Yesterday I put up two posts that, together, open up the question of how we should think about new ideas that challenge what Christians have “always thought.”
In the bounded-set thinking that comes most naturally to many of us, the arrival of a new idea, especially if it challenges an old one, automatically generates a response of rejection. It falls outside the boundary of received Christian orthodoxy.
It, and its proponents and adherents, is rejected.
This is what’s happening with the evolution and historicity of Adam question. And I understand it.
The Christian tradition has built a lot on Adam. The idea of a historical first parent who fell from a state of innocence is important for understanding humanity, creation, and even how salvation works.
But here’s what we’ve seen over the past hundred and fifty years: after scientists started working with a theory of evolution, data from innumerable branches and sub-branches of various scientific disciplines started making other discoveries that supported that theory and did not support instant appearance of diversified species on earth.
The latest challenge to the traditionally conceived Christian story of origins is genomic data that points to pools of thousands rather than a single individual.
So what do Christians do with all this?
First, we recognize that we are standing at a different point, downstream from our theological forebears. They had scientific worldviews that were impacting their articulations of humanity and sin (sin transferred in sperm, anyone?). And, their scientific worldviews were closer to the biblical writers: we hadn’t yet discovered that the earth revolves around the sun, for example, or found fossils of animals that died millions of years before anything like a human being was on the earth.
This does not mean that we will automatically get right what they got wrong, but it does meant that to be faithful to our point in the story we will have to say something that makes sense in our own day and time, even as those who came before us said something that made sense in theirs.
That first step is huge. It is, I think, the greatest hurdle: to clear the bar of setting our minds in such a posture that we can listen to the issue, wrestle with the problem, without defensiveness.
Second, we revisit the biblical story to see where we might have been over-reading our preconception into the story. The particular creation story in which there is a person named Adam who breaks a command and thereby brings ruin on himself and, apparently, the world, is the same story that then proceeds to have Adam’s son Cain run off to marry foreigners.
This indicates that Genesis 2-4 is a story that does not intend to give an entirely comprehensive account of the origin of humanity. Yes, it intends to tell a story within which God’s people have a unique place, and where a ruptured relationship with God wreaks havoc in every aspect of life, but there’s also a window into the possibility that this fits within a larger narrative of an already-extant humanity.
Then, of course, we step further back and realize that we have two creation stories in Gen 1-2 alone, and that each tells a different narrative about humanity as it fits within the unfolding of creation. Then there are other biblical stories–creation from a slain Leviathan, anyone?
We start to get a perspective on creation that is polyvalent, to say the least. When the question is opened up, by our modern scientists, about how we did, in fact, come to be here, we have our eyes opened afresh to see that the biblical narratives are anything but dogmatic about the answer. They give evidence of different ancient Israelites at different times and places painting different pictures in order to communicate something significant about humanity’s and, more importantly Israel’s, place in the cosmos.
And Paul did the same thing, building on Adam traditions.
The next step, then, is beginning to return to our time. What must we say about the creation of the world, about humanity, about “The Man” and “The Woman” whom we meet in the early chapters of Genesis?
We will not be able to provide a viable answer to that question if we are unwilling to ask it with integrity for our own day and time.
Bounded-set Christianity has not place for the question at all. Ironically, those most committed to history are least willing to learn from it. Yes, the earth does circle the sun; and yes, Christianity survived this knowledge. But conservative Protestant Christianity, in particular, refuses to be chastened by the mistakes of the past, and continues to insist on the absolute necessity of data that science has repeatedly disproved.
The question, as I see it, is not whether this scientific information is correct, but rather how we will articulate faithful Christianity in light of it.
We are downstream and there is no swimming back.
Ed. note: the author got so caught up in the “Trajectories and challenges” part, he forgot about “ethics.” What does all this have to do with how we act as Christians? Come back tomorrow and find out!