Geared to the Times
The Gospel is good news about God’s amazing grace, love, redemption, the kingdom of God, hope, and the life to come. It’s an ancient story about the possibility of new life for the human spirit, eternally appropriate in every time and at every place. Jesus of Nazareth is the way, the truth, and the life.
To keep this ancient Good news relevant it must be continually “geared to the times.” The Youth for Christ motto puts it well: Anchored to the Rock and geared to the times. It was and remains a daring and challenging motto. From the early 40s the motto was used as a basis for a modern, lively style of youth worship and activities; today, the motto may be taken as a basis for a new way of approaching biology, specifically, evolution, in a Christian faith setting.
In this essay, I consider how the Gospel might be, and must be, nested in an evolution perspective. I contend it is time this issue is openly discussed in the church.
Evolution is the dominant view in biology, and in some form or another, it is here to stay. Static, fixed species with supposedly clear lines separating humans from the rest of nature is archaic. Evolutionary biology will in time replace the old as surely as new cosmologies have for the most part replaced previous views of a young, stationary, flat earth. Truth is complex and neither the church nor science has it all.
Evolution continues to be an uncomfortable subject for many pastors to handle positively from the pulpit. In an adult Sunday school class, possibly, but certainly not while standing behind the holy desk. Understandably, there is fear of creating anxiety and of receiving negative responses from the congregation. Being geared to the times has a downside as a controversial, uncertain sound may well mean loss of members. On the other hand, there are great advantages in levelling with thoughtful congregants on this and other subjects. Sharing the best science available about human origins is crucial, the only honest, viable way of proceeding.
In many ways, science and religion seem so different. Science is based on empirical observation while religion is based on tradition, revelation, authority, and experience. Science is mostly cognitive, religion mostly affective. The human spirit back of both disciplines searches for adequate descriptions, explanations and conclusions about the natural order. Absolutism from either side sets the two disciplines on a collision course. It’s time for humility, modesty, and collegiality.
Clearly, culture requires brains, generally larger than other mammals, language, hands, ears, emotions, and eyes—all very biological items—to emerge and continue in as a powerful force in human society. And, without some confidence in goodness, truth, beauty, and eternality, biological facts in themselves provide little value structure for continuing societal relations.
From a biological perspective, humans, and all organisms, have evolved from less advanced forms of life by a process of natural selection or adaptation. New species emerge and old species become extinct; no one form has or will have a final shape. We read that the human brain is still evolving. All organisms at all levels of complexity are interrelated as they share a common ancestry, interact, and change over a long, slow process. Though humans are considered the most highly-evolved species on the planet, they have no “Image of God” stature from a biological point of view.
This view of human nature and destiny, sometimes labelled “neutral monism,” holds that mental life continues only as long as the brain continues to live and function. Human hopes, projections, and wishes have no special status in the universe. Science may help humans prolong life on the earth, but that’s it. When the body dies and decays, all mental and spiritual life ends, and the person returns to dust. In short, culture is for the most part reduced to biology. What value do human life, suffering, and the constant struggle of existence finally have in the total scheme of things?
The British Philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), who held neutral monism, wrestled with this question. He states that three passions governed his long, distinguished life—the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and the unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. He summarizes these personal values thus:
Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.
This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.
Although that option is impossible in Russell’s overall view, it is significant to note that he judges his life as valuable in terms that transcend the physical, natural, biological sphere.
There are various ways to reconcile evolution and the Christian faith. I mention but three options: (1) Theistic evolution. God with a kind of big bang created life and the universe ex nihilo. It’s a modern form of the cosmological argument for God which asks the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” To obtain knowledge of what happened following that crucial, initial event as life in all its complexity formed, developed, evolved, one must turn to the work of the various sciences.
(2) Intelligent design. I think of this as a modern form of the old teleological argument for God. The design which is clearly evident in the universe requires a more adequate explanation than natural, random, selection provides. Intricate structures which made for the appearance, function, and survival of human and other forms of life just do not happen; they look as if they were designed by a Creator for a purpose.
(3) Process theology. God is understood as participating in the evolutionary process by luring his creation toward new, future possibilities. He is not a static Being who controls and coerces the universe from the outside, but a persuasive force within. In the words of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), “He is that element in life by virtue of which judgment stretches beyond the facts of existence to values of existence.” God is the “tender loving care that nothing of value be lost.”
None of these options should be thought of as rivals to science. They are postulates of Faith and have no place in biology classes. To mix either option with science is like confusing apples and oranges. These options, however, could be considered and discussed in literature, philosophy, theology, sociology classes, in other settings, and from the pulpit. The challenge for pastors is to craft sermons which bring Biblical faith and the human condition, understood in evolutionary terms, together.
Throughout church history, accommodating to new scientific findings has never been easy for religious leaders. Attacking the best science of the day, failing to gear into it, calling it “Godless,” fighting it and so forth are, at best, short-term reliefs which are destined to fail in the long run. Thank God for those productive scientists who made sure, and continue to make sure, the church discards any unscientific viewpoints. Thank God also for courageous religious leaders who preach the Gospel in the context of the best scientific thinking of our times.