“Spirit is indeed never at rest but always engaged in moving forward.” -G.W.F. Hegel
The Industrial Revolution brought radical changes to humanity in a short period of time, and traditional and once-dominant religious institutions were feeling the need to assert themselves. In the mid- to late-1800s came Darwin, the “godless” Marx & Engels Communist Manifesto, the early attempts to study Psychology objectively (i.e. secularly), a united Germany and the Second Reich, and an up-and-coming engine of power and prosperity in the secular democracy of the United States, in which every backwoods preacher and every farmer with a Bible and a vision and a burning mission from God Almighty could start his own religion and preach whatever he wanted.
After over 1000 years of religious domination, suddenly organized religions that were centuries old were being jostled and bumped. The world was changing, and it wasn’t about them anymore. Catholicism reacted by holding the First Vatican Council which resulted in the doctrine of Papal infallibility. Evangelical Protestantism went back to basics and the Fundamentalist movement was the result. If the Pope wanted to claim infallibility for himself, then the Protestant response was that it is the Bible and the Bible alone that is infallible.
Infallible, inerrant, and accurate in every way. I was raised to read the Bible in fine fundamentalist tradition: you don’t play around with the words in the Bible, they came from God. You respect that, and if the Bible says women aren’t to be permitted to speak in church, then women aren’t supposed to be preachers. If it says homosexuality is wrong, then you have to believe that, too. If you see that these things were written in a particular time and place in history and reflected the values of a specific culture rather than anything actually taught by Jesus, then you keep that to yourself because its in the Bible, see? Don’t argue! And if it says that earth was created in six days a few thousand years ago, you don’t argue with that either.
This is how I was taught to read the Bible. But reading it is one thing. What if you want to understand the Bible?
I understood that the creation story was given to a large group of Hebrew slaves escaping from Egypt. Education was not available to most of them. If they were supposed to establish themselves as a nation, they would need a simple and straightforward foundation history on which to build their culture and their laws. In that respect, the creation story in the first few chapters of Genesis was brilliant. It laid the foundation for a society that has lasted for thousands of years, only one other spiritual tradition (Hinduism) is older than Judaism.
We didn’t discover that DNA had anything to do with genetics until the 1940s. People have known for ages about breeding crops and animals and of course each other, but the science of genetics is only now getting to the point where we are beginning to understand what is really going on.
So what exactly was God supposed to tell a largely-illiterate horde of Bronze-age Mesopotamian refugees? This was the time when Israel was being established, it was a people who had little history beyond some stories about how they came to be slaves in Egypt. There was no priesthood yet, no system of laws or sacrifices, they didn’t even have the ten commandments yet, and the Bible is supposed to start them off with a lecture on molecular genetics? On the inheritance of mutations in genome sequences starting in that initial little algae-like colony that mutated into all of earth’s plant and animal life forms over the course of 3-plus billion years thus saith the Lord?
In the beginning there was pond scum, now here’s you. If Moses had come back down the mountain with that nonsense they might have gone straight back to Egypt. Don’t forget these were people who thought it was a good idea to pool their gold, build a statue of a farm animal and worship that, this was not a shining example of cultural maturity we’re talking about. In Piaget’s terms they were pre-operational, the stage of development where magical thinking lives, and they were nowhere near ready to hear about the world as it really is.
Are we ready for it now? Are we ready to see the world not as a finished work that was spoiled by disobedience, but as a dynamic, ever-growing, ever-developing world that is being nurtured toward union with Spirit, with God? A seed that was planted eons ago and is just now reaching the point where little buds and shoots of conscious awareness are beginning to show?
I definitely believe that Christianity is ready for it.
What follows are some comments about my own transition from young-earth creationist to Christian evolutionist. I grew up in a church that believes in young-earth Creationism, a worldview I shared until my early 20s. I knew that the world was about 6,000 years old. I knew that it was created for mankind but that “we” messed it up through our disobedience. Because that’s how we are, just look at us. I had long, involved ideas about The Flood, which I knew had turned the earth from an Edenic garden into this harsh environment where we must labor from cradle to grave just to survive. I knew that that was mankind’s fault too, because we didn’t heed the warnings. I knew these things, and I vaguely recall having a bit of an attitude about that knowledge. I knew my Bible very well, and could bend it around almost anything.
When I learned about the speed of light and how far away the stars were, and how long it would take the light from those stars to reach earth, the phrase “he made the stars also” in Genesis 1:16 came to the rescue and we could say, “Well there you go, the stars were already there long before he made the sun, moon, and earth.” He made them too, but it doesn’t actually say it was during creation week, so there!
There was little that would dent my self-confidence. Where did all that water from the flood go? Well, you see the earth didn’t really have mountain ranges and deep ocean canyons back then, the surface of the earth was even and level because it was all supposed to be inhabitable from pole to pole, right? Thousands of miles of icy frozen peaks and deep canyons and broken wastelands weren’t part of the original deal, it was a pastoral land made for humans to live in, right? So it wouldn’t have taken all that much water to flood the place, now would it? I think I must have read Velikovsky somewhere along the way because I was imagining that about the time Noah got his creatures into the ark a big icy comet smacked into the earth, fracturing the crust into plates and creating all those sky-piercing sharp bits with glaciers on and miles-deep earth-spanning depressions that eventually held all that flood water after things settled down, with us now living on the parts that were raised up high enough to stay dry. So the flood water didn’t go anywhere, I reasoned: the earth remains 70% flooded to this day.
I felt myself to be in good company. Check out the Apocrypha book 2nd Esdras 6:42, which inspired Christopher Columbus to believe it would only be a week-long sail across the Atlantic: “On the third day thou didst command the waters to be gathered together in the seventh part of the earth; six parts thou didst dry up and keep so that some of them might be planted and cultivated.” If only 1/7 of the earth was covered in water, then how far must it be to sail across that? Of course the passage was referring to Creation, not to the postdiluvian world, which is why Columbus got it so wrong, but I saw passages like that as confirmation of my impressions of how earth was supposed to have looked before the Flood.
That’s how my mind saw the world back then. I saw dinosaurs as part of God’s creation that were nevertheless permitted to be wiped out by the flood. I had all sorts of reasons for that one, mostly because I figured that post-flood mankind wouldn’t be able to cope with them, us living only 70 years now instead 700 or so like the pre-flood guys did. I found my proof in places like Dinosaur Valley near my childhood home in Dallas, where dinosaur tracks and (supposed) human footprints are found one on top of the other, because they were both trying to run away from the flood waters, you see? You can see it right there in front of your lying eyes. Of course they always try to explain it away somehow, but I never paid attention, they didn’t know any better, being evolutionists and all, and I always felt kind of sorry for them and hoped that one day God would show them the Truth.
Since I was prepared to accept that Genesis 1 & 2 only applied to Earth, Moon, and Sun I don’t recall having much of an issue with the Big Bang. “In the beginning there was nothing, which exploded,” to steal a fun line from Terry Pratchett. That was okay by me since I’ve always thought of Spirit and God as being outside of time and space, existing independent of our physical reality. I still think this way, only I think this way now from a completely different perspective.
You can see that I was trying to incorporate some modern science into my young-earth Creationist worldview. I found a way to fit in plate tectonics, for example, and the uninhabitable nature of much of God’s creation. A big global disaster like the Flood gives one all kinds of leeway to transform the earth from an Edenic paradise to what we’re living on now.
Sin and the Fall of Mankind did the rest. It explained death, for one thing, but for some reason I was always a little uncomfortable on this topic. Even in my Creationist days I wondered what would have happened after a couple of thousand years of enthusiastic procreation by genetically perfect creatures that would go on living forever. There would clearly have to come a point at which the earth would be full. Then what? Arks again? Headed for the stars? That was in fact what I though would have happened, and although it felt really cool to think that, it somehow still felt unsatisfactory, and therefore it was a thought that I didn’t think about much.
Looking back, part of my discomfort with the whole speculative exercise was the static nature of, well, of nature. By that time I was taking college biology classes and getting good grades, and also getting patient little smiles from my professors in response to my occasional remarks about creation, which were beginning to sound a little hollow even to me. I really didn’t understand how strong the massive body of evidence for evolution was until I sat one day in the biology lab looking through drawer after drawer of animal jawbones and skulls and seeing, with my own lying eyes, the clear progression from one species to the next. I will always remember that afternoon as a personal turning point.
So if any biology teacher is reading this and is dealing with someone like me, be patient. I think I was at my most defensive when I was closest to acknowledging a truth that I had been unable to face. The most important thing to help such a person do is understand that God and his message of Love is real whether we got here through evolution or by the account given in Genesis. God doesn’t change, but our understanding of him does. Our ability to understand him changes as we learn more.
My teachers believed in God in the same proportions as everyone else. Some believed in a highly personal God, others in him in a more or less philosophical way, and others not at all. One said “If you told me someone got the ball rolling to start life from pure matter, I wouldn’t really be arguing with you because, who knows?” That was as much as he would ever say, but he turned out to be one of the most influential people in my life during this time of transition. So be patient! There is hope for us. 🙂