Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The problem of evolution in a one-storey universe

This is a very thought-provoking and interesting reflection from Future Hope. Any comments/criticisms may be voiced and are encouraged.

...Before I get directly to my main point, let me remind the reader of Father Stephen’s brilliant analysis of the main spiritual problem in the modern world:  the problem of the two-storey universe.  Father Stephen uses a house as a metaphor to explain Man’s view of the cosmos.  Most modern people view the universe as having two-storeys–a first floor where people live and where the physical laws of nature operate and the second floor where God lives (we hope).  All spiritual and metaphysical experiences are relegated to the above floor…away from the every day experience of humanity.  Father Stephen points out, brilliantly, I think, that so many of the arguments between “fundamentalists” and atheists are only arguments about the existence of the second floor: but their understandings of the first floor are actually identical.

Father Stephen has pointed out that Christianity should be a religion of a one-storey universe not a two-storey universe.  In other words, God should be recognized by us as being “present and filling all things” as the ancient prayer testifies.  The Holy Spirit, the Lord and the Giver of Life is very much present throughout His creation.  As Saint Dionysius explains:  “Fire is in all things, is spread everywhere, pervades all things without intermingling with them, shining by its very nature and yet hidden, and manifesting its presence only when it can find material on which to work, violent and invisible, having absolute rule over things…It comprehends, but remains incomprehensible, never in need, mysteriously increasing itself and showing forth its majesty according to the substance receiving it, powerful and mighty and invisibly present in all things.”  It is this view of the universe–the universe as charged with the grandeur of God…that so many modern people, Christians and atheists, fail to perceive.

So this brings me back to the topic of evolution, or more specifically, to the topic of the transmutation of species.  I have heard it said numerous times by numerous Christians that the Bible is not a science book.  Meaning I think that we are not to take the Book of Genesis as being a literal scientific narrative of the doings of the first people.  Even if we admit that the Bible does not have to be read as literally describing the doings of the first people, it does not follow that Darwin’s ideas must be accepted as the alternative.  Darwin’s view is, after all, Godless.  If we let Darwin exclusively describe the science for us then that would leave the Bible as only describing the upper floor of our house…not the first floor where everybody really lives.  I do not think that is the situation we really want to find ourselves in:  it is certainly not the situation Christians were in for Christianity’s first 1800 years.  Many modern Christians, however, have expressed their desire to allow the narrative of modern evolutionary science to be taught in the science classrooms; religious ideas, in this model, should only appear in the religious or literature classrooms (or even better–they probably should just be confined to the home).  I even once knew a devout Christian who nonetheless insisted that Darwinian evolution must exclusively be taught in all science classes because “we all know its true.”  She went on to explain that Christians should be ”okay” with the modern evolutionary explanation of life (inspired by Darwin).  She said as long as Christians mentally inserted God “somewhere in the process” of evolution then there should not be any conflict between Darwin and Christ.

What could be more symptomatic of the modern malaise that we live in.  An anti-Christian account of our origins, natures, and destinies can be rendered Christian simply by a private, mental, personal insertion of God into the story.  Just don’t share your private vision with anyone else in the class!

But is the modern evolutionary account of our origins necessarily anti-Christian?  Yes.  The entire project of Charles Darwin was to create a system of understanding life where the presence of God was completely unneeded.  The “laws” of biology, after Darwin, were understood like the laws of physics:  as functioning automatically and without any purpose or goal in mind.  Christians were free to imagine that God began the process, or that He specifically created the human soul as distinct from animal souls; Christians were free to pretend this as long as they kept their imaginings private.  This schizophrenia of thought is symptomatic of living in a two-storey universe:  Darwin will explain the first floor to us…and Saint John will explain the second floor.  There is no interconnecting between these two separate realities…meanwhile, atheists smile believing that there is no second floor, and that they have in fact carried the day.  Stephen Gould explained as much:  he was “fine” with religions existing…as long as they kept their ideas to their own modality (the imaginary one) away from the modalities of science.  For Gould, the point of religion was to tell us how to act–religion does not inform us of what we are, or what we are to become.  The amazing thing to me is how many Christians agree with him.  These Christians may not realize that by siding with Gould, they render Christianity to be little more than a moral code, and Jesus to be little more than an ethics teacher.  And of course the One-Storey Universe that Father Stephen has described as the true model of our universe is very different from the truncated and incomplete one-storey universe that the atheists image:  their one-storey universe is one where there was a second floor, but the second floor has been violently torn off–as if by a tempest.  I am thinking of the scientific view as a truncated one-storey house because it addresses the physical, but not the spiritual aspects of Man.

So what is the solution to the problem of evolution?  The first solution, I think, is for people to begin to think of the universe–the cosmos–as an integrated one-storey reality, where God is “everywhere present and filling all things.”  We need to incorporate into this understanding of the universe a more worthy understanding of ourselves:  that we, as Saint Basil the Great tells us, are the only creatures to have received the order to become a god.  Or as Saint Athanasius [the first person to list the exact canon of the New Testament as we have it today--in A.D. 367] reminds us ”God assumed humanity so that we might become God.”  And as Saint Thomas Aquinas instructs us:  “the only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.”  The creation of humanity was not a random acting out of mere physical laws.  Our destinies transcend the physical, so a merely physical description of who we are…one that does not teach that we are created in the image of God and are destined to return to Him…is a radically incomplete and incompetent vision of ourselves.  Any class or program that teaches that we are merely physical and accidental (while allowing us to privately “insert” an imaged creator “somewhere in the process” is nothing more than a lie–a damned lie we might say).

The second solution to the problem of evolution would be for us to admit that modern science does not know as much about it as some might believe.  There are many, many areas of life and the evolutionary process that biological scientists do not understand.  And although they tell a convincing and complete narrative [it is always presented complete-no matter how much they continue to add] to their students, many scientists should, in all honesty, label most aspects of the evolutionary theory as X for unknown at this time.  The fact that many parts of the evolutionary narrative are speculative, somehow, is not getting across to undergrads…much less the public at large.  As a Christian biology professor once observed:  his biology textbook that he wrote had to be updated some 30 times in 15 years to keep abreast of all the new scientific data, but yet the Bible does not require editing.

The third solution to the problem of evolution would be for Christians to think about the possibility of evolution in theological terms.  What are the theological implications of evolutionary theory?  Specifically, what are the implications on our human natures–considering the Christian understanding of ancestral (or original) sin–when one considers the possibility of evolution?  Any discussion of our origins–for a Christian–would have to factor in Adam and Eve and humanity’s original fall from Grace.  There are several different ways to consider the fall, and before any Christian begins thinking about evolutionary matters, he should begin by understanding what we know about what the Fathers of the Church tell us about our origins.

The older understanding of humanity’s fall comes to us from Saint Irenaeus around the end of the 2nd century.  Saint Irenaeus was a disciple of Saint Polycarp, who in turn was a disciple of Saint John, who in turn was an apostle of Christ.  Saint Irenaeus understood the fall of humanity in this way:  in the beginning, human beings were created in the image of God, but we still had to grow into the likeness of God.  God created us in the beginning in His image (we are his icons–to use the Greek word) in that we have free will, reason, and a sense of moral responsibility, but we are created in the likeness of God only in potential.  Likeness to God, according to Irenaeus, means assimilation to God through virtue and it is something that human beings would achieve by degrees.  Humans would have been allowed to eat of the tree of the knowledge of evil and of the fruit of the tree of immortality–in the fullness of time.  The chief implication of the transgression of Adam and Eve is that they experienced the knowledge of evil too early–thus darkening the likeness of God within us.  Jesus Christ Himself, of course, is the fruit of the tree of immortality.  So, in this model, Man is endowed with God’s image from the start, but Man was called to acquire the likeness of God by working in synergy with God’s Grace.  Thus the approach of Saint Irenaeus does not posit too exalted of a state for Man before the fall, and it still strongly makes the point that we are still very much the icon of God.

Two hundred years later, Saint Augustine also wrote about Man’s origins.  And although Saint Augustine did embrace an evolutionary theory of sorts, his understanding of the fall and its implications is a lot different from Saint Irenaeus’s.  Saint Augustine understood that humanity had been created in the full image and likeness of God in the beginning.  Adam and Eve were perfect and they possessed all possible wisdom and knowledge.  Man was a realized, and in no sense potential, perfection.  And when Man fell, in Saint Augustine’s model, Mankind became depraved and completely sinful.  Saint Augustine goes on to write:  “Man is under a harsh necessity of committing sin [and that] Man’s nature was overcome by the fault by which he fell, and so came to lack freedom.”  One can see how Saint Augustine’s view, taken to extremes by social and religious revolutionaries, could produce a very deformed theology:  one that does not see salvation as union with God, but rather as escape from something (from punishment usually–signified by Hell).  In other words it leads to a penal view of Man’s nature and salvation–i.e., Adam committed a crime and no human can atone for it–instead of a holistic view of Man’s salvation where humans are organically and holistically changed from within until they do possess the likeness of God.

The Augustinian view is the one that was adopted by most theologians in the West.  All the great religious epics incorporate it into their theologies to some degree or another…from the Catholic epic of Dante, to the Anglican epic of Spenser, to the “fundamentalist” epics of Milton.  It was in reading Paradise Lost where I actually began to wonder about Saint Augustine’s views on Man’s origins.  Milton goes to great lengths to show how perfect Adam and Eve were before the fall, but yet they fell!  Milton posits a little “chink”–a little defect in Eve that allowed her to sin…but I always wondered…where did the defect come from?

In any case, I think it is appropriate when discussing evolutionary theories, human nature, and human origins to refer back to the great theologians and mystics within Christianity.  They should inform the discussion in a one-storey universe.  It seems to me that the view of Saint Irenaeus is more compatible with a type of evolutionary development, but I would always remember point two above:  scientific speculation is just that:  speculation.  I am not in favor of rashly linking Christian theology (which “was delivered once and for all to the saints”) to the scientific idea of the moment.  Dialogue is needed…not a marriage.

I am suggesting that one cannot remove Christian thought from scientific speculations, one cannot remove Christian Truth from evolutionary theories, and one cannot separate Man’s spiritual truth from his physical truth.  Scientists’ understanding of evolution is still in a nascent stage–but it is far too rash and spiritually damaging to exclude Christian thought from the ever-changing and developing scientific narrative:  we cannot have a separation of Church and reality.  For Man (who is a synergy of body and soul) to be complete–he must understand that he lives in an integrated one-storey universe.


Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

I respect all these ideas that people have, to come to some kind of synthesis or peace between the scientific and the Christian world views, but for me they are too complex, and there need not be a disagreement between them at all.

The way I have reconciled the two views, which I hold simultaneously, is to understand the scientific as the legitimate study of the facts of God, that is, what He has made, and the religious or spiritual or biblical or Christian expression of truth as the study of the acts of God, that is, what He has done. As such, science (as well as history and other humanistic pursuits of truth) discover, collect, analyze and systematize factual truth, and 'religion' (for lack of a better word, but you know what I mean: it's what we do) discovers, collects, analyzes and systematizes actual truth.

Example: Adam and Eve
Factual truth: Unknown, other than there must be a primordial ancestor of the human species.
Actual truth: God created us in a determined act (this doesn't imply special creation since all God's acts are special, even when He might use what appears to our time scale perceptions as evolution).

Every bit of the facts about human evolution cannot contradict a single one of the acts of God in creating us. They simply do not have a straight across correspondence. They are not even talking about the same thing really, except that somehow our very existence is the result of a process that can be viewed from two completely separate frames of reference, yet only one existential stream is occuring.

Another example not directly related to the scriptures or Christian understanding:

A human being. Science can analyze everything about him, whether he is alive or dead, even asking him questions to find out such relatively spiritual and intangible facts about him such as his thoughts. But it would be very hard pressed indeed to try to find out much about his acts, what he actually does, how he lives, unless he willingly revealed it to them. Neither investigations, finding out facts about him, or finding out about his acts, would invalidate the other, even though the kind of knowledge gained in each is very different and also might provide apparent contradictions: "By everything we have found out about him factually, he shouldn't like sports; yet our partners in the actual investigation have noticed that he in fact is a golfer."

Anyway, my comment has ended up being far more verbose than I wanted, and shows that even my way of dealing with the problem could take some rather lengthy explanation. But in general, for a layman in both science and religion, the understanding I've come to has had good results. Factual and actual each have their place and are equally true for me, and so I am saved the trouble of joining in the science vs religion squabble.

I think you've read this explanation of mine a while back in one of my blog posts and left a comment. It's nothing new.

Pandelis said...

Thanks for your thoughts brother. It is a topic I have been thinking about for a very long time and have never come to a working conclusion. Thank you for explaining it in an alternative way.

I get offended when people expect me to say (just because I don't fit their idea of being 'Christian') that science, especially this issue of evolution, is damaging to faith in God.

I hold the view of the (at times) controversial Archpishop Lazar Puhalo: "If any scientific theory undermines your faith, you probably didn't have any faith in the first place".

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

Archbishop Lazar speaks the truth.

There is nothing inherently anti-Christian in science. On the other hand there is much that is anti-Christian within "Christianity."

Live, my brother, always in the Truth, and fearlessly, because the truest of all facts and acts, is the fact and act of the Resurrection of Christ. This one event has given a new bravery to the soul of man, which remains undaunted no matter what evidence turns up, because hard as they search far and wide, they will never find His body lying in a tomb.

Anonymous said...

Big Evolution Discovery !

British professor Nigel Swiggerton of Chapsworth College has recently found a missing link in the evolution/creation debate. Everyone is familiar with the "stages of man" chart found in textbooks which begins with a naked, hairy, bent over, grunting Neanderthal type which over millions of years finally learns how to stand erect while sporting a 1930s-style haircut. Well, Dr. Swiggerton discovered that someone accidentally reversed the negative. It turns out that the first man was actually standing erect with a short haircut but has been descending over the years until he has finally reached the last stage - the stage at any rock concert filled with naked, hairy, bent over, grunting Neanderthal types!

(saw above bit on web - Geoff)