I just got news this week of yet another sibling who died long before I could ever get to know him. This comes on top of a few other similar revelations in the very recent past: a couple other brothers and sisters that I never knew I had. All that’s left of them are a few faded and torn images of what they might have looked like … I can clearly see the family resemblance … and some things that were precious to them or that they made with their own hands.
Which now has me asking “Why am I here and they’re not? Why did I survive and they didn’t?”
And another question that really unsettles me: “Why wasn’t I told about them?”
Some of you know me, and you might also know my still-living siblings and parents. And you’re wondering “What on earth is he talking about?”
Earlier this week we found evidence of yet another ancient relative of humans. As is often the case, the evidence includes jaw bones and teeth, which can tell us a lot about the individual, including the general shape of the face, how big they were, what they ate, and their health, to name just a few insights. They’ve been given the scientific name Australopithecus deyiremeda, which means ‘close relative’ in the language spoken by the local Afar people of Ethiopia where these bones were found.
The bones are just over 3 million years old, so those four individuals were still alive at the time that other hominids existed. Not just other humans, but other species of humans. And this is where the story struck a personal chord in me. I’d been raised for decades on the belief that God created mankind from one single couple … Adam and Eve … just a few thousand years ago, and that we were completely separate from all the other animals: created in the image of God. But now, not only does the genetic evidence clearly show that we evolved from animals and are closely related to apes and chimps, but we also have growing evidence of several brother and sister hominid relatives. Neanderthals, Denisovans, and other distinct species with Latin names: Homo antecessor, Homo erectus, Homo floresiensis, and others.
The fact that every one of our hominid cousins have died off raises the interesting question: “What makes us so special?” Why did we survive, but not any of them? In case you don’t understand exactly what I’m getting at, think of how many species of cats there are: leopards, lions, tigers, lynx, panthers, and of course, Garfield. Or how many different species of birds: not just obviously different ones like humming birds and ostriches, but even very closely related ones which are still completely different species. Like finches: Zebra finch, Gold finch, Darwin’s finch, Timor finch, Hawfinch, Rosefinch, Bullfinch … I could go on for a long time listing more. The same goes for whales, horses, worms, trees. I don’t think there’s any other kind of living thing on earth for which there’s only one single representative species. Just to clarify what might be a point of confusion for some: we humans may have different colors of skin, but that just distinguishes different races within one human species, just like Sphynx, Siamese, Manx, and Persians are different breeds of another species (house cat), while Terrier, Greyhound, Shepherd and Chihuahua are different breeds of yet another (dog).
Why is that? What makes Homo sapiens so special among all of our many genetic cousins that allowed us to continue into the modern era but they couldn’t?
It wasn’t necessarily just our ability to make tools, because we have reason to think that some of the others also made tools (and so do quite a number of other animal species).
It wasn’t just our capacity to have language, because many animals also have their forms of language. What really sets us apart from animals is our ability to use language to pass on new information from previous generations and in that way to build knowledge on top of existing knowledge. As Sir Isaac Newton has been so famously quoted: “If I have seen further [than my peers] it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” (although it seems he borrowed that metaphor from Bernard of Chartres). This ability allowed us to build up a huge encyclopedia of engineering, medicine, biology and other sciences that helped us dominate the planet.
Maybe we were the most ruthlessly murderous of our clan, and managed to out-kill them before they snuffed us out. Sibling rivalry can be brutal. A related BBC article gives a bit of a coroner’s report on a murder which apparently took place 430,000 years ago. As they put it: “the study provides grisly evidence that violence is an intrinsic part of the earliest human culture “.
Or maybe it was just dumb luck that a few Homo sapiens made it through the Ice Ages, and all the other hominids fell asleep in the snow!?
But I want to come back to that much bigger question that really unsettles me: “Why wasn’t I told about them?”
If the Bible is intended to be God’s version of what happened … historically and scientifically accurate in every detail, since “how could God get any of the details wrong?” … then why isn’t there any mention of millions of years, or of all my genetic cousins created by evolutionary forces in the image of some highly genetically successful species?
It seems I have a choice to make here. Either believe the story I was given and utterly deny the huge and growing mountain of evidence against that account, or accept all that evidence on face value and try to re-define my view on what the Bible is meant to be.
After several years of reading, thinking, asking and praying … much of it documented in this blog (in particular, see my post on 03/16/15) and in my book … I’ve come down on the side of option #2. And my re-definition of the Bible now is that it represents a diary or notebook (see particularly my post on 10/18/14) detailing our gnawing quest to understand God (particularly 01/02/15). Sure, the Bible’s inspired. But ‘inspired’ doesn’t mean dictated. It means motivated, influenced, urged on … and I can fully believe that God is/was the motivating factor behind a document (actually, a collection of documents) in which we record our successes and failures in trying to figure out the Divine.
But no sooner had I relaxed back in my big comfy Lazy Boy recliner of theology, satisfied that I’d resolved my science-versus-faith dilemma, that I came to the realization that this would require some pretty big changes to certain key theological points.
The concept of ‘death’ was one of the first of these. Up till now, death had been presented to me as the penalty for the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden, and all the rest of us had unwittingly inherited that guilt. But if there was no Adam or Eve or Garden of Eden, and if I was going to embrace the Theory of Evolution, then I had to accept the fact that death had been around for billions of years, long before there was ever any human around to look at a fruit tree and think “I’d sure love to bite into that!”
It wasn’t too hard to re-interpret this, though: the death referred to in Genesis isn’t about biological death, but instead about spiritual death. Even the most die-hard Young Earther can accept the idea that we’re spiritually dead. In fact, biological death is necessary if you really want a healthy world. If it weren’t for death, we would quickly be buried under a thick layer of insects and animals to an extent that the earth couldn’t possibly sustain. In my book, I outline how the ecosystem in Yellowstone Park completely collapsed when all the wolves were exterminated, and then the complete recovery when wolves were re-introduced.
Certain other key concepts in Genesis were a bit harder to resolve. What would it now mean to say that ‘we’re created in the image of God’? What is Genesis referring to when it talks about the ‘Fall in the Garden’, which I was taught put all of humanity on a fast-track to hell except for the work of Christ on the cross?
Here’s where I come out now on those ideas. Let me know what you think.
First, let’s deal with “made in the image of God”. Again, no need to be too literal about this. No one believes that God actually has a literal face with eyes and mouth, nor arms with hands and fingers, despite the many Biblical references to all of those very same body parts, as well as references to the smoke coming from his nostrils (2 Samuel 22:9; Job 41:20; Psalm 18:8) and to his back (Exodus 33:21-23) (which the King James translates as “back parts”).
Contrary to what most Christians believe, the six days of Genesis don’t all describe God making things out of nothing (theologians refer to this as creating “ex nihilo”), snapping his fingers as they suddenly appear out of thin air. Instead, they describe God shifting things around and re-shaping things out of what was already there, which is exactly what evolution is all about. Separating light from darkness. Separating waters above from waters below. Letting the waters gather into one place and land into another. Letting the land produce plants. If you’re not with me on this point, re-read those verses and tell me why the words don’t let you picture God carefully and methodically re-organizing things around, rather than snapping his fingers and they suddenly appear. And when the text refers to the creation of celestial bodies and of animals, it doesn’t actually say those were created “ex nihilo”: nothing in the wording precludes God also creating those from pre-existing materials.
Then he creates the man … out of the dust of the earth.
And then the woman … out of the man’s side.
All metaphors for a process that we theists now fight over: making something new out of pre-existing material … evolution.
So when he made us in his image, maybe God re-shaped something that was already there into something else. Something better. Something more resembling himself.
There’s been one major driving force behind all of evolutionary history: selfishness. Eat everything you can in order to be able to reproduce. Run away if you can, kill if you have to, but do everything you can in order to save yourself and perpetuate the species. This has been the central theology of evolution: ‘it’s all about me’. That’s what motivated Homo sapiens and all of our genetic cousins for millions of years, and their ancestors for billions of years before them, right down to the first amoeba. It’s basically written into our DNA. Hence Richard Dawkin’s book entitled “The Selfish Gene”.
So the Evolutionary Tree of Life gradually grew and branched, producing all the different species of the past and present as God supervised and possibly also watered and pruned it. Eventually we humans reached a point at which God could nudge us toward something better, something that reflected his image. You might even say it was his primary intent for creation all along. To re-shape selfishness into selflessness. “Do unto others as you would have them do onto you”. We came to realize the consequences of our actions. What would happen if we stole from someone else (they wouldn’t be able to eat), or hurt them or even killed them with our own hands. Or on the other hand, what would happen if we helped them … shared our food with them … protected them from some danger … helped them when they were sick. At that point, we were able to make a choice. And even today, millions of years later, each of us are able to make that choice: either think only about me, or be other-minded.
And that’s the Fall in the Garden … the biting of the apple … the sin that we inherited from the first human couple. Every single day of our lives, we’re faced with that choice. And far too many times, each one of us has made the wrong choice … we’ve fallen from God’s ideal for us. There wasn’t a Fall in the Garden six thousand years ago: instead, there’ve been hundreds of billions of Falls over the past several million years. We’ve all failed.
And Jesus’s mission on earth? To be the ultimate example to us of a selfless life. The gospels tell of how he gave up everything … didn’t seek out a high paying career … didn’t bother with getting a house … or a wife and kids … or a prestigious position in the religious hierarchy or a position of power … or anything else that was selfishly motivated. But simply went around giving, helping, teaching, healing, loving. Even to the point of giving up his life in the story of Gethsemane.
That, to me, is the message of the Bible. Genesis starts us off with a very crude image of God, a Being who is always angry and destroying things and needing blood to pay for sins. But if you have the commitment to keep turning the pages, you learn how we humans gathered more insights and experiences, giving us a more detailed and yet nuanced image. An image that moves us beyond giving sacrifice because we have to, and cowering in fear hoping we won’t be destroyed, and inspires us towards love and giving sacrificially because we want to.
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