Thursday, February 23, 2012

Did Darwin Kill God?

Fiddling around the internet tonight I came across this interesting video. The basic argument is that Orthodox Christian thinking has never been threatened by Darwin and evolution. It is a BBC TV documentary and so is a little simplified and dramatic, but at the core are solid ideas.

Basically, Christianity (and Judaism for that matter) has a long tradition of reading the Genesis creation account as myth, so this hermeneutic isn't merely some modern liberal innovation. The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo saw different layers at work in the bible: the literal and the allegorical, the latter being the higher, more real meaning of the text.

Then came the Church fathers and Augustine, who did not necessarily take Genesis as literally forensically true, and draw conclusions like the earth being exactly 6000 years old. Augustine knew that the account couldn't be read that naively. He knew, for instance, that earth is round; when it's day on one side, it's night on the other, so there's not any single day 1 for creation. He held, rather, that God made creation (ie brought something out of nothing) in a single instant. The "days" are a symbolic taxonomy of the created world. Adam and Eve are likewise allegorical, telling us something about the fallibility of human nature (or even something more deeply awry in humanity, an ontological rift or "fall" in the heart of creation that came about at some point).

We only get time when we enter the created order; outside of the universe is the eternal. In other words, temporality itself is a part of creation. Augustine argues that God gave the created order the ability to develop, to change, to come to fullness in time--in a word--to evolve.

He wrote about a millenium before the scientific revolution got into full swing and of course he's not anticipating modern science. But his ideas create a tradition that basically eliminates Evolution as a threat to Christian belief. So, the Anglican reaction to Darwin was not as hysterical and negative as our simplistic historical folk lore suggests.

Too often, we accept these subtraction stories at face value. By "subtraction story" I mean the idea that we got our beliefs and values by simply shrugging off the old false, superstitious ones. When discussing religion this often takes the form: We used to believe in God and supernatural forces, but then science showed that those are false, so we became a secular society. Our cultural norms aren't simply the natural given, with the old false ones pruned away. They have a positive history.

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