Category Archives: Christianity and Evolution

Christianity in the context of what Evolutionary Biology has learned about the origins of mankind.

Spirit of Consciousness: A Brief Summary

MC Escher Hand Reflecting SphereTo wrap up this series of posts, I just want to add a few words to indicate the direction my thoughts are going on this matter.

In the first post I discussed the idea that when the Bible refers to human “spirit”, what its talking about is self-aware consciousness, which is a level of consciousness that differentiates humans from all other animals.  “…and the dust [the body] returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7).  Genesis spoke of God creating man “from the dust of the ground”, and then giving him the “breath of life.”  This breath wasn’t air into the lungs, all animals breathe but only man got this gift.  In the story in Genesis, what this breath gave man was the only thing that truly differentiates us from other animals: self-aware conscious intelligence.

The second post talked about how our conscious minds create “schemas”, or mental maps of the world as we perceive it, and it is these schemas that determine what events and experiences mean to us, and therefore how we react to them. Schemas reflect our “core beliefs” about the world, and these can be changed or replaced.  Christianity’s emphasis on belief, “believe and you will be saved”, is an ancient means of replacing an unhealthy schema (in Biblical terminology, “sin”) with one that by-passes ego by surrendering the schema’s maladaptive behaviors and defenses to God.

In the third post I discussed the two primary authorities that have held dominion over humanity for as far back as we have historical records: the church and the state.  These two forces have often worked together, but since the Enlightenment and the introduction of secular democracies, especially in the Western world, spirituality has been liberated from state control and has blossomed as a direct result.  As stated elsewhere, the Christianity that sent Crusaders to the Middle East, supported slavery, and gave us the term “Inquisition” no longer exists precisely because Christianity is no longer a tool of the state.

And with that liberation, our concept of God himself has been freed from the chains of human authority. He is, finally, a personal God. One who loves and does not condemn, one whose only request of us is that we love others with the same selfless love with which he loves us.

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Spirit of Consciousness, Part 3: Church and State

church-state-stopI want to start with a couple of quotes:

“They have cut man in two, setting one half against the other. They have taught him that his body and his consciousness are two enemies engaged in deadly conflict, two antagonists of opposite natures, contradictory claims, incompatible needs, that to benefit one is to injure the other, that his soul belongs to a supernatural realm, but his body is an evil prison holding it in bondage to this earth—and that the good is to defeat his body, to undermine it by years of patient struggle, digging his way to that glorious jail-break which leads into the freedom of the grave.

They have taught man that he is a hopeless misfit made of two elements, both symbols of death. A body without a soul is a corpse, a soul without a body is a ghost—yet such is their image of man’s nature: the battleground of a struggle between a corpse and a ghost, a corpse endowed with some evil volition of its own and a ghost endowed with the knowledge that everything known to man is non-existent, that only the unknowable exists.

Do you observe what human faculty that doctrine was designed to ignore? It was man’s mind that had to be negated in order to make him fall apart. Once he surrendered reason, he was left at the mercy of two monsters whom he could not fathom or control: of a body moved by unaccountable instincts and of a soul moved by mystic revelations—he was left as the passively ravaged victim of a battle between a robot and a dictaphone.”   -John Galt

The second quote was published the same year:

The churches stand for traditional and collective convictions which in the case of many of their adherents are no longer based on their inner experience but on unreflecting belief, which is notoriously apt to disappear as soon as one begins thinking about it.  The content of belief then comes into collision with knowledge, and it often turns out that the irrationality of the former is no match for the ratiocinations of the latter.  Belief is no adequate subsitute for inner experience, and where this is absent even a strong faith which came miraculously as a gift of grace may depart equally miraculously.  -Carl Jung

Both of these were published in 1957, which was a perilous time for the world. The Cold War was reaching terrifying new heights, the Soviet Empire was in bloody, merciless expansion in Europe, Asia, and Latin America with the volatile Nikita Khrushchev at the helm.  President Eisenhower was warning Americans to build nuclear fallout shelters and prepare for the worst, and our children were watching for flashes in the sky and practicing duck and cover in grade-school classrooms.   The two countries were fully capable of nuking each other into oblivion, and were playing a game of brinksmanship that would have erased all the gains of the Enlightenment and set Western Civilization back hundreds of years if either side had blinked.

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All-in or Die: A Few Words About Abraham and Sacrifice

abraham-and-isaac-sacrifice-craftWe all know the story of Abraham and his son Isaac, and God’s test of Abraham by calling on him to sacrifice his son.  As the story goes, God appeared to Abraham and told him to go to a specific place and sacrifice Isaac, the son that had been conceived and born in miraculous fashion when Sarah was in her 90s.  Abraham obeyed, but at the last instant God stopped his hand, and a ram showed up to be used as a sacrifice instead.

It is one of the most (pick one) shocking, moving, horrifying, glorifying, thought-provoking and emotionally wrenching tales in a Bible that is full of stories that are totally alien to post-Enlightenment sensibilities.  Biblical supporters, Biblical critics, and everyone caught in between have ideas about it, because the story affects us at multiple levels.

The story in the Bible itself can be read here:

Abraham Tested

Also I should add that this post was prompted by an article I read while sipping my coffee this morning, here:

The Five Most Terrifying Words in the Bible

In the article, the five most terrifying words are, “But where is the lamb?”, Isaac’s heartbreaking question to his father when everything was made ready for the sacrifice.  Scholars generally believe that Isaac was a young adult at the time of the story.

The tale is an archetype of the story of Jesus, a father sacrificing his beloved son for the sake of humanity.  But I want to look at another aspect of it, one that I rarely see mentioned.  That is, who was testing whom?  Could this have been a rational decision on Abraham’s part?  One that we might understand, regardless of the fact that we could never approve?  Nobody could approve of such a thing, but we might nevertheless glimpse a rationale that might have been going through Abraham’s mind at that point in his life.

God may have been testing Abraham, but for me to understand the story at all, I have to also believe that Abraham was testing God.

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The Odds of Evolution

bonoboOne of the common Christian arguments against natural evolution concerns the odds of it happening without divine intervention.  Its an understandable objection, this is an amazing world we live in and the sheer variety and extraordinary nature of the life forms that share this planet with us are sometimes so unique in form and function that it is difficult to imagine them appearing by random chance.

But those who use this argument should understand that it is an ineffective and even counterproductive tactic for use on anyone knowledgeable about evolution.  The “odds” argument is used by both young-earth Creationists and by Intelligent Design proponents and it goes something like this (from the Institute of Creation Research):

One of the strongest direct evidences for special creation is the existence of innumerable highly complex systems in the universe, systems composed of components occurring in a pattern of “order” rather than disorder. Creationists maintain that highly ordered systems could not arise by chance, since random processes generate disorder rather than order, simplicity rather than complexity and confusion instead of “information.”

For example, consider a series of ten flash cards, numbered from one to ten. If these are thoroughly and randomly mixed, and then laid out successively in a linear array along the table, it would be extremely unlikely that the numbers would fall out in order from one to ten. Actually, there are 3,628,800 different ways in which these numbers could be arranged, so that the “probability” of this particular ordered arrangement is only one in 3,628,800. (This number is “ten factorial,” written as 10!, and can be calculated simply by multiplying together all the numbers from one to ten.)

It is obvious that the probability of such a numerically ordered arrangement decreases rapidly as the number of components increases. For any linear system of 100 components in specified order, the probability is one in 100!, or one chance in 10158 (a number represented by “one followed by 158 zeroes”).

The main problem with this argument is its failure to understand the clear, naturally-ordered process that is the heart of the theory of evolution.  The old saying “Know your enemy” is crucial here, because the ‘odds’ argument counts on a lack of knowledge or understanding of the theory (the “process”) of evolution in its audience, and thus is counterproductive in the extreme for the large group of people who do understand evolution, but who may not understand the message of Jesus.  Efforts by modern Christians to maintain as literal our ancient origins story is seriously interfering with the spread of the message of the love of Christ to people in the modern era.

That origins story fullfilled its purpose, it laid the groundwork for Judaism, the spritual tradition within which Christ was born and which was the foundation for his message of salvation to the entire earth.  Our salvation is based on our spiritual union with him, our belief in him.  That is the Christian’s foundation.  Our salvation does not depend on our beliefs about how literally we should accept the first few chapters of Genesis.

The ‘odds’ argument, however much it may comfort those with little knowledge of either statistics or the theory of evolution, ignores the simple, orderly nature of the process proposed by Darwin.  And if you cringed at me referring to evolutionists as the ‘enemy’, there’s hope for you.  🙂  We’re not the enemy, and many of us are indeed devout Christians.

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The Spirit of Consciousness, Part 1

aniołki rafaela santiI want to expand on something I brought up in an older post. From Salvation Part 2:

I have been associating self-aware human consciousness with the Biblical use of the term human “spirit” in my posts, and I want to point out that this connection has a Biblical basis.  It is seen in the comparison of two verses, one in the Creation story in Genesis, the other in the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon’s meditation on the mortality of man.

Genesis 2:7, on the creation of Adam:

Then God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.

Ecclesiastes 12:7, from Solomon:

…and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

“Breath of life” does not mean the movement of air through the lungs.  Other animals do that and they didn’t get any ‘breath of life’.  Solomon connects the two: the Biblical term “breath of life” as used in Genesis is the same thing Solomon calls “spirit” in Ecclesiastes.  And both refer to the only thing that separates humans from the other animals, namely intelligence and self-aware consciousness.

The evolutionary significance of our capacity for conscious awareness cannot be overstated.  3+ billion years of biological evolution produced many different life forms.  Some fast, some tough, some strong, some with sharp claws and teeth, some gigantic, some that swim, some that fly, etc. etc. But no matter how extraordinary their physical attributes, even the most powerful among them have been limited to specific niches in the web of life.

None of those species took over the entire planet, adapted themselves to thrive in every remote corner of it, and subjected every other species to its will.  No physical attribute allowed humanity to do that. Self-aware consciousness and the leap in intelligence that came with it represents more than just another life form: we represent a whole new category of life, in some ways as “distant” from the other animals as those animals are from plants.

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Cosmic Perception

FlammarionA few days ago I was driving with my 6-year old grandson and we could see the moon in the sky.  It was late afternoon, and the moon was somewhat behind the car.  When I made a turn the moon was still visible behind us, but now from the other side of the car.  My grandson, who is beginning to transition from Piaget’s pre-operational to concrete-operational thinking, and whose worldview is still embedded in the belief that his immediate perceptions accurately reflect reality, concluded that this perceptual phenomenon could only mean one thing: the moon must be following us.

If we had been living in a society that knew nothing of science, with nobody to tell him any differently about the behavior of moon and sun and stars, who’s to say what impressions he would have carried with him into adulthood about the way the universe operates.  Without adults around who have transcended pre-operational thinking, without people to explain things to him until he develops a more accurate worldview, would he grow into adulthood without ever maturing any further in his beliefs?  Very likely his adult view of the world would be every bit as simplistic as the viewpoint he had in childhood.

Now imagine humanity’s view of the universe 50,000 years ago, before we developed mathematics, before we had instruments like microscopes or telescopes or electronics for observing and measuring beyond what could be seen with our naked eyes, before we established any scientific methodology or principles for the rigorous study of natural phenomenon, before we had science journals to record the findings of other scientists and communicate those findings around the world to be replicated and verified and confirmed or rejected, in a time when all knowledge had as its starting point, as its most basic foundation, whatever our local priest/elder/witch-doctor/shaman told us about the gods and our place in the universe.

50,000 years ago? What am I saying, how about 500 years ago, when the Copernican Revolution was just getting underway?  How about now for much of the world?  It has taken hundreds of millenia for humanity to begin transcending that ancient view of the universe.  That worldview was all that was needed for hunter-gatherer and agrarian societies to thrive and prosper, but from the perspective we have now it seems childish.  From our modern vantage point it is easy to forget that for the 2 million years of our existence as upright apes with growing intelligence, humanity has spent at least 1,999,500 of those years seeing the universe the way my grandson does.

How must it have been to be on your way back from a hunt or a foraging trip or a raid on a neighboring tribe, carrying your spear in a treacherous world, and realize that the moon is following you home?

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Our universe started with the Big Bang 14 billion years ago.  Our sun is 5 billion years old, and earth is around 4.5 billion years old.  We’re about halfway through the sun’s lifetime as a Class G star.  Estimates for the first appearance of life on earth are 3.5 to 3.9 billion years ago.  Mankind’s divergence from the rest of the Ape family, generally considered to be about the time our earliest human-ish ancestors started walking upright, was around 6 million years ago.  Walking upright is theorized to have gradually led to the development of larger and larger brains.

There is nothing fixed or static about this universe.  Everything is in a perpetual state of change. Matter has increased in complexity from the sub-atomic plasma of the Big Bang to the innumerable combinations of atoms and molecules that make up the physical matter we’re familiar with today.  Life forms have also gotten more complex, and over evolutionary time animal nervous systems have increased in complexity to the point that humanity, rational mankind, “homo sapiens sapiens” has emerged, introducing intelligence and conscious awareness to the Biosphere.  This led thinkers such as Teilhard de Chardin and others to introduce the word “Noosphere” as a term for the realm of human thought and self-reflective conscious awareness.  We can think about what we think about, something no other life form we know of can do.

Consciousness itself develops and grows in every individual human.  A newborn infant is embedded in pure perception, with no experiential knowledge of the world to make sense of what its senses are perceiving.  As the child interacts with the world he constructs internal psychological structures to help him understand it, always testing this understanding against the reality of his experience.  This process will continue throughout his life.

With the development of humanity and human consciousness came the development of human society.  Our Ape cousins are social creatures who prefer to live in groups and we are no different. But our intelligence, our intricate and subtle ways of interacting with each other, and above all our ability to speak to one another using complex language led us to establish social structures that are non-existent in the rest of the animal kingdom.

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Salvation, Pt. 3: Going Home

Thanks to modern medical technology we have a huge number of reports from people who have died and been brought back to life.  I am one of them, although my near-death experience (“NDE”) happened when I was very young and I didn’t get the deluxe tour like others did.

It went like this: I was six years old. Someone was cleaning grease off of some ball bearings from a car using gasoline as a solvent, and he had the gasoline next to him in a Coke bottle.  For some reason I thought it was lemonade. When he turned his back I grabbed it and gulped some down quickly before I could get caught, and got plenty down my throat before I could stop myself. I vaguely remember him shaking me in horror, “Did you drink that?!” The next thing I remember I was floating above a young boy in a hospital room, the boy had an apparatus attached to his face, and I presume it was me having a close encounter with a stomach pump. Then suddenly a bunch of people surrounded him and started making a fuss and I drifted down a passageway like a cavern with a flat floor and textured walls.  The passage made a gentle bend to the right and I could see a beautiful milky-white light shining against the walls. I drifted to the other end of the tunnel and out to the edge of the light, and hung around near the entrance to the passage. There were several other “beings” there, and among them I felt the kind of comfortable feeling one has among close friends when plans have been temporarily interrupted and everyone is just hanging around waiting to get on with it. No words were spoken that I can recall, and my memory of being in the light is little more than a snapshot.

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Salvation, Pt. 2

In Salvation Pt. 1 I talked about the transformative power of Spirit in our everyday lives.  In this post I want to get into my take on the bigger picture, and on how this perspective views the events surrounding Jesus’ death.

To me the distinction between consciousness and conscious self-awareness is captured in the expression, “Animals know, humans know that we know.”  My dog is conscious, but my dog is bound entirely by the rules of Behaviorism.  Of course we humans are also subject to the principles of behaviorism, it remains a very successful discipline of Psychology for treating a number of common complaints.  But the self-referential nature of human consciousness, the fact that we can think about what we think about, gives us the ability to examine our “animal” consciousness from the outside.  We are no longer embedded in our own perceptions, we can step outside of our perceptions (step outside our natural ape selves, in a way) and objectively examine thoughts and perception that other animals are only subject to.

So if humans are capable of examining the contents and processes of our own minds, capable of  (for example) observing ourselves as we read a webpage on the internet and thinking about what we’re reading, who is that observer?  And what realm of consciousness is that observer tapping into?

This is actually an old Buddhist point, used to get new students to understand that there are other levels of consciousness and that we use them every day without ever realizing the enormity of what we are doing.  No other creature in Earth’s long history can do that, and we take it completely for granted.  This capability is fundamental to intelligence, it is fundamental to perception, and it is the foundation of any understanding of spirit.

I have been connecting self-aware consciousness with human “spirit” in my posts, and I want to point out that this connection has a Biblical basis.  It is seen in the comparison of two verses, one in the Creation story in Genesis, the other in Solomon’s Ecclesiastes.

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Salvation, Pt. 1

The perspective I’m trying to develop in this blog is twofold.  First, that Spirit and God are real and actively involved with Earth, humanity, and in individual lives; secondly, that the process of Creation is exactly that: a process.  The process got under way with the natural interaction of elements to form the physical foundations of the universe, and from that came the evolutionary development of life, up to and including humanity.  The Creation story recounted in the Old Testament was given to a specific group of people who were at a rather “young” level of social and cultural maturity.  It was intended to lay an historical foundation to both bind them together as a group, and to provide a basis for the laws, customs, and rituals that would be established later.  The target audience for that story was still sacrificing their children to statues of farm animals, they were in no way ready for anything more complicated than the tale told in Genesis.  It was never intended to be God’s personal lab notebook describing how the universe and the life within it came into being

Several thousand years later we’ve figured much of that out on our own.  Creation started with the Big Bang, and It has grown from whatever that initial life form looked like 3.8 billion years ago all the way through all these ages to this species of Ape that is us.  What is special about us is that we have the capacity of conscious awareness and abstract thought and, at long last, the capacity to perceive and interact with Spirit.

So evolution is the process of Creation.  It didn’t start and end in six days, it started with the Big Bang and is still underway.  Evolution is the means by which conscious awareness was created in this physical reality, and we don’t know if its finished yet.  We have no idea if we’re the ultimate end-product of Creation or if the development of conscious awareness in modern humanity is only the beginning.  For all we know we may only be the ground floor of a noospheric edifice of conscious awareness that will continue to grow into the far future as evolution trundles along on its merry course.

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