The Gospel According to Darwin

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From time to time, I have the pleasure of engaging in conversation with my Christian brothers and sisters on the subject of evolution. “On the Origin of Species” hasn’t made it into canonical scripture (much to Darwin’s dismay I would imagine), but about as many Christians who have read their Bibles (and understand its origin) seems to be about the same as the faithful’s readership with regard to the good news of Darwin – not very many.

Earlier this week, I had a conversation with a Christian that went something like this. It started off with a discussion centred on contradictions in the Bible, and very quickly narrowed towards a debate on whether or not God really did create man (in this case, Adam – which by the way, wasn’t really the guy’s name, but rather turns out to mean, figuratively, “made from the red,” in Hebrew – as in mud, or clay – no doubt an attempt by God to employ the pun as one of his original literary devices), as told in the Genesis account, and that if you believed that, reconciling yourself to the assertion that man descended somehow from monkeys obviously couldn’t be true. Well, Darwin didn’t really claim that man evolved directly from monkeys, or any other animal for that matter, but that over time, original life (which, much to our disappointment, despite God’s obvious favouritism, doesn’t appear, by all accounts, likely to be us) adapted to the environment and changed in a process he called natural selection. It’s the same unnatural process we humans used to “evolve” toy poodles from the wild wolf (some may be surprised to learn that Noah didn’t include the family Shih Tzu in his ark’s cargo manifest), the primary difference being that the selection process in nature arises from a species ability to change, or evolve, in order to adapt and survive in the environment in which it lives, and occurs over a much longer expanse of time through many successive generations. (To my scientific friends, I apologize now for the pitifully presented, but pithy, attempt to oversimplify the concept – and to my canine friend who truly does see me as God, I’m sorry to burst your bubble pup). The objection to this idea is sometimes based on the authority of the Bible, and how it addresses the question of origin of the species. After all, if it truly IS the inspired word of God, the creator Himself, it’s got to have the story right. Right?

Evolutionists (usually pronounced with an inflective sneer), as proponents of Darwin’s explanation have come to be called, understandably find themselves frustrated – their gospel being just as misunderstood in many cases as those of their brothers of the faith. Who wants to argue with God, after all? If the Bible is the unchanging, unalterable and authoritative divine source many Christians believe it is (and sometimes desperately hope to be so, unless on occasion it happens to inconveniently run counter to one’s desired interpretation), it should be the last word on the matter (or the first, depending on how you look at it), right?

Scientific evidence, observation, experiment, analysis, and knowledge aside, and assuming that Darwin’s gospel is nothing more than a trick of the devil in disguise (those funny monkeys), if you’re going to rely on Biblical authority to denounce the theory, you’d think that the concept of an evolving, adaptive, changing process capable of producing distinct species shouldn’t apply to it either. The fact is that what we call our Bible, is a modern day species of scripture that has indeed undergone an evolutionary process. It’s changed over time, undergone mutations, adapted to society, knowledge, language and the medium of its existence and preservation. It’s transformed itself from single celled scriptures to complex arrangements, and it’s diversified and reproduced generations of sophisticated, complex systems of theology that we have today. It’s left behind its own fossil trail. Compared to our “modern” Bible species, its ancient ancestors appear primitive, almost as though they could have been written by monkeys – in its earliest forms, fragile scribbles of archaic Greek written on animal skins or papyrus, the Bible wasn’t available with evolved features like chapters, verses, and even punctuation, noticeably absent from its structure. The story has changed as well, in small incremental ways, and sometimes in dramatic and far more significant ways – under selective pressures ranging from the skill of a scribe’s hand to decisions made by more intentional human interventions that radically shaped the canon we bring to church with us on Sundays in the modern age, arriving not like it says we humans did, instantly from the dust of the earth, but over time, and many, many changes. The Bible, though it may well be the inspired Word, is itself, a product of an evolutionary process. If you’re still in doubt, try reading your grandmother’s King James version of the book, or better yet, the Latin edition of the Codex Vaticanus if you prefer a more continental flavour.

I hear Christians, and sometimes Pastors and preachers, insisting, and using, the Bible as a ready made hand me down that came to us directly by way of God’s Amazon account – sort of like how God downloaded the Ten Commandments directly to Moses’ tablet at the time (which no doubt worked as well as my iPad). The fact is that what we know and love as our Bible was constructed, painfully, over centuries, from an assortment of fragments, scattered across much of the European and Asian continent, which had to be stitched together, translated, and copied by hand in cold dark monasteries in secluded parts of remote Ireland when the Vikings weren’t pillaging, middle eastern caves and Roman sewers. During much of the time they were written, having a copy laying around on your coffee table might have landed you a swift execution for treason. The real miracle is that any of it survived to the modern day at all. It’s a miracle shared with mankind, and the species we call human.

Regardless of your faith, or what you believe, or don’t, I encourage you to seek out the reasons for what you believe, to understand the lens that you use to magnify and illuminate your beliefs, the context in which they evolved, and most importantly, to enjoy and develop a passion for inquiry and the true freedom of faith that arises from the truth.

It will set you free.

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The Gospel According to Darwin