07/06/2010 02:01 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Jesus and the Evolution of the Species

This is not about whether you believe in God, or whether you believe in evolution. It is not about whether you believe that Jesus is the Son of God. If you believe in God, fine. If not, fine. If you believe evolution is real, fine. If not, fine. This is not about what you believe, or what I believe. It is about the idea of Jesus, and the idea of evolution, and what these two ideas might have to say about each other and about us.

I was raised in the fundamental Baptist tradition. Both of my grandfathers were preachers. I have four uncles and a cousin who are preachers. As a boy I went to church every time the doors opened. It was assumed that every child in the family would grow up as a Christian. Any debate about the fundamentalist belief system was disallowed.

One of the principal elements of that system was that the Bible had to be taken literally. The meaning of each word, and the interpretation of each passage, had been handed down in the oral tradition of my family. At that time, none of them had been a special student of Hebrew or Greek, nor of the many translations and manuscripts that went into the making of the King James Version. I was simply taught what my elders had been taught. Everything that it was necessary to know was already known.

One interpretation given to us very early was that it was impossible to believe in Jesus and, at the same time, "believe in evolution." The two were mutually exclusive ways of viewing the world. Anyone who "believed in evolution" -- which meant, following the popular misconception, that humans had descended from monkeys -- could not really believe in Jesus. If anyone thought he could hold such a dichotomy in his mind, he must be fooling himself about his relationship with Jesus. Such a person was lumped with heathens, modernists, liberals, college professors and all other reprobates.

At the same time, there was in America the widespread notion that anyone who accepted the theory of evolution surely could not take the Bible very seriously. The creation of the world in Genesis could only be a pleasant story, not greatly different from the origin myths of so-called "primitive" people. Similarly, most of the Bible was little more than an oral tradition of the Hebrews, without application to the scientific world.

From within, each of these two is a comfortable worldview. Everything is laid out clearly in both. In the language of an anthropologist (which is what I grew up to be), each is a culture that serves its people effectively. Despite the apparent differences, there are also obvious similarities. Each is a system of learned and shared ideas that functions well, is adaptable to local environments, is durable. Each has inherent value.

In anthropological terms, the central hero of fundamentalist culture is Jesus. He entered the human realm from the metaphysical plane, bringing salvation from a sinful life. Lesser cultural heroes -- prophets who foretold His mission, and apostles who spread the news of His first and second advents -- became His agents of enlightenment among the humans.
His message seems reasonable, one that most humans can appreciate on some level. Its explicit theme is Love, something all humans want. The idea of Jesus calls humans to change from their selfish ways, to allow God's Love to rule their lives. The idea of Jesus is itself a metaphor for the most unselfish kind of Love.

The symbolism in scriptures is plain. Jesus assumed human form, endured temptation, suffered and died, was resurrected and ascended back from whence He had come. He transformed Himself in order to change the world, and especially the human beings. His essence -- His blood -- changes human beings one individual at a time, and consequently changes whole communities. The human assignment is to convert -- literally to change ("be ye transformed"). But does Jesus have anything to say about the idea of evolution?
If we strip evolution of all the baggage added to it by detractors and adherents, it is a very simple philosophical idea: Things Change. This seems a reasonable enough notion -- change is something all humans do. Whatever works best in any given situation or environment has an improved likelihood of surviving. Occasionally accidents shake things up for a while, but generally speaking life tends to move toward some kind of balance. Things can get out of balance for a time, and some enigmatic forms can arise and persist, but things in general swing toward some new kind of balance eventually. Whatever works is passed along in the essence -- the genes -- of individual members of each group, and this changes whole communities.

The idea of evolution does not necessarily assume any particular First Cause for things. Evolution also does not necessarily assume a need for random causes -- it allows for them, because often things seem to happen randomly, but it doesn't demand randomness because change can be caused by all sorts of things (genetic drift, sexual selection, etc.).
Evolution does not hold that humans evolved from monkeys, as it has been accused of doing. Monkeys and humans, and most all species, have been changing through time. The idea of evolution merely tries to embrace all the known scientific evidence in an effort to understand the process of change. In a way, the idea of evolution is itself a metaphor for a very comprehensive kind of change.

Fossils found all over the world are the nuts and bolts of the evidence. The idea of evolution is a way to explain them. Evolution is neither "Just A Theory" (as some detractors say), nor is it an "Explanation Of Everything" (as some adherents say). Evolution is a process, an apparently on-going body of changes. Almost anyone who has been alive for very long will attest that, surely enough, things do seem to change. But does evolution have anything to say about the idea of Jesus?

One of Christianity's heroes is Moses. He is credited in fundamentalist culture with having written the first five books of the Bible. (Most progressive scholars now think that several writers are responsible, but for this discussion I prefer to lump them together as the idea of "Moses" -- the frequently accepted, if possibly nominal, author.) Seen in this light, "Moses" is the human delivery agent for the Genesis account of the beginning of the universe. "Moses" is also seen as God's delivery agent for the children of Israel, and he has also been described as a human "type" of Jesus, the deliverer of humanity. "Moses" is very much in God's delivery business -- his account is basic to the creation beliefs of traditional Judaism and Islam as well.

In Archbishop Ussher's widely debated chronology of the Old Testament, "Moses" lived around 2500 years after the creation, and 1500 years before Jesus. It is from Moses' Genesis account that we learn the order of earthly creation: first the "heavens", then earth itself; then water and air (vapor); dry land; plant life (grass, herbs and then trees); animal life (aquatic animals and airborne animals, then land animals and eventually humans).

Isn't it interesting that a similar order of developing biological life -- the earth, then water and air; plants before animals; aquatic creatures before land creatures; humans later on; basically, moving from simpler forms to more complex ones -- is what is reflected in the fossil record? Could the fossil record be a message from God?

"Moses" gave exhaustive details of the things he saw first hand -- daily journeys of the children of Israel, ordinances from God, the land and people of the time. He gave less detail of what happened in the centuries of history before his time: the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. He gave even less detail (with the notable exception of the Noah story) of what happened in more distant history -- the centuries between Seth (son of Adam) and Abraham. Much of this Seth-to-Abraham period he described only in a catalog of names (the "begats").

"Moses" employed the ideas available at his time to describe creation. He gave almost no details about the process of creation. He merely wrote that God spoke, and things got underway -- not much about what God did or didn't do in the creative act; not much about how God did or didn't do all that creating.

Fifteen centuries after "Moses," another hero of Christianity was also inspired to write about creation. John used the ideas available in his day, and added to the "Moses" account the perspective that God's Son, Jesus, had been involved in creation: "All things were made by Him; and without Him was not anything made that was made (John 1:2)." John's contemporary, Paul, echoed the same perspective: "For by Him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible (Colossians 1:16)."

"Moses" didn't explicitly write about Jesus, because Jesus hadn't been explicitly manifested to the human beings yet. Jesus was an idea not yet expressly available. But John knew Jesus personally, and saw Him as God in human form. In John's account of creation, Jesus became the central character.

So it is with human beings. Seeking to understand things, we write using the ideas available to us. We can do no more. Moses could not have written of the creation as John did, because Jesus had not been explicitly revealed yet. It could be said that "Moses" saw "through a glass darkly" what John came to see "face to face" as more information was revealed (I Corinthians 13:12). The apostles taught that Christ had been there all along, even before "Moses." Perhaps "Moses" simply had not been shown that part of the "mysteries of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 13:11)."

As it turns out, the proponents of evolution teach that the fossils were there all along, too. These thousands of pieces of evidence -- the bones of ancient animals, the components of ancient plants -- had been preserved in stone for thousands (millions) of years. They were there in the Middle East at the time of "Moses" and at the time of John, but the fossil part of the universe hadn't been revealed yet. The plants and animals those fossils represent had lived and died, and had been changed into fossils by natural processes, but they remained invisible for all practical purposes in the days of "Moses" and John.

Some detractors of evolution have attempted to disallow those ancient species. But what if each of those animals and plants was part of God's creation? What if the extinct species which anthropologists call Australopithecines and the early forms of our own genus (Homo) were just as much a part of God's creation as the woolly mammoth and the modern lion? If there were such a thing as a Creator (and I believe there is), and if the universe by definition includes everything, wouldn't that mean that everything in the universe is part of the Creator's creation, even those troublesome fossils? Even troublesome ideas?

Humans, even extraordinary ones like "Moses" and John, don't see and know everything in the universe. Omniscience is not in the human prerogative. We try to understand only as we have light to see. Early church fathers thought the earth was flat, at the center of the solar system. The church was a strong champion of the flat-world idea. But that doesn't mean that the church fathers did not genuinely have the essence of the idea of God in their hearts, even though they were mistaken about some details.

Eventually the evidence that contradicts the flat-world idea became so extensive that even the church fathers admitted a round and moveable earth into their philosophy. This did not, as many had feared it might, reduce the wonder and majesty -- the power and glory -- inherent in the idea of God. God was still God! The earth was just round instead of flat.
In fact, it revealed a way of seeing God as even more powerful, one who could set celestial and earthly processes in motion just by willing it.

What if the Creator were also powerful enough to have set the process of biological evolution in motion? What if He were awesome enough to give it a special touch occasionally, whenever it needed correction to move toward the kind of balance He wants to see? What if He were wise enough to reveal His great mystery in a gradual-but-sometimes-punctuated manner, so that in our human frailty we could come to understand it more and more as time proceeds?
Among the other glorious things involved in the idea of Jesus, what if He could also be seen as a metaphor for evolution itself? What if, by His very nature -- the birth into human form, the life among the people, the sacrifice, death, resurrection and transformation back to "the heavenlies" -- what if the whole sublime idea of Jesus in itself suggests that humans change, that humans evolve? This is surely not all there is to the idea of Jesus, but what if it were a part of the picture?

And what if it works the other way round as well? What if among all the other things that evolution is, evolution can be seen as a metaphor for Jesus? What if, by its very nature, its subtle, dramatic, apparently inexorable way of changing things, the whole elaborate idea of evolution in itself suggests that spiritual change is also part of the human condition? This is surely not all there is to the idea of evolution, but what if it were part of the picture?

In a world divided on philosophical, theological and scientific notions, what if it were possible to reconcile these disparate ideas about the universe? What if such a reconciliation were part of The Good News?

And what if the idea of Jesus and the idea of evolution say something about each other, after all? Perhaps what these two ideas say about each other is that they say something about us, the human beings.

Some may say, "This idea of Jesus is too complicated." Others may say, "This idea of Jesus is too simplified." Some may say, "This idea of evolution is too complicated." Others may say, "This idea of evolution is too simplified."

We humans want to understand things. As a way toward understanding, we divide things into categories using the ideas available to us. Sometimes, it is the ideas and categories we use which become the greatest impediments to our understanding. "Moses" had his ideas and categories. John and Paul had theirs. We have ours.

I believe that God created the universe using the mechanisms we call "natural processes" (which are really God's processes, since He created them, too). If we believe there is such a thing as gravity or such a thing as climate change then we can believe that these biological processes, too, are God's processes, God's creations. Why should it be so hard to believe that biological change over time is also God's process, God's creation? God is the source, the "author and finisher," of all life, and He used and is still using the processes of change to achieve His plan and purpose: biological change as well as spiritual change.

To me, this means that God is even smarter and more powerful than I imagined as a child. God did not lie when He spoke through "Moses" about His creation of the universe. God loves us, and wants us to love Him and each other. But He does not ask us to stop using our minds, to stop inquiring and learning about His universe and all the diversity He created in it.
"Moses" told the story of creation using the ideas and concepts available to him. We can use the ideas and concepts available to us in our time to tell the story of God's wonderful creation. This does not reduce God. It magnifies His Holy Name.