Saturday, June 30, 2007

Historical Fall, Historical Redemption

Hello my Blogging Buds,
I'm still out here in Quincy. I'm missing my adorable wife and family terribly. I'm missing my friends. I'm missing my dogs. But, as compensation, I'm enjoying great intellectual stimulation. Life is full of trade-offs I guess.

In our tenth (yes, it's been TEN already!) session of the Quincy Science and Theology conference, we heard from Dr. John Haught, professor of theology at Georgetown University and author of God After Darwin: An Evolutionary Theology. Among other things, John has been at the cutting edge of attempts to fully integrate a biblical and (more-or-less) traditional Christian theology into the post-Darwinian worldview. It was, once again, a stimulating session. Here are a few of the highlights:

1. John did a great job graphically fleshing out the enormous worldview shift that has occurred in post-Darwinian western thought. Consider, for example, that prior to Darwin most people assumed the earth was about six to ten thousand years old and that humans have been on the scene from the start. Now, after Darwin, the situation is something like this: Imagine a stack of 30 books, each 450 pages long. For the first 21 volumes there is NO LIFE. The simplest living cells come on the scene toward the end of volume 22. The Cambrian Explosion occurs in volume 29. Dinosaurs occupy about seven pages beginning around page 380 of volume 30. Humans come on the scene at the bottom 10th of the LAST PAGE of the LAST VOLUME. THAT, folks, is a huge change of perspective! Theology needs to wrestle with it.

I know some folks think this is inherently an anti-god perspective. (I received an e-mail yesterday from one person who questioned my salvation for giving any credibility to evolution in my previous couple of posts!) But I (along with John Haught and all the participants in the conference) don't see why this should be the case. For a God who has always existed, the difference between 10,000 years and 13.7 billion years (the age most scientists give the universe today) is infintesimally small. I personally feel the older universe and long process God used to create humans adds grandeur to our picture of God.

2. We discussed the nature of "layered explanations." For example, suppose there's a pot of boiling water on the stove and someone asks, "Why is the water boiling?" One could respond: 1) by explaining to the person how heat pushes water molecules into an excited state we call boiling; 2) by telling the person, "I turned on the stove"; or 3) by telling the person "I wanted tea." These are not incompatible explanations. So too, Haught argued, saying "God did it" while explaining a natural proces by which (say) a species came about are not mutually exclusive explanations. The Bible and science (yes, even evolutionary science) are not in conflict (unless, of course, one insists on interpreting Genesis in a very literal way). Atheistic evolutionists like Richard Dawkins err in assuming that explanations #2 and #3 can be reduced to explanation #1.

3. John and the rest of us talked a good bit about the open-ended nature of creation and how it manifests a God who delights in creativity and adventure. God gives the creation its own "integrity," John argued, such that it participates in the creation process. God's creativity is channelled through natural processes where nature explores possibilities, sometimes coming to dead ends, sometimes finding ways to evolve into more complex, efficient, and intelligent forms. Dr. Haught also strongly emphasized the role of "promise" in the Bible. God's word, he argued, always involves "promise." He applied this to the creational process, arguing that the creation is brought about not as a finished product, or as a deterministic mechanism, but as an adventurous narrative that is moving towards a promised future. I think this is a view that is not only compatible with science and the Bible; it's also inherently beautiful and intuitively compelling.

4. We once again got into the ruthless nature of the evolutionary process. Haught graphically illustrated the issue with the life cycle of the sheep liver fluke. As I understand it, this nasty parasite gets inside of snails and eats them from the inside out, knowing precisely what NOT to eat to keep the snail alive until it's done using it as a host. I''ve heard of other parasites that possess this same "wisdom." I read about one (I forget its name) that eats grasshoppers from the inside out to the point where there's only vital organs and a head left! The parasite then makes the grasshopper go mad, causing it to dive into water and drown itself. This allows the parasite to leave its host and reproduce in water -- only to have its young find their way into other grasshoppers who drink the water! YIK. Why does nature produces critters like this?

Haught seemed content to attribute the "carnage" aspect of evolution to natural by-products of the evolutionary process. While I didn't make a big stink of it in this session (I don't want to come across as a "one-issue person" here), I find this explanation entirely inadequate. I grant that God gives nature its own integrity, such that there's an element of freedom and adventure in nature itself. But I don't see how this explains the production of "natural" complex agents like malicious parasites and viruses who inflict misery on sentient creatures for their entire existence. Since I have other reasons for believing that malicious cosmic agents exist, I see no reason not to attribute the aspects of nature that don't reflect the Creator's benevolent character to these agents. In this view, the creational process is itself a battle ground between good and evil -- which, it seems to me, is precisely how the creational process looks.

5. I'll end with a reflection on the aspect of Haught's view that deeply concerns me. Like many other theologians who center their theological reflections on the evolutionary process, Haught simply has no place for a historical "fall." In his view, there never was a primordial paradise or a primordial rebellion (Genesis 3). What we call our "fallen nature" is for these theologians simply our inherited animal instincts that we need to tame and transcend with our higher, ever-evolving, spiritual capacities. This is already troubling, but what makes it worse is that if there's no historical "fall," it's not clear how there could be a historical "redemption." Jesus isn't rescuing us from sin and the devil. He's simply helping us evolve, or something of the sort.

This, obviously, constitutes a signfiicant revisioning of biblical thinking about Christ, and because of my commitment to biblical inspiration, I'm not willing to go there. Jesus and the whole New Testament clearly affirms a historical fall (e.g. Rom. 5), and since I have very good grounds for thinking Jesus is the Son of God, I have very good reasons for thinking he's right about such matters. Nor do I see any good philosophical or scientific reasons to deny a historical fall or historical redemption. Indeed, it seems to me almost self-evident that there's something profoundly wrong with human nature and society -- as well as the "natural world" -- as we presently experience it.

As I put all this together, I'm led to the belief that there was some sort of rebellion in the primordial past, first among angelic beings, then with humans. The first resulted in nature becoming to some degree corrupt while the second (which is simply our being co-opted into the first rebellion) resulted in human beings becoming corrupt and loosing the authority over nature we were supposed to have.

Jesus came to restore both humans and the cosmos (Rom 8:18-25; Col 1:15-23). And he does it by freeing both humans and the cosmos from the oppression of the demonic powers and the sin that so enslaves us.

Blessings on you all,