What Evolution Says about Christianity: Wholeness and Purpose, Not a Lack of Flaws

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?

Eternal Surprise
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.

 

Jesus’ Anti-Apocalyptic Message

(This is the 6th of seventeen posts in my 200 for 200 goal. We’re currently at 140 followers, so please continue to send your friends my way!)

(P.P.S. it seems: While I haven’t been as good as I’d like to be about keeping my New Year’s resolution to write for at least an hour every day–life has a habit of intervening–I have been busy at work, though the lack of posts on the blog doesn’t seem to indicate that. Have faith and bear with me–there is much more to come, and soon!)

To be honest, I’ve pulled a little bit of a fast one on the title of the post in a blatant attempt to get your attention. I’m not going to deny that the message of Jesus is sometimes apocalyptic, nor am I going to overturn everything you thought you knew.

The word “apocalyptic” can mean a number of things, particularly the common/colloquial idea of “end times” and/or a style of revelatory writing and narrative (often, but not necessarily coinciding with the subject of the Second Coming or the Day of Judgment).  There are certainly times when Jesus speaks apocalyptically in both senses of the word: much of Matthew 24 and 25 contains apocalyptic speech in the sense that it offers revelatory information in the prophetic mode and that it discusses an end times. My NIV translation of Matthew 24 gives it the heading, “The Destruction of the Temple and Signs of the End Times,” and later, before the start of verse 36, “The Day and Hour Unknown.” Matthew 25 contains the Parable of the Ten Virgins–which we can certainly read as about those who wait patiently for the kind of apocalyptic salvation common to first-century belief in ancient Judea–and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, perhaps one of the hardest sayings of Jesus.

As an aside, there is some interesting scholarship about the origins of some of the parables above in relation to the various source theories of the gospel texts. I’ll leave that to those better versed in such things.

So, by the title of this post, I do not mean to intimate that Jesus never spoke apocalyptically (regardless of sense of the word you want to use), that it is not possible to read Jesus as apocalyptic prophet, or to read themes of judgment out of Jesus’ ministry. None of these things would be correct in light of scripture.

However (perhaps in typical Methodist “both/and” fashion), I do want to nuance and complicate things a little and to challenge the proposition of some scholars (particularly Bart Ehrman, I think) that Jesus should be read only (maybe it’s more fair to say “primarily”) as an apocalyptic prophet who is simply repeating cultural ideas of the time.

Thus, we arrive at the title of the post: I want to offer a reading of certain scriptures (and I want to be careful to be clear here that this is not intended as a full synthesis of the Gospels and I am intentionally leaving intact the tension between my offered reading and those of Jesus’ sayings that are staunchly apocalyptic) that turns the standard idea of the apocalyptic on its head. Or, at the very least, points out a different but defensible interpretation.

Given the semiotic flexibility of the word “apocalyptic” (as mentioned above), I think it’s only right that I define specifically what I mean when I say “anti-apocalyptic.” For purposes of this post (title included), I use the term “anti-apocalyptic” to mean “something other than the idea that the world is a lost cause that must be suffered through with patience until some external eucatastrophe restores justice by punishing the oppressors and evildoers and rewarding those who have faithfully suffered.”

Let’s look at Luke 17:20-21 (NIV): “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the Kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,” or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” The NIV includes a footnote that “in your midst” might also be translated as “within you.” Other translations also choose “within you”.

I do not claim to be a scholar of Koiné Greek–it’s something that I’d like to pick up some time, but this has not yet come to fruition. However, based on what understanding I do have–and particularly a reliance on Strong’s (the word “entos,” which is the Greek word we’re talking about is G1787)–“inside of you” (“sy entos“) seems to be the better translation.

I have seen it argued that “in your midst” is the better translation, but only to the result that the argument becomes “the Holy Spirit dwells within your soul,” which seems to me to be a distinction without a difference–unless we try to parse out “having” a soul as somehow different from “being a soul,” as if a soul is an attachment to one’s essence. We wouldn’t be the first to go there, of course–Egyptian and Zoroastrian religion (among others) have a complex relationship between different parts of the soul and the existential being of the individual. This, however, seems to become pure metaphysical speculation.

But I digress. As an existential theologian, I’ve argued on this blog (and in my first theology book, when I get around to finishing it and publishing it one way or another; for now, see this post) that the process of sanctification–of participation in the Kingdom of God–is a matter of an internal change of self and perception so that one adopts a “map” of right relationships that approaches the map God would have us see. If this is true, that the process of sanctification is one of gradual inward change and enlightenment spurred on by the revelation of the person of Jesus Christ, then it seems almost axiomatic that the Kingdom of God is within us all along–even if that does sound a little afternoon-school-special-y. Don’t worry, this isn’t another digression; this is the beginning of the argument I’m trying to make.

Paul’s language about the Holy Spirit seems to indicate an understanding of sanctification similar to what I have described above, with the Holy Spirit as the believer’s guide on the path to Christ-likeness. Let’s look at Romans 8:

In 8:4, Paul writes “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Here, the Holy Spirit serves as the impetus that drives us toward righteousness, sanctification. In the words that follow, Paul argues that those who “live in the flesh” rather than the Spirit “are hostile to God” (8:7), and that only belongs to Christ if one “has the Spirit of God” living in him or has “the Spirit of Christ” (8:9). For Paul, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is an essential part of the Christian’s life.

Soon thereafter he writes, “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God…the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship” (8:14-15, abridged). The guidance of the Holy Spirit brings about the right relationship with God as well as righteousness. This corresponds, I think, with the way I’ve described sanctification both here and elsewhere on the blog.

We should also note that Paul holds the same tension between inward sanctification through the Holy Spirit and the apocalyptic. Later in Romans 8, 8:20-21 to be specific, he writes: “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and the glory of the children of God.” The rest of the passage focuses on patience in the face of suffering as we “wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies” (8:23b). Romans 8 ends with some comments about predestination that we won’t address here–though my post series “Roleplaying Games as a Microcosm of Free Will” somewhat addresses the topic. Likewise, I think it’s fair to read some conflict between belief and works righteousness in Paul’s words here, though that’s a topic for another time.

Of course, Paul also explicitly links the Holy Spirit to sanctification in describing the “Fruits of the Holy Spirit” in Galatians 5. The Fruits are qualities of character of both Christ and the one who has become Christ-like (through sanctification).

Jesus Himself alludes to the Holy Spirit as the driver of sanctification in John 16:13: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” I would argue that the understanding of truth is the understanding of the right relationships with God, self, others and creation, which itself causes the inner change that we call “sanctification.”

Here’s what I see as the fundamental dissonance between the interior view of a sanctification and the exterior or apocalyptic view–the apocalyptic view tends to draw our focus away from what we can do in the here and now to make the world we live in a better place–to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth bit by bit rather than waiting for some supernal (and divinely unilateral) invasion. An eschatological view that only looks for that promised eucatastrophe allows us to ignore present suffering we could do something about. When we see sanctification as a process of change within ourselves that draws us to be more compassionate and Christlike, it is inevitable that we will be drawn to serve the least and the lost and–thereby–to participate in some foretaste of the Kingdom of God.

It is true that I’m an idealist; but I’m also enough of a realist to see that our opportunities to enact change in the world are small and localized. We humans, without God, are unable to erase all of the evil and suffering out there (though that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try anyway). In light of that, we do need to have some idea of an “apocalyptic” intervention in which God sets all things right and fully and finally remedies the fallenness of man. I make no claim to know what that will look like (or be like, for that matter), but in light of the interior idea of sanctification, I have some confidence (though of course, not complete surety) in arguing that it won’t look like a literal fulfillment of the apocalyptic (in the narrative style, I mean here) images in the Book of Revelations.

We Methodists (and I’m sure we’re not alone) like to say that “the Kingdom of Heaven is a future promise and a present reality.” Perhaps this post just brings us full circle on this saying. I think it’s certainly possible to view the “traditionally apocalyptic” sayings of Jesus as indicating the future promise and those passages I have described as “anti-apocalyptic” as indicating the present reality. The two categories are not mutually exclusive, after all.

As this post draws to a close, this is what I mean to say: Although Jesus does sometimes speak of a time when, by God’s intervention, all wrongs will be rectified and Creation will be restored to what it has always been meant to be, that doesn’t mean that all there is for us to do on earth in the meantime is to wait and patiently suffer through the injustice of the world. Jesus also calls us to present participation in the Kingdom of God, both by exploring it within ourselves (through the process of sanctification) and then by pouring out that discovery into the world. Spoiler alert: Jesus also tells us exactly how to do this: clothe the needy, feed the hungry, visit those who are in prison, tend the sick, pursue justice in our society. Our guiding principles are simple in their utterance and infinitely complex in the doing: love the Lord your God, love your neighbor as yourself (and all people are your neighbors) and strive that it might be “on earth as it is in Heaven.”