July 12

Reading the Bible after Darwin

By Marsh Chapel

For those of us who love the Bible, Darwin has not made reading it any easier, has he? He has wrecked havoc with the opening chapters of the book, sure, but more than this, he has raised the question of where we are to discover the God of the Bible in a world of evolution and natural selection where there seems little place left for God to be, little left for God to do. Darwin has compelled us to read the Bible anew asking new questions. He hasn’t made reading the Bible easier.

I think the Christian Century writer Amy Frykholm is right when she says that most mainline Christians have made our peace with Darwin.

“We may not have grasped all the nuances of the scientific debate,” she says, “but we have concluded that evolutionary science is good science and therefore must be compatible with good theology. … We believe that [evolution and] natural selection [are] evidently part of God’s method of shaping the natural world.”

We have accepted the thrust of Darwin’s ideas but most of us have not really explored very carefully the implications of this for our understanding of the God of the Bible and the biblical story.

“I, for one,” Frykholm says, “do most of my thinking about science out of one mental box and my thinking about religion out of another. … While I think the contents of the two boxes are compatible, I rarely try to work out the terms of their relationship.” [italics mine]

“Perhaps that’s because the content of the two boxes are, when mixed, still combustible,” she concludes. There are implications here for the way we read the Bible that we are still trying to figure out.

I want to suggest that Darwin and the evolutionary sciences which he helped birth have actually done those of us who love the Bible a favor. Darwin has not made it easier for us to read the Bible but he has compelled us to read it more profoundly.

Of course, it wasn’t only Darwin. The same century that produced Darwin produced David Strauss, Julius Wellhausen and other pioneers of higher biblical critical thought who have taught us that the Bible is intricately layered and richly contextual. It is the same century that gave us Feuerbach, Marx and Freud. Lots was happening in the era that produced Darwin, and all these have all done us a favor because they have compelled us to look more deeply into scripture to find God. But certainly Darwin too.

Darwin, with his radical commitment to discernable truth, forced us to realize that we will not find God in the cosmology, biology, epistomolgy, or superficial politics of the Bible. No, we’ve got to look more deeply than this within the Bible to find God.

An image that works here, I think, is the one the apostle Paul uses in II Corinthians. “We have this treasure in clay jars,” Paul says. (II Cor. 4:7) And the clay jar he is talking about most of all is himself. Paul is a clay jar. His ideas are clay jars. His writings are clay jars even when they later become part of scripture.

A clay jar is disposable. It is temporary. It passes away. It is important only because it contains the treasure. Someday the treasure will be poured into some other clay jar. The clay jar has only passing value. Our goal is to discern the treasure both held and hidden within the clay jar.

Darwin compels us to read the Bible this way … to look into and beyond the clay jars to find the treasure … to look more deeply within scripture to find God.

God is not found within the details of the seven days of creation in Genesis 1, mostly borrowed from Babylonian mythologies. The details of the seven days are disposable. God is found, if we are to find God, deeper down within the story — within the form that pulls itself up out of the void, within the impulse to life, within the drive toward intelligence.

God is not found among the trees and the snakes of the Garden of Eden of Genesis 2. The details of the Eden story are disposable. God is found, if we are to find God, deeper down within the story, in the human capacity for good and evil, in the struggle within us between self-indulgence and responsibility.

God is not found within the laws of the Pentateuch. We will not find God in the “shalts” and “shalt nots” of various and sundry commandments. We will not find God in the condemnations and abominations of Leviticus. Those laws are temporary and disposable. We’ve got to look deeper to find God. We’ve got to look at the pull within humanity to make laws, the impulse within us to discern how we are meant to live morally. The specific laws themselves are clay pots but they hold and hide the treasure of the awareness of moral responsibility and culpability within the human spirit. This is where we will find God.

God will not to be found in the various social and political structures of the Bible. The social and political orders of the Bible are all temporary and disposable. The imperfect biblical governments riddled with such institutions as slavery, the divine right of kings, and patriarchy are clay jars. If we want to find God we must look beneath the superficial social and political institutions of the Bible to the human impulse to live together orderly and justly and in harmony. The flawed biblical attempts at this are just temporary and passing pointers toward the longing for the realm of God. This is where we will find God in the Bible.

God will not to be found in the biblical theories of atonement and propitiation and substitution. These are clay jars. They hold and hide treasure. God will be found deeper, within the cross, within the human capacity for true altruism, self-giving, and agape love.

Darwin, not Darwin alone, but Darwin for sure, Darwin compels us to search more deeply in scripture to find God. To look within and past the clay pots that hold and hide the treasure.

It is hard to tell how much of this Darwin himself knew. He went from being a candidate for the Anglican priesthood to becoming an agnostic but, even as an agnostic, some days he affirmed his belief in God. He was not a very good agnostic. For some, you know, agnosticism doesn’t mean that they can’t believe in God. It just means they can’t believe in the god being imposed on them. I suspect it was this way with Darwin.

A new book just published this year by Adrian Desmond and James Moore Darwin’s Sacred Cause studies Darwin’s personal papers and notes and even the scribblings in the margins of the books he read and comes to the conclusion that Darwin’s compulsion to discover the ancestry of humanity was motivated by his hatred of slavery. Slavery was one of the clay jars defended by many of its proponents as “biblical” and “natural,” and Darwin believed natural selection undermined the legitimacy of slavery that natural and biblical theologies were sometimes used to justify.

A fascinating book by Keith Thomson Before Darwin: Reconciling God and Nature explores the debate about evolution for the 150 years before Darwin wrote The Origin of the Species. Thomson discovered that many of Darwin’s predecessors and adversaries in the debate about evolution, especially William Paley, feared the idea of evolution because they feared social change. Paley and others preferred to think that poverty and misery were the give
ns of nature.

It may well be that Darwin knew at some level of his being and intellect that the God of clay jars is an idol and that Darwin’s passion for observable truth was an effort to liberate God as well as humanity.

There is inspiration here for the struggles of our time … obviously the struggle to protect the integrity of science and the academy from those who would corrupt them for ideological purposes, but also the continuing struggle against patriarchy, the struggle against racism, the struggle against poverty and economic injustice, the struggle for gay and lesbian inclusion and equality.

Part of the reason finding God in the depth rather than the shallows of the Bible is important is because it returns the Bible to us as an agent of transformation in our lives and world. We’ve wanted the Bible to give us information or theories or explanations or rationales or justifications, and what the Bible has wanted to give us instead is life.

If we can find God in the depths of the Bible, perhaps we can find God again in the depths of the world we live in today and in the depths of our own lives.

One of my heroes when I was a student here 40 years ago and then a young minister was a South Baptist preacher named Carlyle Marney. He died 30 years ago this year.

Carlyle Marney was once spending a couple of days at a seminary in the South. He wandered into a room where some of the seminary students were having a discussion. They were arguing about where the Garden of Eden had been located. Some thought it had been in the Middle East; others thought it had been located in Egypt.

One of the students asked Carlyle Marney where he thought the Garden of Eden had been. He said: “I know exactly where it was. It was at 1611 Locust Street, Knoxville, Tennessee.”
The students looked at him in wonderment, so he continued.

“It was at 1611 Locust Street in Knoxville,” he said, “that my mother gave me some money when I was a small boy to go to the corner store to get milk. When I got there, instead of buying milk, I bought candy. I had eaten the candy by the time I got home. When I got there I hid in the hallway closet behind the coats. After awhile, my mother came and opened the closet door and pushed aside the coats and looked at me and said, ‘Carl, what have you done?’

So you see,” he told the students, “the Garden of Eden was located at 1611 Locust Street, Knoxville, Tennessee.”

Each of us has in our life a Garden of Eden.

Each of us has in our life a Tower of Babel, an Egypt, a Red Sea, a Sinai, a wilderness and a Promised Land. Each of us has in our life a Jerusalem and a Temple, a Babylon, an exile, a Diaspora, and a homecoming. Each of us has in our life a Bethlehem of Judea, a Capernaum, a Samaria, a Jerusalem, a Gethsemane, an Upper Room, a Golgotha, a betrayal, a denial, and an empty tomb. Each of us has in our life a Pentecost, a road to Damascus, an Isle of Patmos, a New Jerusalem, and a heavenly city.

If we can learn to find God in the deep places of the Bible, then perhaps we can rediscover God in the deep places of our lives and of our world again.

Darwin has not made it easier for those of us who love the Bible to read it. But he has helped us read it more profoundly, to look into the Bible more deeply to find God.

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