“Darwin, Hubble, and God: Exploring Theologies of ‘the Fall’ in Light of Modern Science” by Sheri Kling

In her recent address to the Claremont School of Theology, Phyllis Tickle put on the table several key issues that must be addressed if the mainline church hopes to speak to the needs of those who are more aligned with the Emergent religious movement than they are with traditional organized religion. Primarily, she said, the church must compellingly describe the nature of both atonement and  the human being, as well as provide some understanding of where God or Spirit is present visibly, corporately, and repeatedly in the world.[1]

My own need to have these questions addressed became more pointed after I was mesmerized by an exhibit of images in Midway Airport in Chicago taken by the Hubble telescope. Waves of emotion flooded me as I stared into the birthplaces of stars. A later viewing of the Hubble 3D movie convinced me that here we humans are—a speck of dust species, on a speck of dust planet, in a speck of dust solar system, in a galaxy amongst an endless array of galaxies—and for us to even consider that anything we did thousands of years ago could, as Julian wrote Augustine, change “the structure of the universe”[2] by bringing death and suffering into the world through sin is as ludicrous an idea as was ever proposed. Moreover, in light of evolutionary theory, it is, as John Bimson suggests, “a nonsense.”[3]

In his book God After Darwin, John Haught writes that “evolution’s implications for theology are enormous,” and credits John Polkinghorne with expressing that “contemporary scientific advances in astronomy and physics place the whole story of life on our planet in an entirely new light.”[4]

Yet it seems that most Christians who accept evolution generally espouse fairly standard old-school theology; certainly nothing that is “dramatically changed” in light of evolution or recent discoveries in astronomy. Have they thought through the implications of natural selection? If evolution’s “elements of chance” and “blind selections in the unfolding of life” have the leading role, Haught argues, “the Darwinian picture makes traditional ideas of a caring and almighty God seem superfluous and possibly incoherent.”[5]

Yet, for the most part, Haught writes that theology has been “ill-prepared for evolution,” and has failed to “reflect deeply the divine pathos,” refusing to “recapture the tragic aspects of divine creativity.”[6] Contemporary religious thought has yet to make a complete transition to a post-Darwinian world. To a great extent, theologians still think and write as though Darwin had never lived.”[7]

The silence of the mainstream church on these matters is deafening, and I think the longer we stay silent the more Americans will find no reason to go to church. Moreover, I think this silence has created a “less perfect union”–spiritually, politically, and ecologically. My goals in this paper are to survey recent scholarship, especially regarding the doctrine of “the fall” and theological anthropology and to outline four faulty assumptions we continue to make, which create an ever deeper divide between religion and science in America. Finally, I will offer some alternatives to these assumptions.

One of the areas most directly in conflict with evolution is the traditional understanding of “the fall.” As Bimson writes, “the evolution of Homo sapiens from more primitive hominids is incompatible with the idea that the first human beings fell from a state of perfection.”[8] Neil Messer believes Darwinianism makes belief in a historical fall “implausible” and that it is “dauntingly difficult to attribute all of the world’s evil to original sin” because “the suffering, death, and extinction associated with the evolutionary process went on for billions of years before humans appeared on the scene and started sinning.”[9]

Philip Clayton writes that a belief in a “primordial paradise…flies in the face of the bulk of what we have been able to ascertain about the nature of the biosphere.”[10]

Bimson lists Tillich, Hick, Brueggemann, and Southgate as those who see the fall as an analysis of the “universal human condition;” and Polkinghorne, Berry, Ward, Schwager, and Alexander as those who hold to a “historical fall” as “indispensable,” while he occupies a middle ground insisting the narrative is more substantive than an etiology that can be dismissed as primitive.[11]

Ian Barbour describes humanity as falling short “of fulfilling our creative potentialities” and sees the Genesis story as a “powerful symbolic expression of human sinfulness, where sin is understood as self-centeredness and estrangement from God and other people—and, we might add, from the world of nature.”[12]

Yet the real theological hurdle is put in stark terms by Peter Bowler,

“If Christians accepted that humanity was the product of evolution – even assuming that the process could be seen as the expression of the Creator’s will – then the whole idea of Original Sin would have to be reinterpreted. Far from falling from an original state of grace in the Garden of Eden, we have risen gradually from our animal origins. And if there was no Sin from which we needed salvation, what was the purpose of Christ’s agony on the cross? Christ became merely the perfect man who showed us what we could all hope to become when evolution finished its upward course. Small wonder that many conservative Christians—and not just the American fundamentalists—argued that such a transformation had destroyed the very foundation of their faith.”[13]

It is clear that we cannot skirt this question. In recent years, theologians have taken various perspectives on the creation story in the Garden, which I review below.

Bimson helpfully points out in neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament is what happened in Gen. 3 ever referred to as a “fall.” The only place such language appears is in 4 Ezra, an apocryphal text, and there only to describe humans’ “fall from potential immortality.” On the other hand, it is clear the story “speaks of a real disruption at the start of the human story,” because, Bimson asserts, “things are not as God intended.”  He believes that the theme of Genesis 3:11 shows that the “originating sin” became “original, that is, universal and inescapable…” and so “fall” language is appropriate.[14] Yet he points out that what is “fallen” is often “essential;” that the “goodness” and the “fallenness” of creation are “entangled;” and that though they can be distinguished, they cannot be separated.[15]

If there were truly an “originating sin”—meaning an event that marked an ontological change from “pre-sin” humans to “post-sin” humans—when could this have happened? Scientists believe the universe was born almost 15 billion years ago[16], that the Earth was formed 4.6 billion years ago, that multicellular life emerged 1 billion years ago, and that mammals developed about 65 million years ago. Our ancestors Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis appeared nearly two million years ago and anatomically modern humans a mere 200,000 years ago.[17] Were Cro-Magnons sinners from the beginning? How about Neanderthals?

Read the rest of the article here.

Image from Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of NASA. 

[1] Phyllis Tickle, “Emerging Christianity: An Interim Report” (presented at the Alumni/ae and Friends Day, Claremont School of Theology, March 21, 2012)

[2] Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity (New York: Vintage, 1989), 110

[3] John J. Bimson, “Doctrines of the Fall and Sin After Darwin,” in Theology After Darwin, ed. R.J. Berry and Michael S. Northcott (Colorado Springs: Paternoster, n.d.), 113

[4] John F. Haught, God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution, Second ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2007), 3

[5] Ibid, 3

[6] Ibid, 6

[7] Ibid, 2

[8] Bimson, “Doctrines of the Fall and Sin After Darwin,” 106

[9] Neil Messer, “Natural Evil After Darwin,” in Theology After Darwin, ed. R.J. Berry and Michael S. Northcott (Colorado Springs, CO: Paternoster, 2009), 143

[10] Philip D. Clayton, God and Contemporary Science (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997), 39

[11] Bimson, “Doctrines of the Fall and Sin After Darwin,” 106–7

[12] Ian G. Barbour, When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners? (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 133

[13] R.J. Berry and Michael S. Northcott, eds., Theology After Darwin (Colorado Springs, CO: Paternoster, 2009), 2

[14] Bimson, “Doctrines of the Fall and Sin After Darwin,” 109–10

[15] Messer, “Natural Evil After Darwin,” 147–9

[16] Sallie McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 41

[17] Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, What Is Life?, 1st ed. (Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000), 62–80

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2 thoughts on ““Darwin, Hubble, and God: Exploring Theologies of ‘the Fall’ in Light of Modern Science” by Sheri Kling

  1. Ms. Kling,
    This is an excellent and thought provoking article. I am presently reading “Emergent Christ” by Ileo Delia which addresses many of the same questions but arrives at more presumptuous answers about our place in the scheme of things.

    Your article has really fired my mind and I wanted to make several comments.

    I take a Christian Existentialist view of things. We ARE “fallen” even by our own measure. It seems to be in our nature as evolved animals to willfully chose “hamartia”, “missing the mark”. But at the same time we are influenced by the nurture of a human community marred by collective hamartia.

    As for God’s responsibility for the way the universe is, well, it is what it is. And believing what Jesus and the prophets taught about the goodness of God and her love for us I can only assume it is the best of all possible worlds that we are in.

    Did God just make the world for us? I doubt it, but I also doubt she made it just for herself. The universe is so fecund I’m sure the Spirit plays in a billion places.

    Does God expect us to be perfect? Yes, but only in love. Matthew 5:48 says. The standard translation of Matthew 5:48 is “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” But the Greek word being translated as perfect is “téleioi” more accurately means “fully developed” or “complete”. Taken in context of Mat 5:43-48 paragraph on loving your enemies and it becomes clear that the Common English Bible translation is more accurate since it reads:

    Mat 5:44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you …. 48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.

    Lastly, the deutero-canonical book of the Septuagint “The Wisdom of Solomon” describes Wisdom who is the female personification of God and God’s Spirit. It’s cosmology is ancient but the principle insights about God’s relation to her creation are timeless. Below are quotes from Wisdom chapters 7 and 11.

    Wisdom Chapter 7
    24 For Wisdom is more mobile than any motion;
    because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things…
    27 Although she is but one, she can do all things,
    and while remaining in herself, she renews all things;
    in every generation she passes into holy souls
    and makes them friends of God, and prophets.

    Wisdom Chapter 11
    24 For you love all things that exist,
    and detest none of the things that you have made,
    for you would not have made anything if you had hated it…
    26 You spare all things, for they are yours, O Lord, you who love the living.

  2. Hi Sheri,

    Wonderfully written and thought provoking article. I find myself questioning your premise. I feel that evolutionary theory, and science broadly, has indeed deeply affected Christian belief and theology.

    It goes beyond simply accepting evolution as true. When you write, “most Christians who accept evolution generally espouse fairly standard old-school theology,” on what do you base that? Where are the numbers, what surveys (or believers, or of the literature) did you base this on?

    In my experience, as a polytheist priest who works closely both with Christians in interfaith work, and with former Christians seeking a new path, evolution and cosmology have had two main effects on Christian belief.

    The first is a theological shift toward non-literalism. Christians don’t have to disregard the story of the Garden and the Fall as nonsense if they regard it as mere allegory. With this concession the entire narrative of a loving God, an ethically flawed but redeemable Humanity, and a promise of salvation can all continue on in harmony with science. That is exactly how many Christians take it, and it’s why they insist to me that Christianity and science are completely compatible.

    In this view, the only threat evolutionary theory presents to Christian belief is in the form of minds like Messer or Bimson who mis-cast Christianity so narrowly as to create a false impression that it can’t marry science.

    However, they have a point in that Christianity has historically insisted on the literal truth of its scripture. As a polytheist, I view this as Christianity’s great weaknesses; an increasing number of progressive Christians share my sentiment. The stories of, say, Zeus and Hera have always been best presented as having only metaphorical lessons, but literalism has been so heavily stressed in Christianity that many can’t give it up. Having metaphorical scripture seems, to many, like having no real scripture at all.

    And that’s where we get the second shift in Christian theology, which I would suggest is an exodus from Christianity altogether. The number of young people who consider themselves non-religious or unaffiliated is rising. This may not itself look like a change in theology, but if one is asking where are the new theologians who address the issue of evolution, the answer is clear: they are the atheists, humanists, secularists, Buddhists and pagans who have left Christianity altogether and addressed its theological rigidity by walking out.

    So I think the shift is happening on two levels, with many comfortable Christians simply taking the Book less literally while their kids roll their eyes and leave, either to a secular worldview or to other religions that seem more relevant.

    It’s the perception of literalism, not any real conflict between Christian worship and science, that is leaving churches in the dust.

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