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The Study of Life, Part 5. My Search for the Meaning of Life as I Walked in Darwin’s Footsteps

In the preparation required to write my new book on eternal life, I soon discovered that this subject raised all of the contemporary theological issues that threaten to destroy Christianity as we have known it. It was clear that I would have to turn the traditional religious approach around. I had to read the modern critics for whom the religious concepts of the past make no sense. I also had to come to a new understanding of what life itself means. Life after death cannot possibly be contemplated until one understands the wondrous and even mysterious dimensions of life before death. That study resulted in two immediate insights. First, I discovered the drive to survive deep in every specimen of life from the rainforests to human beings. Second, I found all life to be deeply interrelated and even linked through DNA. Armed with this information I now faced the fact that the work of Charles Darwin had rendered the basic tenets of traditional religion so suspect that if I were to speak of life after death with any credibility I would have to find a new starting place, perhaps outside of or beyond religion itself. I could no longer employ any concept of God that had reigned in religious circles since the birth of religion. Since most people’s idea of God is that of an external supernatural being ruling over the world, they would inevitably see the path I would be walking as a move into atheism, something about 180 degrees different from what I was in fact trying to communicate. I would also have to dismiss any concept of life after death based on the behavior controls of eternal reward and punishment, and that is the primary content of most religious ideas of life after death. As I embraced these conclusions, I also understood just why Darwinism and traditional religion were such mortal enemies. If Darwin was right, religion in general, and Christianity in particular, was wrong on almost every level. In this column I want to look briefly at the content of that struggle. To move beyond it I must understand it.

The first flash point in the conflict between Darwin and Christianity was centered on the authority of scripture. Evolution did not jibe in any detail with the biblical story of creation. The time line in the Bible was quite different from the time line that Darwin was utilizing. This was so even though Darwin was not yet aware of the actual age of the Earth at 4.7 billion years or the age of life at 3.8 billion years. Second, the Bible attributed the varieties of species to the divine initiative; Darwin to natural selection. Third, the Bible saw human life as a special creation, not related to anything else, while Darwin saw it as evolving out of other forms of life.

The scripture part of the debate was not as strong in intellectual Christian circles as the traditionalists thought, because a critical study of the Bible had been initiated inside the Church, primarily in Germany, some 50 years prior to Darwin’ writings. In 1835, David Friedrich Strauss had published his monumental work, Leben Jesu, which had been translated into English in 1846 under the title The Life of Jesus Critically Examined by George Eliot, the author of Silas Marner and the pen name of Mary Ann Evans. For traditional Christians, Strauss’ work was a deeply disturbing book, since it revealed not only the contradictions in the gospel tradition but the very human way in which the gospels had been written. It was clear to Strauss and his colleagues that no angel had guided Matthew’s hand in writing his gospel, as the popular art of the day portrayed. Matthew had rather copied about 90% of Mark into his text. In the process he had added to, deleted from and even changed some of Mark’s ideas. In the non-academic ranks, however, the Bible-based condemnation of Darwin had much longer to run, even after someone suggested that each day in the Genesis creation story “might have been a billion years.”

By 1910, a group of Presbyterian divines centered around Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey decided to mount a counterattack against Darwin in the name of defending “traditional Bible-based Christianity.” A series of pamphlets, about 500,000 per printing, were published on a regular basis over a five-year period and distributed to Christian leaders around the world. The pamphlets, financed by the Union Oil Company of California (UNOCAL) in the first known instance of an alliance between the oil industry and right-wing religion, were called “The Fundamentals” and through them, the words “fundamentalist” and “fundamentalism” entered our vocabulary. As a direct result of these pamphlets, all of America’s mainline churches began to show a split between their fundamentalist members and those who came to be called “modernists.” While the pamphlets polarized the churches, they did little to push back the Darwinian tide.

The next public battlefield between Darwin and traditional religion took place in the unlikely spot of Clayton, Tennessee, in the year 1925, when a young science teacher named John Scopes was recruited by the American Civil Liberties Union to challenge openly a state law in Tennessee forbidding the teaching of anything in the public schools of Tennessee that was contrary to “the word of God found in the Holy Scriptures.” That trial captured the attention of the nation since it was covered by every major newspaper in America, to say nothing of the fledgling and still somewhat static-filled radio industry. John Scopes was found guilty and fined $100. The fine was never paid. The effect of the trial, however, was once again to bring the insights of Charles Darwin into the awareness of the general public in a massive way. It also served to begin the split in this nation on social issues that was destined to pit the urban Northeast and West coast of America against the heartland of the South and the Midwest, the precursor of the blue states versus the red states of the George W. Bush era. Truth, however, is never really stopped because it is threatening or inconvenient to a previous way of thinking.

Next, from embattled religious leaders came the “Creation Science Movement,” reaching its high-water mark in 1970 when it bought pressure on Washington’s Smithsonian Institution to close an exhibition on “The Dynamics of Evolution.” Failing that, they wanted a countering exhibition on creation science to be presented so that “truth could be balanced.” That too failed, and ultimately the Supreme Court dismissed creation science as unconstitutional under the separation of church and state provision of the constitution. Still not willing to accept defeat, critics of evolution repackaged creation science under the new banner of “Intelligent Design,” only to have that ploy also dismissed by the courts. Darwinism was clearly here to stay.

With the literal Bible no longer at the heart of the conflict, it slowly began to dawn on the wider Christian consciousness that a much deeper threat to traditional religion had now been loosed upon them. If Darwin was correct then the basic Christian myth had made assumptions that were no longer true. There was no “perfect creation” from which human life could fall into original sin. If there had been no fall, there was no need for a divine rescue operation carried out by Jesus on the cross. Salvation could no longer mean being restored to a status that human life had never possessed. Instead of being “fallen sinners” we were incomplete human beings. We did not need to be redeemed, we needed to be called and empowered to become more deeply and fully human. Pioneering Christian theologians began to wrestle with these ideas, but whenever these ideas achieved public notice the status quo ecclesiastical authorities attacked them vigorously. In the early years of the 20th century thinkers like Alfred North Whitehead sought to redefine God more as “a process than as a being.” A Roman Catholic priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, became the first religious figure to seek to reconcile God and evolution in his book The Phenomenon of Man. The Vatican responded by indexing his works. Reformed theologian Paul Tillich, writing in the 1940’s and 1950’s, built on these ideas by suggesting that there was a “God beyond the Gods of men and women” and he began to refer to God not as “a being” but as “the Ground of Being.” Next came the “God is Dead” theologians in the 1960’s as the supernatural, theistic concept of God became less and less believable. They were followed by the work of two Anglican bishops, John A. T. Robinson in Great Britain and James A. Pike in America. For their efforts both were marginalized and finally squeezed out by their respective churches. The external, supernatural and invasive God, however, was seen to be in inevitable collapse.

We live today in the midst of this transition. Those who cannot see the problem and who seem to think that all one has to do is to recite the old formulas loudly and they will be believable have become the fundamentalists. They come in both a Catholic and a Protestant form. Those who do see the problem are now convinced that religion is dying or has already died. They become the secularists who get on with the task of living creatively in a godless world. Most of them have been drawn from the “main line” churches, which are all in a statistical freefall.

Darwin removed God from the day-to-day workings of our world. He redefined human life biologically as one species of the animal kingdom, finite creatures destined for a fate no different from the sheep of New Zealand or the iguanas of the Galapagos. If that proved to be an accurate definition then traditional religion with its theistic concept of God could not survive. No artificial respiration will resuscitate a concept that is not in touch with established knowledge. Either we have reached the end of religion as a human enterprise or we have to find a new way to approach both human life and whatever we mean by transcendence. A record-keeping theistic deity, who metes out reward and punishment in order to control behavior, is simply no longer viable. This is not an insignificant crisis. No, I am not prepared to reject Christianity, but I am prepared to rethink its meaning in a radical way, so radical that traditional Christians may feel that all that they once believed was holy is now being taken away from them.

To analyze the possibilities for a new Christianity designed to live without apology in this new world will be my task in the column next week.
– John Shelby Spong

Review & Commentary