354. a new kind of Christian narrative
A couple months ago, a friend of mine and I started up a facebook group called Church Exiles 808. The main purpose of the group is to talk about problems in the church – the church in Hawaii specifically, but also the Church in general. The discussions have been wide ranging and challenging but my favorite bit has been how civil the discussion has been. It confirms the radical idea that maybe people can disagree without being disagreeable, even over weighty matters like religion and theology.
Anyway, one of the discussions we had early on had to do with the intersection of science and faith – an area I happen to be pretty passionate about. However, one of the commenters threw me for a loop. Boiled down to its essence (as I read and understood it), his argument was this. Science (more specifically evolutionary biology and cosmology) tells us that our universe has been around for about 12-14 billion years. The earth has been around for about 4.5 billion years. The earliest life on earth dates to about 3.5 billion years ago. For these 3.5 billion years, life evolved through a long series of adaptations and extinctions. Humans (depending on how you define that term) appeared on the scene around 2.5 million years ago (Wikipedia’s evolutionary timeline). (For some sobering perspective, according to the most conservative estimates, the Bible was probably written about 3,500 years ago.)
Add to this, the fact that the size and scope of the cosmos is literally beyond human comprehension. Our brains are just not designed to even imagine, let alone understand, how vast the universe is. There are just no metaphors or comparisons of scale that can capture the sheer vastness of the universe. And that’s just our universe. If the findings of some theoretical physicists are correct, our universe may be just one tiny slice of a multi-dimentional brane.
So what are the implications of all of this for Christian theology? Well let’s look at the contemporary Christian narrative:
- God created a perfect world/universe. (Genesis 1)
- Because of human disobedience (Adam’s eating of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil – aka the apple – Genesis 3), humanity entered into a different state of being, one lower than their former perfected state. Basically, because Adam ate the apple that God told him not to eat, he went from the-man-your-man-could-smell-like to Homer Simpson. And that one act of disobedience screwed everything up for all humans that followed. This event is commonly called the Fall.
- It’s important to note here that some believe that this Fall only led to the corruption of humankind. Others (probably the majority who hold to this narrative) believe that the Fall led not just to the corruption of humanity but to all of creation. Earthquakes, floods, tornados, famine – all those things didn’t happen before the Fall. They only happened after.
- Because of this new fallen state of humanity, rules are needed to keep people in line. The Old Testament tells the story of how God gave his people (Israel) laws to live by and how those Israelites kept failing to live out those laws. The basic pattern of the OT is as follows: God says don’t do this thing. Israelites do this thing. God punishes Israel for doing it. Israel repents. Then God tells them to not do some other thing and the whole cycle repeats itself over and over again.
- These acts of disobedience are called sins. When people sin, something has to be done to make up (atone) for their sin. Thus an elaborate ritual system of sacrifice/purification got put in place in order to rid sinners of the stain of their sin.
- After the Israelites repeated this cycle of sin-sacrifice-purification-repeat a bunch of times, God decides to try something different. He becomes a human, in the person of Jesus, in order to be one atoning sacrifice for all. So instead of individual sinners having to make an animal sacrifice to purify themselves from this sin, Jesus became the one all encompassing sacrifice for all sinners. (The theological term for this view of the atonement is known as the penal substitutionary view.)
- So by proclaiming faith in Jesus, people enter into a kind of pre-Fall, newly purified state of being. They are made right with God (the theological term for this is justification). Most Christians would be quick to add that they also get to go to heaven after a person finishes this step.
So this is the basic story (narrative) of Christianity, at least as it’s been understood by evangelicals and protestants in general for centuries (though not through all of Christian history).
But if one takes the findings of evolution seriously, then a pivotal feature of this narrative becomes problematic: the Fall.
See, if humans evolved then what is the event that causes the Fall? If humanity evolved from other prior species then there were a lot of them roaming the earth. Which one of them ate the “apple?” And even if there was one of these humans that did eat some kind of forbidden fruit from some kind of forbidden tree then does that mean that all the other humans around at the time became victims of that disobedience overnight? Does that mean that one day all these humans are all getting along, buddy-buddy like and then the next day they’re stabbing one another in the back (metaphorically and literally)? That doesn’t seem to make any sense.
(Of course one could sidestep this dilemma by just denying evolution but that causes a whole other host of issues that are far more problematic than the view accepting evolution.)
Unfortunately, if the Fall (in the contemporary narrative) becomes problematized (because of evolution) then the rest of the Christian narrative kind of falls apart as well. Because if there was no original sin that corrupted all of humankind then what need is there of a savior? I mean look at that list of bullet points above. If you pull out number two then numbers three through five don’t really make sense. Because if the world isn’t broken (because all the strife we see between people has always been a part of our species) then there isn’t really a need for repair or a savior is there?
So what does that mean? Does it mean that Christianity is a bankrupt or irrelevant religion?
Well, that’s one potential response.
But it’s not the response that I make because here’s the thing. I hold the position that God exists and that one of the primary ways he reveals himself is through the Bible. I also believe that God came to Earth as a man in the person of Jesus Christ and that he was killed but then raised from the dead, thereby launching a completely new way of understanding what God is on about in the world and how we should live in response to that.
I state that as my starting point because here’s the thing. Everyone has a starting point from which all other arguments are built. The strict, atheistic evolutionist starts from the position that the world accessible to the senses and to the intellect is all there is – there is nothing outside the stuff of matter as understood through science and all that we know and believe is, to some degree or another, a construct of the mind (including God).
Unfortunately, there are some things that just cannot be proven one way or the other. There are limits to what can be proven either through empirical testing and/or through rigorous philosophical reasoning. The question of whether this material universe is all that exists or if there is also a transcendent, personal presence (aka God) there is a question beyond the limits of verifiability. There are good, strong reasons for holding either view. I happen to hold to the latter view.
From that starting point (that God exists), I do admit that the evolutionary picture is problematic for the contemporary Christian narrative. But here’s the thing. The contemporary narrative isn’t the only one possible. I think there are other ways of making sense of what God is trying to communicate to us about himself through his text, the Bible – a way that avoids the problems that evolution causes for the contemporary view of the Fall and, I would add, a way that makes way for a more generous sort of Christianity.
Now one more thing before I (finally) get to my response. I’ve only been familiar with the contemporary narrative for most of my life. And when I say, “most of my life,” what I mean to say is that I’ve held to that view up until that idea of the Fall was questioned in the Facebook comment I began this post with. I’ve been wrestling with this question for about a month now and so while I have been putting together something that helps me resolve the problems I’ve listed, it’s a work in progress. I’m still thinking it through and so it’ll be rough around the edges and have a lot of holes. But it’s promising and I’m liking what I’ve been reading/learning/thinking. And with that…
(Some of what follows comes from a very fast, cursory reading of Brian McLaren’s new book, A New Kind of Christianity. But some thoughts are my own. If you sense weaknesses in what follows, blame it on me, not on McLaren.)
So here’s another way of reading the grand narrative of the Bible:
- God creates everything that is (Genesis 1).
- In contrast to the narrative above that says that creation was initially in a perfected, peaceful sort of state, I would say that this creation is very much like what we see today. Shit happens. It’s a universe with sharp edges and people get hurt.
- Through natural evolutionary processes, humankind develops. Genesis 3 is a kind of rich metaphor for the moment (it’s not really a moment but there aren’t many other words that fit here) that humans become self-aware.
- Notice that the forbidden tree is called “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:17 NRSV). In this interpretation of Genesis 1-3, the Fall isn’t so much a singular, willful act of disobedience as much as it is a metaphor for the way that humans gradually became aware of their capacity to do good or to do evil – to act in ways beneficial or harmful to their fellow humans.
- The first of two vital point to note here:
- God initially tells “Adam” that “in the day that you eat of [the fruit] you shall die” (Genesis 2:17 NRSV). Notice that the death is supposed to be immediate – that day.
- Adam eats the fruit but doesn’t die. What’s going on?
- The important bit to note here is that God doesn’t mete out the punishment he said he would. Instead, God responds positively. He makes clothes for Adam and Eve, to cover their shame and nakedness – to help them deal with their newfound self-awareness.
- The second vital point to note:
- One might object that I’m reverting to the idea that I worked so hard to undermine – that there was a real Adam that disobeyed and that God clothed.
- We’ve got to remember that this was a story meant to convey a certain message. The question is, what message is it communicating?
- The contemporary view says that the message focuses on the sin – the eating of the fruit.
- The view I’m suggesting says that the message focuses on God’s mercy – the fact that Adam did not die after disobeying.
- All the awful things humans do to one another in their lust for power, their selfishness, lustfulness, anger, etc. are not the way they were meant to live. But once they became self-aware – once they recognized that they could do good or evil to their neighbor – God saw that they needed guidance, rules to live by to order their behavior in order to keep them from annihilating one another into extinction. Thus the laws of the OT.
- The important pattern to note is God’s grace in all of this. The depravity of humanity goes quickly downhill. From “Adam’s” relatively small disobedience, we move straight into murder (Genesis 4), and from there we move to large-scale corporate sin (Genesis 6). But over and over again, as humankind’s sin grows, so too God’s grace grows. God is trying to figure out how to help people get along with one another. Sometimes he uses the carrot, sometimes the stick (thus the flood), but through it all, he is trying to help people co-exist without destroying one another.
- Going back to point two for a moment, the Fall can also be understood as the “moment” when humans gained the ability to transcend their genetic instinct. Animals live solely by instinct. They live out the drives that evolution has bred into them. Humans, on the other hand, have the distinct ability to act counter to their instinct. Unfortunately, this opens up the opportunity for them to do both great good and great harm to their fellow humans, their neighbor. This way of understanding the fall also nuances the contemporary view of free will.
- God tries all sorts of different ways of communicating his desire for people to get along with one another but nothing seems to work (documented in the rest of the OT).
- So God makes the ultimate move of coming to earth as a human (in the person of Jesus) to give them a living, breathing example of who they were truly meant to be – how they were truly meant to live.
- But humanity (particularly those with power) don’t like critique and so they killed Jesus. (The theological term for this view of the atonement is called the moral influence view.)
- But in order to show that Jesus was truly God, resurrection happened.
- That proof of Jesus’ divinity started a movement that became Christianity – a movement that has been trying to make sense of how to best live out the life that God revealed to us in Christ.
- We Christians today continue to wrestle with and live out that question – what was it that God was communicating to us through Jesus and how do we live that out?
- I would argue that God was trying to show us that we humans are at our best when we care for those among us who are powerless and outcast.
- Love vastly supersedes doctrine and dogma.
- Right knowledge of God is nowhere near as important as how we live peacefully with one another, especially with those with whom we disagree.
Again, this conception of the Christian narrative is still new to me and so I realize that there are some gaping holes. To list just one glaring example, the flood mentioned in item 6 is problematic for my idea that the message of Genesis and the OT is to show God’s grace in the face of the evil that humans do. I’m not sure what to do with that yet.
I think the biggest difference between these two conceptions of the Christian narrative is that the contemporary view puts humanity’s sin at the center whereas the latter places God’s grace at the center. The former says that God was so angry with humanity’s propensity to sin that he required the ultimate atoning sacrifice for those sins – the blood of his son, Jesus. The latter says that God had so much love and grace for humanity that he willingly became a human knowing that living the way he did and teaching the things that he did would get him killed.
Now what about the problem that began this whole blog post? Does this other way of laying out the Christian narrative get us out of the problem of evolution? I think it does. By reframing the Fall as not an event but as the moment (again, I hate using that word – can someone suggest a better one?) that humanity became self-aware – when they were able to willingly live above the level of pure instinct – the fact of evolution becomes woven into this grand narrative.
Another benefit of this view of the Christian narrative is that it becomes particularized, contextualized to our condition on this planet. What I mean is, another problematic feature of the contemporary narrative is that it falls apart if (when) evidence of life outside our planet is discovered (and I believe it WILL be discovered within my lifetime). The sheer vastness of the universe suggests that other intelligent life exists somewhere out there. Probably a lot of other kinds of life and civilizations. If this is true then the contemporary narrative crumbles – particularly the view that holds that the Fall was a cosmic event, unleashing all the nastiness we see not just in humanity but in all of nature.
The view that I’m positing makes God’s work as laid out in the Bible God’s work for we humans on this planet earth. It leaves room for God to work out his plan for life in different ways for different places/planets/species in the universe. And if this is true, then I think that has other implications for how we hold Christianity here on earth. If God expresses himself differently to different worlds, then who’s to say that he did not also express himself differently to different people groups on this planet? And that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms that I don’t want to get into here, but I did want to mention it because I think it’s part of the promise of this conception of the Christian narrative.
One last thing.
Is the narrative that I’m positing radically new? No.
Although I don’t want to make a case for it here (because this post is WAY too long already), it can be argued that this other (not contemporary) view of the Christian narrative is closer to the view that the early church held. More specifically, many scholars (James Dunn and N. T. Wright, to name just two) believe that the moral influence view of the atonement predates the penal substitutionary view that prevails today.
At the end of the day though, does any of this really matter? Is this just technical, abstract theological navel-gazing? I’ll end with a few examples of why I think it’s important to spread this other narrative:
- Right now, Christianity is known for being judgmental and anti-homosexual (outlined in the book, unChristian). I think an argument can be made that the reason Christians are viewed this way is because the contemporary understanding of the Christian narrative focuses on sin.
- In contrast this other view focuses on God’s grace and love. As such, I think it offers up possibilities for the rehabilitation of the tarnished image that Christianity currently has.
- It also matters because it makes for a more generous sort of Christianity. It makes room for other expressions of faith. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t advocate for the strengths of Christianity – if we believe (as I do) that the Christian faith is one that makes the most sense of the universe and our place in it, then of course we should proclaim it as such. However, we should do so gracefully and generously. Holding such a stance will become increasingly important as the interconnectedness and the plurality of the world inevitably puts us into closer and closer contact with other religions and cultures.
And I think those are all very good things.