Here are a collection of short essays that arose out of the Evolving Biology, Evolving Theology talks that we presented.
By Tim Beattie
“In the beginning…” These words start the Genesis story of creation and also start the accepted mainstream science story of the origin of the Universe. Despite the best efforts of respected scientists in the early 20th century (including Einstein) to support a universe that was in “steady state”, all the evidence pointed to a beginning. Instead of stars coming into being, burning and then exploding to create new stars, the Universe had a definite start. (This of course raises the perennial question, what happened before the Big Bang?)
After about 10 billion years our own solar system formed – a modest star in a modest galaxy having a planet in orbit that had all the conditions for life. All of the key elements were present and water could exist as solid, liquid and gas. It only took an, as yet undetermined, event for the chemical soup to start on a self-perpetuating cycle of life, reproduction and death through the single-celled organism. After a few billion years of their ubiquitous reign, something happened for the single celled creatures to become more complex and to become multi-celled creatures. After that time it has been a relatively rapid avalanche of progress through the development of plant and animal species.
Even with five or six mass extinctions we still see today a vast and diverse array of plants and animals. And of course we see the existence of the one species that has the capacity to understand much of it and to wonder at its origins and its meaning.
Hand in hand with our growing knowledge about the mechanics of biology, physics and chemistry has gone our desire for understanding of the purpose of life and the universe. Our evolving scientific knowledge has informed us about the beauty of the cosmos and has yet to diminish the thirst in many for an understanding of the Creator.
These are the questions that Science does not try to answer and we search for our answers through prayer, meditation, reading the sacred text and interaction with others.
Our Evolving Lives
By Lyn & Tim Beattie
The verb ‘to evolve’ is one of the most beautiful words in the English language. It means to develop, mature, move forward, grow, open out, unfold, unroll, expand, enlarge, extend. The word holds the connotation that this unfolding, this unfurling, will happen gradually with a pace of development which is slow and natural. As things evolve – whether it be a part of nature or our understanding of what it means to be human – the changes come gently and are usually accompanied with a sense of anticipation and gratitude. We see the new thing, or new thought, arriving and are ready to receive it with celebration at the coming of something that we have waited for and pre-empted. There are no shocks or traumatic shifts with an unfolding. The unfurling of a fern is a predictable and controlled growth experience like coming to know a great truth slowly; gradually over time.
So, the development of life on earth has experienced long periods of unfolding as species have evolved certain traits and the environment has either favoured these characteristics or rejected them. Size, colour, function, intellect and many, many other aspects of living creatures can be judged ‘good’ and carried on into the next timeframe or ‘unworthy’ and left behind. There have also been cataclysms (sudden events of an extreme nature) including ice-ages that have suddenly cut off whole branches of species like some kind of cosmic gardener let loose with large secateurs. Other species then take over the dominant narrative from the dormant nodes of earlier stories considered dead and buried. This has been the dance of evolution on the earth over millions and millions of years.
And here we are today. Humans are the dominant species on earth. Some think this happened by chance, others wish we were not quite so dominant, and still others consider it quite miraculous (aided by the intentional hand of the Divine).
Like Dr Brian Cox, I think it was in some mysterious way INEVITABLE.
By David Sullivan
Deity in the ancient world
Interest in and worship of deity are probably as old as humanity itself. The ancients had stories about their various understandings of the deity, stories which have been powerfully influential on communities and cultures right down to the present day. I suggest that the constancy of the interest in deities and their stories in history, however, suggests a deep need within humanity for something transcendent that will help people make sense of the world as it is.
Deity of the ancient world was most commonly understood in terms of multiple gods or goddesses. The ancients also believed that the origins of the deity and of the cosmos were closely connected. The sun and moon and stars, for example, were often depicted as gods. In one well-known creation myth of ancient Babylon, the Enuma Elish, deities emerged out of the primordial waters, and the heavens and the earth were ultimately formed out of the carcass of one of the deities slain by another.
Ancient cultures understood the origins of the cosmos in what is best described as functional terms. People in the ancient world believed that something existed not be virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function within an ordered systems (John Walton). (In our modern world, because of the huge increase in scientific knowledge, we tend to think of existence primarily in material terms.) The author of Genesis, being an ancient, was no different from his or her contemporary world in having a functional understanding of what it meant for something to exist.
The ancient deities were not unlike human beings, with similar daily routines, desires, needs, and moods. Their anatomy was also similar, being equipped for sex and childbearing. Human beings in almost all of the ancient creation stories were made by the gods to be slaves for the gods, in which their role was to satisfy the needs and whims of the gods. Humanity, then, was not highly valued, and sacrifices to appease the gods often included human sacrifice, including sacrifice of children.
The Deity of the Bible
In the book of Genesis and the books that follow in the Old Testament we find a very different story from other ancient texts about the deity. Whilst the cosmology of Genesis is very similar to that of other ancient texts (e.g. flat earth with a dome over the earth to hold the waters), Genesis has a very different understanding of deity. Genesis 1 describes the construction of the cosmos as a temple. The deity, whilst deeply and lovingly involved in the running of the cosmos, remains separate. In the Genesis creation account, the cosmos, whilst not divine, is sacred.
It was common amongst the religions of the ancient world to place an image of the deity in the temple to represent the deity. Genesis is no different. The deity places an image in the cosmic temple, but in this case the image is the human person, whether male or female. The role of human beings as image bearers is to have dominion over and care sacrificially for the world.
In being made in the image of the deity each human being is exalted by the deity. Humans are not made as slaves to meet the needs of the deity, for the deity has no needs.
What is the deity of the Old Testament like?
It is clear from the foregoing that the deity of the Old Testament is unlike the deities of other ancient religions. The fundamental characteristic of this deity is goodness. Everything this deity has created is good, in fact very good, implying that the deity is also good. The goodness of this deity is manifested in blessing, particularly in the blessing of humanity (Genesis 1:28). The goodness of this deity is also manifested in steadfast love (psalm 36:5), compassion, as rescuer of humanity, and wrath against injustice. Some, like the atheist Richard Dawkins, may describe the deity of the Old Testament in negative terms, for example, as genocidal, or as a bully, but this does not square with the descriptions of the Old Testament itself.
Stories have a powerful influence on communities, nations and cultures. The stories of deities are no different. The question of deity addresses questions about the world, why it is like it is, who we are, and what our role in the cosmos is. We owe it to ourselves to take the subject of deity seriously. The question will be, then, which story makes the most sense to us, offers the most satisfying explanation for the world as we know it, and offers hope for the future. And perhaps not knowing where all that might take me, am I willing to take the chance of going down that road?
By Tim & Lyn Beattie
Scriptures tell us that ‘God is the same yesterday, today and forever’. The Divine’s character is ‘Faithful and True’ and able to be relied upon while the world around us changes. The seasons of life and nature create the experience of constantly ‘shifting sands’ in our mortal human lives. We struggle sometimes with our own adjustments and the way our closest relationships evolve and change with the passing of time on earth.
However, relationships must evolve; to remain vital, they must unfurl, grow, change, mature. Imagine a romantic relationship continuing forever in the high-energy state of obsession with one glorious (but in reality, flawed) human being. If nothing else, the limbic system would ‘burn out’. Meaningful relationships, whether they be friendships, parent-child or lover partnerships, must develop with time. So, what of our relationship with the Divine?
The Christian narrative tells us that in the beginning, when humans were freshly evolved (and/or created), God declared his/her delight in us: ‘very good’ and ‘made in my image; male and female’. We began to make choices; some were good, some were bad and some were ugly. Like an attentive parent of a young child, the Divine watched over us protectively, guided us and allowed us to discover our world in safety. We were taught consequences and given rules (or laws) to help us make good choices and be kind to one another. The earth provided what humans needed to grow and develop into adulthood under the watchful eye of a loving Creator. God spoke through nature, dreams, burning bushes, misty mountains, prophet/esses and even a donkey!
And then a time was reached when the Divine chose to presence her/himself alongside those image-bearers in human flesh. Jesus Christ was born as a baby onto the earth as fully human and fully God, and the Divine was now dwelling in human flesh amongst the people he/she loved. This was an intentional step (or evolution) towards intimacy; the distance between a perfectly loving God and mortal imperfect humans was being eroded. Christ lived, died and rose again to bridge that gap and secure a guiltless friendship between humankind and the Creator. People could now freely receive/give devotion in relationship with God based solely on belief in Christ and the love of God shown through him. And surely, this would have been enough for us.
But the Divine had even more generosity planned for us. When Christ returned to the heavenly realms, the Spirit (God’s Holy Spirit, the Spirit that was in Christ) was sent to the earth to dwell within each person that chose to have faith in Christ, the God-person. The Spirit was given to comfort, guide, teach, counsel and be a guarantor of God’s eternal life within us. This level of intimacy between humans and the Divine is extraordinary and I am often overwhelmed by the deep respect and honour that has been given to us. Along with the constant companionship of the Spirit, God has also given us advocacy through prayer, spiritual gifts and the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc).
I am greatly moved and thankful for the way God has chosen to evolve his/her relationship with human beings over time. My hope is that we may all continue to grow into this profound love relationship with our Maker, and that the freedom intended for us becomes a reality.
God of the Gaps
By Lyn Beattie
As we have come to understand our world differently through science and knowledge, we have also come to perceive the Divine differently. The patterns of ‘the heavenly bodies’ are governed by the rules of physics and do not require the hand of God to literally move them around each day. The water cycle does its thing and rain waters our crops, snow fills the mountaintops, mist rests in the valleys. We have seasons because of the tilt of the earth. We heal from meningitis because we have antibiotics. We enjoy biodiversity because we protect (and nourish) the habitat of other species. All these activities were considered the direct responsibility of God at various times in human history and He/She was worshiped based on the belief that the character of the Divine was linked to these activities on a regular basis. So, if the rains came, ‘God was pleased with us’. If the rains did not come, ‘God was punishing us’. If our child healed from fever, ‘God’s favour was upon us’, but if they died, ‘God has removed His/Her favour from us’.
So much of what we now understand as natural law was attributed to the direct action of the Divine in previous times. And, many people extrapolate this to presume that science will eventually eradicate any need for God at all. They believe that ‘the God of the gaps’ will disappear altogether.
My problem with this kind of thinking is that it presumes that the Divine Being exists primarily to perform tasks; tasks that we humans cannot or will not attend to. What if this is not true? One of the modern beliefs in the West that I find most extraordinary is that which belittles the Divine to being subject to the whims and fickleness of human creation/opinion. If God/dess does in fact exist, I suggest that He/She has a self-defined set of character traits, and also determines what daily activities and interactions are deserving of His/Her personal attention.
People who believe ‘the God of the gaps’ is dying simply because the Divine is not directly involved with the things that we previously believed He/She was about, perhaps need to alter their thinking about God/dess. Maybe the Divine is about other things? Maybe S/He sees different gaps? Maybe S/He is about relationship? Maybe S/He is about Love?