes an important distinction about evolution, arguing that three different questions exist which have been unfortunately blended into one. These are :-

(i) the origin of life, how it all started in the first place.
(ii) the evidence for an evolutionary process in the development of life, how we arrive at what we have today.
(iii) and the nature of that evolutionary change, how it works precisely.

Darwin is mistakenly supposed to have provided with a scientific explanation for all three, which is not true. They are all fiendishly complex and incompletely understood, and only the second one is actually (for most people) beyond doubt, or as I rather provocatively put it , “manifestly true”. We can see that species adapt and change over time, some of them very quickly, and some slowly.

Two points to make :

(i) we have no scientific answers for origins at all, and hence no science-faith argument.

(ii) the great mistake is to see any of these questions (and the answers!) as substituting God.

Life adapts and changes as does the dynamic universe in which we live. Our science discovers what God has done, and the inbuilt creativity in creation itself – creation reveals the nature of God, always giving, always creating.  There is even a cosmic pattern revealed in Christ – birth-life-death-resurrection – that displays the character of creator God.

The subject of evolution is actually “God-neutral”, as more and more people are coming to realise. Our debate cannot be based on simple denial, but as believers we also have the right assert what we known about God because these scientific case is not comprehensive enough to shut him out.

Necessary Evil 3

I have been arguing that the Fall, Adam and Eve’s sin, does not explain the origin evil at all.   I want to take it one stage further. A more challenging development of this argument is that it was inherent to the plan and even foreseen by God.

Firstly, Mankind was probably not created perfect ;  he had the inclination to act independently and therefore potentially sinfully, even before the first wrong moral act actually happened. That freedom of choice was inherent to the nature of the relationship God desired with mankind, and so it was genuine – it contained the capacity to sin.  That which flowed from man to God by way of worship and friendship needed to come from genuine choice, for that is God’s own nature, and the point of making us.  For it to be genuine choice, the capacity to do otherwise, to commit evil, had to be present as well, otherwise it isn;t genuine. My fellow blog writer Bob Eckhard has also tackled the issue of “Free Will” in his other blogs on this site, look them up.

Secondly the world we live in was probably never a trouble free playground to start with. The word Eden, or “paradise”, only refers to a certain part of the world, even if it ever was an actual geographical place. It is just as likely to represent not a place at all, but a state of relationship with God,. It was a time when the relationship God intended actually prevailed, represented in Genesis 2 and 3. Man’s sin meant that relationship needed to be not ended,  but  carried out in a different way, so he was ejected from the garden, and exposed to the inherent challenges of the created world (which  had already existed for billions of years before him).

As soon as that happened, mankind need to contend with the world at large, and the world as we see it today. It contains things that are both beautiful and dangerous at the same time. Subduing it to mankind’s purposes is a long and difficult labour, but is nevertheless the root “engine” of mankind’s development.  Subduing the Earth is partly what defines us, the question is, do we do as stewards, or exploiters., do we do it with God, or without him.

Yet, through that very struggle mankind develops. This is the sense in which I see “evil” , or imperfection, as necessary, and why I would argue that because of the presence of genuine free choice, the way mankind developed was more or less inevitable. To that end God always knew what the price of creation was going to be and pre-destined that Christ would come to redeem it. God knew that mankind would choose independence, and that it would take the form not just of fruitful self-governance but outright rebellion. That was not the way God created man to be, but was the result of sin gaining more and more ground in human affairs, and in the human psyche and makeup.

However, God’s commitment to mankind both outlasted the emergence of sin, and even preceded it. God predestined Christ to come and deal with the speed of sin, and that is what we witnessed 2000 years ago. But millennia ago, when the initial phase of man’s development was over and the garden a distant memory, God did not abandon man. The Bible is the story of that ongoing involvement of the creator God with his free, rebellious children.

‘Are Adam and Eve responsible for bringing God’s judgement upon the world by allowing sin to enter it?’ (part 1)

‘But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.’ Matthew 12v36

The failure of Adam and Eve to be obedient to God lies at the root of all Christian understanding about sin and judgement. Early in the Book of Genesis we are informed that the pair occupy a world (the Garden of Eden) that is without sin. They are also perfect in this regard being sinless themselves. But then disaster strikes when the devil – a malevolent angel who has rebelled against God – takes up residence in the Garden and tempts Eve to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. She complies and encourages Adam to join her in this venture only for God to find out and banish them from the Garden into a wilderness of toilsome work, pain and shame. Moreover, their transgression has far reaching consequences in the error not only affects their relationship but also every other human born after them who are subject to the same statute of judgement.

Okay, setting aside the obvious questions about the devil’s presence in a perfect world and the fairness of God’s judgement, the real issue rests with the complicity of Adam and Eve in bringing sin into the world. Given the simplistic metaphor of fruit – used to describe how the Knowledge of Good and Evil was consumed by the pair – one might question whether they can be judged? After all,  having not consumed the fruit before, did they have adequate knoweldge of it to make an informed decision and the right choice?

In Genesis 3, we are told God had warned Adam and Eve not to eat its fruit and the dire consequence that awaited them if they did:

 ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it or you will die.’

Today, with the benefit of  hindsight and biblical knowledge, most Christian scholare will tell you that the ‘death’ mentioned refers to the couple’s spiritual state and not their actual physical demise. Of course, this raises an even more interesting question as to how equipped Adam and Eve were for such challenges if uninformed about the devil’s presence in the Garden and his desire to corrupt them. Moreover, the naivity of Eve who readily eats something she has been told will kill her. Persuassive words of the devil aside, might we do better to consider Adam and Eve as rather child-like in their appreciation of the dangers around them. Moreover, their inability to refrain from consuming a fruit they have been told will kill them?

To be continued….

 

As part of this series I have been exploring the idea that what we call evil is actually not so surprising, and indeed was part of the original plan, or at least an inevitable consequence of it.

What are the objections to this line of thinking, for I can hear them coming! :

Objection 1  :  The Biblical text is “after the event” :

To argue that Romans 5:1-5 justifies suffering and hardship is to suppose that this was always the way it was supposed to be, whereas this merely describes the nature of the world after the Fall. It should have been better and it might have been.

Well, I suppose that’s just a point of view and I have to concede it. It is certainly what most people think, and the centrepiece of masses of systematic theology. The counter argument is that man’s original creation in under blessing (Genesis 1:28) . The notion of “original blessing” as opposed to “original sin” is a fascinating thought !

Objection 2 : There’s too much bad stuff !

The idea of inherent struggle, challenge and evil in the world would work for a little bit of it here and there, but the vale of evil is so deep and so great. It doesn’t amount to good character development so much as perpetual destruction.

This is certainly true. The penetration of sin into man’s development has spread not just into the nature of society but also in his psyche. Our own sin and our fear and hatred of sin in others shapes our very civilisation and personal approach to life – it’s why you lock your door when you go out. But is doesn’t counter the view that human choice is the cause, and we can always choose differently.

Objection 3 : What about natural evil ?

This is also a good point, indeed probably an insurmountable one. Some of the things the natural world can do to us amount to more than temporary hardships that breed character. Some afflictions, diseases and natural disasters are so enormous they transcend any sense of “benefit”. Well, maybe – but the main thrust behind most human endeavour is to make life better. Overcoming our threats, even from nature, is the root cause of most of our purposeful activity.  It is an interesting meditative thought to imagine an actual, perfect world…

All of these objections frankly, stand. I haven’t found the magic answer to evil and suffering, any more than 2000 years of Christian predecessors have. However, let me say this. I fervently believe that the notion that this world and its inhabitants are not miserable failures but strivers, children of God, and people of purpose who are overcoming much and capable of much more. The idea has got legs. We do not need to see ourselves as cursed, merely dependant.

The Fall story is not about what we did, but rather a statement of who we are – contingent, dependant, partners with God, endowed with free choice.   We were never meant to act alone, and frankly, cannot do so now. We live, as one writer put it, under “original blessing” as sinners and the invitation to live in communion with God is perpetually open. The choice inherent in our creation is still open to us.


‘How should we understand God’s judgment in a broken and fallen world?’

 “I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.’ (Zephaniah 1v2)

For many, God’s judgment runs something akin to the man in the picture (above) who stands ready to squash some bug under his shoe. An indifferent and wanton deity who is as ready to crush humanity as much as he is to leave it unharmed. But is this a fair representation of how the majority of people see God? Although a large proportion of believers from many religious backgrounds may assert God exists and will one day judge the world, they can no more prove this than those who are opposed to God can prove that He won’t. And of course, this does not even consider those who believe God to be a watchmaker diety who in creating earth, winds up it’s mechansim, sets it in motion and stands back as it disappears on its eliptical journey around the solar system for the next six billion years.

Now, while the idea of a non-existent or “hand’s off'” deity allows people to sidestep the issue of being accountable to God, the issue of a Day of Divine Judgment is kept alive by those who believe the Divine Creator has set out moral standards and values for humans to follow. A Creator who will return to hold everyone accountable for their actions, bringing judgement on those who are found wanting and rewarding those that are considered just and obedient.

In the following posts, we will consider some of the issues this raises for believers and sceptics in the acceptance and belief  of a Deity who holds us to account. Questions that will consider:

  • the way we imagine and understand God?
  • the human need for judgment?
  • the fairness of God’s judgement given the frailty of human recognition of right and wrong
  • the degree to which we can understand the Divine from our human perspective?
  • the way in which humanity is considered culpable for the ills of the world?
  • the notion of an actual ending of time and everything as the Day of Judgment arrives?

 

 

 

 

 

Necessary Evil ?

Does evil exist for some sort of purpose? Is it an unavoidable part of this creation, and more tellingly, was it always there?

One of the foundational theories of evil in Christian circles is that of the “Fall”. This is the point in the biblical narrative where sin is seen to enter the word, the implication being that all was well before that point. Bob Eckhard has dealt with some aspects of this is his other blogs on this site.  Many traditional Christian views hold that all evil, including physical death, result from this one  primeval human action. It is not the view of all Christians though , nor many Jews, from whom we derive the text as part of the Jewish Pentateuch.

Christianity takes the Old Testament scriptures as God’s word of course, but re-interprets many of them through the lens of New Testament texts. One of the key relevant texts in this context is Romans 5:12 which says :

“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned.”

Through this and other verses, many Christians have come to the view that literally everything that we call “evil”, from the Holocaust to the common cold, came into the world because of human sin. It also cultivates the view that  “suffering” is contrary to the creation plan and has no part in it. Holding that world view, however intuitive,  has serious implications ; it affects how we feel about the world we live in, our inner sense of well being, how we interpret the challenges of life, our sense of contentment, and also how we feel about God.

A few blogs ago I mentioned man called Irenaeus. Irenaeus is a key Christian figure (not a heretic!) and portrays the event of Genesis 3 in a slightly different light.  He questions the idea of “fall” without disputing the idea of evil.  Irenaeus paints a picture where God creates fallible human beings who were set on the path of growth, encountering and overcoming challenge.   They “turned away” from the path of obedience through pride and a desire to be their own master.

This is subtly different from a “fall” – a turning away is not the same as a loss of status.  It certainly does not explain the origin of evil – it was clearly already present. It is there in the form of their tempter, but also  perhaps in themselves in their very inclination to listen and act upon that temptation.  After all, the fact that they “fell” at all shows there were prone,  and such a move in human development was more or less inevitable. Adam and Eve, real or metaphorical, are presented as beings with a choice, invited not commanded to obey God. His instructions are clear, but they are not enforced. He left them a choice. Our original created state is with a clean sheet, yes, but not moral perfection. We not only had the potential to sin, we clearly chose to do so.

It follows that we should not bemoan our origins, but rather seek to discover what role hardship and adversity play in our development. Their created human purpose is to attain maturity, and to spur them on their way they will have to overcome problems and subdue her living environment. There is another hint in Romans that this could be a valid interpretation :

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we[c] boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Romans 5:1-5

We’ll examine the problems with this case in later blogs – and there are many. For now let’s agree to open our minds to the possibility that this word is our responsibility, and that it is more or less as it was intended to be. Our mission is to tend it and “subdue” it as Genesis says, in partnership with God.

Why does God give people freewill?

One reason why God offers freewill to his creation is explained in an observation made by the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre who observed how the individual

‘who wants to be loved does not desire the enslavement of the beloved. He does not want to possess an automaton … If the beloved is transformed into an automaton, the lover finds himself alone.’

What this seems to suggest is that the nature of God’s love necessitates that freedom must always be the main concern. God allows both outcomes to occur – that is to say that people are free to accept or reject the advances of the Divine even though God knows the consequence when humanity rails against His goodness which in turn brings about evil and suffering.

As already noted in an earlier post, the reluctance of God to overrule our choices poses an interesting question in regard to how the Creator is considered to operate in our world with many believers holding to the idea that God has the power to overrule our personal freedom by changing our mindset so that we do not pursue a particular course of action. But this makes little sense and seems unreasonable as it goes against the very nature of God’s love that has chosen not to intervene and overrule.

Drawing these threads together, we have thought about some of the problems connected with moral evil in our world. In this, we have considered how evil could be thought of as a logical outcome if humans are to be enabled to make truly free decisions. The nature of God is not lessened by the outcome of evil in the world, but better understood as evidence of a love that allows things to occur independently of God’s nature and all the outcomes good and bad that it will bring.

Wouldn’t the world be happier if everyone was programmed to respond to God’s loving advances and not commit evil?

Think of a world where freewill has been removed. A world in which humans do not act in response to anger, lust, revenge, selfish desire, greed etc. Sounds great but is this a loving world? After all, without freewill, the same people could neither cherish, honour, reward or praise (etc) as the ability for positive decision making has been removed from them and herein lies the problem…

While a ‘programmed’ arrangement might work for a time between God and humanity, there is good reason to suppose humans would eventually come to resent this control over. Moreover, the inability to make freely determined choices for themselves. All of which brings us to the dynamics of what actually constitutes a loving relationship.

In seeking to explain the dynamic of love, CS Lewis in his book ‘The Four Loves’ outlines various types of love of which ‘agape’ is one of them. This love – the unconditioal love of God –  is different to the other three because it is always directed toward the recipient in selfless ways. A love which make no demand on the recepient to respond or show gratitude for whatever benefit has occurred.

As such, ‘agape’ of God is best understood as the unconditional love that humans experience which allows them to make their own choices in the world (even when running contrary to God’s commandments). A world in which there is also no requirement to acknowledge God as provider or anything for that matter.