Published: September 2008
We have been taught, by conservative theologians and fundamentalist preachers, that evolution is a scientific concept opposed to the basic tenets of religion. Let us consider, instead, Jesus as a great step forward in the evolution of the faith of the Judaeo-Christian people. What can we learn from the evolution of ancient Judaism through the two millennia of Christianity? Are we Anglicans still evolving?
An obvious indication that our faith itself is evolutionary is that we call the first section of the Bible the "Old" Testament and the subsequent story of Jesus and his followers the "New." The gospels emphasize how Jesus was a fulfillment of the Old and explore how he was different, God Incarnate, a radically new being.
The Bible is itself a history that records and comments on what happened from creation to the time of St. Paul. Written in several languages by many generations of writers, its styles evolved from ancient, oral stories through to the subtleties of Pauline theology and reflect the authors' sometimes contradictory or perhaps simply evolving beliefs.
In Moses' time justice was obedience to God and, between people, an eye for an eye; for Jesus justice was sharing. Moses' God was a jealous God, mighty, easily angered; Jesus proclaimed the God of love and mercy.
Jesus moved past Old Testament tribal laws to love of neighbor, even when the neighbor was an enemy. Moses lived in a time when humans could not look on God; Jesus was the first human to call God "Father" and to assert, "The Father and I are one." As believers we pray as well to God the Holy Spirit, not mentioned in the Old Testament, but promised by Jesus and known to his followers. The Old Testament God rewarded obedience with physical prosperity in the promised land of Canaan. Jesus promised, for his followers, the continuing presence of God in their lives and the blessing of the Kingdom of God in life and death.
St. Paul, who explored the implications of this new message, described how he evolved from persecuting Christians as a Pharisee to become an influential apostle. He told how he grew from seeing or understanding "as a child" to seeing "as a man." He looked forward to full understanding, "face to face."
The next step in this history was apparently backward. Centuries later the Christian church in Europe had become the Roman Catholic Church that enjoyed power and wealth that Jesus and Paul could not have imagined, let alone condoned.
In reaction came the Protestant Reformation. The printing press enabled access to the Bible and to education for the laity who soon demanded the translation of the Bible and the Mass into the vernacular. The strongest innovator, Martin Luther, argued for two other great changes: that priests could marry and that churches could be controlled nationally. In that time the division of the one "catholic" church into splinter traditions was constructive.
Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin thought of themselves as Christians, however radically the scientific facts that they discovered forced their contemporaries' faith to evolve. With the telescope, Copernicus and Galileo saw that the earth was not the centre of the universe and that God was not in the sky. Darwin traveled to the Galapagos Islands where he came to understand the evolution of species over time periods much longer than the six days recorded in Genesis. Darwin explained that the earth is several billion years old, not several thousand.
It seems that evolution is God's will, central to creation. But we, in 2008, suffer what has been labeled "future shock" because in our time there has been so much change that we find it overwhelming. In many ways our minds are still stuck in the Old Testament. Creationism vs evolution is still debated. We're still tribal and legalistic in our politics, including our church politics. We still picture God as painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. What Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord's Prayer and what he demonstrated in his ministry of radical love are rarely practiced by Christians....
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