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Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

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Christianity is unmistakably anthropocentric. Right from the start it is humanity, not the animals, who is made in the image of God (Gen 1:27). It is they who are to “fill the earth and subdue it,” exercising dominion over the animals and being given the plants to eat (vv.28-29). Although the narrative attributes it to the fall, knowledge of good and evil becomes a distinctive of humanity through eating the fruit (Gen 3:1-7). And it may be rhetorical but Jesus places more value on human than animal life (Matt 6:26; 10:31; 12:12). Moreover God came to earth as a human, not an animal (John 1:14). Just as the first Adam sinned with consequences for all humanity, Jesus’ work of righteousness had universal human significance (Rom 5:18). The incarnation in itself had atoning value, and it was necessary that Jesus was fully human or we would not be fully saved. As Gregory Nazianzus famously argued, “That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved.” Gregory’s statement is in polemical context, addressing Apollinarianism, yet it is still indicative of the anthropocentric climate of Christian theology.

Despite humanity’s centrality to the biblical story, Christian theology does not ignore the place of animals. God is creator of all. Not only Noah’s human family but all the animals are to be saved from the flood (Gen 6:19-20). It is only after the flood that God allows humans to eat the animals, possibly as a result of human violence (Gen 9:3). Whereas the other prophets imagine universal peace and worship of God for humanity, Isaiah’s eschatological vision includes animals: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (Isa 11:6). This is in part fulfilled in Jesus’ coming. The gospel was not only for humanity but the whole of creation (Mark 16:5). Paul looks forward to a time when “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:21), and acknowledges the universal significance of the gospel (Eph 1:7-10; Col 1:16-20; cf. Acts 3:19-21).

The problem then is not so much that Christian theology has no place for creation other than humanity, nor that this theology unanimously sanctions violence against the non-human. The problem is that humanity’s being accorded a central place in creation, revelation, and new creation implicitly maintains an anthropocentrism, even if there are resources for beginning to move beyond that. In creation it is humanity that is to represent God to the animals, and, through Jesus, again this gospel of universal significance is revealed first to humanity who are to represent God to the animals.

What role does humanity play in the salvation history of the animals?

Has God spoken to the animals apart from us?

How do the animals view us, God, and their place in the world?

What resources do evolution and pre-human existence provide for understanding revelation and salvation to the animals?

How much is biblical anthropocentrism a product of human dominion over the earth and are there alternative ways of viewing the biblical story?

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If you don’t know about inerrancy you should read the Chicago Statement from 1978, which, for a text of its size has had quite a disproportionate effect on American evangelicalism, ripples of which I have definitely encountered here in New Zealand! Anyway, although it’s a little decontextualised without reading the whole statement, I’m just going to cite this clause here as the meat of it: “Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.”

I will say straight up that I have a lot of problems with the (whole) statement, not least this specific which I’m sure has had an adverse effect on the evangelicals and evolution discussion: “We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.” The statement not only presents a general principle for inerrancy but gives quite a specific example of what this might mean, unfortunately cutting off much-needed dialogue with disciplines outside the church.

A qualified inerrantist might note that this approach is problematic for a number of reasons such as introducing an a priori understanding of truth to Scripture or treating Scripture as a set of propositions rather than narrative or whatever genre. Anyway a qualified inerrantist who would want to hold onto the idea that the Bible is without error yet put more weight on understanding the nature of the text might say that when we understand what the authors were saying then we can say that they were inerrant according to the criteria of their socio-historico-literario-etceteral standpoint. So the writers of the Creation accounts in Genesis, although providing an unscientific account of Creation in today’s terms were true to the scientific knowledge of their time as well as inerrant in their representation of who God is. Or we might say that the gospel writers wrote historically though with a different set of conventions and expectations so, for example, they weren’t expected to write chronological accounts and they had freedom to shape the gist of Jesus’ message to speak to the audiences for which they wrote, so that if we understand the means they used to represent truth then we can say that they wrote truthfully.

But the problem I have with such a qualified inerrancy is that if taken to its logical end then there is no inerrancy at all. So the writers of the historical books had ideological commitments in portraying Judah in a favourable light against the other tribes of Israel. If this is true, (warning! liberal!) which is where I lean, then a qualified inerrancy would have to say that it is inerrant according to the requirements of writing propaganda. A text is true because that text does what that text does. It is self-validating, fulfilling its own criteria for truth according to its genre, purpose, etc.

This is not in any way a smackdown on inerrancy. There is obvious room for a mediating position that posits the terms of truth neither completely external nor internal to the text but terms that arise out of dialogue between interpreter and text. The reason I write this though is to reinforce how trying to understand biblical texts as inerrant can discourage critical dialogue with biblical texts, which should be increasingly important, though not without difficulty in incorporating it into popular evangelicalism. A critical approach would help us ask questions, for example, and as I’m sure many have asked before, why even if we read Paul correctly and realise his letters do not bar women from church leadership (the majority view in evangelical biblical scholarship), his writing is still peppered with understandings of gender which have contributed to marginalisation of women throughout church history. Or we might ask why there are some pretty awful laws in the Torah, without first seeking to justify them by saying they were progressive for their time or necessary according to the milieu.

God did not give us an exhaustive guide to life and everything in it but a collection of texts which arose between the Holy Spirit and broken humanity, pointing to Jesus as our co-sufferer and Savior. As Paul writes, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12).

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It may be a little indulgent but this post is intended to be a reference point regarding the conversations I have with people on ethics after metaphysics¹. Perhaps more indulgent is that this post is predominantly critical, contra my earlier resolution to do more positive up-building. Hopefully the critical nature will in some way be uplifting?

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Firstly, with the end of metaphysics there is no objective basis for ethics. Metaphysics posited something beyond ourselves as a basis for ethics, traditionally God, although as thinkers got more critical of this tradition they came up with a non-theological, metaphysical basis for ethics (eg. Kant) before metaphysics was done away with completely. Whatever the objective reality beyond our physical selves was, it held some pattern for ethics, like loving others because they are made in the image of God or following actions through because in abstract terms they are right or wrong. Now, via science, what separates us from the animals has been relativised so that we are essentially no different from them. Further, what separates life from non-life, the animate (breathing) from the inanimate (breathless) has been relativised so that in the grand scheme of things we’re all just collections of atoms arranged uniquely. The laws of the universe are fundamentally a power-play, struggle for existence and survival of the fittest. There is no right or wrong. Why should we consider anyone beyond our own will to survive?

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Secondly, ethical behaviour can be explained through evolution but evolution cannot provide a basis for it outside of itself. So (and this is crass because I don’t know my stuff) but say we care for others based on an instinct to preserve our species (Actually I couldn’t think of a good example, so critique it if you will but alternatively find me a replacement). We can say this is the case but we can’t say this should be the case. In our current, individualistic context, what interest do we have in something our instincts lead us to do when we can quite happily do otherwise than our instincts?

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Thirdly, is there not a practical basis ethics? Just because we lack an objective basis for ethics we cannot dismiss that the operation of ethics, what it does, may be the real deal that all those airy-fairy metaphysicists missed with their heads in the clouds. Or maybe we can define it hedonistically: Because I have a desire for the good of others then it is good for me that I attend to that desire. The main problem I have with this is the subjective nature of a practical ethics. And if there are different ethical stances then the dominant will be sustained by power. Those who believe in equality will be fighting against those in power with antithetical interests. And if these egalitarians ever succeed then their vision will need be sustained by a continued power-play: Those opposing will have to submit to the laws of equality unless they can sway whatever power they have to do otherwise. If practicality is the basis for ethics then let those who wish to do unethically do so for their practical advantage! The other problem I have with practical ethics is that self-interest or other-interest, etc (whatever the basis for practical ethics), not rooted in a metaphysics, cannot go beyond itself. That is, if I do good for others in response to my own desires, for what reason do I respond to my own desires? I have a practical reason for ethics but I cannot call that reason itself good or meaningful. What stakes do I have in becoming happy? Because it is interesting and fills in time until I die?

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In conclusion, this is just a statement of the way things are (as I see them) and I’d love to hear further thoughts on why we/you do ethics. It is not my aim saying there is no basis for ethics to criticise people for acting ethically regardless. People who reject a foundation for ethics may rightly choose to act ethically. I just want to encourage an honesty behind this acting ethically. And if life lacks meaning so what? I admire those who continue in it anyway out of curiosity or interest, even some unacknowledged affirmation of the value of life. Neither do I intend this critique to be an apology for metaphysics or Christianity, etc. I cannot say that someone who does not have a basis for ethics should have a basis and therefore should convert. My faith exists for greater reasons than a desire for a basis for ethics.

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¹That is the general acceptance in Western academia over the last 200 years that there is no objective reality beyond material existence: What we have is what we have. There is no God, soul, spirits, afterlife, Beyond, etc…

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“I am here to tell you that in time, the mutator gene will activate in every living human being on this planet. Perhaps even your children, Senator” — Jean Grey

“I can assure you, there is no such creature in my genes” — Senator Kelly, X-men (2000)

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People love progress. Progress is widely accessible in pop culture, for example X-men where certain mutant genes have allowed some people to develop superhuman abilities. Eighties movies like Terminator (1984) and Blade Runner (1982) imagine a future where we advance so far technologically that technology becomes independent and takes advancement into its own hands. Progress is found in the scientific world (which I know little about), in evolution where animals ‘progress’ from single-celled organisms to not-so-single-celled organisms and then they learn to live on land and they grow legs and some get wings and then finally some lucky guys and girls start finding out that they can access abstract thinking or whatever it is that separates the peoples from the animals. It is after crossing this point of separation that we can imagine the future possibility of the likes of invisibility or even, recently, immortality, and movies like Gattaca (1997) can imagine a society where only the best genes are passed onto the next generation through some technological interpolation.

But does a materialist perspective in any way allow for such a notion of progress? Is it possible to say that Homo sapiens is more evolved than Homo erectus? Is it possible to say that a domestic cat is more evolved than a bacterium? Is it even possible to say there is something which separates humans from the animals?¹ No to all the above. There is no point in evolutionary history where humanity steps outside its animal bounds. Technology does not provide humanity with an abiological means to a post-biological or post-evolutionary ends. If it did, then at what point did we transcend our biology? Use of tools/technology is contained within our biology so technology escapes ostracisation as abiological.

What is more, progress assumes an invisible universal measuring stick. All organisms can be measured against this to determine who is the most ‘advanced’. But the evolutionary measuring stick is not located in the universal but the particular, the environment. Species adapt not according to what is universally awesome, but specifically to what allows them to survive and pass on their genes in a particular environment. Thus X-men, which takes advantage of the relatively random process of mutation, falls prey to the same concept of universality. Mutants in X-men may have problems controlling their powers, and then there are far-reaching social consequences of their genes, but according to the universal measuring stick they have progressed not because they are adapted to their environment in such a way that secures survival and positive reproductive ends but they receive the possibility of mastery over the universal environment. Thus in the third movie, Xavier can refer to Jean Grey as a ‘level five mutant’. To this we can say with Senator Kelly, “There is no such creature in my genes”.

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There are various ways in looking at progress in theology. Kierkegaard famously introduces his Fear and Trembling with a comparison between faith and philosophy:

In our time nobody is content to stop with faith but wants to go further. It would perhaps be rash to ask where these people are going, but it is surely a sign of breeding and culture for me to assume that everybody has faith, for otherwise it would be queer for them to be . . . going further. In those old days it was different, then faith was a task for a whole lifetime, because it was assumed that dexterity in faith is not acquired in a few days or weeks. When the tried oldster drew near to his last hour, having fought the good fight and kept the faith, his heart was still young enough not to have forgotten that fear and trembling which chastened the youth, which the man indeed held in check, but which no man quite outgrows. . . except as he might succeed at the earliest opportunity in going further. Where these revered figures arrived, that is the point where everybody in our day begins to go further.

(Retrieved online here).

Fighting the good fight

Kierkegaard is attacking the idea that we can start where others have left off. But we are in reality not a part of some external framework where this is possible. Yes we can learn and build on the discoveries and theories of those who have gone before us, we can consider ovens and then make microwaves, but these are external to what it means to be human. There is an a-temporal core to human existence. Thus Nietzsche can address his work within his work at the end of Beyond Good and Evil, “You have already taken off your novelty and some of you, I fear, are on the point of becoming truths: they already look so immortal, so pathetically righteous, so boring!” (Penguin Classics, 2003, p.221). Whereas he experienced and lived his philosophy, now it was overtaking him to exist in the external world of truth, the world where philosophical progress supposedly exists. Faith on the other hand, or Nietzsche’s existential struggles, exists between the subject and God, or existence. The subject, though a part of space and time, ignores any progressive meaning contained in the spatio-temporal to interact with the infinite/eternal, etc which transcends it.

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¹If no, then you could probably also say that this inevitably leads to monism or, more familiarly, a kind of pantheism, where unity precedes difference. If there is nothing which separates a person from being a jellyfish from being a fungus from being the Loch Ness Monster (I swear she exists) because we are all contained under the category of ‘living’, then further there must be nothing to separate the animate from the inanimate, unless life is to be accorded some transcendental value.

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“By the term scientific is understood just what was formerly understood by the term religious: just as formerly everything called religious was held to be unquestionable simply because it was called religious, so now all that is called scientific is held to be unquestionable” — Leo Tolstoy

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Pete Townshend of The Who expressed a similar sentiment with regard to politics:

“I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution,
Take a bow for the new revolution,
Smile and grin at the change all around me,
Pick up my guitar and play,
Just like yesterday
And I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again;
Don’t get fooled again”

Pete Townshend can write thoughtful lyrics as well as play music. Who would've thought?

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With the onset of a more expressive atheism in society comes some new challenges, not so much for the Church, but the atheists themselves. In fact, you could say that a widespread rejection of all things religious in the West, not just any more at the intellectual/political level, as in the Enlightenment, but now much more at a popular level, is a spiritual improvement on former times. No this isn’t any of those Christian linguistic manipulations that claim comradery with the crowd in sharing a rejection of religion, pointing instead to ‘spirituality’ or ‘relationship’. As much as I value the idea of practice of commitment to Christ devoid of all things ‘religious’, I think there is also value in affirming religion, but that’s a-whole-nother post and I’m probably confusing the original intentions of this one. Rather, rejection of Christianity at a popular level is indicative of people actually thinking about and critically evaluating their beliefs rather than sticking with the other sheep¹. This rejection of Christianity is better in some ways than the former situation because instead of people implicitly denying their beliefs yet continuing to attend church and live an outwardly Christian life, the individual now has freedom to act on their implicit denial as explicit, and the Church can now more clearly see and care for those she missed in the first place.

But what makes an atheist a real atheist? One of the oldest forms of Christianity, which has been alive and well for centuries, is known as nominal Christianity. It’s an interdenominational movement that advocates averageness, uncritical thinking and just plain passive existence. Not surprisingly, it has wooed the hearts of many and spurred them all on to mass mediocrity. The real atheist, therefore, is a doctor who diagnoses the sick body they joined, the Church, by virtue of their parent’s faith, and abruptly quarantines their self, lest they too live a life limited by all those limiting factors of faith and unquestioning obedience to some anachronistic ethics system as one of the omni-nominal flock. The real atheist leaves the safe pasture of the sheep-church, to the boundless wilderness where the grass is sparse but the life is real. The real atheist is an individual.

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But how effectively can society/humanity handle the onset of ‘real atheism’? Is not the ‘real’ aspect of any ideology symptomatic of its pre-institutional form? Many Christians who know one or two things about church history will be quick to tell you of a pre-Constantine, organic, non-state, ‘real’ Christianity; Christianity before it became an institution, Christianity as a movement. The difference between a movement and an institution is dynamics: The movement is true to its name; it is fluid and striving against some ‘greater evil’, etc. The institution is stagnant; it is an establishment. The only movement the institution engages in is defending what it has already established.

Atheism as a popular movement is valuable as it questions Christian stances on ethical issues such as homosexuality and abortion, it critiques Christian theology such as that which puts more emphasis on the life to come than our current life, and provides alternate sources of meaning for people who have not found their place in the Church. Contrariwise, atheism as an institution sets up the same values it initially sought to dissemble: Following the crowd and an unquestioning acceptance of the new sacred knowledge, the scientific².

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I'm a closet Neo-Lamackian. True story.

During high school we had a science teacher who was a Christian. He made it clear to us that he would teach us the theory of evolution, but that he didn’t hold to any of its fundamental tenets. There is a depth of insight to be gained from the intellectual crisis that this situation presented me with in my adolescence. Imagine turning up to church on Sunday and the preacher saying that she was really an atheist so she’d deliver the material but she doesn’t really believe in it. Though now I accept evolution as it has strong scientific backing and I can’t see how it clashes with anything in the core of what it means to follow Christ, this science teacher epitomises the rebellious spirit of movement in the movement/institution dichotomy. He represents a dynamic denouncer of knowledge held sacred by the institution. It may be to the point here that there is so much evidence for evolution that any dissident voices can be classed as madmen, but this overlooks the spirit of the act. The point may be that to denounce evolution is counter-intellectual, but the spirit in denouncing evolution is counter-institutional³. How many people in society accept evolution not because they have examined the evidence and read a couple of textbooks on the subject, but because everybody else accepts it? Their is widespread consensus in the scientific community on the validity of evolutionary theory. The dissident who bemoans this is verbally lambasted rather than commended. Therefore the real atheist does not read about evolution to find evidence for what they already believe, but to examine the evidence and proceed from there.

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¹The use of ‘sheep’ here is intended as a pun.

²The scientific is just one example. Numerous liberal ideologies could also be included such as egalitarianism in all forms, which invites naysayers to a world of counter-criticism. Ironically, secular egalitarianism has a lot in common with Christians forms of the same.

³This is not to say that Young and Old Earth Creationism, Intelligent Design, etc are all anti-institutional as these movements often aim to set up another institution. In the same way that the scientific layman uncritically accepts evolution, the Christian may uncritically accept Creationism “because it’s in the Bible”.

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