Gary Pence

How does the Bible fit into the reframing of Christianity within an evolutionary perspective that I have proposed in the preceding chapter? The fundamental fact is that the Bible is far removed from readers today in time, location, language, and culture. It is pre-modern and pre-scientific, a deposit of short pieces written over several centuries in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, and representing throughout the particular assumptions, thought forms, and worldviews of Semitic and Greco-Roman antiquity.

What is extraordinary about the Bible is how compellingly and movingly it continues even today, nearly 2 millennia after its last chapters were written, to touch human hearts in diverse cultures across the face of the earth. This universal appeal seems to be rooted in its profoundly human character, its capacity--unique among ancient literary remains--to convey authentically and without distracting artifice the concrete reality of the human condition.

Erich Auerbach has compared the Hebrew Bible to the roughly contemporaneous epic poems of Homer. "Abraham, Jacob, or even Moses," he writes, "produces a more concrete, direct, and historical impression than the figures of the Homeric world--not because they are better described in terms of sense (the contrary is the case) but because the confused, contradictory multiplicity of events, the psychological and factual cross-purposes, which true history reveals, have not disappeared in the representation, but still remain clearly perceptible."1 Similarly, when Auerbach compares the Roman novelist Petronius' Satyricon and the Roman historian Tacitus' Annals to the Gospel according to Mark, he finds that the two classical works--products of Roman high culture--show no interest in, and are incapable of grasping, the inner life and motivation of ordinary people. Human beings are viewed "from above" through the lens of "fixed, aprioristic model concepts."2 Moreover, ordinary people and ordinary life cannot be "treated on any level except the comic, which admits no problematic probing." As a result, Auerbach notes that in classical culture "there could be no serious literary treatment of everyday occupations and social classes--merchants, artisans, peasants, slaves--of everyday scenes and places--home, shop, field, store--of everyday customs and institutions--marriage, children, work, earning a living--in short, of the people and its life."3 The aristocratic social location of the literature of Greco-Roman antiquity severely limited its capacity to represent reality.

By contrast, the literature of early Christianity, what came to be the New Testament, "takes place entirely among everyday men and women of the common people."4 Referring to Mark's telling of the story of Peter's denial, Auerbach explains that it arouses in its readers "the most serious and most significant sympathy" because "it portrays something which neither the poets nor the historians of antiquity ever set out to portray: the birth of a spiritual movement in the depths of the common people, from within the everyday occurrences of contemporary life, which thus assumes an importance it could never have assumed in antique literature."5 The result is a story astonishingly fresh in its concreteness and a story which, therefore, "speaks to everybody; everybody is urged and indeed required to take sides for or against it."6

Auerbach helps us to recognize how much it may well be the empathic psychological realism of the biblical stories that has lent them their power to grasp the imaginations of individuals of all sorts and conditions. Because of their social location in the ordinary lives of an ordinary people and their resultant freedom from aristocratic literary conventions that required the submersion of concrete realism beneath artificial artistic norms of representation, the biblical narratives uniquely represented human nature, motive, and behavior with an accuracy that resonated with the experience of their readers. Is it any wonder, then, that those readers should have experienced these narratives as truthful, authoritative, even revelatory?

The Bible has become Holy Scripture for so many millions because of its accurate and authentic portrayal of human nature. In its pages we see our recognizably human sensibilities, our struggles, our deceptions and our victories, the manifold expression of the epigenetic rules that guide and direct our lives in a manner so universal that we have come to call it the "human condition." Such biblical stories as the Fall, Joseph and his brothers, Ruth, David and Jonathan, Mary and Martha, Zachaeus, the Prodigal Son comment pointedly and accurately on our own internal experiences. We recognize the characters portrayed there as ourselves. So powerful is the self-recognition readers have experienced as they read and reflected on those stories that they came to view the book that contained them as profoundly truthful, infallible, perhaps even inerrant in its descriptions and proposals.

Of course, even the Bible's insightful and accurate portrayal of human nature is far from establishing any claim that it is also a revelation of God. That claim would need to be based on the further claim that the Bible accurately portrays "what really is" or "the way things really are."7 On that score the Bible is as ambiguous as the humans it so insightfully portrays and who, after all, are its authors. If "what really is" can be understood as the reality underlying and pervading the cosmos that has emerged and is continuing to emerge from the evolutionary process, then the key to understanding that reality in depth is to distinguish and acknowledge what is currently emerging from what has already emerged over past eons.

As I have suggested earlier, much of the Bible's representation of God is caught in understandings derived from the epigenetic constraints of kin selection and reciprocal altruism inherited from our primate and earlier animal ancestors. A protective God of purity who prohibits mingling or intermarriage with foreigners represents the divine projection of the principle of a narrowly defined kin selection. A "jealous" and wrathful God who blesses the obedient faithful and curses the disobedient exemplifies "tit-for-tat" reciprocal altruism translated into the economy of heaven. This is the way things usually are among humans and many animals. However, the Bible also presents an alternative image of God as the long-suffering, gracious, and compassionate shepherd whose steadfast love for all creatures is sure and certain and can never be alienated or lost. This image of God seems to be the Bible's revolutionary new contribution to religious consciousness. It is an assault on the epigenetic rules governing kin selection and reciprocal altruism, inviting humans, with their large brains and complex consciousness, to transcend the constraints of their biology, or perhaps to reinterpret and reframe those constraints as opportunities for unconditional universal love. If this is so, then "the way things really are," "what really is," namely, reality understood in depth, is a cosmic evolutionary process from selfishness to service and from purity to compassion. Somewhat ironically this process is also a move from self-absorption and self-doubt to self-confidence and self-fulfillment. In Lutheran terms it is the transformation of a human "turned in upon himself or herself" (incurvatus in se) into a human freed by the Gospel for life in and for the world.

Because the Bible portrays human nature so accurately and presses, however unevenly, beyond superficial understandings of reality to a more profound grasp of the potentialities inherent in the evolutionary process, that is, to an experience of "God" that transcends the constraints of ordinary social exchange, we can legitimately refer to the Bible as "inspired" and "revelatory." At the same time, it is inconsistent with modern, scientific modes of thought to understand by the terms, "inspired" or "revelatory," the existence of a great, big Person outside of the cosmos, yet intervening in that cosmos to impart special information about the nature of things to members of earth's human species. The Bible is as wholly and exclusively the product of human experience, imagination, and creativity as any other body of writings ancient or modern. And yet the human origin of these texts is wholly adequate to explain their "inspired" and "revelatory" character, for the human species has been granted by the evolutionary process and now bears within itself all that is needed to perceive and comprehend "what really is." Natural selection has provided humans "eyes to see" and "ears to hear," and, we may add, brains powerful and complex enough to process what is seen and heard. The Bible stands as an extraordinary witness to that human endowment, that evolutionary achievement which religious discourse has described as divine inspiration, revelation, even grace.

If we, as moderns, fail to understand the Bible within this evolutionary perspective, however, that is, if we continue to understand the Bible in traditional pre-modern, pre-scientific terms as a book dictated by a supreme Being to stenographers who recorded on that Being's behalf special authoritative knowledge and mandates prescriptive for the thought, feeling, and behavior of all humans of all times and places, we do injury to ourselves and one another. In the modern era we thereby require that we and all humans live bifurcated lives, generally and in all other respects engaging with the world empirically, rationally, and critically in a manner consistent with modern, scientific modes of thought. For our religious, spiritual, and perhaps moral life, however, we are thereby required to abjure modern, scientific, critical thought and submit our minds and hearts uncritically to the authoritative word of this "sacred" Book. Of course, because religion, spirituality, and morality cannot be pursued in isolation from the rest of life, we will find ourselves constantly beset by incongruities and contradictions between this authoritative biblical word and both the findings of modern scholarship and the witness of our own experience.

The current controversy surrounding homosexuality is a poignant contemporary illustration of the dilemma I am describing. By representing fleeting biblical references to apparently homosexual practices as inspired, revelatory, and absolutely authoritative final words on the subject of homosexuality, religious leaders and politicians ignore the positive or neutral conclusions about homosexuality now reached by the scientific disciplines and suppress positive experiences they may have had of homosexual family members, acquaintances, or public spokespersons, and they exhort all the rest of us to do so as well. The effect is not only to perpetuate the oppression of a sizable minority of the human species. To the extent that persons accept such a pre-modern and pre-scientific understanding of biblical authority, they are themselves vulnerable, as critics have long claimed, to a number of deleterious psychological consequences, of which I will cite only a few.

One such consequence is the sacrifice of the intellect required when faith is set over against reason. Once we postulate an absolutely authoritative text that purports to provide final, unassailable answers to a wide range of human questions, we are no longer free to arrive at answers to those questions by seeking pertinent empirical evidence and then assessing that evidence rationally, critically, and, so far as possible, objectively. Instead, we will comb through the biblical texts seeking final answers and applying them even in the face of clear and unambiguous evidence to the contrary. The effect of this process is described in a letter to the editor of the New York Times:

Yes, I needed deliverance--not from my sexual orientation but from a religious belief that prevented me from thinking for myself and stymied my understanding of my individuality, which happened to include attraction to the same sex.8

According to Paul Pruyser, "Sacrifice of the intellect, demanded by a good many religious movements and blithely if not joyously made by a good many religious persons, is surely one of the ominous features of neurotic religion."9

Implied in the sacrifice of the intellect is the surrender of agency, the relinquishment of personal initiative and responsibility normally associated with adult functioning. Rather than supporting the full, mature development of an adult self ready to engage the world, assess its manifestations, draw conclusions, and determine a congruent course of action, when the Bible is understood as an absolute and unquestioned authority for a whole range of issues, it infantilizes humans, reinforcing intellectual and volitional dependency, and encouraging passive obedience to external authority rather than the exercise of one's own inherent authority actively to engage the world.

Moreover, Christians who absolutize biblical texts as ultimate answers to life's questions are engaging in a flight from ambiguity and uncertainty, the tolerance of which is a mark of emotional health and maturity. Rather than accepting the truth that many of the serious questions posed by human existence have no final, clear answers and are susceptible only to explanations and solutions of varying levels of probability, they seek the certainty of absolute "proof" in biblical texts that, in any serious reading, are themselves rife with ambiguity and open to the most widely variant interpretations, as the history of biblical interpretation has demonstrated.10

Finally, the sacrifice of intellect, surrender of agency, and flight from ambiguity and uncertainty entailed by submission to an absolutely authoritative Bible lead to the twin psychological defenses of dissociation11 and denial.12 Pruyser describes their manifestation in Christians who simply accept "what the Bible says," even in the face of painful and contradictory life situations:

Disavowal and denial are reflected in Pollyannaish attitudes of piety that entail blindness to evil and misery and that argue death away with a blase optimism. These attitudes go beyond a suggestion to look at the bright side of things; they are so flat-footedly cheery that they fly in the face of reality. People who cope in this way tend to feel that God is always on their side; they simply cannot conceive it to be otherwise. Their aggression leaks through, besides hortatory preachiness, in their inability to have any empathy with those who feel in a quandary. To others they often exude a forced niceness, overwhelming them with seemingly friendly and godly words that blatantly bypass not only these other person's feelings but actual situations as well.13

When I was a devout and religiously conservative freshman in college, I recall repeatedly being asked whether I "really" believed that all persons who failed to come to faith in Jesus would be consigned to eternal suffering in hell. My resolute response at the time was an unemotional and confident affirmation on the basis that that is "what the Bible says." My anxiety in response to this monstrous claim was largely unconscious at the time. Once that anxiety had erupted into my consciousness, shattering my defenses against the horror of the belief system I felt the Bible obligated me to espouse, it undermined the clear, certain, and authoritarian faith of my childhood and laid the way for a more rational, critical, and necessarily more ambiguous religious consciousness.

From a modern, critical point of view that places the Bible within an evolutionary perspective, those passages of the Bible that speak of God's judgment and even eternal condemnation for those who neglect or oppose God may be construed as the projection onto the divine of both the algorithms for reciprocal altruism instilled in humans by natural selection and the authors' own personal experience of those algorithms in the form of rewards and punishments played out in their childhood families, in their cultures, and in their own psyches. The biblical threats of divine retribution are not so much an inspired revelation of "what really is" as they are the manifestations of what humans and their animal ancestors have been and still are. But "what really is" is also the compassion and generosity that transcend the received patterns of consciousness and behavior by universalizing kin selection and subordinating reciprocal altruism to unconditional steadfast love. Seen in that light the Bible affirms human intellect, supports human creative initiative, and unanxiously acknowledges the fundamental ambiguity, the unfinishedness, and, therefore, the promise of "what really is," the compassionate God of an open future.


1Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton 1953) 20.






7Philip Hefner, The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion. Fortress, 1993: 32f.

8Steve Smith, Letter to the Editor, The New York Times August 17, 1998: A18.

9Paul Pruyser, "The Seamy Side of Current Religious Beliefs," in H. Newton Maloney & Bernard Spilka, eds. Religion in Psychodynamic Perspective: The Contributions of Paul Pruyser (Oxford 1991): 51.

10See esp. James L. Kugel, The Bible as It Was (Harvard 1997).

11A "process whereby thoughts or memories that produce anxiety are cut off from consciousness." Arthur S. Reber, The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology (Penguin 1985) s.v. "Dissociation."

12"A defense mechanism that simply disavows or denies thoughts, feelings, wishes or needs that cause anxiety. The term is used purely for unconscious operations that function to 'deny' that which cannot be dealt with consciously." Reber, s.v. "Denial."

13Pruyser 57.

Healing Religion's Harm
Gary Pence, Ph.D.