(lenten) thinking out loud, i: Scripture and the Resurrection in light of the deep history of life on earth

Alongside occasional posts outlining, in quite ‘uncooked’ and sporadic form, some of the current directions of my thought in relation to things like the history of technology and technics (particularly in relationship to the Islamicate world and our relationship to objects and bodies of historical inheritance therefrom in the present), at least during Lent this year I’d like to offer up some reflections, also quite sporadic and rapidly sketched, on theological and other issues that have been occupying my thinking lately, particular in relation to the deep evolutionary history of life on earth and its implications for Orthodox Christian theology and practice (I also have in the works a long essay on my own personal journey and perspectives on the controversy apprehension- or rejection!- of such a deep time perspective has occasioned in Christianity). The following is then an initial exploration, precipitated by a passage by St. Gregory of Nyssa, of the intersect of Scriptural views of the created order, the deep evolutionary history of life on earth as expressed in our genetic ‘archive,’ and the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Christ.

Our takeaway from Patristic explorations of science and theology should not be to adopt their particular interpretations, in the majority of cases anyway, given that while impressive for the era, and in a genealogical line forward to much our own body of epistemic workings out, the majority of that scientific knowledge is now entirely antiquated if not downright quaint. What counts is the same thing that counts about the production of that knowledge in the first place, as well as the theological routes visible in the Scriptures: not the particulars but the processes and the underlying presuppositions about the order and legibility of the universe and its relationship to God. St. Gregory is entirely comfortable thinking about divine creation in terms of the prevailing science—we might rather say natural philosophy—not to make Scripture say something novel but rather to read Scripture in light of what was then known about the natural world (and in this regard we can in fact see multiple strategies from the Fathers, precisely as we would expect for anyone with a genuinely high view of Scripture and its inspiration—that it can sustain many meanings and interpretative paths across chronological spans). In St. Gregory’s case the basic message that he—rightly I think—sees in the Genesis account as having to do with the place of humans in the created order and in relation to God is pretty readily transposable to what we know of evolutionary history. There is, as Genesis in fact suggests pretty overtly, continuity—we would say genetic continuity—between ourselves and all previous lifeforms, and we carry the evolutionary traces of them in ourselves, in our sensations and our instincts. And as part of God’s good creation, this evolutionary inheritance is fundamentally good, it is a part of the biological package necessary for life. Sin results in our misuse of our evolutionary heritage, and we alone of all creatures can make use, or misuse, of our biological inheritance precisely because we possess consciousness (in St. Gregory’s parlance, ‘reason’) and a soul, which I think we really ought to think of as shorthand for our unique relationship with God—the other principle lesson of the Genesis account. That consciousness and that relationship with God, of course, entail our free will, our being moral creatures who can ascend towards God and divine transformation or who can descend towards sin and destruction (of ourselves and of the wider creation, which ‘groans’ in anticipation of its transformation through God working in and with us).

Of course none of this per se speaks to whether we ought to understand Adam and Eve as pointing towards literal discrete historical figures or something else: I really do not think the story itself indicates one way or the other all that conclusively, and can be read in multiple ways, indeed, demands multiple readings and interpretive routes by, among other things, the inclusion of not one but two origins stories for Adam and Eve right there in the opening chapters of Genesis. The details and perhaps the relationship to historical time are different in each, but the basic gist is the same: humans are creatures derived from the same origins as all other creatures, ultimately the fruit of the earth itself, but who are given a special relationship with God and carry His image, and are instructed by God to live in a particular relationship with Him and the created order, but are capable of contravening that relationship, with their sin ultimately having ‘real-world’ effects within the wider creation and within human self and society. God calls us bipedal, consciousness-bearing hominids to a special status in the world, to inhabit the created order as creatures ourselves in kinship with all other living things but as points of contact with God, as priests and worshipers who are in the world yet consciously (and freely!) oriented towards God. That of course is half of the story: the second half (though really it is the entire story) is that God Himself enters into the stream of evolutionary time and development, a stream that we as humans were meant to transfigure and transform, not from a bad state to a good state but to a transformed state, one only realized through in a sense deiform created beings simultaneously in relation to the wider natural world of which they are a part and in relation to God and the suprasensual order of the spiritual world and of Divine Life Itself.

St. Gregory would have been very excited to learn, I think, that humans quite literally carry within their genetic code a record of their deep past reaching back to the earliest life forms (even if the signal thereof is no longer visible to us down to the earliest periods), we contain within ourselves a continuous and cohesive expression of the wider living created order in a quite concrete sense—and that in becoming human God the Son took on in a manner beyond comprehension the whole history of life as contained and expressed in our humanity, in the genetic code that generates our biological reality. In rising to life again Christ quite literally brings to life, brings to divine life and being and transformation—transfiguration—not just humans as discrete entities but humans as bearers of the whole previous history of life on earth (that is, one such trajectory, standing in as it were for the many others), assembled from the fundamental elements of the earth—and so bears into divine life all of creation as expressed in our genetic history and physical-chemical assembly, a genetic history that contains a record of specifically human history, too, including our sin and acts against divine order. At a cultural level, it is no accident that Christ was incarnate in a particular time and place speaking a particular language within a particular cultural sphere. For much as our genetic code and its epigenetic expression doesn’t just relate but really is the cumulative expression of creation’s whole past and present, culture—particularly language—is itself the record and the expression of the deep human past, of its good and bad and terrible. Christ literally physically bore in Himself, in the humanity He received from the Theotokos, the whole sweep of the evolutionary history of life, the cosmological history of matter, and the cultural history of human society—and in dying and rising again He completed the arc of transformation invested in us and, in a sense, fulfilled by us in the person of Christ, who is not just the ‘second Adam’—that is, human—but is indeed the ‘true Adam,’ the true human. Christ models in Himself and specifically in His post-Resurrection interactions with His disciples the ultimate end of the created order, the full trajectory of the history of the cosmos and of life on earth: not replacement or effacement or even radical rupture but transformation, a form of being at once very much continuous with and yet in other ways inconceivable in relation to current life. Scripture gives us really no ‘hard details’ about the ‘after,’ just as we cannot extract a theory of evolution or cosmological expansion or really any such details from the creation accounts of Scripture. We are given indications and clues in Scripture, outlines and stories; for the large arc of life’s history scientific inquiry can fill in many gaps, if not explain things theologically really. For the future of the created order’s trajectory, for what the salvation and transformation in Christ looks like, again, we have hints and clues, stories and symbols—and, as a sort of prefigurative ‘fossil’ record if you like, the life of the Church and the lives of the saints, men and women who embody to a visible extent the life of Christ in the here-and-now, before- in a strict chronological sense at least- the general Resurrection, yet also within and through that Resurrection.

Be A Proclaimer of the Gospel At All Times

50. Rebuke hatred by your deeds rather than by your words.

51. Honour peace more than anything else. But strive first of all to be at peace in yourself: in this way you will find it easy to be at peace with others. How can someone whose eyes are blind heal others?

56. Be a proclaimer of the Gospel at all times. You will become a proclaimer of the Gospel when you lay upon yourself the Gospel’s way of life.

St. John of Apamea, Letter to Hesychius

We live in a world- as did St. John of Apamea, and all the other saints who have come before us- that does not value peace, is filled with various hatreds and all sorts of strife, and in which the Gospel is, if proclaimed at all, often muted by the very actions of we who proclaim it. It is very tempting to face such a situation with nothing but righteous polemical rage- and there is plenty to get angry about. I do not have to go far to find war and hatred, racism and oppression. In fact, I don’t have to leave my house. For, as St. John implies, the root of war and hatred lies, not in some other person or system or State, but in each one of our hearts. In my heart- that is where the violence and hatred, the spurning of the Gospel begins, and unless I deal with it, I cannot do anything about the outside world.

If I desire peace in the world, then I must cultivate peace in my own life, in my own heart. St. James writes in his epistle that the root of our fighting and sparing is that we are, first of all, greedy, wanting this and that, and when we don’t get it, we go to war, sometimes literally. And when we do get what we want, we spend it all on ourselves, having set ourselves off against other persons, as if we each had our own little fortress set up against our neighbors. It is a fundamental lack of peace- of contentment with our own state- within the heart that spurs on strife and violence. If we were at peace with ourselves and at peace with God- fully cognizant of the true nature of our own selves and of God and His love- we would hardly be concerned with whatever it was that drove us to hatred and violence in the first place. When we recognize the love and grace of Christ, we find peace, and once in Christ we recognize the true nature of our brother and sister- and hatred must die.

Once we ourselves have begun to acquire peace and remove the hatreds that have built up in us- as the Gospel becomes active in us- if we want to resist the hatreds and wars on the outside, we must labour with love, and not the easy path of mere polemic. I can spend all day telling anyone who comes within earshot how bad it is to hate your brother. I can preach against the evils of war and racism, and bemoan the oppression and injustice of the world. But unless I am actively loving people, unless I am going to the oppressed- and the oppressor- and showing, in concrete terms, the love of God, all my polemic does no good, and can be easily dismissed by those meant to hear it. We rebuke hatred- against ourselves and against others- by countering it with love, as Jesus commanded. We counter war and violence with the peace of Christ, lived out in our love for all the combatants in a given battle. It is not enough for me to spout slogans, no matter how noble, unless I am putting actions behind them- indeed, much of the time it’s best to leave the slogans and preaching behind entirely.

To bring it closer to my own experience, living in the American South I encounter the old racial hatreds with considerable regularity. The old intercommunal tensions of blacks and whites has expanded with the addition of Latino people to our society; I don’t have to go far to find strife and hatred. It would be easy enough- and I’ve done it- to lash out in anger and disgust at the attitudes I encounter in my community, in my own family. But does my anger and indignation really achieve anything? Do I even remove the latent racism and hatred in my own heart? Instead, the right- and so much harder- path is one of engagement with all sides of the strife, of active love towards all those involved. By my love I can show an alternative to hatred; by active, involved love I can give some small evidence of the Gospel and its impact on human relations.

‘When you lay upon yourself the Gospel’s way of life’: this is a task so much harder and more involved than shouting slogans or pushing fliers. The call is for a fundamental shift in the way we live, in the way we exist in the world. To live in love, to live in peace, requires not merely intellectual assent or adoption of some new political or social principles, but an entire restructuring of life. I must leave behind entirely the war and violence and hatred of the old life, and embrace a way of life that runs in an entirely different direction, from a whole different perspective, with an entirely different goal. This is the Resurrected Life, a life that incarnates peace and love. And when we live such a life, the world around is transformed, just as the Resurrected Christ so vividly transformed those around Him. What the world needs now is not merely the idea of love, but the love of Christ, the Prince of Peace, incarnated in flesh-and-blood people, people willing to embrace His life, and live it in the world. Only then can we rebuke hatred, embody peace, and truly proclaim the Gospel.