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Hello world!

This is my first blog entry here at WordPress.  So I am trotting out an old chestnut.  This article was published in February 2007 on the Evolution Weekend web pages run by Michael Zimmerman of Butler University.  http://blue.butler.edu/~mzimmerm/rel_evol_sun.htm.  Michael has since become a featured contributor on Huffingtonpost.com.  I have several articles on religion that I have published around the web, and I will gathering them all here for your enjoyment (as well as a lot of other content too).

Three Reasons Christians Should Embrace Evolution

By Jay Hartlove

Humans are social animals.  Like wolves and gorillas, it is part of who we are to need to belong to something bigger than ourselves.  Combine our pack instincts with our intelligence and self-aware consciousness, and we end up needing to feel comfortable with our Place in the universe.  For most of mankind, this Place has always been illuminated by religion.  Seeing examples of how we fit in both gives us comfort and guides our moral behavior.  Believers of all faiths call this our natural attraction to seek the divine.  No set of discovered facts can do as much to satisfy people’s instinctive need to belong, and shape a moral functional society at the same time.

So if religion has such a clearly valuable place in human life, then why have scientists who study life found themselves in opposition to clergy who administer religion?  I am, of course, talking about evolution.  The simple answer is dogma, but like most simple answers, it misses the point of the conflict.

The Christian Bible came to us from many sources and has been edited by many people over time.  But regardless of its crooked path lineage, it is the document that survived that path, and it is the best version we have to work from.  If we are to use the wisdom it holds then we have to accept the whole book.  But whether we have to accept the whole book as the whole story is where we run into trouble.

Old Testament leaders felt the need to attach God’s wrath to any deviation from the exact words of the laws they had set down, given the wandering, questioning, envelope-pushing nature of the Jews in the Bible.  They were a lot like Americans.  Similarly, today’s clergy feels it is their job to rein in this wandering before it leads to downfall.

The point modern fundamentalist clergy have missed is that although the Bible is our lasting document of man’s history with God, it was a much less lofty and much more practical instrument to the people who wrote it.  As much as those Hebrew elders may have believed that God really would smite anyone who ate pork, their object in writing it down as religious law was to save people from disease.

Fundamentalists accuse liberal churches of serving cafeteria style religion for accepting the word of Christ as fact, but interpreting away the literal reading of the creation story of Genesis.  They say Christians must believe every word in the book as the literal truth.  Moreover, they say that anything that contradicts the Bible must not be part of the truth.  This is disingenuous.  There are passages in the four Gospels that contradict one another.  The writers of the Bible wrote about what they knew.  They were not trying to document all of history or to describe all of nature.  The Bible’s editors hoped the collected book would remain useful for generations to come.  They did not expect it to cover all yet undiscovered facts.

So I ask the literalists, “Who will cast the first stone?”  If I can’t say Genesis is metaphor, then all fundamentalists must stop eating pork.  The Jews have managed for thousands of years without it, why not Christians too?  Jesus did not revise Leviticus to allow eating pork.  The cynical reason is it would be political suicide for evangelical churches across the pig farming Midwest.  The practical reason is pork is no longer the health hazard it was throughout most of history.  I submit that the discovery of salt curing and refrigeration is no different than the discovery of dinosaurs and carbon dating.  Neither one diminishes the value of the lessons taught in the Bible, but both add to the Biblical text new facts that were not known to the Bible’s writers.

Therefore my first reason Christians should embrace evolution is the Bible is the foundation cornerstone of our Place in the universe, but it is not the entire story of our understanding.  The Bible “lives” when it inspires us, but unlike the fundamentalist accusation, no one is trying to “grow” it.  No one wants dinosaurs in the Bible.  But we do build onto the Bible new facts as they are discovered, reconciling inconsistencies like adults, and never forgetting the value of the cornerstone we have built upon.

My second reason why Christians should embrace evolution is the hubris the fundamentalist timeline implies.  Fundamentalists ask where is the Grace of a God who let the dinosaurs live for hundreds of millions of years, then wiped them out in an arbitrary accident?  What does such a long timeline say about the significance of the lives of people who are, according to the Bible, only supposed to live for 80 years (Psalms 90.10)?  How can we be made in God’s own image if we are but mere coincidental specks in the very old, very big, and very arbitrary universe?

The fact that the Bible only spends its first book on pre-history should show these questions to be the existential hand-wringing they are.  The stories of Cain and Abraham are purposely without historical context.  All those billions of years that came before do not change what people have been doing to people, and do not change mankind’s relationship with God.

On the other hand, if you count up the generations described in the Bible, you only get 200, or 6,000 years since that first fateful week when it All started (October 23, 4004 B.C.E., according to James Ussher, the Archbishop of Armagh, in his Annales Veteris Testamenti, in 1650.)  If all of history is only 6,000 years, it certainly makes your puny 80 years a much bigger part of the Big Picture.  But do you really want the accomplishments of your life to count for more than one percent of the total progress mankind, no not just mankind, but the whole universe, has made since it began?  Do we really need to position our lives as THAT important before we can be satisfied with our Place in the universe? 

Which brings me to the third reason Christians should embrace evolution: Hope for the future.  Attempts to explain evolutionary theory to the masses in the 1970s created remarkably resilient popular misconceptions.  Evolution is not a zero-sum game.  Random back and forth movements do not wander far from the origin.   Indeed, if evolutionary changes were completely random, then you would never get to highly specialized mechanisms because random changes back to where you were would wreck the development.  But development doesn’t just mean living longer to have more babies.  Adapted creatures have more babies because they can take better advantage of their environment.  Any babies that have the old features will be out-competed and die.  Backwards steps are wiped out.  So there is adaptive change toward efficiency.  The movement can only happen because of random mutations in reproduction.  But the movement to adapt is directional, not random.

It can rattle one’s Place in the universe to be told that we are little more than carriers of test samples of DNA.  But it is only unsettling if you insist on a huge, important Place, with our lives making up a significant chunk of history.  Alternatively, if we accept that our job is to discern God’s will and do whatever each of us can to advance His will, then the more humble Place isn’t so bad.  Evolution fixes big things, even if the individual must perish.  This is God’s world, He can, has, and will change it as He sees fit.  You don’t have to cook up a religion/science hybrid like Intelligent Design to see the genius of a system that uses complexity to steer around adversity.  Once you accept that we and all of creation around us are intermediate forms, you can take comfort that the immutable mathematics of evolution will ensure the survival of the planet.  Don’t wait for a visible divine intervention to fix our mistakes.  The intervention has always been here.  It’s much the same as asking God for personal forgiveness.  When He forgives you, the forgiveness comes in His works, which include you.  You don’t pray to cause change, you pray to change yourself so you will be able  to see your answer in the physical world.

All the far fetched counter arguments against evolution are driven by the perceived need to defend a document that offers so much to so many people.  But the Bible is not under attack.  To insist these words are immune to interpretation is to say there is only one vision of God that we must all accept.  People who pick and choose are going to do what they want to anyway.  No one who values the Bible as a moral cornerstone is interested in chipping away at it.  Choosing how the Bible fits into your life is not cafeteria religion.  Some parts fit into our lives with no struggle at all.  Other parts take more work.  And yet other parts, the ones that don’t impact our daily lives, sit on the shelf and wait for a day of reflection.  I submit that the biblical creation story is a good candidate for that shelf.  Especially if all it does is divide us from our fellow man.

Categories: Religion
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