Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
Evangelicals responded very negatively to Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution. Retrospectively, they might have said in effect, ‘Well that’s interesting. Gather credible data, and when your actual discoveries pose significant theological implications, we’ll take another look.’ The scientific community did seek credible data, and when DNA was added to the mix 100 years later, the reality began to sink in that while Evangelicals were still thinking of Genesis in terms of a final answer, the scientific community had thought of genesis as a beginning exploration.
The scientific community has now come to a strong consensus of the basic correctness of evolution 150+ years after the initial proposal. The theological implications of such discoveries have also became increasingly significant. For example, credible scientific evidence now places the age of the earth and biosphere in the billions of years while the Creationist lineage-perspective holds to a time frame within the early thousands. If Genesis 1 is wrong, does that make all that follows wrong?
A Potential Solution
Judeo-Christians tend to think of scripture as the term for the Biblical revelation of who God is and how we should behave. But is God unidimensional and so reveals himself only in written form? Are the earth and its biosphere themselves examples of other forms of revelation? Is it thus now possible in the 21st century to imagine an eternal scripture that was also written in the immense distances of the cosmos and within long buried fossils in the earth, in the DNA analysis of prehistoric fossils, and in our emerging understanding of the biology of life? This perspective isn’t just another form of the concept of Intelligent Design.
Rather, this article will explore the possibility that such an expanded concept of scriptures emerges simply out of existing scientific and theological scholarship. It includes three elements (1) prehistoric beginnings that occurred prior to the Genesis account, (2) the Biblical account of several thousand years of early human life, and (3) recent scientific/technological discoveries that now help to clarify our understanding of life on earth. Do these discoveries and interpretations provide the final answer to the questions they pose? Thankfully ‘No’. They leave much still to be explored. Subsequent generations will be as stimulated by the continuing search as we are.
Duplicate the article and use it as the basis of Bible class discussions that focus on how we develop a sense of the natural and spiritual environments, comparing the theological implications of what folks could have known thousands of years ago with what we know today.
The Bible had to be written at a human scale to be understood by early prescientific humans. Thus, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” was sufficient for many thousands of years until science matured sufficiently to better (but not completely) explain what might have occurred before and after the Biblical term “beginning”.
Would such an expanded perspective of scripture detract from or enhance the beliefs of the religiously-oriented? Explore the issues and discover what your parishioners think.
Scientists now theorize the probable occurrence of something like a “Big Bang” (or whatever) at some point in the distant past. Among the objects formed, one planet (and possibly more) emerged that was capable of producing life as we have experienced it. Life forms on earth eventually emerged 3.5 billion years ago and eukaryotes (cells with a nucleus) emerged about two billion years ago. The emergence of nuclear DNA/RNA allowed for differentiation within and among species. Anatomically modern humans with advanced forms of consciousness emerged about 200,000 years ago.
Humans became a social species and so had to learn how to live together. The first scripture format thus came from from the interactions of cooperative kinship. Although humans wouldn’t understand the biological mechanisms for many millennia, hormonal/cognitive systems (such as those regulated by oxytocin, vasopressin, and dopamine) emerged to support cooperative behavior. At some point, kin became tribe and more complex patterns of ethical cooperative life occurred. For example, communities initiated and codified sanctions when various forms of misbehavior created negative social issues.
Agriculture emerged about 10,000 years ago and with it the need to compute costs and keep records, so the next developmental stage involved the emergence of language and math capability. As suggested above, written language arrived at about 2000 BC, and the Pentateuch recorded the early development of patriarchal/Jewish history and beliefs, incorporating what humans had already learned about cooperative behavior.
The Biblical Scriptures
The second Biblical scriptural perspective reported that human life along with the rest of the biosphere emerged within a week about 6000 years ago. Human life as exemplified by Adam and Eve existed initially in an idyllic garden-like setting. Genesis reports that although humans had been given an exceptional brain, God cautioned Adam and Eve that certain cognitive explorations were off-limits. They ignored God’s requirement and ‘expanded their diet’, as it were. God took this as an affront and sent them from the garden and removed their earlier sense of human perfection, damning them and all their descendants into a life of perpetual original sin. They would have 4000 years to think about this and then they would have another opportunity for redemption.
Key orally-transmitted accounts of early human life were incorporated into Genesis. Various other people wrote the rest of the Old Testament narratives and related commentaries on appropriate behavior. Two thousand additional years passed before the arrival of the opportunity for foretold redemption. The New Testament subsequently chronicled the Messianic narrative and the stories of early missionary travels ‘into all the world’ to spread the story of redemption. The New Testament narratives are similarly replete with commentaries on how to live a moral/ethical/spiritual life. A central biblical perspective focuses on an eternal afterlife, perceived in either celestial or damned settings.
God seemingly had included everything he had to say about how humans should live within the Biblical Scriptures (assembled at a later time by Catholic theologians). The Bible became the religious source of how to deal with God and with moral/ethical issues brought about by emerging developments in science, technology, culture, and government. The period of divine revelations that sparked the Biblical text was over. Theologians would now do the primary Biblical analysis of emerging problems, and pastors would pass on such theological interpretations.
Christians were historically asked to consider spiritual questions without clear Biblical answers as part of God’s Mysteries, and like forbidden fruit, these should not be scientifically/culturally explored and validated. These included such issues as the potential for a celestial life for an infant who died before having an opportunity to be baptized, or for people who had no way of knowing of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice. It also included the question of what to think of the 5% who are homosexual humans/animals. The Bible considers homosexuality to be abhorrent, even though biological discoveries now consider it to be innate and not a chosen condition. So if God considered his Creation to be good, is it wrong for homosexuals to deny their goodness-of-self and denounce the body that God gave them? Theologians say that all of us are born into sin, and so we should all similarly deny a variety of sinful tendencies. Perhaps God similarly chose others to have pedophiliac tendencies, to be sociopathic, to have adulterous tendencies. Why this might be would be one of God’s Mysteries.
The third form of Scripture involves the expansive human frontal lobes and our resultant unique capability to understand and make analogies. Analogy uses common elements between an understood concept and another one that isn’t yet understood. And in case humans didn’t understand its significance, the Bible is replete with various analogical forms — from psalms to proverbs to parables to obvious analogies that many Biblical literalists consider true events. Analogical knowledge thus provided humans with the ability to imagine and then to scientifically explore the world and to construct the technologies that would allow us to go beyond our sensory-motor limitations in such explorations.
Like the earlier two Scriptures, science/technology took awhile to come of age, but scientific advances increased exponentially during the past couple hundred years as technology took us well beyond our sensory-motor and cognitive limitations. Scientists developed important validation techniques that provided stability in the development and analysis of findings. The increased understanding of analogy as an approximation of truth rather than as ultimate truth itself meant that science would never claim to have found ultimate truth. Rather, a credible scientific discovery would be considered as the best current search for understanding of the former Biblical Mystery. This meant that future generations of scientists could move areas of study forward. Human life and intelligence would always remain a dynamic, searching phenomenon — seemingly what God had in mind with our frontal lobe capability.
Scientific knowledge focuses on the perceptual natural world. It doesn’t seek explanations for spiritual phenomena, such as original sin, angels, or the possibility of an afterlife.
Still, current scientific findings can certainly spark theological thought. For example, recent discoveries indicate that microbes (bacteria, viruses, archaea, and fungi) make up 90% of the human cellular system. What we think of as our human body is actually only 10% human. That gives pause about whether we’re truly human or an ecological consortium. The Bible does suggest that ‘dust we are and to dust shall we return’.
The currently volatile issue of homosexuality (mentioned above) is another issue. Scientists now believe that sexuality at any level is basically something that’s fundamental to a person and not a freely chosen lifestyle. Sexuality is regulated by two systems, a sperm/egg transmission system and an attraction system (selection of mate, frequency of sexual interaction). These are biologically separate systems in humans/primates/mammals and in about 5% of them, biological variability occurs that results in such behaviors as same sex attraction, hyper or reduced sexuality, bisexuality, or other forms of sexuality. How this scientific understanding relates to Biblical prohibitions might be another Biblical Mystery but the religious community should not dismiss such scientific discoveries out-of-hand as it had done and is still doing.
One could also imagine other related forms of Scripture. The arts and related analogical forms can and do help humans understand cultural and spiritual elements (and similar to science don’t claim any sense of ultimate truth). Religious practices make much use of these forms of knowing. The emergence of democratic governments similarly suggests how complex societies can function without the domination of theocratic or secular oligarchs.
This three part Scripture thus provides an alternative explanation that includes what humans have learned since Biblical times. It addresses a religious solution to scientific and cultural issues that currently create a continuing curiosity of such things as the evolutionary beginnings and maturation of life and to such specific cultural issues as homosexuality (that the Bible seemingly considers reprehensible). In neither of these two cases does the Bible provide specific theological explanations of why current scientific understandings about evolution and homosexuality are wrong. That’s not surprising because the Bible as stated earlier had to be written at a human scale long before the beginning of relevant scientific discovery about the world, the emergence of human life, and the biology of individuals. How might one explain DNA to an Old Testament patriarch? But then, how should one explain historic theology to 21st century people?
This dynamic view of God’s continuing communication with humans suggests that theology should be willing to alter its perspective of Biblical issues in selected areas of human life, when credible scientific findings suggest or explain the change. Accepting biological evolution for example doesn’t necessarily reject one’s spiritual belief and life, but rather has the possibility of increasing it because we’re not caught up in such phenomena as biological or sexual differentiation, or in possible Biblical inconsistencies and inaccuracies. The Bible is generally an excellent basic source of who God is and how to live appropriately but it’s an imperfect science book by today’s standards.
One could argue that expanding the concept of scripture suggests that much interpretive confusion would occur. The current situation with a single seemingly clear Biblical scripture has led to hundreds of Christian denominations and considerable dissension among theologians within each denomination, let alone among denominations. Would this alternate perspective be any worse than the doctrinal confusion that Christianity now has to deal with?
Scientists, artists, and others who study and interpret the natural world may be professionally disinterested in scriptural concepts, but that doesn’t mean that their credible discoveries and interpretations of the natural world have no theological relevance.
Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon. His most recent books are A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007, Corwin Press). He is the co-editor of Information Age Education Newsletter and also helped to write/edit four books for IAE (http://iae-pedia.org/IAE_Newsletter). He has received honorary doctorates from three Concordia Universities, Chicago, Seward, and Portland. Contact information: firstname.lastname@example.org