Oh boy, evolution and Christianity…
Let’s get this out of the way very quickly, since it’s not the point of the post: I believe in both evolution and the Bible. As I’ve argued on this blog, I believe in the Book of Genesis as a metaphorical and mythopoeic exploration of truly-important existential questions and issues, but not as a science textbook or a literal history (I’m happy to accept elements of historicity in the book, but that’s speculation that ultimately doesn’t matter too much to me). To me, both the Book of Genesis and science are true, though that word has a different context in each place. Alright, that aside, let’s get to the heart of the matter.
A Strange Metaphor?
I’ve recently finished a Great Course on earth science (specifically Professor Michael E. Wysession’s How the Earth Works). While I’d selected the course mainly for upping my understanding of planetary science for worldbuilding purposes, Prof. Wysession raised within my mind all manner of ideas and questions–exactly what a “Great Course” should do. I highly recommend it.
Here, I’m going to focus on one of those ideas from a later lecture in the series, one about the possibility of life on other planets. The lecture incorporated some of the great ideas about the exploration for extraterrestrial life in the universe–the Drake equation, the Fermi paradox, the anthropic principle, etc. Where things got really interesting to me, particularly, was Prof. Wysession’s discussion of evolutionary processes in the probabilities of finding life on other planets within our solar system.
As the good doctor puts it, there are three major parts to evolution: (1) heritable traits, (2) mutations and genetic drift, and (3) selective forces like “natural selection.” Without all three of these factors, evolutionary processes cannot work and life (at least as we currently understand it and evolution) won’t develop. It’s possible that this is the (or one of the) Great Filter(s) hypothesized as part of the Fermi paradox.
What’s important here is the relatively narrow band of circumstances in which evolutionary processes may work toward the development of complex lifeforms. Heritability requires proteins that can replicate, like our RNA and DNA. For natural selection to work, there must be diversity of genetic expressions and traits, competition for resources/survival, and a mechanism for new traits to develop–for mutations to occur.
Radiation is a primary motivator of mutation in genetics, but amount is critical. Too much radiation, and life (again, as we understand it) will be destroyed (or never form) altogether. Too little, and there’s not enough impetus for mutation and genetic drift. In turn, this means that, to be a likely candidate for life, a planet must receive a sufficient amount of radiation from a nearby star but also have atmosphere and a magnetic field that allow only the “right” amount of radiation to reach the planet itself. A magnetic field typically requires an active planetary core. Atmosphere is probably also necessary for complex life, both as an additional shield from cosmic radiation (like our ozone layer) and for the various cycles necessary to support life (on Earth, the carbon, water, and oxygen cycles, at least). It’s possible that a layer of ice or liquid could perform a similar function.
But I digress. Though it started to drift in that direction, I’m not interested in engaging (at least here) with the low probabilities of the development of life given the many factors that must be just right (which go far beyond what’s described above). Instead, I want to zero in on that second element of the evolutionary process–mutations and genetic drift.
For evolution to work, genetic transfer cannot be “perfect” in the classic sense. Without changes to genetic material wrought by radiation, copying errors in the replication of the underlying genetic structures, and other circumstances that lead to the replicated material varying from the original material, there is no genetic drift that allows new traits to form to be winnowed out by selective forces until only the most advantageous new traits remain (for that environment, of course). Given the connotations of the word “perfect”–which we often take to mean “without flaw”–we’re better off saying that the process is “complete” or “whole” than that it’s “perfect.”
“Perfection” in Christianity
Which brings us to Christianity. In Matthew 5:48, a verse that has become of extreme significance in the development of my “New Mysticism” theology, Jesus says: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
If we use the “classic” definition of the word “perfect,” I think we miss the point. If God is the intelligent creator of the evolutionary process, if that is God’s mechanism for the creation of man (and, if you believe in both science and God, I think you ultimately have to accept that as true), then the evolutionary process may tell us something about God’s thoughts on “perfection” in Creation.
The Biblical linguistics agrees. The word that Jesus uses in Matthew 5:48 is τέλειος (teleios, Strong’s G5046). It comes from the word telos (G5056, from which we get great worlds like “teleological”). The root meaning has to do with setting out for a particular destination, from there flow the denotations of “ending”, “completeness” and “maturity.” Surrounding all of this is the sense of purposefulness, that is, something that is to a particular end or goal. We might summarize in saying that the indicated idea of the word is that a thing fully becomes what it was intended (or created) to be. Which circles us back to the idea of “completeness.”
Okay, so that’s perhaps a bit circumlocutory of a method for arriving at the idea, but there is an end goal (ha! see what I did there?). I’m going to focus on several ways in which I think the reference to the idea of purposefulness or completeness rather than being without flaw is helpful to us–and truer than the idea of flawlessness.
Salvation and Sanctification
First, and most obvious, is that this idea relieves us of some stress–Jesus is not telling us to never make mistakes here. Part New Mysticism is the argument that the story of the Fall is the metaphor that beings with free will must learn to be good if they are to be both good and free. This seems to axiomatically require some mistake-making before it may be achieved. That Jesus has brought us salvation from our sins is an affirmation of forgiveness for the inevitable result of the human condition, just as evolutionary processes affirm the God’s idea of “perfect” doesn’t always mean “flawless.” E. Stanley Jones, in his book, The Christ of the Mount, argues that Matthew 5:48, and not “getting into heaven,” is the epitome of the Christian religion. I’m inclined to agree, at least if we’re forced into such reductiveness.
This draws us to look at the process of sanctification over the process of salvation. Yes, salvation is an essential aspect of Christianity and an essential divine blessing upon the human condition, but this is where God has done all the work for us. After that point, we must truly engage to change ourselves in the ways that we call sanctification, to grow into the people whom God created each of us to uniquely be, to truly participate in the Kingdom of God. As I’ve mentioned before and will more fully develop later, this, I think, is why Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God is within us. We must change ourselves to become part of it; it’s not simple some place that we can simply move ourselves to as we are. The idea of “telos” is that our becoming part of the Kingdom of God does not lessen who we are but represents the fullness of our individual identities as simultaneously distinct and yet in inexorable relationship with God and the rest of Creation. After all, that is the analogy of the Trinity, is it not?
How about an earthier takeaway from the idea that Jesus speaks of “wholeness” and not a lack of flaws? Perhaps this is deeply personal, but I suspect not. In my heart, I believe that an eternity where no one ever makes a mistake, where nothing outside of the most optimal result occurs, where there is no random chance of rain for our proverbial parade, is…well…boring.
If this life is at all intended to prepare us for eternal living, then shouldn’t we believe that the abundance and joy of eternal life is not about being absolutely free from all unfortunate events or missteps at all times, but rather a state of peace and contentment and love unshakable even by the worst of calamities?
I don’t know what the life to come is like, whether it is a heaven of pure spirit or a physical world remade for us. I do know that God promises us that we will be free of existential suffering–free from death and disease, free from separation from our loved ones, free from real injustice. But I don’t think that that means we will be free from all uncertainty–the idea of doing something to see what happens is a key joy in human life and a crucial part of repeatable joy. Otherwise, why ever play more than one game of basketball, or soccer, or whatever your favorite sport or game is?
Admittedly, that’s just a variation of “if there isn’t X in heaven, I’m not going.” Nevertheless, I think we can take some of those things with a little bit of seriousness. If part of our abundant life now comes from taking joy in something that can be enjoyed in a way that isn’t harmful (whether directly or indirectly) to ourselves or others, I can think of no reason God would give it to us for a short time only to deprive us of it later. That’s not the God I’ve come to know. At the end of The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis writes, “…now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” I can think of no better description for the life to come.
Purpose and Process
I do believe in the statement, “everything happens for a reason”…but I also believe that sometimes that reason is “random chance” (with the caveat that we often assign the phrase “random chance” to mean “having more causational factors than we can track or understand”). Now, I believe that God has reasons for allowing “random chance” to have some sway in existence rather than personally determining the outcome of all events, so that great statement of “everything happening for a reason” remains true for me, at least if you look back far enough.
And that’s another piece of the analogy I want to draw from evolutionary processes. Just like our own lives, it’s sometimes difficult to see the justice or meaning in certain events–and some events may simple lack justice and meaning! But when we look at the overall picture, we see a method and purpose to the process that develops in the whole, where those experiences and misfortunes matter in the greater scheme of things, even if its hard to determine meaning in the immediate.
By necessity, we Christians are long-view types. If we’re going to believe we have been gifted an eternal existence, we ought to live and think like it, right? But, at the same time, our analogy in this post does show us that all of those little intermediary events–whether that random mutation that results in eyes or the choice of how you treat someone else–do matter, even if we won’t see the outcome any time soon. There is purpose and meaning both large and small, cosmic and intimately immediate, and we ought to give attention to both.
Like Jeff Goldblum’s character says in Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way.” And we ought to as well, knowing that we’re not required to be perfect, but we’re on a journey to become ever more mature, ever more whole, ever more invested in bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to earth and being as unique and luminous a part of it as we can be!
Things Fall Apart
Every analogy has that point at which it unravels–otherwise it would be something more than analogy. I don’t want to make too much of the relationship between evolutionary processes and our understanding of God, but I do firmly believe that nature and our experiences of existence are pathways to gleaning some understanding of the person and nature of the Triune.
We should be careful to consult scripture, other revelation of truth we may have experienced from God, (first and foremost) our understanding and knowledge of the person of Jesus Christ, and to employ our intellect and logic (to the extent that they may be brought to bear on such issues). But we Christians believe that everything has meaning, even when we cannot see or understand that meaning. If that is true, wrestling with the possibilities cannot be a useless task.
A Final Thought
I do want to take a brief aside to address what might be the elephant in the room for you in Matthew 5:48. You might be asking, if God is “perfect” in the “classical” sense of the word, then what does it say about God is we use the idea of “complete” or “whole” or “purposeful” instead of the word “perfect” in that passage.
The short answer, I think, is “not much.” On the one hand, it is just as accurate to say that God is “whole” and “complete” in God’s self as to say that God is “without flaw,” and to say that God is “complete” is not a negation of God’s perfection, only an acknowledgment that God’s perfection does not equally (perhaps cannot equally) apply to us. We could talk about this in terms of the Trinity or we could talk about it in terms of God’s (im)passibilty. On the other hand, I also think it’s safe to say that we don’t really know much about what “perfection” actually means when it comes to a description of God, just as all of our human descriptions of the nature and persons of God are limited by our own cognitive boundaries. In that sense, we’re right to focus on what Jesus’s statement means we should be thinking or doing and worrying a bit less about what it says about God. There’s an irony here in that the speaker (Jesus) by his very actions is in the process of revealing God to us even as he uses words to speak about God. How we differentiate between the speech-act and the content of the speech to best understand the nature and being of God is perhaps an irresolvable question.