OST is closed for business but its spirit survives on my blog.

Natural selection and religion

Dear all,

The following I posted on my blog and I am interested in your views.

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A couple of days ago I received in our mail a booklet titled: “What if Genesis 1-3 did not happen literally”. It was a booklet promoting the belief in creationism and showing how evolution was problematic for faith in God as the Creator.

This booklet actually came as a result of two prominent theologians openly changing their views from Creationism to Theistic-Evolution which caused quite a stir in Evangelical and orthodox circles.

I personally also believed that Genesis 1-3 should be taken literally, not only because I thought it would be theologically problematic to do otherwise but because I had been listening to organizations like Answers in Genesis and most people in my environment believed it.

Re-interpretation

I don’t remember exactly what made me doubt creationism but over the course of time I have started doubting it and came to the conclusion that the Bible is not so much a book about the question HOW the world was created but much more WHY it was created and what our response should be to it. It is not a science book and in my opinion people who view it in that way have an extremely weak foundation for their faith for if science proves things in the Bible like Gen 1-3 to be scientifically false you in a sense have a false revelation…

The Rambam’s approach also influenced my thinking, in his day there was a large debate about the eternity of the universe and while he rejected the prevalent notion among the philosophers of his day that the universe was eternal, he said that if in the end there comes proof for the eternity of the universe he would find a way to reconcile it with the Torah.

And I think this is exactly the way to go, if science disproves the idea that seems to be taught by some passages in the Bible that the earth is a disc floating on the oceans and that the stars are hung upon a cord we simply need to reinterpret those verses and in many cases read them not literally but allegorically.

Picking and choosing

I also had a discussion while in Turkey with some of my Muslim friends and they were eager to point to certain passages in the Qur’an that seemed to foretell scientific principles that we have only recently discovered. Now besides the point whether thats actually possible, I asked them what would happen to their faith were science to disprove things that were recorded in the Qur’an. To which they answered, that in the case science posits something different from what the Qur’an is telling, they would simply ignore science and stick with the Qur’an. And this in a sense is also what some groups of Christians do, making up all kind of conspiracy theories, how evolution is actually a big hoax and lacks conclusive evidence, and how scientists deliberately try to make up stuff to bolster their case.

False dichotomy

Especially in the U.S.A. this has led to two big camps, the conservative camp clinging to the creationism point of view and the liberal camp embracing the evolutionary point of view. And any sign of treading outside of those camps is seen as betrayal. And this is sad as it drives people away from the Bible, people feel they are being pushed into making a decision between either believing in God or believing in science. Which is a false dichotomy.

Consequences for faith

At the moment I’m reading a book by Keith Ward called The Big Questions in Science and Religion which I would recommend to anyone having questions about this. There’s a chapter about whether evolution is compatible with creation and he concludes by saying that it is, although there needs to be considerable reinterpretation of the first three chapters. A pressing issue especially for Christians is the concept of Original Sin or the idea that death came as a result of sin. He says:

Suffering and death existed long before the first humans did, and they seem to be essential factors in the ascent of humans to dominance on the planet earth. They are not just imperfections that might have been avoided, if Adam had not sinned. Without them, Adam, or the first member of the species homo sapiens, would never even have existed. [1]

This is problematic to say the least, as most of Paul’s argument in Jesus being the second Adam seems to fall apart if it wasnt Adam’s sin that caused death to enter the world…

Ward puts forth some ideas on how to reconcile this:

What some Christians call “original sin” can be seen, from an evolutionary perspective, as the decision by groups of early humans or even prehominids to realize their genetically inherent tendencies toward kinship bonding and altruism. Over generations, those destructive tendencies have “switched on” the relevant genetic mechanisms, until it has now become “human nature” to be selfish and aggressive… Humans may not, as the Genesis account suggests, have brought suffering and death into the world. But they have immeasurably increased the sum of suffering, and they have brought spiritual death, the death of the sense of God into the world. [2]

Although I’m not a big fan of the idea of Original Sin, I must say that he does a very creative job and his methodology is one that I think is more viable in the long run.

The Jewish perspective

I asked a Jewish friend of mine what the consequences from a Jewish point of view would be were death not to be the consequence of sin, and he cited the late Chief Rabbi Hertz:

Strange and sombre doctrines have been built on this chapter of the Garden of Eden, such as the Christian doctrine of the Original Sin (e.g. ‘In Adam’s fall, we sinned all’)… Judaism rejects these doctrines. Man was mortal from the first and death did not enter the world through the transgression of Eve. Stray Rabbinic utterances to the contrary are merely homiletic and possess no binding authority in Judaism. There is no loss of God-likeness of man, nor of man’s ability to do right in the eyes of God; and no such loss has been transmitted to his latest descendants. Although a few Rabbis occasionally lament Eve’s share in the poisoning of the human race by the Serpent, even they declare that the antidote to such poison has been found at Sinai; rightly holding that the Law of God is the bulwark against the devastations of animalism and godlessness… Instead of the Fall of man (in the sense of humanity as a whole), Judaism preaches the Rise of man; and instead of Original Sin, it stresses Original Virtue (זכות אבות) the beneficent hereditary influence of righteous ancestors upon their descendants. ‘There is no generation without its Abraham, Moses or Samuel’ says the Midrash; i.e. each age is capable of realizing the highest potentialities of the moral and spiritual life.”

My friend did point out that theres a Gemara (Shabbat 55a-b) where it does seem to advocate the idea that death came as a result of sin but that could also be among those Hertz deemed homiletical and not binding.

Natural selection

The approach advocated by the Rambam and Keith Ward could be seen in some way as analogous to Natural selection; theology should constantly adapt itself and only those ideas and concepts that are able to stand through the test of time should be held to. Needless to say there is a limit to this and Im sure many would feel that putting death before sin is off-limit and hurting the Christian faith, however if this proves to be necessary, I think we have no other choice.

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[1] Keith Ward, The Big Questions in Science and Religion (West Consohocken: Templeton Foundation Press, 2008), p.64

[2] Ibid. p.81

[3] Hertz Chumash

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