I am dismayed when fellow Christians (especially those claiming to speak for the church) make definitive statements that are unsupported in the evidence. There are many who take a dogmatic black and white stand on ideas not supported logically, scientifically or in appropriate understanding of Scripture.
I am dismayed because we stand to hurt our credibility when we make our stand on things we do not actually know and with reasoning that falls apart under closer scrutiny. It is too often the case that those who think they are defending the Gospel truth are actually destroying it in their stubborn obstinacy and inability to see past their own presuppositions about the evidence.
This is a problem in the fundamentalist circles I am most familiar with. Instead of simply taking a stand on faith or sticking to the text of the Bible as they claim, many add their own assumptions. They go another step off the firm ground of what is truly known and onto the quicksand of over-interpretation, unsupported inference and baseless speculation. It is sad because it is unnecessary, it too often is the bathwater that conceals the true baby of Christianity, and drives critical thinking people away.
Two examples (often given in opposition to Evolution theory) is the idea that there is a clean break between living and non-living things. The other is a misuse of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the word “entropy” to mean something that it does not. Both of these ideas originate in extrapolation from Biblical language, but neither one of them is actually as definitive in the Scriptural record as some might assume.
Postulate #1) Life cannot originate from non-life.
It seems obvious enough at first glance, doesn’t it? I mean, have you ever seen mud materialize into human form, then suddenly become animated, walk and talk as a human would? I have not. We do not typically see dead organisms come back to life without a miracle.
And yet, under the microscope, it is interesting that the line between life and non-life is actually blurrier than one might imagine. Viruses are considered dead because they do not have the ability to reproduce without a host cell and do not replicate themselves in the typical way of cell-division. However, a virus can reanimate a dead cell, take control of it and use it to replicate.
Cells themselves are not ‘living’ in their individual components any more than a car is alive when you start it. Yes, in one sense there is life, but it is the ‘life’ of chemical reaction (albeit in a complex system) and in physical processes not considered as living taken independent of each other.
Think about it: The sun (due to gravity and other forces) is orderly, it takes hydrogen and, through a process of fusion, creates light energy and heavier elements. Cells likewise, take one form of matter and through chemical process convert it to something else. The difference between the sun and a cell, when we cut past the descriptive language to the actual material substance, is one of complexity and size rather than living or dead.
Our physical body is basically a complex machine comprised of individual self-replicating cells that work in concert with other different cells to produce organs, tissues and a body. At the smallest level it is all chemical reaction and a sort of mechanical process that usually considered non-living. But, at some point, taken together, these dead parts become something considered a living organism. It is bit of a both/and paradox rather than an either/or dichotomy.
The difference between life and non-life seems to be a continuum more than a black and white line. We do not consider a bacteria as equal to a plant or an animal equal to ourselves and the difference is probably the amount of ‘life’ each organism represents. Likewise, I do not know if we can consider an animated universe something ‘dead’ with all the creative processes at work. All, to me, are expressions of a creative and living God.
Postulate #2) Entropy is corruptive and not a good thing.
Lay people often misunderstand the Second Law of Thermodynamics (the state of entropy of the entire universe, as an isolated system, will always increase over time) as some kind of moral statement. This misunderstanding is understandable. Entropy is associated with decay and the universe is (by appearances, because of entropy) like a wind up clock that will finally someday be exhausted.
However, the increase of disorder or entropy in the universe is not an entirely bad thing. In fact, entropy is how we get the energy and substance we need to survive. When a man enters an ‘orderly’ forest, cuts a swath out to build a cabin and cultivates the space created, he has increased entropy. Our favorite star (aka: the sun) taking ‘orderly’ hydrogen and turning it into a mix of heavier elements and light is increasing entropy. Entropy is what makes the universe work and allows something as complicated as biological life exist.
Another way to understand entropy is to see it as an increase in complexity. A stack of lumber is an orderly arrangement and has a relatively low state of entropy. Hire a carpenter and turn the orderly stack into a house and, with addition of work to cut the lumber to different lengths, along with the contamination of nails, drywall, windows, doors, plumbing, and other building materials, you have increased entropy.
A pile of rocks is at a relatively low state of entropy. People, one the other hand, represent a very high level of entropy. We are arguably the pinnacle of disorder in the universe with our complexity and creative abilities. Our turning orderly raw materials into complex creations, the process we use involving the dispersal of energy, is creating a higher level of entropy. A 747 is a product of entropy as much as human engineering.
Entropy is like the sun or rain. The same sun that produces the energy we need to survive can also cause skin cancer and kill us. The rain cycle that we depend on for fresh water is also capable of producing floods and destruction. Entropy is not exclusively creative or destructive, it is not something moral or immoral, it just is, and it is necessary for life to exist as we know it.
If life is an emergent property of physical complexity or entropy, then what?
The idea of life being an emergent quality of complex physical processes is unsettling to some. There are serious philosophical questions and potentially big theological implications. Nevertheless, if honest use of terms is our concern, we must be fearless and follow the evidence where it leads.
One idea at stake is our human exceptionalism. In the book of Genesis we read an exceptional account describing the creation of man. In it we both see humanity as being “in the image of God” and also that God ‘breathed’ the “breath of life” directly into man. This is directness in the creation of humankind is unique in the Genesis narrative, but what does it really mean?
We are not exceptional to animals in our physical body. A human heart can be patched with a valve from a pig. Human insulin can be created with bacteria and our genetic code is not too significantly different from other animals of our level of complexity. It would appear that other animals also have consciousness at some level.
So clearly, for the Genesis account to be true, we are somehow special, touched uniquely by God, yet not in a physical sense. When defining the terms used in Scripture, it is good to compare different accounts and see how similar language is used elsewhere. In the case of breathing we are not without another reference for sake of comparison.
Genesis is not the only time in the Biblical canon that the divine breathed on men and gave them life:
“Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” (John 20:21-22)
The disciples of Jesus were clearly already physically alive. But they were not yet ‘born of the Spirit’ and therefore could not understand the things of God. Read John 6, Jesus talks about the “living bread” he represents and understand that he is not speaking about physical bread nor about physical life. There are many cases in Scripture like this one where a completely ‘literal’ (physical reality) interpretation is incorrect.
So, perhaps what many have been taught and think they know about the book of Genesis is wrong? Perhaps the book is less about physical reality and more about a greater spiritual truth? I believe that is possible, even probable, and leads to less conflict with what is known through scientific inquiry.
Knowing what we need to know…
I believe many Biblical fundamentalists confuse the bathwater of their own established interpretation, traditions and dogmas with the baby. The baby or fundamental truth of Christianity is not found in historical documents nor proved with scientific evidence. The truth of Christianity is found in knowing what Paul knew:
“For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:2-5)
The truth of Christianity is Jesus. And, by Jesus, I do not mean the historical figure who’s words we read in a book and the religious traditions that borrowed his name. I mean the Jesus that we live out daily and our having the mind of Christ today. The church must represent Jesus to the world presently, the power of the Spirit must be our reality now or our religious words only perpetuate a fraud. Jesus must be experienced in our lives today and his will expressed through us or the truth is not in us.
When we find our answers in Jesus (rather than Genesis) and should have spiritual experience in our lives. What makes us unique is the emergent quality of faith and the breath of God’s own Spirit in us. We are in the image of the divine because we have the mind of Christ. These are things revealed by faith and not products of mere human knowledge.
We need not know more than the way of Jesus. If we live that out our lives will reveal the truth of Christianity without our need of superfluous or false knowledge to bolster our case. Let the proof of faith be in the truth of our actions and the image of God found in our divine love.