I am part of a growing community of Christians who love God, who believe in the message of salvation brought to the world by Jesus, who rely on prayer and on the working power of the Holy Spirit to help us through our daily lives, yet understand that this physical universe began in the instant we call the Big Bang, that life got to its current state by way of 3.8 billion years of evolution, and that the flesh and blood bodies we inhabit during our time on this earth comprise a preternaturally intelligent species of ape.
The development of the cerebral cortex in the human brain over the 6 million years since our species’ earliest ancestors learned to walk upright gives us a level of intelligence and consciousness not possible in other animals. Animals know; humans know that we know. Its a self-reflective level of consciousness awareness that no other species has. We can think about what we think about. We remain apes, but we are now apes who can consider our actions, analyze our experience, and perceive and think beyond the instincts and behaviors bred into us by evolution.
So for many of us, when the New Testament writers refer to us as being born “of the flesh,” we understand this to mean being born with all the natural urges and instincts we inherited as members of the Ape family. When Jesus spoke of being born again, i.e. born “of the Spirit,” we understand that as a call to use our new mental capabilities to establish a conscious connection with Spirit and transcend the evolutionary instincts of our inner ape. It is in this context that we understand the concept of “sin”: not necessarily as a specific act, but as a state of being, specifically the state of being apes, albeit apes capable of perceiving and reaching out to Spirit.
Our ancestors recognized Spirit thousands of years before Jesus showed up. Venus figurines, fat little stone goddesses that date back at least 35,000 years, have been found from Europe all the way to Asia and Japan. Something was registering in the human psyche long before there was any organized religion, long before writing was invented to carry the idea beyond any local seer’s valley.
Spirit reaches humanity in the form it can understand. In the Venus figurine era, which lasted until about 9,000 years ago, we apparently needed something solid, some concrete physical thing to hold in our hands and to put our physical eyes on in order to anchor conscious attention on the aspect of Spirit that they represented.
That aspect was probably fertility, an aspect of human experience that rivets attention to this day. Many early religious rites were sexual in nature, and it wasn’t until religion became part of authoritarian power structures that this began to be stamped out.
But the anchor was set. Once the human species had evolved far enough that gods and ceremony and birth- and death-rites began to take place, such practices quickly became an ordinary feature of human cultures wherever we settled.
There is an early stage in every human life when we need such anchors. Stories are told to kids to help them understand important non-physical aspects of our world. Stories of love and relationship and reciprocity and forgiveness, of self-sacrifice and thanks-giving, stories of duty and work and accomplishment, stories with characters who transform themselves, who emerge from embeddedness in self to establish a broader sense of identity with others. Its no accident that humans resonate to stories in which a character undergoes a personal transformation on his way to accomplishing his goals, because at a deep level we sense that making that transformation was the objective of pursing that goal in the first place. The transformation needed to accomplish the objective always turns out to be more valuable than the objective itself was,
Personal transformation, maturity, growth, personal evolution, these are ultimately what life is all about. When it is all said and done and we’ve come to life’s ultimate equalizer, the grave, then our most important accomplishment will be the transformations we have accomplished after a lifetime of pain and struggle and growth. This “self”, this personality we have developed over the course of a lifetime, is the only thing we’ll be taking with us when we go.
The “self” is this sense of who we are in relation to others. It is the part of us that develops throughout our lives. It is through the lens of “self” that we see the world and relate to it, and it is only through this sense of self that we can relate to others. Anyone who has been to a 30-year high school reunion knows that you are not who you were in high school. Our personal transformations change who we are, and they come at a price: we lose a bit of our old selves every time we take a step forward in maturity. That can be painful, and is often very hard to face.
Yet every one of us has gone through it many times. Infants begin this process within months of birth as slowly, painfully, “subject” (me) and “object” (everything that isn’t me) begin to be divided into two camps as the infant recognizes that the world outside of itself doesn’t always conform to its expectations and demands.
By the age of one or two they have come to the horrifying realization that even mom and me are in fact two separate selves. Even she has plans of her own, even she won’t always do what I say, and the growing, awakening, developing personality will spend the rest of its life coming to terms with that inner conflict on multiple fronts, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and in every other way.
This emergence from embeddedness in some aspect of the world of the younger self to the broader ever-more autonomous world of the more experienced, more mature self is a process that lasts a lifetime.
As we get older it never really gets much easier, and it never really seems less painful and infuriating than it was the first time we went through it. But with each transformation comes a new and better person, a person that still has the old self within, but now carries the seeds of the next transformation as well, patiently growing to either blossom into a yet higher level of maturity, or if we cling too tightly, to grow old and rigid and immovable and stuck. For some disciplines of Psychology, this failure of transformation is the foundation of depression and anxiety and a host of other ills.
The progression of human culture is a history of growth and development on as many fronts as the individual personality faces. In general the level of maturity of any particular society is only as advanced as the level of maturity of that society’s adults, in particular its leaders. The progression of any individual from infancy to adulthood is a progression from complete dependency and embeddedness in family to independence and autonomy from which the adult now relates to family as an independent contributor with a family of his or her own.
The progress of human society throughout history can easily be seen as following a similar pattern of growth that human individuals do. A society that goes through an “enlightenment” is exhibiting the same progression toward greater maturity that an individual does as part of the process of growing up. Within the Christian tradition, Jesus reinterpreted Hebrew Law as being summarized as “Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself”, a revolutionary concept in a strict theocratic culture in which a tribal priesthood ruled every aspect of society in the name of that same God.
Martin Luther kicked off another enlightenment by initiating what became the Protestant Reformation, with some help from Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press that made local-language translations of the Bible available to everyone. The age of “Modernity” followed soon after, bringing with it a recognition of individual rights and liberties, the Industrial Revolution, and political revolutions that moved societies away from Royalism and totalitarianism and toward autonomy of the individual, a process that is still under way. Nations continue to try to centralize control, and citizens still struggle to keep hard-won freedoms that always seem under threat.
All of these social transitions have parallels in the growth and development of each individual, and all of them have also deeply influenced how humanity perceives and relates to Spirit. Religious traditions are evolving just as human society is, just as humanity is, and just as each individual does throughout life.
So why Christianity? I believe that the words of the Christian Bible, particularly of the New Testament, when read in the context of human growth and development over the course of our evolution provide the best explanation and the clearest path forward for reaching our fullest potential as apes capable of abstract reasoning and conscious perception beyond what the senses we evolved with can perceive.
The physical senses are enough for the physical world, but imagine an intelligent animal with no sense of sight: it would not know moon or stars, and would know of the sun only by its daily cycle of warmth. Or a smart species that never evolved a sense of hearing: finding a book full of sheet music would leave them completely baffled. They wouldn’t know where to begin to try to understand what they had.
These represent the challenge of Spirit to this new species: life has evolved this far without direct knowledge of Spirit, without evolving any means of directly perceiving Spirit, although something in us has long sensed something. With humanity’s capacity for conscious self-awareness, biological life now has the ability to perceive Spirit in the same way a species without sight might perceive the sun. How does Spirit make itself known to us? It has to reach humanity wherever it is, at whatever stage of societal evolution we are in, and it has to do so in ways that we can comprehend and communicate to each other.
The truths in the teachings of Jesus and his followers, notably Paul and Peter and the other writers of the New Testament, can be understood just as clearly (if not more so) in the context of mankind as part of a perpetually changing and dynamically growing world, rather than mankind as a recent creation in a relatively static world. Despite being almost 2000 years old, the message of the New Testament and the spiritual reality it describes has made its way to us intact enough that the message of Jesus has lifted the lives of hundreds of millions.
Christianity had a militant and bloody childhood. Pre-reformation Christianity, after its adoption by the Roman Empire three centuries after they’d crucified Christ, was barely distinguishable from the practices of the old Olympus gods of the Roman legions. After Martin Luther and Gutenberg, Christianity began another painful process of reformation, a process that continues to this day.
The Christianity that is still emerging from the Dark Ages is awakening more and more to the original revolutionary message of Jesus: seeking power on this earth is meaningless and a waste of effort. Instead transform yourselves, emerge from bondage to the instincts of Ape, and seek instead the power of Spirit.
This blog is a reboot of a blog I started over a year ago. At the time I had some ideas that I needed to articulate in writing to really clarify them for myself. But that blog lacked purpose and direction, and I began and abandoned almost a dozen posts before setting it aside to try to understand how my own beliefs were evolving.
A few months ago I re-read a couple of books by the Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin. I will write a full post about him later, but he was a Catholic priest who believed in and studied Darwin’s theory of evolution, and developed ideas of his own about evolved-man’s place in God’s world. His ideas were big. He saw the world in geological time spans, and understood the dynamic, emerging nature of everything from matter to life to consciousness, and he saw it in the context not only of evolving mankind, but of mankind evolving toward greater recognition of – and union with – Spirit.
He wrote in the apparent hope of finding acceptance for his ideas within Catholicism, but at the time of Teilhard’s writings, from 1920 through the 1940s, the Catholic church was under the guidelines of the First Vatican Council, which took place a few years after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. I don’t know if Darwin’s work was on the church’s radar yet at that time, but the Council’s most prominent result was the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, and by the time of Teilhard’s writings the church was in a kind of reactionary position in regard to Darwinism. To the church, the concept of Darwinian evolution was an affront to its very foundations, so needless to say, Teilhard’s work was not appreciated.
Most of modern Christianity still sees evolution the same way. Reading Teilhard has forced me to structure my own beliefs, and I will use this blog to do that. In so doing I hope to show that there is much more to the bigger picture than just a shouting match between creation and evolution.
For a modern Christian that debate should be irrelevant. The power of God comes to us through the Spirit, the Law of God is Love, and salvation is the gift of Christ. Nowhere does it say, “Oh and besides that, and you have to believe Genesis 1 literally or else nothing that Jesus preached on this earth applies to you.”
Of course that is nonsense.
So what are we arguing about?