Critics of evolution generally get one thing, and only that one thing, right. Christianity as we traditionally understand it cannot be reconciled with evolution.
South Carolina State Senator Mike Fair is the latest politician to wade into this debate, arguing in a newspaper op-ed that teaching the science of evolution has “placed a stranglehold on the search for truth.” That’s true insomuch as the science is so solid as to exclude alternative explanations of our origins, but it is also true in a subtler and, for religious conservatives, far more dangerous sense.
Evolution is not merely an explanation of where we come from or how living creatures change. We are coming to recognize that evolution is the physics of life, the mechanism by which all living systems grow, change, interact, thrive and potentially fail. As powerful as Darwin’s discoveries are, they have far less to do with events that happened hundreds of millions of years ago than with our understanding of our place in the world now.
Understanding the science of life means embracing a meaning of life which many conservative Christians simply cannot tolerate. In short, it is nearly impossible to develop a working grasp of evolution without wriggling loose from eighteen centuries of Christian teaching on the place and significance of humanity in the world. After slipping that skin we get a Christian message more humble, humane and profound, but utterly irreconcilable with fundamentalist priorities.
Darwin’s discoveries are a decisive step beyond the shocks we experienced in realizing that neither the Earth, nor the Sun, nor even our solar system were at the center of everything. Those jolts were disconcerting, but still left enough room for a comfortably arrogant vision of our own role in the universe. Christianity cannot survive our understanding of natural selection without experiencing some painful evolution of its own.
At stake is far more than the question of where we come from. No one who needs to be taken seriously is still invested in the idea that Genesis is a history lesson. What makes evolution challenging not what it says about a literal, historical interpretation of the Bible, but what it tells us about our place in the world.
In Christian tradition human beings are central to the story of the universe. God, a deity with a distinct human-like personality who thinks and talks and feels, worked out his entire plan for the universe around his interest in human beings whom he created very personally and in his own image.
Unique among all of creation, only human beings have a “spirit” capable of an eternal existence in this scheme. Humans alone are responsible for the “fallen” state of the world and only through human beings can the universe we redeemed. God in the Christian story did not send his Son to become a horse or a lion, but a human.
What we’ve learned from 150 years of science since On the Origin of Species is that humans occupy a significantly less central role in the universe than what our religious stories envisioned for us. We did not merely evolve from simpler life forms, we remain tied to them in an endless chain of causes and reactions, beginning with the simplest building blocks of life and continuing through every aspect of the natural world. I am as much a platform for bacterial life as a father, brother or child. We cannot readily claim to mastered agricultural without simultaneously speculating whether human intelligence was merely a successful evolutionary strategy of early grains. If I suddenly failed to be a viable host for the microbes in my gut I might perish just as certainly as if I jumped off a bridge.
And as for being a “higher order of life,” our genome matches 99% of the genes in our nearest non-human relative, the chimpanzee. About half of our genome is present in plants like the banana. A third of our genes are shared with one of our more distant relatives, the yeast cell. Our genome developed from distant ancestors we share with every other living thing on Earth.
Discovering that Jesus, supposedly the literal human son of God, was 99% chimpanzee is theologically awkward. Even more challenging is the realization that we are tied into a biological web in which every living thing is bound to everyone else, such that changes in one can create unpredictable changes elsewhere in the biome. Even worse, this network extends beyond even living things to the environment around us.
Traditional Christian understandings of the nature of life are built on a hierarchy with humans sitting at the top, separate from and superior to all else. From that assumption we have developed the idea that we exist in some sphere independent of the natural world. That same misconception has for centuries fed a continuing hereditary hierarchy among humans, justifying exploitation and oppression as an extension of the “God-ordained” hierarchies in the natural order.
We have not only learned that we are not on top, but more importantly – no such hierarchy exists. The direction of human evolution might depend less on our own intuition and ingenuity than on the evolutionary success of a particularly noxious virus, or the destruction of some key resource.
We are neither supreme over nor insulated from the fate of the rest of “Creation,” or from each other. Contrary to the half-baked understanding of evolution leveraged by 19th century politicians and racists, my survival and success depends very deeply on yours. Evolution for humans is a heavily collaborative process. That realization may challenge a rigid interpretation of Christianity, but it can be incorporated quite easily with the earliest message of the faith.
Christian conservatives often express the fear that evolution reduces us to mere animals, removing any sense of purpose or meaning to life. It is true perhaps that it threatens the foundations they have built on which to live a meaningful life, but that is not the end of this story.
Our understanding of the nature of life on Earth does absolutely nothing to demean us, but it does give us a new lens through which to view the world. Evolution inspires a great deal more compassion and humility than we might have achieved without it. It may be inconsistent with a conservative vision of Christianity, but with some humility there are adaptations that could work.
Sen. Fair is worried about the “stranglehold” tightening around his vision of the truth. No law is going to loosen that grip or salvage a discredited understanding of the world, but there are alternatives. Interpreting Christianity through the lens of what we know about the natural world is not so hard. A Jesus who is biologically related to chimps and microbes is in some regards a grander, more universal savior than one who is separate from the rest of the natural world and only interested in humans.
If the purpose of religion is to bring us into line with truth, then hiding evolution from schoolchildren is a moral outrage. A religious understanding that can only be sustained by lies and concealment is no moral credibility. Scientific discoveries about our origins and development are in fact inconsistent with traditional, conservative Christianity, but there is hope. There always the opportunity to evolve.