We are in the early stages of what I think historians will one day call religion’s Evidential Reformation. Increasingly, most of us (the devout included) relate to scientific, historic and cross-cultural evidence as more authoritative than the dictates of an all-male ecclesiastical body or a literalist reading of Scripture.
A good example of this is a recent Christianity Today cover story: “The Search for the Historical Adam,” which noted that a growing number of evangelical leaders are shedding a traditional reading of Genesis because of what’s been revealed through genetic evidence. In the words of Francis Collins and Karl Giberson, “Literalist readings of Genesis imply that God specifically created Adam and Eve, and that all humans are descended from these original parents. Such readings, unfortunately, do not fit the evidence.”
Just as Augustine reinterpreted Christianity in light of Plato in the fourth century, and Aquinas integrated Aristotle in the 13th, today there are dozens of theologians across the spectrum re-envisioning the Christian faith. Whose ideas are they integrating now? Darwin, Einstein, Hubble, Wilson and all who have contributed to an evidence-based understanding of physical, biological and cultural evolution.
What many find most inspiring is also the least disputable: what we now know (not merely believe) about big history, human nature and the vital, creative role of death at all levels of the cosmos.
Big history, also known as the epic of evolution or Great Story, is the 13.7 billion year science-based tale of cosmic genesis — from the formation of galaxies and the origin of life, to the development of consciousness and culture, and onward to the emergence of ever-widening circles of care and concern. It is the first origin story in the history of humanity that is globally produced and derived entirely from evidence. Thanks to Bill Gates and David Christian’s Big History Project, it will soon be taught in high schools around the world.
Through big history we discover that we are made of stardust and that we’re related to everything. Indeed, we can think of our own species as the way the universe itself is awakening to the magnificence of its epic journey — a tale of increasing complexity and interdependence. Big history helps us appreciate the role of science in eliciting global wisdom and the role of religion in fostering cooperation at scales larger than our biological instincts could bring about.
Moving from our outer to inner world, science offers a no less remarkable insight. Within us are instincts shaped by millions of years of evolution. Alas, those deep-rooted, compelling drives are now dangerously out of sync with modern times.
To be blunt, the very same instincts that enabled our ancestors to survive and reproduce now make many of us fat, some addicted and most of us frivolous in how we use our downtime.
Instincts can hardly be faulted, however. We are surrounded by “supernormal stimuli“: processed foods, feel-good drugs and alcohol, Internet porn, romance novels, mind-numbing television, addictive gaming — none of which our ancestors ever had to face.
What this means is that without an evolutionary grasp of why our instincts and emotions are the way they are, it isn’t just difficult to wisely choose and live our priorities. It’s practically impossible.
Finally, all religious traditions have offered beliefs that helped their adherents face the inevitability of death — face it with trust. Thanks to science, we now have knowledge that does the same (and more!), while inviting the religious traditions to evolve.
Fundamentally, we learn (via many converging lines of evidence) that death is natural and generative at all levels of reality. Consider: without the death of ancient stars (which are cauldrons of chemical creation), the universe would support nothing more complex than the simplest gases: hydrogen and helium. Without the death of generation upon generation of simple forms of life, no descendants could have evolved eyes to see, colors to attract, emotions to feel. Without the death of fetal cells during the early stages of development, we would all be spheres. And of course, this: In a finite world, without the death of elders there would be no room for children.
Until we grasp that death is no less sacred than life, and that it plays a necessary role in an evolving cosmos, Christianity will be shackled by otherworldly notions of “the gospel,” medical technologies will prolong physical and emotional suffering, and the medical industry will inadvertently underwrite the widening gap between rich and poor.
Few things are more important than transforming how we think about our inner and outer nature, and our mortality. Thus far, the Evidential Reformation has been centered in science. We desperately need our faith traditions to celebrate this momentous time. We need all the experience that the traditions can muster to guide us today. For in truth, evidence is modern-day scripture.