2013-03-30

On Soul as Emergent and Eternal



Once I had a conversation with a friend of mine who teaches science and who is agnostic. We were talking about whether or not the soul was an emergent property that arises from our biology, or an eternal "substance" implanted in us by God. I tried to explicate that the soul was both-and, a sort of di-polar entity, in which both the Transcendent and the Empirical were necessary and sufficient causes.  The conversation about souls got me thinking about what exactly I meant. and didn't mean, by calling the "soul" an "emergent property" of complex systems. So, if you will indulge me, I would like to explain.

On Christ's Descent to Hell



A friend asked me over Christmas break in 2012 about the meaning of "Christ's descent to hell" alluded to in 1Peter 3.18-20. It is only appropriate that I should post this today, on Holy Saturday, which yearly commemorates Jesus' "harrowing of hell". The text in question is one of the many Scriptures that is used to assert that Jesus "descended to the dead" or "descended to hell" during the time of his death, to release those in bondage in the realm of the dead.

On "The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry"



The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry is actually a pretty huge topic, and I don't have all night to write on it! I think that this book is a great step in the right direction. Kids who are actually still coming to Church in our culture are doing so because they want to find something different than the prevailing culture of consumerism. That something different may be genuine agape-based relationships with caring peers and adult mentors. But often along with that (or because of that) there comes a hunger for WHY Christian life is (or should be) so different from the prevailing culture. This WHY question is precisely theology: Helping people think in a God-centered way that is well-ordered and rational (i.e. theo-logical).

This is what we used to call Christian formation or even discipleship (at least the cognitive, worldview portion of it). But it's tricky. And there are at least 4 reasons why theological formation with youth is tricky:

1. There is a general lack of Biblical literacy among Americans in general and youth in particular. Since theologizing, for Christians, takes place upon the basis of the Grand Narrative found in the narratives of Scripture, it is essential to teach these stories. But...

2. The Churches that are often strongest on teaching the Bible are also often the most legalistic, fundamentalist, and least inclusive and justice oriented. They tell the story, but they tell it with a slant toward individualism and exclusivism. So we must develop a way of teaching the Bible just as strongly, except emphasizing the inclusion and social justice found in Scripture. Which means...

3. We need to develop a lexicon of basic concepts and strategies to get these stories across in a way that avoids the fundamentalist extreme, while staying faithful to Scripture and the best of the Christian tradition. The genius of fundamentalism is that is hones in on a few basic, easily remembered concepts and just hammers them into people. We need to find a way to present the message and theology of Scripture in a way that is equally winsome and easily remembered. However...

4. The massive failure of fundamentalism, other than it's appalling lack of Christlike Love for "The Other", is that its concepts have such narrow boundaries that they crack when challenged by science and rational learning. Thus, kids raised in fundamentalist environments often "loose faith" in college when their legalistic, foundationalist faith gets destroyed. Thus, when we theologically form people, we must do so in a way that the concepts we teach them can grow with them as they grow intellectually.

To give a negative and positive example: Negatively, when kids are taught some form of creationism (often literal, 6-day versions) as an attempt to help them believe in God as "Creator", they often go to college and find this shattered by the facts of evolutionary science. Then they loose faith in God's creative role altogether. Better to teach them a version of creation that welcomes evolution as one mode of God's creativity unfolding across history. This type of concept can grow with them, where as "Six Day Creationism" cannot.

Or, another example: Fundamentalists are rightly taught the centrality of Jesus and his saving work, but they learn it in an exclusivistic way that most postmoderns find unbelievable. When confronted with their virtuous Hindu, Muslim, and Agnostic friends at school, they find it hard to believe that Jesus would send them to hell for eternity, while the (often asshole) Evangelicals get to live forever. Thus, they jettison Christ altogether.

Better to teach them that yes, Jesus is the Incarnation of God, and yes, Jesus is the Way of Salvation, BUT that Jesus fulfills instead of rejects all that is good, true, and beautiful in other religions and cultures. When we meet God face to face, we will see the face of Jesus, and he will fulfill and confirm all that is right in our lives, while also judging and healing all that is wrong in our lives. So that the virtuous Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Agnostic will find that all they have done good has been done in Christ, especially when they reached out to "the least of these" not knowing it was Christ himself that they were ministering to (cf. Mat. 25.31-46).

That is probably more than you wanted to know. But that is a brief outline of the challenge as I see it.

On Ritual and Relationship


Recently, I taught in chapel on the Story of Mary and Martha, in which Jesus ends by helping Martha to re-focus her perspective to see the necessity of BOTH action AND contemplation in her journey with Jesus:

Luke 10.38–42 [38] Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. [39] She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. [40] But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” [41] But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; [42] there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Based on this teaching, one of my students wrote and asked me:

"Martha gets upset that Mary will not participate in the activities of preparing food/ cleaning up yet Jesus tells Martha that she is missing the point. My question is: couldn't the same be said about us in chapel? We go through the actions of repeating, rehearsing, sitting, and standing, but if you don't do those things, you're looked upon as Mary in the story."

And so I answered:

Great question and one that I have pondered for years. I wish I could give you a simple answer, but your question hits on a wide-ranging topic of how we worship as Christians. So please allow me to give a bit of background to the answer:

I think what you have hit upon is the constant tension of what we do FOR Jesus versus being present WITH Jesus. When used rightly, most rituals and activities can be used as a tool to become more aware of Jesus and present with Jesus. The catch is that most people- myself included- are not very good at being mindful of Jesus while doing activities.

Regarding specifically religious rituals, I have been a Christian in several different Christian traditions before I came to the Episcopal tradition. I have spent a great deal of time in Evangelical/ Bible Church/ Non-Denominational Churches, as well as Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches. I've also been a part of services in a wide variety of other Christian traditions: Orthodox, Catholic, etc.

So I will say that every Christian tradition has its own pattern of worship with expected rituals and patterns for prayers. For instance, think of the "sinner's prayer" used when someone gets saved in an Evangelical Church. It has a standard pattern: Confession of sin, need for Jesus, acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior, giving praise to Jesus.

Or the typical pattern in a non-denominational worship service or youth worship service: Typically you have a welcome, then gathering prayer, then upbeat worship songs, then a Bible reading, a message, a call to conversion, often ending in slower, more emotional worship songs while people come forward to receive Christ, and then finally a dismissal by the pastor.

Or if you go to a healing service in a charismatic or Pentecostal Church, there is a pattern for when to raise your hands in praise, how you offer healing prayers, or when (and how) it is proper to speak in tongues, and even when it is proper to faint (or be "slain in the spirit").

So, that's all to say that whether you are at Community Bible Church, First Pentecostal, Oak Hills, Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, chapel at TMI or chapel at SACS, you are going to find regular repeated pattern of certain kinds of rituals and certain kinds of prayers. In fact you find references to patterns of ritual in the Bible in places like Leviticus, Psalms, and even the patterns of worship we find with Jesus and the early disciples (cf. 1Co 10-11).

I think that any of these rituals can be good, if they are done with Jesus while being mindful of Jesus. And I think any of these rituals can be bad or useless if they are done for their own sake, or to impress others, or just out of habit. So the trick is to use rituals mindfully to connect with Jesus.

So, if raising my hands is a meaningful act of worship to me that draws me near to Christ, I should do that. If crossing yourself and kneeling is a meaningful way of drawing near to Christ for you, you should do that. However, I should not compel you to raise your hands if that is not helpful for you. And likewise, you should not compel me to cross myself.

But, it is even more complex than that. Because of we are going to practice the type of hospitality that Christ calls us to, by which we become "all things to all people" (in St. Paul's words) then we should be willing to try and use spiritual practices that are meaningful to thousands or millions of other brothers and sisters in Christ. So, while I should not be compelled to cross myself (or raise my hands, or bow) as an act of worship, I should probably be willing to practice it voluntarily if I am around many other Christians who do find it meaningful. If I do, I might also come to find it has meaning for me as well.

Whew. I know this is a long and complex set of arguments, but you find somewhat similar discussions of how to worship, and what to eat, or do, or not do, to please Christ in places like Romans ch. 14-15 and 1Co ch. 10-14.

Anyway, as for which "pattern" of ritual you use, that will depend on the context you are in. If you are in a Catholic context and you use Pentecostal practices (such as speaking in tongues) you are going to make people uncomfortable and they will not understand you. Likewise, if you are at the non-denominational Bible Church and use Catholic rituals (such as bowing and crossing yourself) people probably wouldn't receive you too well.

And anytime you have a group of several hundred people who gather on a regular basis (such as chapel) then most of the time you need to have a predictable pattern that everyone can use to worship. Granted, some people will mentally check out or be distracted or just ignore what is going on. That happens at Catholic masses and Pentecostal tent revivals and Episcopal Schools. But for those who choose to use the ritual framework to connect with Jesus, it allows for that capacity on a daily basis.

One thing that I miss sometimes are the things you can do in a smaller setting (such as summer camp or a youth retreat) that you can't do with several hundred people on a daily basis. For instance, times of silence, singing around a camp fire, and really intimate personal times of prayer. These rituals and practices work great with a small group of people. But when transposed into a huge group, what you wind up with is a lot of people who get really freaked out and uncomfortable, and a very few insiders who really like it. You can actually see this happen sometimes when guitar based songs are played in chapel. The students who have been to happening or sing these songs in their youth group like it. And many others- students and faculty- either don't get it or are uncomfortable with it. In fact, for every person I have ask me to do something in chapel (such as sing camp songs), I usually have at least one other person (if not more) who will complain that we did it. No kidding!

So, most of the time I use prayers and rituals that have been meaningful to most Christians through most of Christian history. That means a lot of prayers and rituals that have Catholic and Anglican roots. It's not everyone's cup of tea. But then again no style of worship is everyone's cup of tea. But it is a pattern that has been shown to shape and develop the spiritual lives of Christians through most of Christian history. And Jesus will use it, if you let him, to remind you of his presence and help you hear his Word.

And that leads me to the bottom line answer: It's all in how you use it.

Every relationship has rituals. My relationship with my wife has many rituals that involve speaking, listening, special names we use, sitting, standing, working and resting. Likewise, my relationship with Jesus has many rituals that involve speaking, listening, special names, sitting, standing, working and resting. I can use these rituals to connect with Jesus (or my wife). Or I can use the same rituals to ignore either of them and check out mentally. It's all in how I use them.

Martha's problem was that she was using her work instead of being present with Christ, and perhaps at the wrong time when Jesus may have been calling her to do something else. My hope is that we learn to use our work and rest, ritual and spontaneity, in the right way at the right time to draw us all closer to Christ.

I know that's a complex answer. But I think life with Jesus is complex, multifaceted and beautiful. It is easy to say "Love Jesus!"  But it takes a lifetime- and beyond- to explore how to love Jesus in the manifold contexts we find ourselves in.

2013-03-26

Why Biblical Christians need Biological Evolution


Over the last few years in educational ministry, I have continually had questions asked about, discussions over, and even debates because of the topic evolution and faith. Can one believe in the Bible AND in evolution? Is it possible for a faithful Christian to have an evolutionary worldview? And even if it is possible, is it permissible within the limits of classic Christian orthodoxy? And after all of this, I think it is finally time to move beyond asking whether it is merely permissible for faithful, Biblical, Christ-loving Christians to have an evolutionary view of how God is at work in creation.

Biblical Christians need to think in evolutionary terms to be faithful to Christ.

It is not only possible for evolutionary thought to fit within classic Christian orthodoxy. Evolution makes better sense out of classic Christian claims about the nature of God, creation, Christ, salvation, and consummation than other theories of how the Universe was created.

I know for many these are radical statements. It is radical for Christians who have grown up with the teaching that evolution is anathema to a faithful reading of Scripture. It is also radical for non-Christians, or anti-Christians, or ex-Christians who assume that "literal creationism" is the only Christian worldview option out there.

And I want to move beyond merely saying that some (or most) Christians may believe in literal creationism, while some (or few) Christians believe in God-guided evolution of some sort. I want to say that, if you want to be most consistent with the broad themes found in Scripture and Christian orthodoxy, then you are going to have to accept a broadly evolutionary view of how God is at work in History.

TWIN PREMISES OF ANTI-EVOLUTION

Now that I have made such a broad and controversial statement, let me paint in broad brush strokes the argument as I see it. To start with, it seems to me that the anti-evolutionary worldview is based on one central emotional premise, and one central worldview premise.

The emotional premise is that change is scary. It is scary because change posits that the future is unknowable, and hence unpredictable, and hence uncontrollable. Change could bring harm to us, especially if it is chaotic or malevolent change. So, in a nutshell, change causes fear. And fear causes frustration and anger. And I know Yoda said that, but any pastor or therapist will agree: Fear is a root of anger and hostility and prejudice. Fear colors how we see the world, and whether we are able to embrace change.

And since the basis of evolutionary thought is "things change over time", then evolution is bound to trigger fear in people.

The worldview premise of anti-evolutionism is "the static universe". This is the broad idea- expressed differently in Neo-Platonism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc.- that Reality does not actually change. It stays the same always, and there are organized hierarchies, systems, and keys to both understanding the world, and assuring future outcomes (from the prosperity of crops to future life in heaven). The static universe is soothing balm to comfort the conflicted conscience of those who fear change. The static universe assures us that we do have the world under control (or at least we know WHO does), and thus there is nothing to fear.

And by the way, I'm not lumping those who "fear change" into a category of "the other". I fear change myself. I just think there is another way to deal with it.

And we can easily see how the "static universe" gets a Christian paint job. We assume a static universe. Then we read this static once-for-all world into the first and second creation stories in Genesis 1-2 (while ignoring how they contradict each other if taken literally; more on that later). Then we take our view of an "Eternal Creator", in which God is unchanging perfection, and impose that divine image onto the created universe. Then we posit that humans fell from a sort of "Neo-Platonic perfection" into sin, and it is now our job to return BACKWARDS to the original perfection postulated in our static view of the universe via literalist interpretation of Biblical texts.

Then we make that return to perfection a project of memorization and repetition of correct knowledge about the static universe through hierarchies of realms and angels and created beings and men and women. If we can just rehearse, and perform, the correct static pattern of Reality, under the tutelage of Jesus, then we can be saved. If, however, we persist in ordering our world in a different way, we will come under divine wrath and social sanction for questioning the "natural law" of Divine Providence.

And it is easy to see how evolutionary thought runs almost entirely counter to this Christianized static view of Creation. And thus it generates fear. Which in turn generates anger and hostility, rather than Love and compassion.

Yet, I think the static view is deeply contradictory to many of the broad themes of the Bible, and also conflicts with the type of character necessary to follow Jesus Christ. Let me explain:

TRINITY AND EVOLUTION

I will begin by looking at the Name and Nature of the Biblical God. In the "Old Testament" the personal Name of God- YHWH- is a verbal form in Hebrew, not a static noun. YHWH is an activity, dynamic pulsating being, meaning "I AM who I AM". God is a Person who is an energy, a force, a power that comes from beyond the universe to work throughout the universe. This Dynamic Personal Energy walks with his people, calls them into covenant relationship, empowers them to follow his commands, and disciplines them when they go astray.

In the "New Testament" how do we most clearly see God? As a human person, who acts and does signs and wonders and miracles, to liberate and heal and save. That is what the name Jesus means: YHWH who saves. When God becomes embodied, he becomes embodied in a person who grows and develops from fetus to baby to child to adolescent to adult. As Luke 2.52 states: "Jesus increased [προκόπτω, prokopto - literally to advance, grow, progress]
 in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor." So even Jesus evolved and changed to grow into his own divine calling as the embodiment of God's presence.

The classic Christian view of God combines the data of the Old and New Testaments to posit an Ultimate Reality that is, in essence, a dynamic relationship of distinct Persons who dwell IN each other eternally as One God. This is described as the Trinity: One God in Three Persons of Father, Son, and Spirit. But this is not a static God of three thrones sitting side by side by side, but as a dynamic, pulsating, self-giving Love. The Father constantly giving Himself to the Son, through the Spirit. And the Son, constantly sharing Himself with the Father, through the same dynamic Spirit. This dynamic Love overflows from the depths of Godself to create a whole universe of endless possibilities, made so that free, intelligent, sentient beings could emerge and evolve and learn to share in this Divine Life.

In the language of the Eastern Church Fathers who created this Trinitarian language to describe the God revealed in Christ, this is called the "perichoresis" of God's inner life. Perichoresis is the "circle dance" of ancient Greek theater, in which the actors circled in and out of each other in a beautifully self-giving, self-sharing intimacy. The Triune God is not static Being, but a dynamic dance, inviting all of the Universe to dance within God's dance. This is the perfection of Love and Justice and Compassion and Truth and Beauty that draws all beings to evolve into better and better incarnations of themselves over time.

So this seems to be the picture of God that fulfills the trajectory of the Scriptures: A dynamic, energetic, active Creator, not a passive Being ruling over a static universe. Now, let us talk about the picture of the creation presented to us in Scripture itself.

JOURNEY AND EVOLUTION

The first theme I would pick out of Scripture is the idea of "the Journey". We start in the garden of Eden, when YHWH walked (not sat!) with humans in the garden, and then gave us the task of naming the creatures (notice that means God did NOT assign names, but gave us freedom to). We then notice the stories of the Fathers and Mothers of Faith: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. They were all called on a journey, a pilgrimage with God, into the Promised Land. The Exodus story is a story of journey FROM a worse place TO a better place, FROM slavery TO freedom. Once the nation of Israel was settled, and God's people began an agrarian economy, pilgrimage and journey to holy sites were key to their spirituality. Even in exile and return, we find the theme of journeying away, and coming back.

The New Testament is literally nothing but a journey. God's Eternal Son journeys from the Divine Presence to become incarnate in a baby, who grows and develops on his life journey. After Jesus is baptized, he goes on a journey through the wilderness. When Jesus begins ministry he journeys from place to place to place. When Jesus calls disciples, he has them journey with them, then he sends them out as Apostles on their own journeys. The word Apostle is in fact a version of a verb, meaning "one sent forth on a journey". After Jesus' journey to the cross, and descent into death, and return in resurrection, Jesus gathers his followers together. And what does he do? He sends them on a journey to share his Good News to "the ends of the earth". And the rest of the Christian Scriptures are written in the midst of missionary journeys, as the Apostles instruct the growing communities they have founded who follow the Way of Jesus.

Now, I'm not saying that "journey = evolution" as an exact equation. But I am saying that, IF most of the Bible functions within the motif of "journey", THEN the journey motif sits much better with the idea that the entire cosmos is on a journey with God, rather than the idea that the entire cosmos is a static entity that has been defaced, and now must be restored to Neo-Platonic perfection.

And I am saying that evolution is ONE way of talking about a cosmic journey, where the whole cosmos grows and develops and travels in the direction of greater and greater complexity, greater and greater community. Organic molecules develop into single cell creatures. Single cell creatures develop into multi-cell creatures in which the cells actually work together and give of themselves for the sake of the whole organism. Multi-cell creatures develop into multi-organ creatures, which in turn grow and diversify. Some species fail to adapt and reach a dead end. Others attain greater and greater adaptation, until some of these creatures become rational and conscious and creative. They become "persons" able to connect with the Source of Transcendent Love from which they ultimately come, and toward which they ultimately journey.

COSMOGONY AND EVOLUTION

In fact, this idea of the cosmos growing and developing into the fullness of God seems to be an elaboration of some of the key words within the original Genesis creation narratives themselves. To get to these words, I must say a bit about what these stories are, and are not, trying to accomplish.

This, again, is NOT to say that there is something like a theory of evolution presupposed by these texts. There is neither a theory of evolution in these texts, nor a static vision of the universe in these texts. These texts were not meant to provide a theory of cosmology nor cosmogony, but rather to steer the ancient Hebrews away from viewing cosmic entities as gods, and steer them toward seeing the cosmos as a good creation from the One Source of all else: The God identified as YHWH.

At their most basic, these texts tell us:
- There is one true God, who is the Source of all else;
- The material universe is good, and is an intentional product of God;
- The entities within the universe (stars, forces, powers, creatures) are not gods, but are contingent and not worthy of worship;
- Humans have a special place in creation as cognitive, creative, communicative, communal, conscious persons who manage and direct creation on God's behalf, in ways no other creature can.

These messages are embedded within poetic and mythical literature that was common in style to many other stories in the ancient world, but with a distinctly monotheist twist to the story. The first Creation story is more like a poem than most other types of literature. It has rhythms and rhymes and numeric structures and much symbolic meaning. This seven day creation poem takes the common motif of the Sumerian-Babylonian 7 day week, and uses that as the poetic framework to deliver a monotheistic message that undermines the greatness of ancient near Eastern polytheistic pantheons.

The second Creation Story in Genesis 2-3 takes the form of a fantastic fictional story, complete with talking snakes and magic trees. If taken literally, then the second Creation Story literally contradicts the ordering of the first story. Water and rivers and vegetation come along at different times. Male and female are made separately (in the second story), and not together (as in the first). Many other points of comparison could be made, which would be extremely problematic if these texts are interpreted as literal history or science. But, if interpreted symbolically and allegorically, the second creation story shows us both a close and compassionate God who walks with humanity throughout their earthly journey, as well as a deeply symbolic exposé on the dynamics of temptation, sin, and their horrible consequences of pain and alienation.

This is the form and purpose behind these stories. Yet, from the standpoint of "journey" and evolutionary thought, what I find interesting are several of the specific words and phrases which are used in regard to creation in these stories.

First we notice the jussive form of the verb "to be" used several times in Genesis 1, when God says "let there be". It seems to imply that God is not only bringing things into existence, but also letting them have the freedom to become what they are: Let them be what they are!

Second, there is an interesting use of the verb "bring forth" [Hebrew Yatzah - to go out from, go forth from]. In Genesis 1.12 and 1.24, both plant life and animal life is said to have been "brought forth" from the Earth itself. It is as if the ancient poet had an intuition that the building blocks for organic life were somehow contained in the earth, and that an active process, enabled by God, somehow brought forth these latent potentialities.

Third, there is all of the language of God's creation bearing fruit, and being fruitful, and multiplying, and filling the earth. This implies that God is giving real freedom to God's own creation be creative on their own. In a gracious gift, God has placed the resources and potentiality for creativity within the creatures themselves.

Fourth, there is the fact that God allows his creation to re-create themselves "after their own kind". This seems to imply that there is a kind of potentiality within creatures that makes them the "kind" of thing they are, but which also allows them to adapt and develop within the potentiality they possess. This potentiality we might now isolate within the genetic inheritance of our DNA, which allows us to grow and develop as individuals and as a species.

And fifth, when we look at the creation of humans in the second Creation Story, we note that the first human was brought about by a gradual process. YHWH gathered earth, shaped the Earth like a potter, until that Earth-creature was ready to receive the Divine Breath. In symbolic form, this is not very different from saying that humans are the result of a process whereby the organic potential inherent in the Earth has been shaped over time, through billions of successive generations and life forms, into sentient persons capable of receiving the Divine Life of rationality and creativity and Love.

So it seems to me that the Biblical texts themselves, when read outside of a worldview that presupposes a static universe of fixed hierarchies, actually opens up multiple areas of fruitful interaction with evolutionary thought. And this is just the tip of the Iceberg.

COSMOLOGY AND EVOLUTION

The fact is that almost all concepts of "static being" and "hierarchy of being" have to be read INTO the text from other sources. It is hard to read them OUT of the text. This is not to say that there is not rampant SOCIAL patriarchalism and hierarchy that is implied in the text. There is. And that is another conversation entirely.

Yet, Scripture nowhere details an elaborate "chain of being" which justifies the oppressive prejudices inherited in Biblical culture. In fact, these inherited prejudices are explicitly struck down in the latter parts of the Bible, as God's self-revelation developed more fully (cf. Galatians 3.26-28 where Paul says "there is no Jew or Greek, Slave or Free, Male or Female in Christ"). This is a great contrast to other ancient societies, in which social structures were rooted in some type of cosmic structure in God (or the gods). For instance, in Hinduism the Rigveda 10.90 clearly delineates four social castes AS the structure of God's Body (called Purusha):

"When they divided Purusha how many portions did they make? What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet? The Priestly caste was his mouth, of both his arms the caste of Rulers was made. His thighs became the Merchant caste , from his feet the caste of Laborers was produced." [Rigveda 10.90]

This embeds social hierarchy within God's own very essence. In similar ways, the social structures of many ancient societies- Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, and even Greek- was rooted in the Pantheon of the gods and goddesses. The static structure of Earthly society was said to mirror the static structure of the ranks of Divine beings. This static cosmology that posited such ideas as:
- Men are ontologically superior to women, and adults are ontologically superior to children;
- "Our" race is ontologically superior to other races (usually due to "us" being descended from the gods);
- The ruler is ontologically superior to those he rules, because he is a god or demigod, and they are just mortals;
- There is a distinct ordering of gods, angelic beings, heavens, hells, and types of human beings (lords, merchants, priests, slaves, etc.).

No where in the Bible do you find anything like a complete social theory or a hierarchy of ranks of angels or anything else like that. Even in the case of the calling of Israel by God, it was always made clear that Israel did not differ ontologically one whit from other humans. They were simply called out of the overflow of Divine compassion for them [cf. Deut. 7].

It was mainly AFTER interaction with certain strains of Ancient Polytheism and Neo-Platonic Greek thought that extra-Biblical writings began to develop elaborate theories of how the static creation was ordered with myriad ranks of angels and demons and heavens and hells [cf. Pseudo-Dionysus' works on Celestial Hierarchy from the 300's or even Dante's Inferno from the Middle Ages].

Now, I am painting in broad strokes. And certainly one could pull out notions of static cosmology and cosmic hierarchy in SOME parts of the Bible (although never in a systematic, descriptive way, as the other religious examples mentioned above). But, overall, the Biblical inheritance is not interested in mapping out the terrain of some type of unchanging divinely ordained perfection. The Biblical material trends toward an open and free Creation, that is changing and journeying toward final union with God in joy and peace and love.

RELIGIOUS LAW, NATURAL LAW, AND EVOLUTION

Yet, there is one main locus of fixed expectations in our Biblical inheritance, and that is in the concept of "Law". However, Biblical Law does not set down a fixed ontology of being. Rather, Law is specifically to guide our actions and activities AS we journey. In other words, Law does not give us a place to stay. It gives us "road rules" for the journey with God.

And these road rules tend to change in emphasis and implementation at different points in the journey. Certainly Law functioned differently during the Davidic Kingdom, in the Exile, and in the early Christian Church. How the Law evolves and changes over time is the subject of a few hundred other books. But the fact is that the Law does in fact change and adapt over time, with new cultural situations, as God's self-disclosure increases. And this is very appropriate to this discussion about evolution.

Any cursory reading of the Bible and Judeo-Christian history will show that religious "Law" has developed through the Old Testament to the New Testament, in post-Biblical Jewish culture, and in the Christian Church. It has evolved. And it seems like the process of the evolution of religious Law is based on the idea that over time, certain key universal values deconstruct old ways of acting, to reconstruct them to better adapt to a later stage of the Journey.

By "key universal values" I mean axioms such as this: God is seen as both the Source of Life and Love, as well as the Goal or Summum Bonum toward which we journey. The Creation, as made by God, is inherently good, and worthy of caretaking, but never to be confused with the Creator who made it. Sentient Persons, who bear the image of God, are most worthy of respect and honor and Love, never to be used as "means", but always treated as "ends". To respect, honor, and Love sentient persons means to protect and care for them physically, socially, and emotionally, never using them as means for pleasure, or power, or pride. Thus, certain forms of behavior- whether physical, economic, sexual, or social- when done without the consent of sentient persons, are inherently abusive and degrading and must be avoided.

These axiomatic values are then embodied in certain types of concrete behavior and expectation, depending on the development and needs of the society they are implemented within. For instance, ancient societies needed laws about controlling the animals upon which we travelled, whereas modern societies need traffic laws regarding automobiles. Both sets of laws will be based on the fundamental axioms of loving and honoring our fellow humans, but they will look very different in implementation over time.

All of this is to say that not even religious Law leads us to a fixed, static creation. It gives us a set of rules for the Journey, which will be adapted at different points on the Journey. Religious Law is given to help us know HOW to Journey, but it does not tell us WHERE we will end up Journeying to. It tells us we are Journeying toward, and with, and in, the God who is revealed in Jesus. But this God is infinite and transcendent, so the Journey Godward will be infinite and surprising, constantly revolutionary and evolutionary.

This is not unlike the role of the "laws of physics" themselves in the process of evolution. The laws of physics give the fundamental ground rules of how matter and energy interact, which in turn gives rise to a panoply of potentiality along which energetic systems can develop and evolve.  As these systems develop and evolve, they generally trend toward greater complexity and intelligence (i.e. the ability of systems and organisms to adapt). But while complexity and intelligence is a general direction or trend, it in no way specifies HOW systems will become complex or intelligent, because complexity and intelligence are nearly infinite in potentiality.

Notice the parallel: Both religious laws and physical laws point us in a general direction of infinite positive potentiality, without determining exactly where the ending point will be for the Journey into this infinity.

And there is another parallel: Both religious and physical laws can be used to create systems of destruction, which speed the world toward chaos and entropy and death. The same laws of physics that allow for nuclear power also allow for a nuclear bomb. The same biological principles that give rise to anti-viral drugs can also create biological weapons. The same religious laws and moral axioms that can be used to create powerful social movements for equality, freedom, and social justice, can also be used to create ideological prisons to hold us captive to terrorism, theocracy, jihads and crusades.

It all depends on whether we will use our fundamental moral and physical laws to enhance life and potentiality, or to diminish life and potentiality. And it is my opinion that versions of theology that hold to a static view of the world actually wind up diminishing human life and potentiality by falsely limiting the positive potential that people can perceive, and poorly equipping them to deal with a reality that constantly changes. These static views need to be opened up to process, growth, and change, to help humans evolve into who and what our potentiality entails.

This is implicit in the words of the Christian Theologian Irenaeus, who held a more process-oriented view of God's work in the world, and wisely said "The Glory of God is humanity fully alive". To be "fully alive" is to grow and thrive by actualizing the positive, life-giving potentialities inherent in our lives (a.k.a. "grow in Christlikeness"). And the only type of worldview that is open to such radical growth and change is an evolutionary, process based view of reality.

EVOLUTION AS THE COSMIC FORM OF EPEKTASIS

What is most ironic about this discussion of "static" versus "evolutionary" ontology is that many of these ideas are not new in the history of Christian thought. They may be under-represented, but definitely not new. In the 4th century Gregory of Nyssa came up with a concept which describes this infinite, limitless, Christward growth into the fullness of God which I describe above. That concept is "epektasis". This word is derived from a concept found in the writings of Saint Paul:

[12] Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. [13] Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and striving toward [ἐπεκτεινόμενος, epekteinomenos - the participle from which the noun epektasis comes] what lies ahead, [14] I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 3.12–14]

In commenting on this passage, and describing the evolutionary journey of the soul in epektasis, Saint Gregory says:

"If nothing comes from above to hinder its upward thrust (for the nature of the Good attracts to itself those who look to it), the soul rises ever higher and will always make its flight yet higher - by its desire of the heavenly things "straining ahead for what is still to come", as the Apostle says. Made to desire and not to abandon the transcendent height by the things already attained, it makes its way upward without ceasing, ever through its prior accomplishments renewing its intensity for the flight. Activity directed towards virtue causes its capacity to grow through exertion; this kind of activity alone does not slacken its intensity by the effort, but increases it." [Life of Moses 2.225-30]

Saint Gregory wrote this in the mid-to-late 300's. And although he was one of the first to fully elaborate this idea, he was only echoing earlier voices of people like Origen and Irenaeus and even Paul himself. Throughout the early Church- especially in the East- we find the idea of continual infinite growth in a Christward direction as we live into the transcendent fullness of God's life.

A further elaboration of an evolutionary concept of epektasis might look like this:

First, God made the world to strive toward God's infinite Love in epektasis. Creatures are thus made free to evolve, so that Creation trends toward actualizing its positive potentiality in beings who possess Wisdom, Love, and Beauty. Because of the inherent freedom of this project, some species and some individuals will choose to negatively actualize potential leading to death and extinction. This means that inherent in the world is a problem of suffering and evil. God desires ultimate bliss and joy with God's creation actualizing infinite potential, but in fact God's creation is also shot through with pain and destruction. Yet part of the Christian answer to this "problem of evil" is that God has entered into this creation in a personal way to bear the consequences of the world, and to transform and resurrect the pain we experience. More on this in a moment.

Second, epektasis touches on the asymmetrical nature of good and evil. What I am defining as "good" here is a positive direction into greater and greater potential to explore and fulfill. Positive potential is a path of choices that leads to creatures who embody more life, more wisdom, more beauty, more love. Because each positive choice opens up even more possible options, this positive direction unfolds infinitely, ever transcending itself, into ever greater potentiality. "Evil", on the contrary, is a path of potentiality that contracts, and shrinks, and takes away potential until only one outcome is left: Death. Thus, evil is finite. Evil has a stopping point at zero potential, which is death. Goodness is an infinite progress or evolution outward into the fullness of Godself, while evil is a finite regress away from life and potential into death. Evil seeks stasis and zero change. Goodness seeks evolution and growth.

Third, the hinge point of Christian Story of epektasis is that Archetype of Goodness has entered into History as Jesus of Nazareth to exemplify what a truly Good life could look like, to embody the consequences of evil in his own suffering, and to inject his resurrected life- his Holy Spirit- into humanity to empower us to more fully evolve and live into his Archetype. This "Archetype" language is used of Christ in several places in Scripture to designate him as the embodiment of Ultimate Reality, the perfect Image of God the Father, and the Message, Purpose, and Plan of Creation (the Word or Logos) who is the complete self-expression of God, made human [cf. John 1.1–18; Acts 5.15; Rom 5.14; Col 2.17; Heb 1.1–4; 8.5; 9.24]. These are all different ways of affirming that the Second Person of the Eternal Triune God- the Son- is embodied in Jesus of Nazareth such that Jesus is God Incarnate.

Another way of saying this in evolutionary terms is this: The final Goal of Cosmic Evolution was made fully manifest in Jesus, to guide and empower us to actualize our potential in the direction of his moral character and spiritual power. In Him, God forgives us of all our sins and evil. Christ does this because to forgive someone else means to take upon yourself the consequences of their wrongdoing without revisiting it upon them, or punishing them with their own evil. Thus, in Christ's sacrificial death God takes responsibility for potential of pain and suffering God caused by making the world free, as well as taking responsibility for our own evil choices. This frees us to repent and reject that evil way of life, and clears the path for an evolutionary Journey in a Christward direction.

Thus, evolution can be seen as a modern way of affirming the ancient idea of epektasis: Cosmic epektasis is expressed in a universe that evolves over time to bring about sentient persons who become more and more Christlike.

CONSUMMATION AND EVOLUTION

All of this leads to the final question of what will the end of this all look like? If anything like this is true, where will biological, spiritual, and moral evolution take us?

The first answer is simply to say that there will be no end. It will be an eternal journey of surprise and joy as we delve deeper and deeper into the Love of God. And God will take us from wherever we are at on the Journey now, and if we will let God, God will lead us beyond. But God always gives us freedom to choose whether or not to Journey Christward.

The second answer is to say we simply do not and cannot know what we (or the cosmos) will be like, other than to say we will be in accordance with Christlikeness. As Saint John says: "Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, WE WILL BE LIKE HIM, for we will see him as he is. " [1 John 3.2, emphasis mine]

Does this mean we will literally be Jesus-clones, morphing into Middle Eastern men from 2000 years ago, who all report an identical set of experiences, feelings, and thoughts? By no means! What it means is that we will be LIKE Christ in the sense of becoming beings of perfect Love, Compassion, Justice, Wisdom, and Beauty. Like the Risen Christ, we will be able to make full use of all of our potentiality whenever we desire it. We will be able to harness all the dimensions of reality and be in perfect harmony with the Energy of the Holy Spirit that sustains all of existence. We will be aware of our own personal history and experiences and how we have been formed to be who we are, but we will also be fully aware of the Mind of God (i.e. share in universal consciousness), and know how cosmic History has evolved to bring us to where we are at on the Journey.

And this is really all I want to say about our "future destiny", because when Saint Paul got into a deep discussion of this very topic (i.e. what our resurrected selves will be like), even he became flummoxed and tongue tied. You can read all about it in 1Corinthians 15.

It is a bit like asking a 4 year old what he or she will be like when they grow up. They have hints and hunches and wishes, but they have no real idea how their character and vocation will shape up when they are 30 or 40 or 50. In fact, God's interaction with our personal growth and development is a very helpful analogy to God's interaction with cosmic growth and evolution.

It is a central point of Christian theology that God journeys with us through the changes and stages of our individual lives. God knits us together in the womb as our bodies change from one cell, to something that resembles a fish, to something that resembles a mammal, to actualize our DNA's potential as a human being. God helps us grow in grace and wisdom from the cradle to the preschool to the elementary to the high school. God calls us and walks with us through the phases of our adulthood. God leads us through the valley of the shadow of death as we transition from this life to another form of life in God's presence.

If God is the type of God that journeys with us through these phases and stages in our individual lives, then what is most rational to believe about God's interaction with the cosmos as a whole? Is it more rational and Biblical to assume that God made everything as a static perfection, allowed it to fall into disrepair, and now calls us to go backward into a previous static perfection? Or is it more rational and Biblical to posit that God is not only our original source, but also the transcendent goal at the end of History, cheering us onward through growth and development and evolution, as God is also our fellow traveller walking the Way with us through the pain and suffering that change and growth entails?

Obviously, I am advocating the latter.

"IT IS GOOD" NOT "IT WAS PERFECT"

Christians who consider themselves to be rigorously "Biblical" not only can, not only should, but NEED TO ditch concepts of the universe which imply stasis, conformity to unchangeable static ontology, and some sort of return to "original perfection" in a Neo-Platonic sense.

To return back to Genesis 1 for a moment. In that poem, God declared seven times that Creation is "good". Many throughout Christian history have interpreted that in Neo-Platonic terms as God saying "It is perfect". And everything after that point was a departure from original perfection.

But I think it is much more helpful to look at this passage through the lens of what we know and experience in child development. I have three children. At the birth of each of them, I thought to myself: "This is good! This child is so very good! I love this child!" But this did NOT mean "This child is perfect and will never have any problems or cause myself or others any pain!" I know that, as they develop and grow, each of my children will cost me immeasurably in time, effort, heartache, even in money. That is the cost of love. That is the cost of relationship. That is the Journey of parenthood and childhood.

So what did I mean when I said "This child is good"? It meant that this child is the type of being- the kind of person- I am capable of sharing love with. I get to share myself with this person and see them grow into fullness. This person is an expression of the love of my wife and I, and we will some day offer this child as a gift of love to the wider world to actualize their potential (hopefully) in a life of Love and Compassion and Wisdom.

I think something like this is the theological affirmation behind God saying "it is good". This creation is not perfect. In fact, it is quite painful and messy. But it is the type of free creation that can grow and develop and evolve into the kind of people that God can share Godself with.

And thus, Biblical Christians NEED to embrace a universe of development, change, and evolution, both because that is what the trajectory of Scripture points us to, but also because growth, change, development, and evolution are clearly part of our personal experience, and the public evidence of the sciences.

To repeat: Biological evolution best fits the facts of (a) the overarching themes of Scripture; (b) the implicit themes of thoughtful Christian theology across the ages; (c) the nature of Christ's Incarnation and our journey into Christlikeness; (d) our own personal experience of growth and development from womb to tomb and beyond; (e) the public evidence supplied by our best scientists researching the nature of our biological origins and current development.

I know this is scary, and I know it is uncertain, and I know it does not offer us and neat, tidy, everything-in-the-box answer to what the future holds. But that is OK. Because the One who holds the future, indeed who IS the future, also walks with us on our Journey and gives us His Spirit to guide and empower us.

And in the Gospel according to John, he tells us:

[12] “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. [13] When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come." [John 16.12–13]

We cannot bear all the truth now, because we cannot conceive of the beauty of what God has planned for us to become. Just as the 4 year old cannot conceive life as a 40 year old, so also after 10,000 years of history, humans cannot conceive of what humanity will look like at 100,000 years, or at 1 million years, or at 1 billion years, or what God has in store after this universe has ceased to exist. We cannot conceive it, but we can follow in the spiritual and moral footsteps of Jesus, listening to the guidance of his Spirit, to help us grow in a Christward direction on our infinite journey.

And if we do this- if we submit ourselves to follow the Way of Love that Jesus guides us on- this Way will lead us to progressively actualizing the positive potentiality God has embedded within human nature. We will evolve to do things as individuals, and as a species, we could not have dreamed of at this stage of our development. For Jesus also tells us this:

[12] Very truly, I tell you, the one who trusts in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. [13] I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. [John 14.12–13]

If we are Biblical Christians, we stand upon these promises, and these promises point us forward to the future God is inviting us into, as we pray:

Lord Jesus Christ, who fully embodies the potential God has placed within us, as you embody God in human form: Help us, as individuals and as a species, to grow, to develop, to evolve, into the fullness of who you made us to be, that we may ever Journey on your Way, be filled with your Spirit, and embody your Love. Amen.

2013-03-24

On teaching evolution in a world of creationism



A friend of mine who teaches science recently expressed, once again, his legitimate exasperation at people who want to grant creationism equal time with evolution in science classrooms. His frustration has all to do with the differences between repeatable, empirical claims of science, versus the moral, existential claims of ideology. He believes creationism is an ideology, not a science. And, actually, I have to agree with him. Ideology, philosophy and theology are real academic subjects (along with history, literature, art, etc.). And there is a place in the world to discuss and debate ideology, but that is not in a science classroom.

In the Bible belt, I think our cultural uneasiness with evolutionary thought ultimately has to do with emotions and existential angst and a feeling of seasickness while being set adrift in a universe of flux and change.

At a base emotional level, I think we under-estimate how scary evolutionary thought in general is, without reference to any particular version or theory of evolution (whether biological evolution, evolution of ideas, evolution of social systems, etc.).

I know the objective, empirical view of the matter is that evolution is "just the facts, ma'am". And it is. Whether one studies the change and development of DNA, or the change and development of civic architecture, or the change and development of our ideas of Ultimate Reality, it is clear and objective that evolution happens in all spheres of human existence. But the heart has reasons that reason cannot understand. (Hat tip: Pascal).

The objective and empirical does not correspond to the subjective and existential. Both are dimensions of truth about the human condition that cannot be reduced to one another (I know that is a huge philosophical debate in itself, but I hold that consciousness is not fully reduced to an epiphenomenon of the physical brain, although the brain is one of the necessary preconditions for human consciousness).

Anyway, if we posit that the objective/empirical and subjective/existential are distinct but overlapping dimensions of human reality, then I think that we can see how those who deny evolution are taking their subjective/existential fears and angst, and projecting it on to objective/physical reality, in order to impose order, and control, and a feeling of safety, upon the world around them.

And I don't think current scientific education is very good at dealing with the emotional side of what it means to discover, grow, and evolve. This stuff brings up visceral and predictable emotional reactions. There are two valid emotional reactions to Evolutionary thought:

First evolution can be seen as opening the door to freedom and creativity that is unknown in other systems of thought. If the world is growing and developing, then no ultimate limits can be set to the human condition. We are free to create new worlds, new modes of being, without being un-necessarily constrained by the limits of the past. It is understandably beautiful.

But also, evolution can be seen as the "destroyer of worlds", because to bring about this new, un-predictable world, it means the destruction of the old world. If everything is in flux, then nothing is dependable. Nothing is predictable. We cannot count on the fact that what we currently understand will hold true in the future. The things and people we love will die, and possibly be transformed into new things. It is understandably scary.

I meet many "pro-science" folks who have no idea how evolution could ever be scary to anyone. They look at those who are scared as retrograde simpletons who merely want to live in the past, instead of trying to understand how these facts can shatter emotional security.

I meet even more "pro-Bible" (and "pro-Quran" and "pro-Vedas") folks who use literalist religion as the bulwark to stave off the corrosive effect of this "destroyer of worlds". They have no idea how evolution could ever be beautiful to anyone. And they look upon those who find evolution as beautiful as either tools or slaves of evil.

And here is how the emotional logic seems to work for evolution-deniers:
1. They are deeply and viscerally afraid of the instability of the evolutionary worldview.
2. They read these fears into texts written long ago that never were intended to deal with these issues (or the fears they cause).
3. They produce a worldview (or theology) which ensures stability, thereby mollifying fears, at the cost of denying evidence of evolution.
4. They demonize evolutionary thought and those who support it.
5. They create a societal movement to take back culture from the "world destroying" forces of evolution.

I have advice for those who teach evolution in science classrooms (and those cultural critics like myself who encourage a fruitful and creative religious engagement with evolution). My advice is this:

- We need to be more emotionally winsome to those we teach, especially when what we teach can elicit legitimate fears. We need to do a good job of walking them through the fears that these ideas cause, and then gently leading them into the beauty these ideas hold.

- We need to gently and politely refute the false ideas and ways of evaluating and weighing evidence. We need to remember that satire and snark can also be effective, but only after trust has been established with those we teach. Otherwise, we just come off as arrogant and condescending.

- Above all, we must establish trust with our students. We must show them that we are reliable people who have their best interest at heart, and who are willing to sacrifice our time and effort to help them. Unless there is trust there, they will not be willing to make the emotional investment to be open to the new ideas we bring to them.

In the end, teaching evolution can be a bit like helping someone leave an adulterous spouse. No body wants to think that their beloved spouse is cheating on them. And in order for them to piece together the facts about a cheating spouse, they have to come to an emotional realization of (a) how harmful it is to be with someone who is unfaithful; and (b) a vision that life can actually be better when not attached to someone who is unfaithful. Unless they reach this emotional realization, they may always deny or re-interpret the facts they find about their spouse's betrayal.

In a similar way, the "static" view of the universe (which underlies literal creationism and Biblical fundamentalism) is an adulterous spouse of the mind. We have to help people emotionally envision that (a) it is harmful to hold a view of reality that is not in line with the actual facts of reality; and (b) life can be freer, more creative, and more beautiful within the framework of evolutionary thought. Only then will they be able to move past the legitimate fears that an evolutionary view brings with it.

This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.