December 14, 2004
Praise him, ye creatures here below

As promised, I want to comment some more on evolution and Christianity, starting with my comment to Vaughn's post.

Some commenters have said that the whole issue isn't very important. They're more interested in politics, personal morality, charity, and so on. And I respect that, because there are certainly many important things for churches to be doing. But I still want to stick up for the importance of natural theology, because I know I'm not the only person who, growing up in a nonreligious environment, turned to science to explain my place in the universe and what it means to be a human being.

Obviously, I wasn't totally satisfied with what I got, or I wouldn't have moved on to church. But my interest in science did give me a certain perspective that I found Christians were generally ill-prepared to deal with. Very early in my blogging life I got into a debate with Telford about this. Here was my first post about it; Telford's response; and my follow-up. That was the last that I blogged about it, though Telford and I continued to talk and argue about it. It's not really his subject, but it doesn't seem to be the subject of very many Christians. So my bad attitude toward Nancey Murphy has mellowed somewhat since then: at least she's trying. (This is a good thing, since she's actually my fellow congregant now at Pasadena Mennonite Church, although I have yet to meet her.)

Anyway, I think the implications of this actually redound beyond those of us who are interested in science for one reason or the other. In the last couple hundred years there's been a real change in the relationship between humanity and nature, not just because of science but because industrial life means we no longer live and die by it the way we used to. And this divorce has led Christian thought in a number of different directions. Two of them we discussed at Icthus: a hardline literalism that distrusts all science, and a quasi-dualism that more or less concedes the material world to science and restricts religion to an ever-shrinking "spiritual" realm. The latter view, which Stephen Jay Gould dubbed "non-overlapping magisteria", holds that religion is there to provide moral instruction, and perhaps a broad sense of meaning, while it's up to science to explain the facts of life.

The problem as I see it is that you can't really separate your morality from your understanding of the universe. Morals aren't plucked randomly from the air; they're grounded in our understanding of human nature and our place in things. Hauerwas wrote the Christianity goes "with the grain" of the universe, and to think that way obviously requires a particular understanding of the universe.

Certainly, it's not a terribly obvious understanding of the universe. If you look at the universe in its present state, it's not at all clear why loving your enemies, giving away your possessions, refraining from adultery and so on will accomplish much of anything. From a Darwinian point of view, it may help your reproductive superiority to cooperate with others, but only within limits. Unless you buy the Priory of Sion stuff, Jesus left no descendants, and many of his early followers didn't either. As I said before, Jesus was really something of a family-buster.

Another symptom of the human/nature disconnect shows up in apocalypticism. Jonathan wrote a while ago that he thinks dispensationalism is a heresy because it promotes dualism, in its sharp divide between earth and heaven and evident contempt for the earth. This contempt can conveniently dovetail with the interests of capitalism, as with the former Interior Secretary James Watt, who figured the environment wasn't really worth much care because it's all going to burn anyway.

But even Telford, who falls into none of these errors, I found difficult to talk to because of his blithe anthropocentrism. A lot of Christians (and a lot of non-Christians, for that matter) are so used to assuming that the important thing in the universe is the human drama, and the rest of it is just wallpaper, that they don't quite get how radically scientific materialism has de-centered them. Although the ancients certainly felt puny compared to the forces of nature, even they didn't realize quite how big the universe is, and how much of it seems to be nothing at all like us. The pagan gods were often capricious and mean, but they were recognizably humanoid. That's quite a different picture from the vast, impersonal grinding machine that science pictures the universe to be.

And it's also worth saying that I like nature, even with all the negative things I said about it to Telford. I recognize its beauty and its magnificence, and I think I felt an instinctive kinship with it even before I learned all the science. And I believe that's true of humanity in general. For millennia, people have been imputing human intelligence and feelings into animals, telling stories of talking animals, human-animal hybrids, even animal gods. They knew animals were their relatives long before Darwin told them about it. I think this instinctive reverance for nature is part of what leads people in my demographic to Wiccanism and that sort of thing. Christianity really doesn't provide a very friendly environment for it.

So what would an up-to-date Christian natural theology look like? I'm still not sure, but over the course of reading and discussion I've gotten some interesting hints. In that comment of Nate's that I highlighted yesterday he said this about the early Genesis stories:

I have no problem with believing that the Garden of Eden and Cain and Abel and Noah were not literal realities, but that a servant of Yahweh used the prevailing myths of the time (myths in ancient times being "science"--that is, seeking to explain how the world worked and how things came to be) and applied Yahwehistic theology (which I affirm) to recontextualizing these stories. So he, she or they rejected the notion that the world was created through gods procreating or gods killing one another and chopping up their corpses, but that there was one god who created everything through his sovereign power. The myth that the gods created a flood to kill off all of the humans but a few escaped by building a boat was probably so widespread that it was accepted as scientific fact at the time, but the writer of the biblical story decided to retell it based on what Yahweh must have really done. So, instead of the gods killing off the humans because they were too loud, Yahweh must have decided this because they were unrighteous, for Yahweh is just. Instead of the survivors escaping against the will of the gods, Yahweh must have willed them to survive, because Yahweh is all powerful. So on and so on. The importance of the creation stories is not the stories themselves, for they belong to an earlier age of understanding, but the theology that influenced the way they were told.

I'd never quite thought of it like that, but this sounds very right to me. The textual analysts believe the first four books of the Bible were written all of a piece, and therefore after the liberation from Egypt and move to Canaan. It's entirely plausible that Jewish scribes would have sought to rewrite the known history of the world through the lens of what the Exodus experience had taught them about God: he's a deliverer, lawgiver, keeper of promises, smiter of evil etc. After the revelation of Jesus, his Jewish followers reinterpreted their history again in that light, seeing Eden as the scene of original sin and subsequent Jewish history as God laying the groundwork for his big redemptive act.

As Nate says, this all indicates that God isn't going to reveal the technical facts about his creation to us, even if we have them wrong. He just wants us to get him right, and to remember his basic character and singularity. I think this idea that God plays along with our misconceptions bothers some people (Progressive Christian says that if Jesus literally "ascended," even though heaven isn't really "up there," God must have been engaged in an "unusual charade"), but whatever the reason, scientific understanding doesn't seem to be big on his agenda. So perhaps rather than trying to reinterpret God through the lens of science, we should take a look at how God regards the natural world in the Bible.

The Bible, unlike many ancient texts, does not anthropomorphize animals. Other than the talking serpent in Eden and the one-liner from Balaam's ass, the animals in the Bible act just like animals in real life. In Romans 1, Paul also explicitly condemns the worship of animal gods. But there's also a premodern bond between animals and humans that is sometimes very subtle. We're so used to the image of God as shepherd that it's easy to miss the implied relationship. "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep," says Jesus in John 10:11, as if everyone knows that's what good shepherds do. It's a long way from that to factory farming, eh?

The Old Testament sacrifices of animals, which seem barbaric to us now, also actually imply a greater respect for animal life than our current mechanized slaughter. OT analyst Richard Friedman wrote: "Modern readers often think that sacrifice is the unnecessary taking of animal life, or that the person offering the sacrifice was giving up something to compensate for some sin or to win God's favor. But in the biblical world, the most common type of sacrifice was for meals. The apparent rationale was that if people wanted to eat meat, they must recognize that they were taking life. They could not regard this as an ordinary act of daily secular life. It was a sacred act, to be performance in a prescribed manner, by an appointed person (a priest), at an altar."

It is true, however, that animals in the OT were often forced to bear the sins of people. That's why the NT frequently compares Jesus to a sacrificial animal. And so his sacrifice served not to just liberate people, but animals. When Telford and I were talking about this he told me that the idea that Jesus' salvific power extended to the natural world used to be a lot more accepted, especially in Eastern Christianity. One image the conversation imprinted on my brain was from an Orthodox painting of Jesus' baptism that showed the Jordan's fish leaping for joy because he was blessing their water.

What that salvation looks like, no one really knows. Isaiah had his famous lines about predators eating plants and lions lying down with lambs, but of course you never know how literally to take those things. Either way, though, there's a definite implication that not just humanity but "nature red in tooth and claw" will be profoundly changed by the Kingdom.

I think this is an important idea for the West to recover. For one thing, cutting the animals out of salvation also cuts our own animal nature out of salvation, and implies that only the upper cortices of our brains will really be "saved." For another, so long as nature is assumed to be the way God ultimately wants it to be, it gets very difficult to claim that God has the sort of personality that Christians ascribe to him. Why would a God opposed to selfishness and killing approve of a world that runs on a Darwinian struggle for survival? Even if people actually followed his commands and stopped hurting each other, we would still be in a world that frequently hurts us.

Actually, this kind of brings me back to the discussion I've been having with Progressive Christian about why the bodily resurrection was "necessary". For me it's necessary because without a physical eschatology, Jesus' moral instructions are an exercise in futility. They become, like Gould's non-overlapping magisterium, principles plucked from the air, designed for a perfect world and not the real one.

So anyway, those are my beginning musings in search of a Christian natural theology. What are your thoughts?

Posted by Camassia at December 14, 2004 09:21 AM | TrackBack

I've struggled with this nature thing too. Cardinal Ratzinger, right hand man to the Pope, recognizes the Church needs to study this area in the light of anthropological developments. He's been wanting to retire and write a book on original sin. Hope he does.

For what it's worth, here are some quotes I found while looking into the Romans 8 passage:

Commentary on Romans 8:19-22:
"This is one of the most curious and fascinating passages in Romans. Its distinctiveness lies in the fact that here for the first and only time in Paul's extant letters he considers human beings in relation to the non-human created world. The feature has lent the passage extraordinary interest from the modern reader's point of view. At the same time, the text is replete with the kind of mythological and apocalyptic motifs that call for imagination and suggestive interpretation rather than a strict exegesis.

Paul presupposes a Jewish tradition which saw the non-human created world intimately bound up with the fate of human beings. The fundamental basis for this is Gen 1:26-27.... Clearly this argument rests upon a highly personified view of creation." - B. Boyd in his book "Reckoning with Romans"

Posted by: TSO on December 15, 2004 06:46 AM

FYI, a question I asked on EWTN's forum:

Q: Reading Romans 8:19-22 it seems like Paul thought that creation (for instance, animals) was affected by the fall. Gen 1:29 is another argument that creation was different before the Fall. And yet science tells us that animal death occurred prior . Aquinas wrote: "There are those who say that animals which are now wild and kill other animals for food would have been meek and gentle, not only towards men, but towards other animals. But this is unreasonable. For by the sin of man the nature of animals was not changed. Those animals which now live on the flesh of other animals would not then have lived on vegetation."

I wonder how Aquinas reconcilled Paul's thinking in Rom 8:19-22 with his own?

Answer by Fr. John Echert on 02-10-2002: The food chain that exists among the animals is amoral, that is, it is not an issue of morality since an animal does not have an eternal soul created in the image of God. And so, even had there not been the sin of Adam or in the time prior to the original sin, animals may very well have consumed other animals in accord with the nature they were endowed with by the Creator. Man, however, would have been protected from such violence by a special grace, among those given to Adam and Eve which protected them from suffering and death and provided them a harmony with God, self, each other and nature. And while our first parents lost the preternatural graces they had been endowed with prior to their sin, so far as I know we would not say that their human nature was changed, though it was weakened and without the assistance of grace following sin. And it was only after the catastrophic flood that God allowed men to consume the meat of animals, though not the lifeblood itself.
So the impact of the fall upon creation need not be as a change of nature, as such, but can be felt in other ways.

Posted by: TSO on December 15, 2004 06:49 AM

Cleaning out my quote closet. I think this is it!

"As theology and metaphysics arose out of mythology, likewise did ancient science. Mythology was the great mother science. And as the special sceinces gradually freed themselves from mythology and became more strictly scientific, so did theology and metaphysics also. Hence, instead of Comte's statement being true, that theology and metaphysics have become outgrown and useless, precisely the contrary is the case. With the methodical and logical advance of the special sciences, theology and metaphysics have advanced in like manner. Theology, metaphysics, and science have all advanced in concert, or in close relation to one another, sometimes one, sometimes another being in the lead. And there is not any rational ground for inferring that the course of civilization, in this respect, will be different in the future."--William Elkin

"Paul made the breakthrough between the universal destination of the Gospel and the universal condition of sin. Christian theology would call Paul's synthesis the doctrine of "original sin". Christian theologians and preachers have, unfortunately, not yet succeeded in developing and presenting a coherent anthropology of original sin. Part of this challenge is to derive a correct exegesis of the highly symbolic creation narratives which contain fundamental truths in a very sophisticated, fictional genre. Despite the evident commonness and frequency of sin, it reamins something of a mystery, still dominating us rather than we dominating it." - Msgr. Herron

"Is it about oxen that God is concerned?" St. Paul asks this question and assumes that we know the answer: No. Biblical revelation concerns itself solely with our salvation. It does not pretend to be a science book of Everything. For Paul, "death" refers to human death, not the death of oysters. He gives no hint that the sin of Adam results in the death of anybody but human beings. It is reading into, not out of, the text to assume that he has in mind the suffering of animals at the hands of carnivores. Scripture simply does not commit us to the idea that no living thing died before the fall. It has in view only human death.- Mark Shea

Posted by: TSO on December 15, 2004 07:14 AM

I understand that Christ's Resurrection shows us the reality of creation in its consumation, and is not another creation, but this creation fulfilled. This takes a rather high view of creation. The lives of the "wilderness" saints are filled with stories of animal companions: The Desert Elders, St. Isaac of Ninevah, St. Francis of Assisi, St. David of Wales, St. Kevin of Ireland, St. Seraphim of Sarov, St. Benedict, St. Clare of Assisi, Blessed Julian of Norwich... In Christ, I understand that our meet and right relationship with all of creation is fulfilled through the Resurrection, and we are called as Christians to live into that eschatological/Resurrection/consumated reality in our world as it presently is--unfinished...

Thanks for these interesting discussions

Posted by: Christopher on December 15, 2004 09:18 AM

Isaiah had his famous lines about predators eating plants and lions lying down with lambs, but of course you never know how literally to take those things.

If we take them literally, aren't we left wondering why plants aren't redeemed along with lions?

Posted by: Tom on December 15, 2004 11:25 AM

Camassia, thank you for this post.

Just to clarify, while it might be implied in my language that I'm trying to put the creation evolution debate into a "quasi-dualism that more or less concedes the material world to science and restricts religion to an ever-shrinking 'spiritual' realm," -- I'm really not trying to. I don't see why science and religion can't work together. I only have problems when one's religion starts making one's science fit into a picture that isn't real.

Since you probably read my long-winded explaination of where I'm at with this discussion, you read that I have a bit of personal history involved with this debate, too. My own story is a bit different from the one explained on this blog because I used to be a very strict 6-day literalist fundamentalist. I used to be supremely judgemental and used my position in that debate (as informed by to coerce others toward my own view because they had to agree with me. It was a weird part of my life, and I'm very thankful that I no longer am bound by those chains.

So, while my language might seem to imply that I'm arguing for a separation of science and religion, I'm really not. When I said "The Bible is not a science textbook," what I should have said is, "The Bible is not a MODERN DAY science textbook."

I'm probably really lame for quoting myself, but:

"Religion, and our belief in God, acknowledges these tools, but does not and should not cross over that divide to impugn another's religious beliefs, especially when those tools in question don't even speak to the supernatural realm to begin with!"

My entire comment is mostly directed toward the Roger dude that asked Vaughn to post about it. Roger and I had a somewhat lengthy e-mail back-and-forth about this issue, and his argument, like you've mentioned, says that because I do not literally believe in the creation story as he does, then what else do I not literally believe in the Bible? Basically I'm trying to ward off his use of the "slippery slop literalist" wedge against me, because not only is it somewhat insulting, but I also don't think it's Christian, especially considering the Bible doesn't make a big deal of it as he is.

I'm actually very interested in reading Hauerwas' book on natural theology. I'm new to Hauerwas, but I've read his Resident Aliens and when I saw him earlier this year, somebody asked him about natural theology, and he mentioned that he "just so happened" to have written a book about it, so I was planning on picking it up.

To sum up my reasonings for using the language I do (which I'm not very good at to begin with), the reason I appear to distance myself from it is because it reminds me so much of an unhealthy part of my life. It's like the abused woman who needs to take some time away from men to recooperate-- I need to distance myself from that debate (to an extent) and direct my energies and find peace by engaging in works elsewhere.

I wish I could offer more to the natural theology discussion, sorry :)

Thank you for your blog and for linking to me. I finally got around to syndicating your blog, so I have just been reading the last 15 or so of your posts! You've got another regular reader!

Posted by: Eric Lee on December 15, 2004 05:12 PM

"slippery slop literalist"

Should be "slope," of course, but it sort of sounds funny that I just might coin it! :P

Posted by: Eric Lee on December 15, 2004 05:14 PM

Eric, I wasn't picking on you. Your comment did remind me of that position, but I've seen enough of it elsewhere that I was just putting it out as a common way of trying to resolve the problem. Gould pushed his "non-overlapping magisteria" solution pretty hard as a way of making peace between science and religion, and he's a widely read science author, so I think that alone requires a Christian response.

I understand why you'd want to stay away from the subject. In fact I think Christian America in general is suffering from a similar post-traumatic stress because of our culture's battles over that question. People who don't feel like fighting just don't want to deal with it. What I'm arguing here is that the reasonable middle has to speak to this coherently or else we'll be stuck in those battles forever.

Posted by: Camassia on December 15, 2004 06:50 PM

Eric's comment raises the question: What does a literalist do when he encounters a typo?

Posted by: Tom on December 16, 2004 06:47 AM

Camassia, cool. I didn't think you were really, but when I re-read my own comment on Vaughn's blog, I confused myself at times in this respect.

I think you're right about the "reasonable middle," btw.

Tom, you're hilarious :)

Posted by: Eric Lee on December 16, 2004 12:09 PM

Hmm, in some sense I like Gould's "non-overlapping magisteria," and yet I don't want to say that faith, morals, and what we see in nature around us are totally disconnected. More that you can't neatly read science out of the Bible, because it was never meant to supply eternally up to date science, that you can't neatly read some set of morals out of, say, evolution, because sometimes just doing what we're evolved to do gets us in great trouble, and so on. Maybe what we actually need is "slightly overlapping magisteria"? A sense that there could be a theology informed by nature, but that any connection would be fairly complex?

Posted by: Lynn Gazis-Sax on December 16, 2004 08:50 PM

A magisterium is an authoritative teaching source. If I recall correctly, Gould proposed non-overlapping magisteria based on the notion that science and religion are, when properly considered, non-overlapping fields.

As Lynn suggests, it's not quite that simple. I think it might be fairer to say they're non-overlapping in the sense that, given any question (and the context in which it is asked), it won't be the case that both science and religion can give a magisterial answer.

Posted by: Tom on December 17, 2004 08:54 AM

Some things are better left unsaid :)

Posted by: Enter Grudge on January 16, 2005 03:56 PM
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