The Epic of Evolution - Part II

Murray Sheard
Sunday, 22 May 2011

 The Epic of Evolution

Part 2: Sin, Salvation and Christ

Murray Sheard.            Cityside             22nd May 2011


1)            Quick Re-cap

I’ve recently encountered evolution in a new way: in a way I think is starting to deepen my sense of wonder in the world.  The reason is that I’ve started to see it as God’s big story. Not as something that goes against our faith – but not something irrelevant to it either.

I talked last week of how it has been rejected, because the values it seemed to espouse were deeply anti-Christian: random chance; everything about competition; no guided progress or direction; having no room for anything that could be described as a loving holding guiding presence as we understand and experience God to be.

But a newer picture is emerging which challenges that. A picture where the Universe can be relied upon to move toward greater diversity, greater complexity (wholes becoming parts of greater wholes), more interconnectedness, greater awareness, and more intimacy with itself. And that’s a global story than it needed when we look at how current religious stories across the world tend to keep people and whole peoples apart.

Today, I want to look at how it might illuminate what we know of sin and salvation and ask what about Christ?

First, I want to graphically outline the 13.7 billion years of cosmological history. (If you are used to a DJ referring to a song from the 60’s as if it’s from the dawn of time, 13.7 billion years kinda blows the mind.) Illustration: The 13.7 billion year history of the universe as the 13.7 metres across the church. (Aside: if we show that time line as a ‘cosmic century’, the first beings recognisably human (homo habilis) appear .... in the last year, on 25th Dec!!! God incarnates into human form on 25th Dec! kinda like that.

I like to set up the relationship between the genesis story and the Universe story as two languages: Night Language and Day Language.

  • Day Language: the language of facts, objectivity, measurability. Gives us verifiable knowledge of facts.
  • Night Language: The language of poetry, mystery, myth. Expresses our meaning and experience. Nourishes us with images.

Science can unpack in day language the truths which are held, guarded, and engaged in, through night language by religion, art, poetry. Both are needed: How do you do science on poetry or a parent’s love? You can have both so long as you don’t make one do the other’s job: don’t confuse the genres and try to make mythological expression of truth (Genesis) seem like it was intended as a scientific document.

Here’s an example of how day language can help us understand in new ways, what night language is saying,


2             Sin

We have this doctrine of original sin. Original sin is unpopular today because we have a dominant view in the social sciences that nurture trumps nature. Original sin seems to say we are just evil with a capital E, and that’s anathema in Western culture. Under that influence, I used to reject it, but the evolution story has changed my mind.

Also, I’ve always been puzzled by the idea that Original Sin should make us feel guilty! Clearly, the story says it’s not our fault.

So if we look closely, what does original sin say? What’s it trying to tell us about the human condition? Effectively, that somewhere back in our history we have an ancestor common to our humans and because of the actions of that ancestor, we are left with a legacy: Capable of great brilliance and incredible love, but also selfishness, destructive behaviour, addictions, war ....  and we did not cause this but have to live with its consequences.

But then what does Evolution say? How about ... that somewhere back in our history we have an ancestor common to our humans and because of the actions of that ancestor, we are left with a legacy: Capable of great brilliance and incredible love, but also selfishness, destructive behaviour, addictions, war ....  and we did not cause this but have to live with its consequences.

Go figure! Pretty much the same thing. Darwin added something important: he identified the ancestor. A lizard, or the first of Homo-erectus that made their way across the savannah.  It’s a day language equivalent of our night language story.

As Michael Daud points out, the ancients had a powerful and still relevant intuition about the mismatch between our inherited tendencies and the trials faced by symbolic-language using folk born into complex societies. They called it ‘the fall’: It’s a widely understood metaphor affirmed and expanded on by the evolutionary epic. And yet the latter can add detail – in day language. Its tells us more about the human condition – what we are up against. It can help us to look much more clearly and scientifically at the structure of that brain and its history to illuminate the impulse to sin and the impulse to grow.

So why do we have the brain we do? (Quadrune brain – see pic). It was developed over eons.

Reptilian brain: Our “Lizard Legacy”.

Cerebellem and brainstem. Breathing, basic movements and ‘muscle memory’.

Instinctual drives the 4 F of Fight, Flight, Food and…Reproduction. So powerful that when we are traumatised the other parts of our brain have a difficult time being overriding these automatic reactions.

Old-Mammaliam. The ‘Furry Little Mammal’. Limbic system. Reptiles don’t have this. It’s the seat of deep emotions and its health requires sleep and dreams. Mammals must dream or they will die. Important for nurturing young and bonding. This part ramps up our reptilian drive into emotional powerful and conscious imperatives: From the urge to eat to “That chocolate cake smells gooood”; from the urge for sex to “wow, she’s hot”.

Our distant ancestors weren’t tempted by the manufactured feel-good substances we are. Those who are tormented by additions in our brains or loved one’s brains can attst to the sad irony of this mis-match.

New-Mammalian. Neo-cortex. The chatterbox. The part of us that is always talking to itself, worrying about past and future, planning, calculating favours and debts in social groups. Fabulous tool for language and communication. “Monkey Mind” as Buddhists put it – not focusing on the now. It will ramble until either (1) it is called into service by an external situation (why we like problem solving?) or (2) it is engaged in creative or physically demanding task that creates ‘mental flow’, or (3) it is disciplined internally by conscious focus – such as contemplative prayer or meditation.

Pre-Frontal Cortex.“Higher Porpoise”. Behind the eyes. Most recently evolved. Most advanced functions, intentionality, purposefulness, self-awareness and complex decision-making. Helps us decide between competing, mammalian and reptilian drives – with less stress and more conviction. It’s the high-lit land where the products of the mind’s subterranean assembly lines emerge for scrutiny.

As our ancestors developed our brains, we built on the legacy of the lizard, we built on the legacy of the primate – and those are still there, making us act on basic drives. We forget they are really powerful – or think that they shouldn’t be! They influence our behaviour, they are the things that make us do things that we just wish we wouldn’t do. My text last week was Acts 15 when the church had to struggle with integration new truth and freedoms. Today it’s Romans 7. As St Paul says “the things I hate I end up doing”.

If it helps to use the word Sin or Evil, there is no reason not too – especially if we bear in bear that in Hebrew it means to miss the mark (and was very unfortunately mis-translated as ‘sin’, from the High German meaning to “transgress the law”!)

So the fall is literally true. The story of the fall of Adam and Eve carries a profound meaning – something in our history caused a mismatch. Inside our modern skull lies a stone-age mind. Our inherited drives are not always ideally suited to the demands of living an honourable life in a world of words and human institutions. Modern work, affluence, the internet, and chocolate – they all cause temptations that no human had to deal with in the days when our brain evolved. This story adds to the Genesis account by telling us – in day language, why these internal ‘demons’ are such a problem for us. We experience Satan – as very real.

Cartoon: Eat, Survive, Reproduce.


3             Grace / Salvation

Now that’s Sin. What about Grace?

I guess my premise for this is: If what we mean by “the Gospel” doesn’t address in a hopeful, inspiring way what people themselves regard as their greatest personal and collective challenges, then for them, the Christian message will not be ‘salvific’. It will be irrelevant – even damaging.

So… 3 things the evolutionary lens clarifies or emphasises about grace.

(A)        Allows us to Accept Ourselves as God Does

The good news is that this is not your fault! All those brain attributes are part of our nature -> we are not responsible for them being there. But having these big brains also gives the ability to respond, to become aware of our inherited tendencies and choose again. And we can use what we now know out about that brain to actually enhance the bits of us that that work with God. (Rahner – Holy Spirit as the impulse to evolve).

Eg – a man gets a big promotion. This is good right? Well, too often it’s a disaster. He has affairs, is nastier, loses his marriage, loses his job. But if we know - in advance - that because of our genetic inheritance, there’s a massive boost of testosterone that charges reptilian instincts which threaten to take over. This served our ancestors but we live in a very different world. If we know this, we can put support in place first to allow the drive to be directed in more healthy ways.

Evolution helps us comprehend why: The deepest and most difficult to control urges are these in the fortress of the reptilian brain. When they take over, “we” – or the parts we’d rather identify with – are no longer in control. It can feel like an assassin and can destroy our lives. No wonder that in ancient night language, it’s called ‘demonic’.

This helps us to understand the need for Grace: Forcing the shadow side out - “trying to be good” - is utterly unrealistic. We can’t be in denial. We, the human race and the church, are the club of the less than perfect. There’s a profound relief about that.

The bad stuff is in us all, baby. We can start to forgive ourselves the unnecessary parts of our guilt burden.


B)           Allows us to Work with God.

Once we realise this we can relax, begin to accept ourselves – experience God’s forgiveness and start to be more forgiving of others. The new testament was and still is, about moving from guilt and fear to grace and freedom. And if we can better understand why we have this nature, we can better enter the process of becoming better people (‘sanctification’ in traditional language). Realising that these inherited desires are there, they are ours, does not mean we have to do their bidding.

I’ve found it offers real possibilities for transforming our experience – especially when we struggle to understand why our best intentions have not led to best behaviour. Understanding this in day language gives a new power to work with God.

Email: From an 18 year old who had no prior understanding of evolution.

I now put everything into an evolutionary context. “Ok why am I feeling this way? How and why would my 780th great grandmother react to this? Even for the small stuff? If I see one of my room-mates snacking on my jar of pickles, I get this feeling in my stomach like “hey back off, those are mine. Mine . mine!” I want to be laid back and not care but my instincts are so uptight. But knowing this only motivates me to do things that say “F-you” to my evolutionary roots – even tho I do love them.

 “I absolutely love how imperfect and clumsy we humans are. I mean almost any situation can be lightened if we step back and take a look at why we feel the way we do. I love it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

There’s a tradition in the church of the Felix Culpa ‘happy guilt’ – that the fall also was a “fall up”. That the fall opened the space for Christ to act. The tree of good and evil is a superb night-language for the development of the frontal lobes – where we can sort among and override computing impulses. The Fall is a touchstone that marks a fundamental shift in human consciousness – the start of human as conscious of God’s presence permeating the universe.

Brings to ….


C) God’s Grace as Grace Beyond the God-Human Relationship: Cosmic Grace.

God’s Grace is the self-communication and self-offering, of the Holy Mystery in love. God creates to give God’s-self away.

And amazingly, we are the part of the universe most able to receive that! We are the cosmos come to consciousness. The self-consciousness and intelligence we possess as humans is an integral part of the cosmos … so it’s not ours, not just for us…. The universe has intelligence, and quite possibly, we are its leading edge. We are conscious on behalf of all.

And I think that’s at the heart of the religious message. We belong to God first - not just to ourselves - and our response to his/her love in creating us is to love - and so to serve and protect our communities and the world because you protect what you love. To focus on its health and to live in ways that bring it health – because we manifest what we focus on. Our responsibilities to one another are implicitly bound up in this unity. Each is profoundly implicated in the functioning health and fate of each of the other beings on the planet. Anything short of such a big vision leaves us unfulfilled and alienated from God and humanity.

There are some interesting hints of this in the New Testament that we haven’t really known what to do with – e.g “all creation groans...” etc. In Christ’s life, the big story underpinning all others includes death as part of life but that it is not the final reality. Death and resurrection are played out from the star’s supernova to the backyard garden.


4             Christ

In this evolutionary story, Christ is first and prototype of full consciousness of God + full experience of connectedness. A quantum leap in consciousness. He witnessed reality in a new way. The Jewish tradition had discovered God as lover of the world, but Jesus seemed to have a unique lens through which he viewed that love – and so a unique capacity to receive it – which, I believe more and more, is our problem: not that we can’t give but we can’t receive love first.

This clarifies the calling: those who follow must accept as fully as they can, the divine self-communication and self-offering in love (Grace) – that started 13.7 billion years ago and continues today. God was enfleshed in Jesus and wants to be enfleshed in us. In Jesus we recognise our true nature.

In evolution you get a sense that what we have is not just for us but us to be moulded, improved and passed forward. Jesus, without having the language for it, seems to have got that: a dynamic way of living that embraces all of humanity and an organic whole – as parts of ourselves.

The only way we can move from alienation to wholeness, denial to recovery, from guilt to empowerment, is by following the deeply integrous path that Jesus incarnated.: humble faith, courageous authenthicity, compassionate responsibility, and loving service. When we trust like Jesus, love like Jesus, and serve the whole like Jesus, we know heaven.


5             End

The epic of evolution gives us a story to hold and transcend our tribal stories. Family -> Religion -> Pan human and global.

What fueled Jesus – and he made this clear over and over again – was his connection to the Holy. For me, I’m finding that an Evolutionary view draws me closer to the Holy, because it draws me to see God’s presence in more and more of life - in the garden, in the way relationships work, grow and change.

And that also brings me back to Acts 15 – and looking forward. What then is an evolutionary theology calling us to? (One of the reasons I’m into this). The calling is to the power of waking up to deep time and acceptance of its implications: deep time of the past – accepting our inherited nature, and also deep time of the future. – our full responsibility for ensuring a just, health, beautiful sustainable culture and planet.

We are responsible for whether we put in place structures of support and accountability that will strengthen the positive drives within us. We bring the valuable parts of the old into the future – and leave behind the ‘mal-adaptive’ as much as is possible. That’s what it means to evolve.

So here’s the challenge: If we – as a culture – continue to ignore our brain heritage and don’t place internal and external structures that encourage ‘higher purpose’, we will always have the evil side dominate.

So membership of a community, and in particular of a church, needs to come to mean this: We know that the desire to sin cannot be washed away by a dunk in a luke-warm bath and the church has never thought so. Rather membership and baptisms are also acts of commitment by the community to lovingly guide the individual thorough life’s stages and challenges, using all the awareness and wisdom – in night and day language – that God continues to reveal to us. To provide structures of education and support so we don’t have to struggle alone with our demons.

Because the good news in the gospel shows that when just one person brings those possibilities fully into the world, those around him can be transformed. And he still calls to us …  “follow me”.