Monday, February 9, 2009

Happy Evolution Week!

This week we celebrate the scientific discoveries of Charles Darwin. While we have learned much since his time, Darwin's insights into the universe have provided a paradigm shift not only about human origins, but also about the ongoing process of discovering the meaning of human life.

As you watched The Simpsons clip above, did you find anything close to your view of evolution? For you, is evolution consistent with being a Christian? If so, how have you come to terms with such a reconciliation? Sure, there are those who would say that the two are irreconcilable - among them are some atheists and most biblical literalists. Isn't it interesting that in the last 200 years that most people have begun reading the Bible through scientific lenses – and either write it off completely or attempt to defend it against all attacks. But that raises an important question: Did the pre-modern writers of the Bible really set out to make a scientific explanation for the beginning of the world? I don't believe so. What if those writers were more interested in battling against the Babylonian creation myth with an adapted Hebrew creation myth (Gen. 1-2:1a). Or what if those earlier writers desired to explain the human predicament - why do we die and why we do bad things – with a story that shows all the evidence of being told for generations over campfires (Gen. 2:2b-3).

So what happens when we take such stories as historical fact? First we have a lot of explaining to do, because the biblical narrative doesn't provide a historically verifiable timetable. The universe is much older than described in the pages of the Bible, and since Copernicus we have known that the world is not flat with a dome or firmament as a sky as suggested in Gen. 1. And it is difficult to locate a garden of eden when only three of the four rivers are known. The language of the Hebrew text suggests a metaphorical reading, rather than a literal reading as well.

So the real questions is what do the stories mean? For the Priestly writer of Gen. 1, the high Hebrew poetry emphasizes the 7th day - the Sabbath – with a series of "chiasmus" or parallelisms, if I can call them that. Day one corresponds with day four - light to sun, and darkness to the moon. Day two corresponds with day five – separation of air and water with the filling of both with birds and fish. Day three corresponds with day six – separation of land and water and the creation of plants (before the sun by the way - not consistent with evolution) – and then the filling of of the land with animals and the apex of creation being humanity, which are created for the seventh day, the Sabbath. If you have ever read the Gilgamesh Epic, then you know that this story is a polemic against the Babylonian creation myth that said that humans were created to be the slaves of the gods - not the apex of the animal kingdom, with consciousness to boot.

The Jawhist - King David's scribe who put that ancient fireside tale of Gen. 2-3 into writing – uses many word plays as he tells his tale. In this story, creation happens the other way, with humanity created before the animals. The human being – adam – literally an earthling – is formed from the earth – adamah. The earthling is then divided into a man and woman after the animals don't provided a needed helpmate. They are placed in a place of spontaneous production of food, but when they pretend to be gods themselves by eating of the tree they are expelled from God's presence to a life of labor and pain. We aren't told that they couldn't die, but it is inferred with their expulsion. In some forms of Jewish mysticism and Gnostic Christian thought, returning to that unity enjoyed by the first earthling is the point of human existence. But unfortunately, most Western Christians read this tale through the eyes of the 4th century Bishop of Hippo St. Augustine, who invented the theology of "original sin" – which is foreign to both Eastern Christian and Jewish thought.

So, what if we were to think of the universe – and our place within it – in terms of evolution? Life is a process. We see our own lives in terms of an evolutionary process of learning and growing and adapting. If the universe has been evolving over the last 13 billion years to be able to provide a habitat where human consciousness can thrive, then it may take us a while more to see and quantify jumps in human abilities during our lifetimes. Most of human evolution in the last 10,000 years has been technological, but over the last 100 years we are becoming much more visually oriented than orally oriented. Our scientific prowess continues to offer us better health care technologies and more sophisticated ways to kill each other. Perhaps the issues that the earliest writers were really writing about need fresh attention.

Sabbath keeping is a lost art in a 24-7 culture. Do we need to learn how to rest and enjoy the fruits of our labor? What would our lives be like if we consciously took more time to spend with family and enjoy God. For the last 1,000 years in the west, human weakness has been discussed in terms of guilt and innocence rather than honor and shame. What if we looked at human weakness in terms of our genetic and tribal histories. Perhaps our natural tendencies toward war, greed, and violence could be understood in the context of human nature, encouraging us to focus our energies on providing the basic needs to every human being to prevent such activity. Sexual orientations and gender identities could be understood as a part of the diversity of the human family rather than an illness or lifestyle. Maybe such an approach would take away what most divides us. Could that be why religious fundamentalists want to preserve their anachronistic interpretations of sacred texts and human nature?

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