In the world of business, the car you drive is a measure of your success. You want to be seen in a Ferrari or a BMW, rather than a small budget mini-car.
In the world of science, publications are king. Numbers of papers may be important, but … borrowing from my business analogy … the type of scientific journal your work appears in is even more important. Ask any scientist the name of the journal they desperately wish they could publish in, and they’ll invariably say either Nature or Science. In the words of the immortal philosopher Dr. Hook, it’s the equivalent of “seeing my smiling face on the cover of Rollingstone.” (I’m sure that will have very little meaning for readers who didn’t grow up with 70s rock music).
A paper in Science or Nature has something hugely important to say to the entire scientific community. Two papers back-to-back attract an even bigger spotlight to that particular topic. This week in the journal Nature, there were not just two, nor just three, but four papers back-to-back on the same subject: clearly, this is a topic of intense interest to scientists (and, as I’ve already stated and re-stated numerous times in previous blog posts, this should be hugely important for readers with religious interests). Those four papers all deal with hot, new data from studies looking at human origins. “How did we come to be here?”
I’ll save the readers the technical details. In a few words, these papers, coming from very different lab groups, looked at genetic sequences in samples of DNA taken from hundreds of people in different parts of the world, and used powerful computers to methodically crawl back in time to tease out when and where the different groups of humans first appeared. Think of it as a form of ancestry search where one uses old church and government records to put together a family tree going back five or ten generations, but now expand this to a global scale going back thousands of generations. And what’s really cool is that even though they use different genetic samples and different computer modelling techniques, they come up with very similar scenarios.
Many people who put a high value on the Bible (or the Quran) may not like what they found. To go straight to the bottom line: humans evolved from African ancestors we share in common with genetic cousins who are still around (chimps, gorillas, orangutans) and others who have long ago died off (Neanderthals, Denisovans, Australopithecus); we left Africa and moved across Europe and Asia in several waves between 125,000 and 50,000 years ago in response to global changes in weather.
This is a far cry from the story I grew up with, which had all of us originating from two distinct people, created completely separately from the animals 6,000 years ago, in a tranquil garden in Mesopotamia, free of predation, thorns, disease and death, and being kicked out because of a specific act of rebellion.
As I’ve written several times before in previous blog posts, for some, these scientific findings completely disrupt their world-view. They don’t know how to deal with it. They might choose to ignore the data. Pretend it isn’t there. “Ignorance is bliss.” Or they’ll question how the data were interpreted, even though they themselves have little or no training which allows them to make such a judgement. I can’t help them. Those are choices only they can make.
Many other believers, though, will have no problem accepting that ‘Out-of-Africa’ scenario, and will question what all the fuss is about. “OK, we get it. So the book of Genesis isn’t literal. It’s metaphor. So what?”
As much as I agree with them, I still think they haven’t fully grasped the changes to their theology this will bring. It isn’t just about the specific details of how and when we came to be here. Instead, whenever we sing songs that refer to ourselves as being ‘a wretch’ (Amazing Grace) or ‘a worm,’ (Alas, and did my Saviour bleed … also known as At the Cross) or worse … whenever we refer to ourselves as ‘broken image-bearers,’ or ‘fallen creatures,’ or ‘living in a fallen world,’ … whenever we speak longingly for everything to be put back right, to the way it was in the Garden … at those times we should ask ourselves exactly what we mean by that.
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming that any of us is perfect. Instead, I’m emphasizing that it’s now very clear we were never perfect to begin with, and are products of the mechanism that brought us into existence. We were ‘created’ the way we are.
We left Africa with tendencies and urges that were drilled into us through millions of years of evolution. The need to be selfish, and sometimes to steal or kill in order to survive. The need to see hominids from other tribes as enemies because they might plunder our food sources or steal our mates. The urge to reproduce with whomever, and whenever resources were adequate. The instinct to see every rustling in the grass as a potential threat, and to find a Causal Agent behind everything to better help us deal with situations in the future. And many other such instincts, tendencies, and ‘flaws.’ We needed those to survive in a cut-throat eat-or-be-eaten world. They were hard-wired into us by the processes that made us.
But now we’re expected to see those tendencies as something we’ve somehow chosen out of a defiant rebellion against God.
Instead, perhaps the gospel is about God wanting to make something even better out of us: continuing the process of evolution (which involves making revisions to previous designs) by turning our very core nature of selfishness (the primary motive within all organisms, hammered into us by the process of evolution) into selflessness. And Christ’s mission was to give us an example of exactly that. He didn’t concern himself with accumulating a retirement nest-egg, or buying a house, or worrying about personal security, or what others would think if he touched a sick person or associated with an out-cast. The problem was that his message was too radical for the powers-that-be and they killed him. And the way the Romans took care of that kind of business was to crucify people; thousands of ‘criminals’ suffered that kind of indignity.
Another part of my theology which I now question is the one that humans across the board have rebelled against God (and the part I’ve always struggled with is how those of us living today are condemned under the charge of divine-rebellion-by-association simply because our great-great-great-great-great grandparents literally rebelled against him).
I actually don’t see many people actively rebelling against God.
I’ve blogged many times before about how human civilizations around the world, during every chapter in our history, have all tried to find God. Long before the Egyptian and Babylonian religions which were already well developed when Abram and Sarah set out on a spiritual journey 4,000 years ago … one that would later launch the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths … we have tons of evidence of humans searching for ‘the Great Being.’ We have temple ruins in Gobekli (modern-day Turkey) that go back 12,000 years. In Siberia, we’ve found bones of Homo sapiens dating back 25,000 years ago buried with their Venus figurines. We’ve found even more ancient hominid bones buried with tools or weapons or food, as if they would need those in the afterlife.
It seems that for many tens (hundreds?) of thousands of years we’ve been constantly looking not only to our physical horizons (which is why we kept leaving our African cradle and filling the globe), but we’ve also been constantly looking to the spiritual horizon, searching blindly for ‘the Great Being,’ and coming up with thousands of different religions in the process. Trying to find the divine out of the most meager bits of data that we can possibly gather: our collective experiences and the few divine appearances that some claim to have had.
Even today, I see some people with little or no spiritual up-bringing keen to find out about the spiritual dimension. I see others with no spiritual roots or habits who are just fundamentally good people: the metaphor I often use is the little old lady living next door who never hurt a flea and the worst thing one might say about her is that she occasionally entertains a jealousy of Mildred’s ability to make apple pie.
How then do we say that all humans have universally and utterly rebelled against God?
Yes, I’ll acknowledge that some have blatantly defied God … said categorically that they have no need for a God … or even that given the choice at the pearly gates they would refuse. But that isn’t the universal experience I’ve witnessed.
It seems there’s quite a few more details that need to be worked out when we set aside that literal reading of Genesis.
But that shouldn’t stop us. In the search for truth, sometimes we need to be brave and wade into deeper water.
This blog is already too long to unpack those points here. I’ll pick them up in future posts (the impatient one can check out my second book). But perhaps readers can start a discussion going below … leave your comments or questions below. What do you think? …
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