Thursday, July 09, 2015

Evolution and Sin (Part III)

In the buildup from Part I and Part II, we've sort of covered the introductory stuff to get to a place where it feels ok to explain what I've been really excited about - not so much because the idea itself is exciting, but more because it seems to explain things in a way that is a little more cohesive with scripture, the world around us, and the way postmodern theology is trending.

I was talking about some of the things I've covered so far in a Theology of Creation class I took a few years back and the professor (whom you can likely figure out, but will remain nameless here just in case he doesn't want to be associated with this crazy, crackpot idea) mentioned an old Rabbinic teaching about two forces at work in the world - not a "good vs evil" kind of thing, but two contrary, amoral forces underlying reality. (I wrote a paper for that course exploring the biblical and historical basis for this idea, which is long and pretty dense, but gives more detail.)

Ultimately, I decided the biblical basis for the notion was tenuous at best (and that's being generous), but the fact that people have been toying with this notion for thousands of years really sparked my imagination. It struck me how well this notion of two forces fit into the way I had already conceptualized sin and creation; it also made great room for evolution in the process.

Selfishness isn't good or bad - it's one of those amoral forces I mentioned above. Selfishness is what keeps a baby alive - if it didn't cry for food and attention, it would die. There's a sense that our self-preservation is essential to our survival. Now, obviously, selfishness can be really terrible and lead us to do terrible things, but the notion to self-preservation can't be condemned on its own. This is essentially what evolution is - an individual trying to survive and pass some part of itself on to the next generation. That's natural selection; it's survival of the fittest. You can even extend it back to the big bang. Even when the elements of the universe weren't sentient or alive, they were living in a process of continuing.

What if that was how God created? Just spoke existence into existence with the knowledge that things would continue to develop. God wouldn't have to plan out what specific things would evolve and arise, but putting the universe on a trajectory of self-preservation necessarily determined where things would end up. Eventually some specifies would arise capable of understanding this selfish force at work in the world, evaluating it, and potentially acting contrary to the very forces that provided for its creation.

I'm not sure God planned on relatively hairless, bipedal primates as that species (we could have been purple, globulous things with beaks for all it mattered), but we would have the ability to understand our natural inclinations and choose against them. That was the important part. From there God could enter into our existence in a relational way - choosing a specific tribe, for example, to pass on specific guidance for life - but even more broadly than that, the very reality that humans can think outside instinct and drive makes the God who inhabits all reality not only a possibility, but a force in the world we are aware of. The very nature of who we are as humans means we have some understanding of God - it's why we can see core elements of a very similar belief underlying the metaphysical understanding of every culture and religion. There's something deep within us as humans who understand at least the reality of God. The creative force of the universe - this amoral self-regard - demands it.

Now this force, on its own, it utter destruction, right? It's what leads a society to kill of its disabled members, it's troublesome. Those things make sense evolutionarily, but we naturally react against them because we also have within us this force of selfless love. This is the presence and action of God in the world. God is love. This force of selfless love works in tandem with the force of self-preservation, where they can temper each other and keep us moving forward towards God's end.

The way I'd describe the reality of this is simply that from the moment of creation, that self-preservation force "took the lead" (for lack of a better term). This force was the driving force that brought us to existence and drove the world to where it needed to be for God's big turn. That turn comes in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Creation has reached a point (in the fullness of time, as the gospels put it) where God could physically enter into the picture. We always talk about the cross meaning something - that it effects not just spiritual change, but real, permanent, physical change in the world. Theologically we might say Jesus was the "inauguration of the kingdom" or the point in which we start to experience heaven.

In this particular narrative we say this is where self-preservation takes a back seat to the selfless love of God. We talk about the defeat of death and the coming of eternity, in which there is no need for self-preservation because the self will be eternally preserved in resurrection. Death is the roadblock that drives evolution - without the reality of death there is no imperative to grow and change, to reproduce and survive. You can't start a world like our without death - it would change all the rules.

Now, however, we can build upon this world already created - with the rules already in place - and we can begin to work by a different set of rules, to change and shape the future into something that looks like the life Christ lead, the kind of hope and future most religions envision. We begin to work toward heave. Jesus is the turning point.

This leaves us with a future world in which we're being shaped and formed by different rules, moving again, without prejudice for specifics, into a different kind of people - no longer ruled by self-preservation, but by selfless love. This is what people talk about in the coming of the Kingdom. Just as creation could have taken an infinite number of paths to get to it's crisis point, so creation can again take an infinite number of paths to get to our final destination (which may, in itself, be an eternal, continual process - who knows?).

Everything in our world is changing - moving from one thing to another. It always works this way - in nature, within ourselves, and in the relationships we have. There's no reason to think, as the traditional narrative does, that God started with what he wanted, we screwed it up, and the purpose of all existence is to get back to what we lost.

No, rather, I'd argue we were created exactly as God intended - through a process that produces people with a distinct lack, a lack only filled by the selfless, mysterious love of God, exemplified in Christ, that will eventually provide us with the power and grace to become what we ere always intended to be. The story of God is one of things getting better and better, becoming more and more right, ever increasing in value and purpose. So, to address the second half of the title - sin is simply any action which works against this trend, some of it is accidental, some is intentional; some does real damage, some is merely a detour that slows us down, but all of it is covered by the love and grace of the God who designed and inhabits the whole thing.

Now this raises any number of questions - some I've thought through and many, many more that I couldn't even have imagined yet. I'd love to keep doing posts tackling some of those - likely not with answers, but with directions and ideas for further conversation. So bring on the feedback.

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