I recently came across an interesting little fact. Before I share it with you, I have to tell you that although I love anything mathematical, I am not generally a great fan of Biblical numerology; the study of mathematical patterns in the text of the Bible. However, this one is interesting…
In the Gospel accounts of the Epiphany, the baptism of Jesus by St John the Baptist, the original Greek word used for the dove that appeared above Him is “PERISTERAN”. Now the evangelists tell us that this apparition of a dove was actually a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.
You may be aware that in written Greek (the original language of the New Testament), numbers do not have their own unique symbols, but are represented by the letters of the alphabet. The same is true of Coptic. Thus alpha, the first letter, represents the number one, beta, the second letter, is ‘two’, and so on. Once you get to ten, the next letter is twenty, then thirty, and so on to a hundred, then two hundred etc.
Now it turns out that if you take the numerical values for all the letters that make up the Greek word “PERISTERAN” and add them up, you come to a total of 801. What’s so special about that?
Well, 801 = 800 + 1.
The number 1 written in Greek is the letter alpha, the first letter of the alphabet. Care to guess what letter represents the number 800?
Omega, of course, the last letter of the Greek alphabet. I quote for you two verses from the Book of Revelation and leave you to put the rest together for yourself:
The Father Said:
Rev 1:8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,theBeginning and the End,” says the Lord, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”
And the Son said:
Rev 1:11 “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last,”
Now, I’m talking about the pudgy fellow with the flowing white beard and the red and white suit. I would not be surprised if this jolly old chap were responsible for more people losing their Christian faith over the years than anyone else in history.
It’s not really his fault, poor old fellow. It’s what people do with him. See, grownups will insist on pretending that this preposterous anachronism is real to their little children. The children gobble him up (sometimes literally, if he’s made of chocolate). They eagerly await his advent, full of delicious anticipation at the bounty he will bring them. They live their days in righteousness in fear of his wrath, lest he smite them with an onion in their stocking in the last days. They may even offer to him a sacrifice of milk and cookies. And then on the fateful day of his coming, they rise early to find the bounty he has graced upon them, and which has miraculously appeared over night beneath his twiggy altar. Grownups glow with fuzzy warmth at the sight and continue to feed the lie to their children.
Is it better to see life in complex or simple terms? Should I delve deeply into things, seeking hidden meanings, or should I just accept things at face value?
In my last post I looked at the argument in favour of complexity. Today, a look at the other side…
Simplicity plays a crucial role in the life of the true Christian. When our Lord gives us simple, direct commands, there is not a lot of wiggle room, nor should we be clever and try to find it. An example of this might be the central law of love in Christianity. We are enjoined to love our brothers and sisters in Christ, our neighbours, and even our enemies and those who persecute us: in simple terms, to love every human being in this world.
You can get pretty complicated in addressing the question of how to apply this command, but basically, it boils down to something pretty straightforward: put away your ego, your fear, your dignity and your pride. See how God loves the unlovable, and strive to do the same. When the man asked Jesus “who is my neighbour?”, he was possibly trying to find a way out of loving someone he didn’t want to love by changing the definitions. This is resorting to complexity where it does not belong. This is why attackers of Christianity accuse Christians of being hypocritical. Richard Dawkins is convinced that when Christians say “love thy neighbour”, they mean only the neighbour who belongs to my tribe, my faith, my nationality. From where does he get this ridiculous concept? From Christians who play with the words for their own selfish ends.
Simplicity makes life so much easier, so much more peaceful when we employ it in our dealings with one another. Consider the person who constantly doubts the motives of others, constantly taking offence at others’ words and actions, seeing insults where none are intended or snobbishness where none exists. This person lives in constant anxiety and discontentment. Compare him to one who takes the words and actions of others simply. When someone says, “I didn’t mean it”, he takes them at their word and thinks no more about it. If someone seems to ignore him, he takes no offence but rather anticipates that there is some other unknown reason for the apparent snub (he was tired, he was distracted, he has a tooth ache…) This person lives a life of peace and contentment. He is happy with others because he is happy within himself. A simple heart produces a simple eye, and a simple eye produces a simple heart.
Last time we considered mandlebulbs where simple instructions produced incredibly complex and beautiful forms. But the opposite may be true as well. Sometimes very complicated beginnings boil down to a very simple ending. Consider the famous Theory of Relativity discovered by the famous Albert Einstein, a man who himself was in love with simplicity. Some pretty heavy maths takes a long and circuitous path to boil down to a stunningly simple equation in the end: e = mc2.
In his personal life, Einstein sought simplicity in ways that many would consider eccentric at best, downright insane at worst. For example, he drove his poor wife crazy by insisting upon taking up the scissors and cutting off the cuffs of his shirtsleeves. What purpose do the darn things serve? All they do is get dirty and force you to wash the whole shirt before the rest of it is in need of washing! For similar reasons, he apparently often dispensed with socks. To his mind, unnecessary distractions prevented him from focusing his time and energy on his real goals, his mathematical and physical investigations, so he took the logical course and simplified his life.
Personally, I find much to admire in this approach. Gone are the days when I used to spend ages trying to match up my socks. Of course, they’re all black, but there is black and there is black. There are thicker winter materials and lighter summer ones. There are long, medium and short ones, with elastic and without, and then of course, there are all the stages of fading. You can tell I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. But one day it dawned upon me that this is such a waste of time. Black socks are black socks in the end, and who pays attention to your socks? Matching socks never got anyone into heaven, not so far as I know, anyway. So now I just take any two socks out of the washing basket and slip them on. Simplicity! It feels like being set free from prison! The prison was my own unnecessary perfectionism, vanity and small mindedness. Just don’t look too closely at my feet, next time we meet…
So where does all that leave us? Should we be simple or complex in our approach to life? The answer, I think, is both. There is a time and place for complexity and another for simplicity. There are even times when we should use them together, as we use a hammer and nail together. To know which is to be applied requires wisdom and discernment: gifts that generally are won through hard experience, many mistakes and an open mind.
“Be wise as serpents, innocent as doves”, said our Lord. And yes, it is possible to have both in the same person. I hope these modest reflections may have shed a little light on how this is possible.
Is it better to see life in complex or simple terms? Should I delve deeply into things, seeking hidden meanings, or should I just accept things at face value?
Today, the argument for complexity; although I reserve the right to respond later with another blog on the argument for simplicity.
If our study of nature has taught us anything, it is that nature is richly complex in its structure and function. Even the simplest of seeds can give birth to the most complex of fruits.
Take for example an incredible mathematical concept called the Mandlebrot fractal. In basic terms, a very simple set of rules produces the most incredible patterns in two dimensions. Taken to three dimensions, the results are nothing short of breathtaking (see picture). You can find more at http://www.skytopia.com/project/fractal/mandelbulb.html.
A mandlebulb is just an inanimate shape, but add life, and the complexity skyrockets. Anyone who has studied even basic Biology cannot fail to be impressed by the wealth of chemical and physical processes that constitute even the simplest of living creatures. Their interactions with each other produce a symphony of life – an intricate, movingly subtle interplay between a multitude of parts that virtually cries out the majestic wisdom of God their Creator. No wonder we sing “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” in Psalm 150.
Should our faith, then, be simple or complex? I suspect it really depends on who you are and where you are in your journey of spiritual and intellectual maturity. It would be ridiculous to expound the detailed intricacies of the hypostases of the Holy Trinity to a Sunday School class of five year olds. But by the same token, to limit your explanation of the Holy Trinity to nothing more than “three petals on a flower” to a group of advanced Theology students would be equally ridiculous.
There is a time and place for complexity. If God has created complexity, and if He has given us brains that can understand it, then surely we have a responsibility to do so if we are capable.
Why does this matter? It matters because I have noticed a growing trend among those members of our Church who have been brought up in the western system of education to be deeply dissatisfied with simplistic explanations of our faith. Their minds have been taught to probe and question and doubt in order to get to the truth, and the neat, simple answers of their childhood no longer satisfy them. Sometimes, they are made to feel guilty for even asking the questions, and in the worst cases, the result is that they lose their faith altogether.
I think this is very wrong. Our God is a God of Truth, and surely, the closer we approach Truth, the closer we come to God. I will even dare to say this: if the God I believe in cannot stand up to a genuine search for the Truth, then I should not believe in Him. If God is who we think He is, then a properly conducted and sincere search for the Truth cannot help but lead to Him – we have nothing to fear; there is no line of investigation that does not lead to Him in the end.
If this search for Truth about God and the universe He has created means that sometimes we have to ditch old and simplistic understandings for newer, more complex ones, then so be it. So it is in every aspect of our lives. If the Truth be complex, then so must our understanding of it.
Perhaps a concrete example will help illustrate this rather abstract topic. How are we to understand the Bible? The simplistic approach of our childhood says “We must obey every word the Bible says.” That’s beautiful, and in essence, it is absolutely true. We must indeed follow the instruction of the Bible as faithfully as we possibly can. But what does “obey every word” actually mean? If you delve into it, you will find it is not so simple as it sounds…
“I urge you, brethren – you know the household of Stephanas, that it is the firstfruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the ministry of the saints – that you also submit to such, and to everyone who works and labours with us.” 1Corinthians 16:15,16
If we were to literally obey these words, then we would have to seek out descendents of the household of Stephanas, somehow, after twenty centuries, and then lay ourselves in submission to them. Clearly, that is far too simplistic an interpretation. Most sensible Christians would understand that the thing we need to obey is not the specific instruction given here by St Paul to a specific readership in a specific time and place. It is the underlying universal principle that we should follow. It is not the person of Stephanas we must obey, but those who are faithful in serving the Lord, those who follow Christ faithfully as St Paul did, in any time and place.
But you see, already, we have left the path of simplicity and entered the path of complexity. Another example:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.” Matthew 5:29
If we were to follow this command in its most simple interpretation, we would have an awful lot of one eyed Christians. But we don’t. And that’s not through lack of faith or courage: by and large, Christians understand that it is the underlying principle we are required to obey here, rather than the simple and straightforward sense of the command. We take in to account the flowery nature of speech in Middle Eastern society – we as Copts know it very well, for it lives on in Arabic today! We easily see that if there are other ways of avoiding the sin of adultery of the eyes that don’t involve drastic measures, these are preferable. (Of course, there have been exceptions such as St Simeon the Tanner and Origen, but these were specific cases with their own unique circumstances).
Again, we have left the path of simplicity and entered that of complexity. But the danger that most Christians fear once we embark upon the path of complexity is that we might get it wrong. When it comes to interpreting the Bible, who is to say that one interpretation is better than another? What’s to stop anyone and everyone from interpreting it according to their own pre-assumptions and agendas?
And in fact, this happens on a regular basis, anywhere from the cult that sees in the Bible alien civilisations on other planets, to the ever-growing multitude of varieties of Protestantism, to that old favourite Bible verse quoted by many Copts in Arabic that roughly translates to: “There is a time for your God and a time for your own enjoyment” (don’t waste your time – it’s not actually in the Bible).
The Orthodox Church resolves this dilemma by appealing not only to the Bible, but also to Holy Tradition: the ancient guidelines worked out by the earliest Christians. Tradition is not a dead museum exhibit, but a living, growing thing, and in these times of change, the Church, guided in humility by the Holy Spirit, seeks to properly apply those timeless universal laws of the Bible to an ever-changing world that is constantly throwing up new challenges and new questions to be answered.
The danger to be avoided is that of bowing to the letter of the law, when it is always the spirit of the law that we must embrace. And that often requires complexity.
“Who dwells in the highest and beholds the lowly” – Anaphora of the Liturgy of St Basil
How incredible to stand before the altar of God (which is His symbolic throne here on earth) and contemplate His true Heavenly Throne. He dwells in the highest of places, His existence is the highest existence, His glory, the highest of glories, and so on. Yet this Being of unimaginable height still cares for a lowly sinner such as I!
One can imagine Zacchaeus the tax collector as he sat perched in the branches of the sycamore tree, trying to glimpse Jesus through the crowd that milled around Him and hid Him from view. Then suddenly, in an instant, a chance configuration of the crowd opens a direct line of sight between him and Jesus. Imagine Zacchaeus’ surprise as he realises that Jesus is looking directly at him! Not only looking, but speaking, taking note of him, acknowledging his existence! Not only that, but actually promising to come and stay in his own house!
“Why me?” you can almost hear him thinking. “Who am I that the Master should choose my house to stay in? I am not important, or popular or rich. I am not a religious leader or even a righteous man. Everyone despises and hates me, and stays away from me. But He wants to stay at my house!”
We too would feel like that if we truly acknowledged our lowliness before God. Every liturgy, the crowd parts, and Jesus is looking directly at YOU. He asks you also, saying, “Today, I would like to stay at your house”. Will you let Him in? Will you free yourself from other commitments? Will you greet Him as Zacchaeus did, with humility and repentance, or will you greet Him as the Pharisee did, with snobbishness and judgment?
It comes back to one thing: do you see yourself as lowly and humble, or as an exalted good and righteous and deserving person? “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4). If you wish to have Jesus relieve you of your heavy burden, then you must learn from Him, for He is “humble and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29). Until I too humble myself before Him and admit my lowliness, I shall never truly experience the full presence and the indescribable glory of the Lord.
The Coptic of this phrase is: Fi-etshop khen ni-etchpsi; owoh etgousht ejen ni-et-theviout. It is one of those phrases in the liturgy where any translation into English fails to do the original meaning full justice.
The word “shop” means to ‘be’, but in a very special way. It mainly means to abide, to be somewhere or simply to be, but it also implies ‘existence’. When used of God in this way, it indicates the theological concept that God IS existence – He is the source of all that exists, and it is He alone who is self-existent; He exists because that is His nature, and not because anyone or anything else causes Him to exist.
The same Coptic word is used in John 8:58: “before Abraham was, I AM [shopi anok pe]”. The “I AM” is usually written in capitals because it was a very clear reference to one of the names of God in the Old Testament. When Moses at the burning bush asked for a name of God to give to the Israelites in Egypt, God told him, “’I AM WHO I AM.’ And He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, “I AM has sent me to you”’” (Exodus 3:14).
Equally beautiful is the word here used for us: ni-et-theviout. The Coptic construction of the word implies far more than is relayed by the English translation, “the lowly”. thevioutis an adjectival root that means ‘humble’. But when etcomes before it, it comes to mean not that we are humble, but that we have been humbled: it turns the adjective into something that has happened to us or been done to us. Thus, a more accurate translation of this nuance in meaning might be “He that IS, in the highest; and looks upon those who have been humiliated”.
What a beautiful and concise summary of our true state! God is the self-existent Creator who needs nothing. He is not interested in us because we are capable or worthy or strong. He is interested in us most when we are at our weakest, when we are brought low, when we are broken. And this state is one that almost always comes upon us against our own will, for who enjoys being humiliated? Who goes out to seek humiliation on purpose? And yet, it is when we are at our lowest that we are most likely to experience the loving care of God and to feel His presence; to sense that all-encompassing gaze of compassion and care surrounding us and blanketing us with healing and warmth.
And the tune of the Coptic melody brings out this stark contrast of our neediness to God’s powerful compassion beautifully. The melody rises suddenly and dramatically with chosi– ‘highest’; and then it descends rapidly, as if with God’s gaze looking down upon us, to peter out into our lowly humiliation; the last part of theviout.
One imagines a beggar standing at night in a field, looking up at the startling multitude of sparkling gems strewn across the dark velvet backdrop of space and being pierced by its majesty and beauty, and then lowering his gaze once more to behold himself: bedraggled, dirty, torn and bruised from the harsh buffeting of those who despise him.
We are currently in the process of developing an updated course of religious education for the Primary School at St Mark’s College. It’s a huge job (all prayers much appreciated) and one that will take at least a couple of years if it is to be done right. Part of the process is to identify and list the most important verses and Bible passages so that a schedule of passages for memorisation can be produced. Rather than putting this together willy nilly, our strategy is to first identify the most important Bible passages and then pare this list down to those that are most crucial. These will be memorised over the 13 years of schooling the students receive at a Coptic School.
If you had to list the most important Bible passages to you, which would you include? Perhaps they would be passages of comfort and hope? Would you put in those that teach basic tenets of the Christian faith, like the divinity of Christ or the means of salvation? Would you include passages that are just poetically beautiful? I have found the process to be surprisingly interesting. Having only completed less than half the job, our list has already gone over the 250 mark. Every one of them is a passage that is probably instantly recognisable to any Christian, yet I had no idea there were so many!
I am beginning to think I might want to print up this list and hang it on my wall. In a way, it is like a gallery that depicts all I believe, and how I want to live my life. Of course, the danger is that this list ends up being just a transcription of the whole Bible, so a degree of discernment must be applied. And that’s the hard part. It isn’t hard to find life-changing passages in the Bible; the hard part is choosing a select few to represent the whole faith.
Anyhow, allow me to share with you some of the more beautiful of the longer passages I have added to the list. I find these inspiring and moving, as profound in their message as they are striking in their expression. My Top Ten Bible Passages:
Perhaps I have leant too heavily on the New Testament and neglected the Old, but it is so hard to choose! Perhaps if I went through this exercise again in a month’s time, the list would be different. If you had to do a personal “Top Ten” list of Bible passages or verses, which would they be? Feel free to share your own particular favourites.
In the days before I became a priest, I had many interesting discussions with various Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons (for some strange reason they seem to avoid me now). Among the many things this taught me was how easy it is to fall into the trap of making the Bible mean what you want it to mean. Allow me to clarify.
There are two ways to approach the Bible. One is to read it with an open mind and let it educate you; and the other is to come to the Bible with a fixed idea already in your mind, and then selectively read it in order to find support for that idea.
I shouldn’t just blame the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. At university I had a rather difficult dialogue with a homosexual Christian. I could not for the life of me see how one could profess Christianity yet openly flout a very clearly stated tenet of Christianity. His arguments were masterpieces of Bible twisting.
And just in case you’re starting to feel a bit smug about it all at this stage, I am afraid that we in the Coptic Church are sometimes guilty of a bit of clever Bible twisting ourselves. How often have I heard a disgruntled husband sulkily pointing to St Paul’s command that wives must submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22)? Somehow, the verse before it (“submitting to one another”) seems to be invisible to these guys. People use Bible passages to accuse and discredit their enemies, forgetting that the same Bible exhorts them to love their enemies and do good to those who persecute them.
In fact, the Bible itself warns us not to twist its words: “knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Peter1:20). History is replete with sad examples of Christians reading into the Bible support for their own agendas that in reality have nothing to do with God’s Word. The medieval Crusaders killed and pillaged and raped in the name of Christ. The European Catholic Church of the early Renaissance put people to death as heretics for believing that the earth orbits around the sun. In each of these cases, selected Bible verses interpreted in a certain way were used to back up these actions; actions that we now see are clearly the opposite of what the Bible stands for and teaches.
The Protestant Reformation reacted to this particular form of Bible twisting by creating its own. Martin Luther himself is notorious for calling the Epistle of St James a “book of straw” and dismissing its teachings. Why? Because St James insists that “faith without works is dead”, whereas Luther espoused the Protestant doctrine of salvation by faith alone without works. Thus does HH Pope Shenouda III often warn us to beware the danger of the “single verse”; the use of a Bible passage taken out of context, and without reference to all the other passages in the Bible that touch upon the topic.
You can be more confident in your interpretation of a Bible passage if no other Bible passage contradicts that interpretation (of course, you must also beware of mangling the meaning of other passages so you can squeeze them into your interpretation). As Orthodox Christians, we have another check on our interpretation: Holy Tradition. This consists of the interpretation of the Bible by the Fathers of the Church, the generations who lived in the centuries immediately after Christ, including Fathers who knew the Apostles personally, who sat and learned at their feet.
Christianity is a living tradition, not a monument of granite. The basic truths of Christianity will always be the same in every age and in every society, but of course it is the application of those truths that can often be most challenging. How much harder that challenge is if those truths themselves are vague or misinterpreted because we haven’t been diligent and honest in our reading of the Bible!
Thankyou to Tony for his comment on my last post in which he brings up the approach taught by most Catholic Schools in Australia to the first 11 chapters of Genesis. I have come across these ideas before, and I think they are becoming so widespread in the Catholic Church they deserve some attention. In some circles, this approach is called the New Theology and basically jettisons any claim that any of the events in the first 11 chapters of Genesis ever actually happened. That’s everything up to and including the Tower of Babel, so for them, the real history begins with Abraham, and all that came before is called a ‘myth’, which, as Tony points out, may not necessarily mean what you think it means!
The concept of a myth is a very fluid one it seems. CS Lewis has much to say on the subject of ‘true myths’ in some of his essays (can’t remember exactly which ones) in which he more or less concludes that the purpose of a ‘myth’ is the moral or message, and that whether the myth actually happened or not, or whether it happened a little differenty is really of no great importance. I suppose you can think of the parables of Jesus which clearly were fiction, but intended to convey a lesson. Lewis of course was talking generally, but I think that the Catholics are applying a similar approach to the first 11 chapters of Genesis.
I think there are problems with this sort of approach. Once you start categorising bits of the Bible as possibly not having an historic basis, where might this not lead you? I wonder if an extension of this kind of thinking is responsible for people like Episcopalian retired Bishop John Shelby Spong rejecting any historical miracles of Jesus, together with the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection and Ascension and so on.
At the other end of the spectrum you have stubborn fundamentalists who insist that every word of the Bible must be taken as absolute literal truth (LITERAL being the crucial word here) and thus, for example, deny any possibility that the universe is older than about 6,000 years, in contradiction to lots of pretty solid evidence and to the fact that the language of Genesis in no way insists upon this kind of interpretation.
We have to learn from the mistakes of the past. The medieval Church in the West had no business decreeing that the earth was the centre of the universe – what right did they have to do that? The Church is responsible for spiritual knowledge and teachings. The people look to the Church for guidance and wisdom about far more than just spiritual life, but the Church must always resist the temptation that such respect brings and never go outside its limits of competency. On a smaller scale, a parish priest is often asked whether to take this job or that, or to invest in this project, or send the kids to this school. He has a responsibility to make it clear to those who ask for such advice that any advice given is that of a friend, not that of a mouthpiece of God … unless, of course, God has told him otherwise 😉
Sure, one can draw inferences from the Bible about the laws of nature, but they will always be nothing more than guesses, and we must beware of giving them the status of Infallible Truths or putting them on a par with the doctrine and dogma of the Church. Science is always changing. If we as a Church throw our lot in with evolution, or the Big Bang, or even quantum physics, there is bound to come a time perhaps centuries later when these things will be superceded and the Church will be left with egg on its face, much as happened in the great crisis over Gallileo and Copernicus. There is no need for this, especially given that the Bible does not seem terribly interested in giving humanity the natural secrets of the cosmos – rather, it is occupied with the spiritual secrets of truth and love and holiness. We must accept that just because we are a Church, that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to know everything and have the answer to every question! There are times when the only honest thing to do is to admit we don’t know. Which brings to mind a nice proverb: “He is wisest who knows himself for a fool”.
So, yes, my favoured approach would be to say simply something along these lines:
“The science, as far as it goes, can be comfortably accomodated within the Bible’s framework. But that’s all we can say. Whether the science of today describes reality fully and accurately is not a question for the Church to answer – it is for time to answer.”
Last Night’s CCP Meeting was on the question of evolution. An intriguing and often highly emotional topic, it is one of those areas where, supposedly, science and fatih clash.
I’ve been doing a little bit of reading on the topic lately, and I have found there are a few conclusions that I think one is safe to draw about the current state of affairs. Please allow me to share them with you.
1. Evolution as a scientific theory is elegant, relatively simple, and in many ways quite a beautiful concept, if you look at it from a purely scientific point of view.
2. Looked at against the wider background of our existence, it can be a very ugly concept. I have no doubt whatsoever that some of the worst atrocities committed by humans in the past century were justified, whether consciously or subconsciously, by an evolutionary world view. Hitler’s purification of the German race is an attempt to take control of evolution. What gave him the right to do so? Because he was the “Fittest” and it is the fittest who should survive. The deaths of millions in the gas chambers is no more than the necessary by product of this law of nature, and we should not weep over it. Or so he thought.
3. Evolution still has many gaping holes. We started to look at some last night but time constraints meant we had to leave the rest for another session. Chief among the unresolved issues are the incredible probabilities against putting together DNA in the right sequence merely by chance, the vexed question of how the first life could possibly have arisen, and the lack of any sensible mechanism for the introduction of new genes into an organism’s genome. There are more, but these are my favorites.
4. Even if one day it should become apparent that evolution is the true cause of life on Earth beyond a shadow of a doubt, I cannot see how this would affect our faith. The Bible is interested in telling us what God did. How He did it is really His concern, and although we get a glimpse, we must not expect to be able to understand His ways. I still can’t understand how my mechanic diagnoses and fixes problems in my car, much less the mechanism of the Creation of the whole Cosmos! But to me, if the universe really can produce life all by itself, naturally and without any supernatural input, that would be an even greater miracle. I might be able to get some wood together and build a chair. Sure it would take some time, and it would probably wobble, but I think I could do it. What I don’t think I could do is build a machine that builds chairs without any help from me. Now that’s hard! So if God built a universe that can produce life without any supernatural input from Him, that would be a far greater miracle than if He had built each species individually.
5. There is, however, the case of microevolution as opposed to macroevolution. Macroevolution involves one species evolving into another species, and as such requires whole new genes to be inserted into the organism’s genetic code. There simply is no known mechanism for this to happen in most cases, and there does not seem to be any possibility for us finding one. But Microevolution involves the slightest fiddling with the existing genetic code, such as that which produces a tall or a short person, the colour of your eyes, or the resistance of bacteria against an antibiotic. Microevolution is implied in the Bible since all the different races of humans in the world are descended from just one family of eight people (Noah’s family). Clearly, all the variations between races must have arisen by a mechanism such as microevolution. But there is no evidence that I can see that can overcome the need for whole new genes in macroevolution.
6. Many people accept or reject evolution for reasons other than the actual science. If you want there not to be a God, you can use evolution as way of supporting your case that He didn’t have to be around to make us. And equally, if you want there to be a God, you can find the many, many holes there are in the theory of evolution. So how can one come to a genuinely objective Truth? I’m not sure anyone can. I admit freely that I am biased. I believe in God, for many other reason, and so I come to the evolution question expecting God to be a part of the true answer. And I find more than enough evidence to fulfil that expectation. But the fact is that the jury still out. Evolution is not fact, not macroevolution, anyway. So until we find unavoidably compelling evidence one way or the other, I suppose people will continue to choose their side on the basis of other factors.
7. I don’t think we should be ‘afraid’ of evolution. Sometimes Christians speak as though there was a demon called evolution, and we must not dabble with evil spirits, so stay right away! But evolution is not a demon, it is an idea, and ideas have no personalities or motivations. They can be right or wrong, they can tend towards causing evil or good, but in the end, they are just ideas. I think it is good for a Christian to understand the concept of evolution well, and to also be aware of all its shortcomings.
In the final analysis, our understanding of our universe is constantly changing, constantly being updated as new information becomes available. Personally, I suspect that in a few hundred years’ time the theory of evolution will have been replaced by some other explanation that we cannot even imagine today, much as Gallileo could not possibly have anticipated quantum physics.
But I don’t think I’ll be around to see it. Then again, by then I will be occupied with far more important things…
Last Sunday’s Gospel, the Paralytic at the Pool who was healed by Jesus after 38 years of patient and fruitless waiting, contained a reference to one of the accusations brought against Jesus by His enemies. He was accused of breaking the Law of God by breaking the Sabbath rest and encouraging others to do so.
In this case, it was His command to the paralytic to pick up his bed and walk. Not long ago, ultra-orthodox Jews in the Sydney suburb of Bondi successfully campaigned for traffic lights that responded to pedestrians wanting to cross the road without them having to push that button. They consider pushing a button to be ‘work’ and thus prohibited on the Sabbath Day. Clearly, not much has changed in 2,000 years:
This brings up the whole issue of how literally to take God’s commandments. Jesus’ approach to Sabbath rest question cut right to the heart of the subject: “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Another time He reminded the Jews of the Old Testament quote, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
One way to interpret this might be a sort of hierarchy, a ‘pyramid’ of moral principles. Those principles that are higher in the pyramid overrule the lower principles. If you were asked to create such a pyramid, what would you have at the top? I wonder if your pyramid would agree with mine…
As a general rule in my pyramid, I would always put people higher than things. “People are more important than things” is a great motto that has saved me from awful mistakes many times, and I have always regretted it every time I ignored this concept. Should I go off my head about the valuable vase that my friend’s child accidentally broke? People are more important than things. That makes the decision relatively simple, doesn’t it?
At the top of my pyramid, I would have one single word: Aghape. Not just ‘love’, mind you, for the word can be twisted and misused too easily. By Aghape Love I mean the pure, unselfish, giving, and self-sacrificial love that comes from God; the love so poetically described in I Corinthians chapter 13.
In the lower levels of the pyramid, I would put the more ‘exterior’ virtues; observance of very specific rites such as how exactly one should stand when praying, knowing the tunes of all the hymns of the Church, and so on. All these are no more than tools we use to help us reach God, and it is dangerous to mistake them for goals in themselves, rather than just a means to a goal. This of course was the very mistake of the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time; their pyramid was upside down, and not carrying a bed was considered more important than celebrating the miraculous healing power of God. No wonder they didn’t recognise Jesus as the Messiah. He would have probably pushed the button at the traffic lights, just to cross the road and save a soul!!! Humph!
In between would be all the other principles and virtues such as mercy, repentance, practical acts of charity, spiritual exercises and methods, social service and so on. I would try to arrange them such that those that relate to my personal relationship with God were higher, those that relate to the welfare of those I interact with beneath them, and those that relate to the welfare of those I have never met below them.
Isn’t that a bit selfish, putting myself at a higher priority than others? Not if the priority is my own spirituality, my own relationship with God. If you are not a good swimmer, and you see someone drowning in a deep river, you are not really going to do them a lot of good by jumping in to save them and ending up drowning with them! In the same way, I am unlikely to do anyone any good if I am not well connected to God. It is not my own powers and abilities that bring goodness into the lives of others, it is the grace of the Holy Spirit working through me. The best way for me to facilitate that grace is to be as well connected to Him as I can, and then let Him do His work as He sees fit.
As a newly ordained priest, I recall one wise bishop telling me that the best service I could possibly offer to my congregation was to personally be a genuine Christian. The years have shown me the wisdom of those words. It is one of the devil’s favourite tricks to engulf the servant in doing things, keep him or her so busy that they lose their focus, forget their real goals, and lose their connection with Christ. That is the road that ends with becoming a ‘whitewashed tomb’, looking smooth and clean on the outside, but being filled with death and decay on the inside.
I have also put the welfare of those I come into direct contact with above those who are distant since genuine love must seek to serve at every opportunity presented to it, and most of those opportunities are with those closest to us. There is no need to go looking for someone to help among strangers when my own family is in desperate need. You don’t think so? Is your wife falling apart over those unfinished bits of housework? Are your parents freaking out because they think they are losing you? Would a kind word and a little smile from the heart have made any difference to the bloke who sits at the desk opposite you and looked so down this morning? If these or any similar situations apply to your life (and they almost certainly do) then you have more than enough material around you to share God’s love.
That’s not to say it is wrong for us to go further afield to serve. As a community, it makes a lot of sense to delegate some servants or some portion of time to serving those who are far away from us but are in great need. It is quite possible to do the one without neglecting the other. Harder, I grant you, but still quite possible. But to travel hundreds of kilometers to comfort the suffering while there is unresolved suffering in my own home is a bit hypocritical.
So, there’s my Pyramid of Principles. How does it compare to yours?