Monday, October 01, 2012

Evolution and design

Although initial religious opposition to Darwin seemed focused on the question of human ancestry --whether we are made in the divine image or descended from apes-- there is a larger issue in the background, at least for Christians.

Perhaps because most Christianity took shape in a basically Greek intellectual world, its internal ambivalence about the created world led it to focus on the order and beauty of creation as a reflection of the God in whom the Good, the True and Beautiful are identical. And although the God-is-love theme resides almost entirely in the Johannine documents of the New Testament, it became a dominant way of interpreting the whole thing.

The contrast between a beatific and serene Deity and the suffering and violence in his creation was largely chalked up to human sin, the Fall, etc. It is at this intersection that the sacrifice of the Son on the Cross occurs. And although I have no doubt that the Christian encounter with nature, red in tooth and claw, was robust --even if the Faith was a primarily urban phenomenon for a long time-- the ancestors seem to have taken it in stride, allowing the human narrative of Christ to overshadow it.

I guess what I am trying to evoke is the emotional power of a God/world image where a serene Creator of a marvellously ordered world finds its point of tension almost totally against a human society full of flaw based on choice.

The unimaginably vast back-story that evolution posits has created a split in this image that is even more troublesome than the God vs sinners motif. This is because the cosmological history that evolution describes is overwhelmingly violent and destructive long before Man's last-few-minutes arrival on the scene. That is to say, when God had no one to deal with but himself, so to speak, --if you leave aside the issue of angels for a minute-- the world that he created was founded on a process that is anything but serene. Structured on hunger, competition and death. The violence of the world comes then, not from our sinful disobedience, but from God Himself. (Ancient Gnostics arrived at the same conclusion by another route.)

Prior to the emergence of life here on Earth there was, so the story goes, a constant progression of massive and roiling explosions over spaces of time so large that we cannot really understand them.
Nothing living yet, so we can chalk it all up to grandeur.

But once we have animals on the stage, that history is further structured on scene after scene of predation: hunting, eating and being eaten, --very often being eaten alive--and dying. Half a billion years of savage and constant pre-humanoid pain and blood-letting, gore and death.

One about which the Christian revelation was ignorant and is silent.

It's almost like growing up in a household with your father, who might be a stern disciplinarian but for whom you are central and important...and then discovering his earlier life as a rambunctious boy and as a hell-raising delinquent of a young man. Before your image of your Dad, there existed --utterly unrelated to you-- another person, yet the same, one whose life seems completely unconnected to the man you have always known.

In terms of time, the Darwinian back-story seems to me as disruptive of a psychological world-view as was the Copernican paradigm in terms of space.

So when Christians* assert that there is no contradiction between evolutionary science and revealed religion, you can make a philosophical case for that statement. But I don't think that Christians have really dealt with the shockingly different images involved.

* Two other items: this violent back story may make the bloody death of God's Son a little less shocking. And leaving Islam aside, Judaism, with its Old Testament God and his irrational will, violence and moods, may have an easier time dealing with the apparent savagery of the Creator's designs. In the Kabbalah, it was believed that this world is only one of a series and that earlier versions, unsatisfactory to God for one reason or another, were obliterated.



PNWReader said...

Sounds like Mormon cosmology. I wonder how many heads in Utah would explode if they knew.

USMaleSF said...

Interesting. One of the doctrines of J Smith is that the God of this universe did not create it but organized it. Evolutionary history might signal a struggle to get it under control!

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