Enlightenment, Evolution, and Christianity

Gary Pence

* April 28, 1998 *

In Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, Harvard sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson describes his release "from the confinement of fundamentalist religion." A pious Southern Baptist as a teenager, he had "read the Bible cover to cover, twice." Then, amidst the cognitive dissonance that came with college, Wilson, like so many of us who can trace a similar pathway, experienced doubt. Most disturbing was his discovery that Baptist theology had no place for evolution. "It was all too much, and freedom was ever so sweet. I drifted away from the church, not definitively agnostic or atheistic, just Baptist no more." [6]

"Could Holy Writ be just the first literate attempt to explain the universe and make ourselves significant within it?" Wilson asks. If so, that attempt has now been superseded by science–

a thoroughly human construct, driven by a faith that if we dream, press to discover, explain, and dream again, thereby plunging repeatedly into new terrain, the world will somehow come clearer and we will grasp the true strangeness of the universe. And the strangeness will all prove to be connected and make sense. [12]

Out of such a faith Wilson issues an empassioned appeal for a recovery of the Enlightenment vision of a fundamental unity of all knowledge informed by the conviction that "the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws." [4] His plea, for "consilience, " "a 'jumping together' of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation,'" is, in fact, a manifesto for a religion, grounded in science and shaped at its core by evolution. In an age when Christianity has become increasingly marginalized and ignored, especially by the masses of well-educated twenty-somethings who are often enough our own children, Christian communities will be well advised to attend to Wilson's argument.

We know that "religion" is more than just the "service and worship of God or the supernatural," even more than a "personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices " [Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, s.v.]. As a derivative from the Latin verb, religare¸ "to tie or bind," "religion" fundamentally is about tying everything together, making connections, and refers ultimately to structures of thought and devotion that respond to humans' need to understand the meaning and purpose of their lives. Because religare can also mean "to moor" [a ship to the shore], "to fasten," "religion" is also about being grounded and secure rather than aimlessly drifting on uncharted seas. That almost unquestionably distinctive human need for a grounded meaning and purpose is rooted, according to Wilson, in the evolutionary development of human beings. The development over millions of years of the complex human brain and the genetically transmitted "deep structure" of language [Chomsky] has afforded humans the capacity to transcend the immediacy of the moment. The landscape of human activity stretches out beyond the physical time and place in which each human finds herself from moment to moment to include past times and places remembered and future times and places anticipated or imagined. That landscape is peopled with family, friends, and colleagues from today, but also from last week and a year ago; it is also peopled with the whole mass of humanity of every age and place from the beginning of time to its conclusion.

Because we humans not only experience, but use language to remember and imagine, we habitually place each moment into a connected story of our own creation that makes sense out of the individual episodes of our lives, and we imagine alternative stories and multiple complications, denouements, and endings to those stories. We are able to play with "what if" scenarios: "What if I attend this college rather than that one?" "What if I marry this person rather than that one?" Those "what if" scenarios include alternative environments that reveal our deep anxiety about our place in the universe: "What if death is the end of my existence?" "What if right and wrong are totally relative?" "What if there is no god?" "What if life really is nothing more than 'a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing'?" [Shakespeare, Macbeth V:5]

Wilson writes that human beings need a "sacred narrative":

They must have a sense of larger purpose, in one form or another, however intellectualized. They will refuse to yield to the despair of animal mortality. They will continue to plead in company with the psalmist, Now, Lord, what is my comfort? [Consilience 264f.]

With big brains and complex language that conceive and ask the existential questions about meaning and purpose, humans evolved what Wilson calls "emotion-driven rules of mental development" that have guided us toward religion. Religion has become instinctive for the human species. Of course, as Wilson acknowledges, "to call religion instinctive is not to suppose any part of its mythos is untrue, only that its sources run deeper than ordinary habit and are in fact hereditary, urged into birth through biases in mental development encoded in the genes." Religion became instinctive because it contributed to human survival, especially to the survival of the human gene pool:

There is a hereditary selective advantage to membership in a powerful group united by devout belief and purpose. Even when individuals subordinate themselves and risk death in common cause, their genes are more likely to be transmitted to the next generation than those of competing groups who lack equivalent resolve. [258]

This drive to meaning psychologist Robert Kegan refers to as "meaning-constitutive evolutionary activity." He understands it to be the context and source of human life, a source so fundamental that he identifies it with what James Fowler calls "the ultimate environment," Paul Tillich calls the "ground of being," and most of us call simply "God." ["There The Dance Is" 414]

Driven by genetic impulse to find both ultimate answers to their questions of meaning and purpose and an object worthy of their devotion, humans have created religions with a comprehensive story or mythos within which they could situate themselves and explain the whole of existence. A religion is "salvific" when it provides answers and a story congruent with and adaptive to the reality of its adherents. A religion is fraudulent and harmful when it makes claims for itself on which it cannot deliver, offers answers and a story that diminish the lives of its adherents, and that yet demands submission and devotion from them. Fraudulent religion that harms is idolatrous religion, religion claiming ultimacy for its story, when that story is in fact, not merely provisional, but ignores established facts and contradicts common knowledge.

The single most significant contribution to knowledge in the past century and one-half has been the development of the scientific method and the concurrent discovery and repeated validation of natural evolution. On the one hand, science–that "organized, systematic enterprise that gathers knowledge about the world and condenses the knowledge into testable laws and principles" [Consilience 53]–has fundamentally altered the process by which we acquire knowledge. Evolution, on the other hand, has introduced a fundamentally new way to understand the universe and provided a new cosmic script in which we now must locate ourselves. Pre-scientific approaches to knowledge and the scripts or stories derived from them require adaptation if they are to remain credible interpreters of existence.

The challenge to major world religions, including Christianity, is that the scriptures which preserve the sacred narratives formative for their faith communities embody pre-scientific bronze and iron age approaches to knowledge. Biblical interpretation derived from the new scientific method has since the nineteenth century accentuated the gap between the mind and culture of the biblical world and our own. As a result biblical literalism has been replaced with symbolic and metaphorical interpretations of the Bible in the light of the new knowledge emerging within the natural and social sciences. Although fundamentalist Christians continue to find a literal six day creation in Genesis 1, for example, Christians who have accepted modern scientific (i.e. historical-critical) biblical interpretation, look to Genesis 1 for a "spiritual" meaning that allows them to make religious use of the biblical text while accepting natural evolution as the best modern explanation for the origin and development of the cosmos.

Despite claiming to have made peace with the scientific method and evolution, however, mainline Christian denominations have barely begun to adapt their teachings and practices in the light of the new knowledge. They have largely changed their views of the role of women in church and society, while struggling to embody those new views in practice. Some seminary faculty and enclaves of Christians outside of seminaries have entertained feminist, liberationist, process, and other twentieth century theologies, while the faith and practice of most congregations and their members seem to plod on relatively unaffected. In many congregations it appears that the theological challenge, perhaps in desperation, has been abandoned altogether.

My denomination and many others continue, for example, to teach a doctrine of the "fall" from original innocence as though it describes in some sense a literal historical occurrence, even though such a notion cannot be correlated with a scientifically attested emergence of humans from primate ancestors in a lengthy evolutionary process. Evolution describes human beings struggling to grasp the meaning of life together in a finite biosphere within a seemingly infinite cosmos and to develop values and patterns of shared behavior that will support their survival as a species. Human beings, in evolutionary understanding, are works-in-progress, provided by millions of years of natural selection with enormous assets and liabilities. At the same time that they have the mental capacity to create complex cultures and invent technical systems capable of propelling themselves into outer space, they bear within themselves instincts of their hominid, primate, and even earlier ancestors that have outlived their adaptive value in the new cultural environments humans have constructed for themselves. As a result they hurt one another and threaten the biosphere itself, even as they struggle to make optimal use of the strengths and overcome the liabilities of their evolutionary past.

None of this evolutionary understanding of human nature seems to have found its way into Christian teaching. Because of continuing to teach a "fall" from innocence, Christian churches continue to teach a doctrine of sin that implies a departure from or corruption of some moral perfection that has been lost and that entails and justifies punishment, just as Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden continues to be read as a punishment for disobedience that justifies and provides the rationale for all manner of human punishment of one another. Despite knowledge of the alternative story posed by evolution, Christian churches continue to understand human aggression and violence, not to speak of "impurity" or irreverence, as offenses to the divine majesty that justify a divine retribution suspended only for believers by a last minute divine pardon. Unfortunately such a doctrine of human nature, sin, and punishment provides tacit justification for punishment-based child-rearing, too often leading to abuse, and stiffer penalties for more and more crimes exacted on younger and younger violators of more harshly written laws.

If the doctrines of a fall from grace, of sin, of human nature require reframing in the light of evolution, all other doctrines require rethinking and reinterpretation as well. The nature of God; the purpose of Christ; the future of the world and of human beings; the function of worship, prayer and other devotional practices; the Gospel–every Christian teaching requires restatement if it is to provide a credible interpretation of existence responsible to the reality of our world at the end of the 20th century.

Christian communities not engaged in the fundamental re-thinking I am suggesting, perhaps because they are yet unaware of its pressing need or because they fear that such a process of adaptation might lead either to the loss of themes, images, and practices dear to their members or to the abandonment of the faith altogether. In my view, we are being irresponsible and deceptive if we fail to alert our members to the need, for we are then withholding from them crucial information needed to guide their thought and behavior as individuals and public citizens. At the same time, the fear of loss or abandonment is reasonable, for we cannot know how persons will respond when confronted with the relevant implications of the new knowledge that has so altered scientific understandings of the world.

Yet it was the Christian scriptures themselves, together with Graeco-Roman classicism, that provided the framework and impulse which led finally to the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution, and the discovery of natural evolution. Those same scriptures, though pre-scientific, contain the elements for their adaptation to a scientific age. As Harvey Cox noted three decades ago in The Secular City,

Secularization, as the German theologian Friedrich Gogarten once remarked, is the legitimate consequence of the impact of biblical faith on history. This is why it is no mere accident that secularization arose first within the culture of the so-called Christian West, in the history within which the biblical religions have made their most telling impact. The rise of natural science, of democratic political institutions, and of cultural pluralism–all developments we normally associate with Western culture–can scarcely be understood without the original impetus of the Bible. [17]

He goes on to name the "disenchantment of nature" in the Genesis creation accounts as the first of three dimensions of secularization promoted by the biblical religions. He could as well have written of the "dedivinization" of nature, since the natural world in presecular cultures was alive with "sun gods, river goddesses, and astral deities," as Cox mentions. The Genesis creation stories bespeak a quite different sense of the world. They separate nature from God and present the world and all its inhabitants as the products of God's handiwork. The Genesis creation stories, according to Cox, are to be understood as a form of "atheistic propaganda," designed to teach the Hebrews that "the magical vision, by which nature is seen as a semidivine force, has no basis in fact." [23] This disenchantment of nature, Cox asserts, "provides an absolute precondition for the development of the natural sciences" At the beginning of the Bible, therefore, the disenchantment or dedivinization of nature lays the foundation for the emergence of natural science and a world understood as an "atheistic" material process rather than as a pantheistic embodiment of divinity.

In my view, a complementary shift in conciousness occurs at the end of the Bible, in the New Testament. There the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus signals what can be understood as the "detranscendentalizing" of God. If Genesis and the Hebrew scriptures generally abstracted God from the world, the Gospels and the Christian scriptures reconceptualize God as Emmanuel, "God with us," in fact, God "in, with, and under" (to call on a favored Lutheran phrase) the ordinary events of human/natural history. Some theologians, for example, Gabriel Vahanian, understood this shift to announce the "death of God." Process theologians have spoken of a "panentheism," in which God, separate from the creation, is nonetheless implicit in it (and nowhere else!).

However the technicalities of this view are finally resolved, my point is that both the Genesis creation stories and the New Testament proclamation of a God incarnate (materialized!) within the natural order provide biblical support for a scientific understanding of the world exactly in the materialistic terms of natural evolution. Our challenge now is to reassess and re-language the whole range of Christian teachings and to reshape the Christian story from within that perspective, a task that is both necessary, if Christian teaching is to address the issues facing the world in the next millenium, and feasible, if we have the will and the imagination to grasp it.

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