Book Review: Nature’s Witness

Mike Clawson (NOT Hemant) here…

Last month I promised a review of Daniel Harrell’s new book, Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith. This is a book written by a Christian pastor for other Christians, but on a topic that I know many of you have an interest in: the intersection of Christian faith and evolutionary science. I have written a more detailed review of the book from my own Christian perspective on my blog. However, there are a number of reasons I think some of you here may also appreciate this book. (And I do stress “some”. I realize that others of you here have nothing but contempt for any attempt by Christians to integrate their faith with scientific discoveries, and the only thing I can say is that if that’s the case, then this review is not for you and you may just want to skip over it.)

  1. This book takes the discussion well past the basic question of “Is it possible to reconcile Genesis 1 with evolution?” Since I answered that question for myself in the affirmative way back in high school, I’m a bit weary of books that rehash this discussion over and over again. Harrell thankfully spends little time on this. Instead he takes the discussion to the next level and asks “If we assume that evolutionary theory is true, what impact does it have on our conception of God?” As I mentioned in my previous post, Harrell points out that if God exists and is the creator of all things, then evolution is itself a creation of God, and therefore should be able to tell us something about God’s character and nature. In other words, he sees science as a positive source for his theology, not just a challenge to it. Throughout the book Harrell is engaged with the latest discoveries of biology, physics and cosmology, and often allows the science to inform and/or modify his beliefs about God.
  2. Harrell is brutally honest about the doubts and questions he has about his own faith, and about the difficulties evolution poses for his previous Christian beliefs. He doesn’t whitewash anything or pose any easy or overly simplistic answers. In fact, the bulk of the book is spent simply raising difficult questions. Indeed, he kept digging himself in so deep, there were times when I was almost convinced that Harrell would have no choice but give up his faith in the end (spoiler alert: he doesn’t). I really appreciate an author who writes with more humility than certainty, and who is willing to say “I’m not sure how this all works out, but here’s some possibilities.” It’s refreshing given the large number of books out there these days (on both sides) that take a more absolutist tone.
  3. He is thoroughly opposed to any kind of “God of the gaps” reasoning. Though the book itself only tangentially deals with reasons to believe in God (it’s not really an apologetics book after all, which will likely frustrate some atheist readers), when it does touch on the relation of God and science, Harrell is adamant that we not try to locate God merely in those areas where science does not yet have an answer. Instead he is clear that the Christian God is the God of nature, not in spite of it. As Harrell points out, “A natural explanation is not a godless explanation because God made nature. The natural world is evidence of his mind-blowing skill.” (70) Thus a “God of the gaps” approach simply misses the point.

At any rate, I would recommend this book either for atheists who have been of the persuasion that evolution is irreconcilably opposed to Christian belief and would be interested in hearing a differing viewpoint, or for ones who may find it useful to give to Christian friends or family to dissuade them from their hostility toward evolutionary science. I’d also recommend it for anyone who needs to be encouraged by the fact that not all people of faith have closed their minds to scientific truth. If any of these describe you, check it out.

  • http://www.babyfight.com garth

    Wow, way to lose me right off the bat with your “SOME of you” stuff. Try being more self-conscious next time.

  • Miko

    Harrell points out that if God exists and is the creator of all things, then evolution is itself a creation of God

    That’s not necessarily the case, mainly because as Harrell also points out “A natural explanation is not a godless explanation because God made nature.” If one starts out by creating nature that follows a few simple rules, one doesn’t necessarily know in advance what all of the consequences of those rules will be. (Consider for example a free market: if you consider every single step necessary to make a pencil or get a candy bar from an assembly line to a grocery store, it’s pretty clear that no human intelligence could have possibly planned all the steps. Yet, if you lay down a few simple rules about how people can cooperate to achieve mutually beneficial ends, it happens spontaneously.) Even if we get around the central planning problem by assuming that nature was created by an omniscient intelligence who choose the rules of nature in a specific way in order to ensure specific outcomes, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the desired outcomes would be achievable from any set of simple rules.

    I’d be willing (I don’t; but I’d be willing) to accept things like nuclear fission and centrifugal force as divinely created, but evolution itself is not a law of nature in the same sense that things like gravity are; rather, it’s a consequence of other laws and some basic mathematics. So, say rather that such a god created a bunch of natural laws and evolution just happened to come up as a byproduct of them.

  • Aj

    1) If evolution is a “creation” that requires “skill”, at what point did God create the necessary mechanisms?

    2) Doesn’t this require a deterministic universe, thus percieved randomness has to be explained by “hidden variables”?

    3) He does realise that when people say “natural explanations are godless” they mean gods are not included or required in them?

    4) Give me one example of how anything in the natural world could possibly be used to tell anything about the character of any god.

  • http://www.sheeptoshawl.com writerdd

    (it’s not really an apologetics book after all, which will likely frustrate some atheist readers)

    Not this one. I despise apologetics (and anti-apologetics) books.

  • dutch

    I am researching in this field for a book I am writing. I am devoting one chapter in the area of not only evolution, but physics(in particular the zero point field), and abiogenesis research.
    “Is it possible to reconcile Genesis 1 with evolution?” I say absolutely. In fact, science and religion will merge. As Christianity begins to understand The meaning of The Bible, and science begins to delve ever deeper into the mysteries of the universe, the merge will happen.

    Rev Carlton Pearson lost his megachurch because he understood something that most Christianity doesn’t, and now he is persecuted by mainstream pastors, just like the pastor of my church.

  • dutch
  • andrew

    this is wearisome…simply no

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Hm. I guess my biggest question about this book would be: If God is responsible for nature and evolution, then why is the design of life so funky and flawed? Why do we have knees and backs better designed for four- footed animals than upright ones? Why do our infants have to be born so helpless, just so the pelvic girdle can accommodate the big skull? Why are our optic nerves wired upside- down and backwards? Why is our reasoning process so well adapted to life hundreds of thousands of years ago on the African savannah, and not to life in modern civilized society?

    And I’m not even getting into the freakier cruelties of many non- human forms of life: the predators who toy with their prey, the mantises that bite the heads off their mates mid-mating, the ducks that rape, the insects that lay their eggs in living flesh. Etc.

    If I believed in God, and I believed that the design of nature revealed who God was, I’d have to come to the conclusion that God is a sadistic joker.

    Does Harrell address this question? If so, what conclusion does he come to?

  • joanna

    I can’t see how science and religion can merge. They are incompatible. Isn’t religion basic wishful thinking? It doesn’t seem to be rational.

    Darwin’s ideas don’t need God in the recipe to explain anything. Is the existence of God a scientific question anyway? Aren’t we entering metaphysics at this point in the questioning? Beyond physical?

  • inkadu

    The only way to reconcile Christianity with science is to reconcile Deism instead and make believe you reconciled Christianity. The God talked about in these books is unrecognizable to practicing Christians.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Greta, at Mike’s longer review on his blog, he gives Harrell’s response to these type of questions. It’s in the two paragraphs that begin “My one complaint with the book. . .”

  • Zar

    Is evolution reconcilable with religious beliefs? I don’t know or care. Religious folks, hard-core Christians included, seem able to reconcile geology, astronomy, medical science and the like with their beliefs; I don’t see why evolution should be such a sticking point.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    So God cleverly created the world to make it look like it exists according to only purely naturalistic mechanisms because ….

    [complete the sentence]

    and therefore you can make the jump from Pantheism to Christianity because …..

    [complete the sentence].

    Are those sentences completed in the book?

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Wow, way to lose me right off the bat with your “SOME of you” stuff. Try being more self-conscious next time.

    Sorry garth, I was just trying to head off those for whom any discussion of Christian theology is merely an excuse for making snide, condescending comments. If someone wants to have an intelligent discussion on the topic, great! If they just want to take a shit on someone else’s doorstep, they might as well not waste their time.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Hm. I guess my biggest question about this book would be: If God is responsible for nature and evolution, then why is the design of life so funky and flawed? Why do we have knees and backs better designed for four- footed animals than upright ones? Why do our infants have to be born so helpless, just so the pelvic girdle can accommodate the big skull? Why are our optic nerves wired upside- down and backwards? Why is our reasoning process so well adapted to life hundreds of thousands of years ago on the African savannah, and not to life in modern civilized society?

    And I’m not even getting into the freakier cruelties of many non- human forms of life: the predators who toy with their prey, the mantises that bite the heads off their mates mid-mating, the ducks that rape, the insects that lay their eggs in living flesh. Etc.

    If I believed in God, and I believed that the design of nature revealed who God was, I’d have to come to the conclusion that God is a sadistic joker.

    Does Harrell address this question? If so, what conclusion does he come to?

    Yes Greta, that is exactly the question that the bulk of the book deals with. For instance, on page 46 he writes:

    “Theology teaches me that the character of creation reflects the character of the Creator – God’s beauty and order and goodness and purposefulness. But as soon as you start thinking about what an evolving creation truly reveals – namely cruelty and disorder and indifference and randomness – you can’t help but wonder about your faith and about the God to whom that faith points.”

    As Autumnal Harvest pointed out, I say more about that question over at my own blog, but I don’t think I really did Harrell justice. You’d really have to read the book to get his full response to the issue.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    1) If evolution is a “creation” that requires “skill”, at what point did God create the necessary mechanisms?

    2) Doesn’t this require a deterministic universe, thus percieved randomness has to be explained by “hidden variables”?

    3) He does realise that when people say “natural explanations are godless” they mean gods are not included or required in them?

    4) Give me one example of how anything in the natural world could possibly be used to tell anything about the character of any god.

    Harrell addresses each of these questions at length in the book, but I’m not going to attempt to summarize his responses here, because 1) I don’t have the time (my Spring semester starts tomorrow), and 2) I’d probably butcher them anyway. My apologies. But if you do have an interest (and the time and money), it might be worth reading him for yourself.

  • http://aurorawalkingvacation.blogspot.com Paul

    The problem with any discussion of attempting to reconcile religion and science is that the two are fundamental opposites of each other. Religion requires you to accept something for which absolutely no evidence exists, and science requires you to demand compelling evidence before accepting anything. Anyone who tells you different either doesn’t understand religion, doesn’t understand science, or is lying.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Paul, you’re confusing different questions. It may be that the scientific worldview and the religious worldview are incompatible with one another. But that’s different from the question of whether a religion (Christianity) has a particular reason to have problems with a specific scientific theory (evolution). After all, most Christians don’t have problems with plate techtonics. Or the internal combustion engine.

  • http://www.dflintnernlp.com David Lintner

    As a former Lutheran pastor I find it interesting to see christians continuing to make the attempt to reconcile their god memes with the sciences. The discussion that must precede such an attempt, in my opinion, is the nature of perception and the need for human primates to have a story to believe in. Christianity is a story, and its entire existence depends on the outdated sin meme. The sin meme is completely irrelevant as an explanation for human behavior, and the need for the savior meme which is dependent on it is abrogated.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    I read your review on Emerging Pensees, and these are my comments (which are not meant to be as confrontational as they sound).

    The basic argument that evolution contradicts Christianity goes like this: Evolution implies evil, and evil contradicts Christianity. Basically, it’s a subset of the problem of evil. I’ve always thought that this was a terrible argument, or at least a very uncompelling one. Why? Because Christians already know about the problem of evil, and must confront it whether they believe in evolution or not.

    That said, I find Harrell’s answer to the evil of evolution to be very unsatisfying, and I think you should find it unsatisfying too. It falls for the naturalistic fallacy: it assumes that the way things are is the way things ought to be. Is this really plausible? Are we really convinced that for every instance of evil, we will find a justification? If I found an instance that could not be justified, would you instantly deny its existence? Or would you warp your view of ethics to accommodate the problem? This seems like a dangerous way to do theology; all it takes is one instance of evil that doesn’t fit.

    In the comment thread on Emerging Pensees, you pointed out that Christians who don’t believe in evolution can simply say that evil is caused by original sin. This also seems like a dangerous way to do theology, for comparable reasons. All it takes is one instance of evil which occurred before the fall of man. And what then? Will Christians simply deny that any evil occurred? Yes, apparently they’ll go so far as to deny evolutionary science.

    I think a good answer to the problem of evil must not rely on the idea that only a certain kind of evil exists. Because there are so many kinds of evils, chances are pretty good you will not be able to fit everything in that theological paradigm.

  • http://lifebeforedeath.blogsome.com Felicia Gilljam

    Greta Christina – If I understand things correctly, what is described here is not so much an intelligent designer god as a non-interventionist god that simply sets the universe going and then loves and delights in whatever comes out of it. Which means this god is actually a scientist (as I’m sure many scientists have a deep fondness for their test subjects even as they inflict them with cancer, cut their legs off to see if they regrow, etc).

    How the hell this is reconcilable with the bible, I have no idea. Basically they’re just ignoring the whole Genesis story and you then come down to the whole problem that if the very first chapter’s allegorical, how can you know ANYTHING in the bible is true? Which then leads to the question, how the hell can you call yourself a christian if you don’t actually believe the bible is trustworthy?

    As much as I appreciate religious people who DON’T try to wreck my science for me, I have to admit I find it vaguely pitiable the extent to which they will contort their own belief system just to make it at least appear to fit reality. I simply don’t get why they don’t just give up and become atheistic humanists. What do they need god for? :S

  • Reginald Selkirk

    As Harrell points out, “A natural explanation is not a godless explanation because God made nature. The natural world is evidence of his mind-blowing skill.”

    None of this challenges my belief, because I know that the FSM created God. Therefore, the natural world is indirect evidence of the FSM’s mind-blowing skill. So is the success of Christian religion. The FSM also created Krishna, Buddha, Thor, Kinich Ahau, et. al., so the success of all religions merely reflects the consummate wisdom and competence of the FSM. Whatever response you have to this will also be a validation of my belief.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Good points miller. I guess the main problem is that most Christians don’t like to attribute any evil to God. The solution to this then, is either 1) God created/allows evil for some greater a good, or 2) what appears evil to us actually isn’t.

    And yes, of course, the third option is to simply say that God doesn’t exist, and thus there’s no reason at all to think that “is” would ever reflect “ought”. Speaking personally, that option doesn’t actually make anything better for me, but I can see how it might for some people.

  • dutch

    .

    “As much as I appreciate religious people who DON’T try to wreck my science for me, I have to admit I find it vaguely pitiable the extent to which they will contort their own belief system just to make it at least appear to fit reality. I simply don’t get why they don’t just give up and become atheistic humanists. What do they need god for? :

    Felicia,
    1) God is suffering(is He not omniscient)the same things all of humanity is suffering, has suffered and will suffer. Add to that, all living things.

    2) Jesus Christ, and in fact the entire Bible, is not a historical account of events on our earth.

    3)The body of Christ is us

    4) About 2,000 years(2 days) ago His Body was laid in a grave(hell)
    2Pe 3:8 “And this one thing let not be unobserved by you, beloved, that one day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day”

    5) God is in hell, we are in hell.(hell, grave, pit sheol are the same)
    Psa 139:8 If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.

    The Christian religion has been moving forward ever since the founding some 2,000 years ago. You may well find it “pitiable,” for your vain arguments against religion, and Christianity in particular, are going up in smoke. You will continue to bash a carnal (temporal) understanding of the text, and inconsistent Christian behavior.
    The latest understanding of the fundamental forces of the universe are pointing to a very strange holographic universe where space and time cease to exist.

    Ecc 1:9 The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

    1Co 15:28 and when the all things may be subjected to him, then the Son also himself shall be subject to Him, who did subject to him the all things, that God may be the all in all.

    “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Einstein

    Einstein was able to perceive the seemingly unperceivable because his knowledge came with a, what if imagination.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090203130708.html

    Oh, one more thing. George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, said the second coming of Christ will be in man. Mr. Fox wrote that some 300 years ago. Every once in awhile, throughout history, comes a person with some understanding. Mainstream Christianity persecuted Fox, and if Fox were alive today, it would be no different. Today, Christianity is becoming more spiritual exactly because science is showing that The Bible cannot be studied with a carnal (temporal) mind. In one way atheism is a boost for Christianity because it will force some to study The Scriptures in a more spiritual context. Keep asking Christians things like, “how could the universe be created in 6 days? How could Jonah be in a big fish for 3 days? Where is the evidence for the existence of Jesus, Moses, King David, The Apostles etc.?

    This book reviewed here is just one of many, and there will be many more to come.

  • dutch
  • Chal

    So what you’re saying is that the Bible is completely out of sync with the real world, which boosts Christianity, because they need to stop thinking critically about the Bible?

    Kind of makes sense in a perverse fashion.

  • inkadu

    Sorry garth, I was just trying to head off those for whom any discussion of Christian theology is merely an excuse for making snide, condescending comments. If someone wants to have an intelligent discussion on the topic, great!

    I understand what you’re trying to do, but I think you’re doing a disservice to the word “intelligent” here.

    Theology is ad-hoc reconciliation of religion and reality. It is often deeply dishonest in that the view of religion it claims to defend is almost entirely absent within their congregations. And further, their agonizing discussions of what God did or didn’t do implicitly denies the very foundations of their religion.

    Take Ken Miller for instance, who admits that maybe God works, somehow, within quantum fluctuations. Yet he is Catholic, which implies that he believes this God, who couldn’t be bothered to interfere in the million year evolution of the species suddenly took an interest in humanity circa 2000 BCE to start phrophesying that he was going to engineer a grand drama in the first century CE. The two views are absolutely irreconcilable. Note: I’m not talking pure-science vs. pure-religion. I’m talking about the two versions of God that exists within the heads of these apologists.

    They are playing a game of bait-and-switch, where “reasonable” Christians, who believe in Christ and the ressurection, can answer the question “What about God in evolution?” but do so by creating a fundamentally DIFFERENT God than the one that sent Jesus to redeem the world. They answer the one question without realizing they’ve created an even thornier question.

    We have to separate Christianity — a belief that man sinned and that Christ came down to die on the cross to redeem humanity — from semi-active Deism — that God created the universe and might tinker a little bit, but doesn’t get personally involved in our affairs. To do otherwise strikes me as the very opposite of intelligent.

  • inkadu

    Dutch — Can you explain your theology in a little bit more detail? Because I don’t understand it as you presented it.

    There is a theory that the Christ-myth began as a description of struggles in some ethereal plane — that they were Gods struggling over the fate of humanity. The work of early Christians was bringing that struggle down to Earth and make Christ from a God into a God-man (maybe borrowed from a Mithraic cult). Is that something along the lines of what you believe?

    Because you state several things that seem to contradict each other. The body of Christ is us, but it was laid in the ground of hell. The bible is not a historical document, but something happened 2000 years ago.

    And finally, do you belong to a church? If so, do you share your views their, and what is the reaction?

    Thanks.

  • inkadu

    Autumnal Harvest wrote:
    After all, most Christians don’t have problems with plate techtonics.

    That wasn’t always the case. Back in the day, the earth was created 6,000 years ago and the Old Testament was considered a text book of ancient history.

    But the kerfluffle over plate tectonics was pretty minor compared to the debate about heliocentric universe. Since God created man, it was natural to assume that God made earth the center of the universe. That the earth revolved around the sun was an insult to our human egos.

    Evolution is a further injury. One of the main roots of Christianity is that humanity is special. God has chosen us, of all the critters on the earth, to have souls, to suffer, to have the chance to live forever. Evolution will have none of that. Evolution implies we are just as much part of this earth as monkeys and star fish — there is nothing extraordinary about us. Certainly there are things that make man unique among animals, but there is nothing different in quality that needs God to insert it.

    Once Christianity has absorbed evolution — as it is doing now in it’s ridiculous way — they’re going to have to deal with neurology. If everything we think and feel and experience is a phenomenon of our mushy brains, there is very little room for a soul, for an identity that is independent of physical matter.

    Religion better resolve its problems with evolution soon, or it’s going to have a huge backlog of scientific discoveries to digest.

  • http://lifebeforedeath.blogsome.com Felicia Gilljam

    Dutch, you’re pretty much exactly demonstrating the behaviour I was describing. Thanks. ;)

  • SarahH

    Thanks for sharing this, Mike. While I agree with others here that the questions raised by the problem of evil and certain characteristics of “design” and evolution logically lead one away from theism (perhaps into deism, at the very least), I think books like this are a step in the right direction.

    They get Christians thinking about these questions, acknowledging that hard questions are out there – and it also encourages a positive attitude towards science, instead of a hostile fear of it. Sure, as atheists, we’re going to say that those hard questions have no good answers and that theism is irrational, but I don’t think anyone is going to go from creationism to that attitude through reading one book. So like I said, this book is a step in the right direction.

  • Brooks

    Speaking as an atheist who used to be a fundamentalist Christian, I never understood why evolution was incompatible with Christianity. It was simply accepted that it was because the preacher said so. I’ve asked other Christians from other anti-evolution denominations before to explain why it is and so far they haven’t bee able to tell me. They usually either just ignore my questions or give some vague response about original sin. To which I ask them where in the bible does it say we have original sin, to which I never get an answer to either. While I think science is incomptabible with religion, I don’t think religion is necessarily incompatible with science. It’s only the narrow minded view of the bible that fundies have of the bible that I think is incompatible. Besides, fundies are inconsistent with their arguments as the same arguments they use against evolution could also be applied to gravity but I don’t see fundies demanding we teach intelligent falling in science class. I think Christianity as a whole will eventually accept evolution if it wants to survive just like they eventually accepted that the Earth was round.

    It should also be pointed out that this whole debate about whether or not Genesis is an allegory is not a new argument but it is an older argument that’s been around since the early days of the church. St. Augustine didn’t believe Genesis was a literal story either and this was way back in the second century before this whole evolution debate came along. As Galileo one said, the bible teaches men how to get to heaven, not how the heavens go. But ultimately without any non-biblical evidence of what the life of Jesus was like or what the authors meant when they left the bible, all of this is a guess and moderate Christians have to rely on faith just as much as fundies do.

  • inkadu

    Brooks –

    Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned
    (Rom. 5:12).

    Original sin is fairly explicitly stated as the reason Jesus needed to be sacrificed. To wash that sin away for all of humanity.
    Without original sin, what is the point of Jesus’ sacrifice?

    Christians discount the creation and Adam & Eve because it’s frankly embarassing. But it has metaphysical implications they blithely ignore.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Even without the “Jesus died for a metaphor” question, I don’t understand how Jesus’ death is supposed to have cleansed everyone else’s sin. How does that work? When i put the clothes on the line to dry, it can be explained with respect to evaporation and convection. When I feed the pets, it has to do with providing fuel for their continuing metabolic processes. How then, does one person’s death cleanse another person’s sin? This can only be an arbitrary rule set up by someone. If God is obligated to follow this arbitrary rule, then I want to know, who writes the rules that God must follow?

  • Aj

    Sympathetic magic… sacrifice is just another form of it, it doesn’t make sense to me either, but the people who wrote the Bible were familiar with it. The power of the sacrifice was proportional to the power, worth, and purity of what was being sacrificed. Jesus is like the ultimate sacrificial virgin lamb layer of golden eggs.

  • inkadu

    Reginald – The sin scrubbing is an offshoot of blood sacrifice to appease the gods. The Hebrews used to sacrifice sheep to G-d, the Aztecs sacrificed captured prisoners to some god or other, and God himself sacrificed his son — aka the Lamb of God aka Agnus Dei.

    The funny thing is that God had to sacrifice his own son implied that these spiritual physics exist outside of God’s control…

    But if you’re looking for where the idea of blood sacrifice came from, you’re better off looking at anthropologists. One theory is that people just felt uncomfortable slaughtering and eating animals. So this twinge of discomfort was allayed by sacrificing the animal to god. God kept the soul. People ate the meat. We partly do this ourselves, by thanking God for the food we implicate God’s blessing for the slaughter of turkeys.

  • Brooks

    Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned
    (Rom. 5:12).

    Original sin is fairly explicitly stated as the reason Jesus needed to be sacrificed. To wash that sin away for all of humanity.
    Without original sin, what is the point of Jesus’ sacrifice?

    Christians discount the creation and Adam & Eve because it’s frankly embarassing. But it has metaphysical implications they blithely ignore.

    But this verse doesn’t say that sin was what was passed onto all men. It said that it was death that passed unto all men. Furthermore, Ezekiel 18:19-20 states we can only be held responsible for our own sins and not for the sins of others.

    “Yet you say, ‘Why should the son not bear the guilt of the father?’ Because the son has done what is lawful and right, and has kept all My statutes and observed them, he shall surely live. 20 The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

    As for what the point of Jesus’ sacrifice would be without original sin, even though I was a fundamentalist Christian and believed in a literal interpretation of Genesis, I wasn’t taught to believe in original sin (I was a member of the Church Of Christ). I was taught that Jesus died for our sins but we can only be held responsible for the sins we committed ourselves and not the sins committed by other people, thus Jesus died for all our sins, not just Adam and Eve’s.

    Didn’t Jesus also teach against this idea when the apostles asked him if the sins of the lame man’s parents were responsible for making him lame when Jesus healed him and Jesus said they weren’t responsible? I’ve also heard some Christians say that the first sin wasn’t Adam and Eve’s eating the fruit but it was Cain’s murder of Able that was the first sin. And I’ve heard some liberal Christians don’t believe in hell or in a literal interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion, but I’m not all that familiar with liberal Christianity, so I don’t know what all the arguments for it would be.

  • Aj

    I really appreciate an author who writes with more humility than certainty, and who is willing to say “I’m not sure how this all works out, but here’s some possibilities.” It’s refreshing given the large number of books out there these days (on both sides) that take a more absolutist tone.

    That’s interesting because you’ll find many things in his blog, not much humility. I guess Christianity and things you agree with get a pass…

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    The “dying for your sins” story only makes sense from the perspective that priests invented it over time as an effective way to extract wealth and control from the masses.

    That makes more sense than believing that there really is a pissed-off God over original (and/or continued) sin who only becomes pacified by a two-part process of (1) his one and only one son being sacrificed and (2) you believing this story. And if you don’t believe the story, then you get cast into Hell after you die for all eternity. That sounds pretty far-fetched in my opinion.

    All that being said, I do think the Emerging Church personified by Mike Clawson is a healthy development in the evolution of Christianity.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    Mike C,
    I didn’t mean to imply that the non-existence of God is the only other option. In fact, my previous comment I think reflects what I thought when I was Catholic: you gotta account for all the different kinds of evils in the world, and there are so many different kinds. I didn’t think that the “greater good” or “original sin” answers would cut it for this reason.

    Incidentally, I do not consider this to be a factor in my deconversion. While I didn’t feel that I ever found a satisfying answer to the problem of evil, it was never something I really worried about as a Catholic. There are just some things we can’t know.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    I guess Christianity and things you agree with get a pass…

    How do you figure? Did I say I had ever read his blog? I was referring only to what I read in the book.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    All that being said, I do think the Emerging Church personified by Mike Clawson is a healthy development in the evolution of Christianity.

    Speaking of an emerging view of original sin, if anyone is interested, Tony Jones, former National Coordinator of Emergent Village, is in the middle of a blog series on the topic. You can find the most recent installment and links to his past entries here.

    I also wrote a paper related to questions about original sin for my theology class this past semester. You can find the text of that here.

  • inkadu

    As for what the point of Jesus’ sacrifice would be without original sin, even though I was a fundamentalist Christian and believed in a literal interpretation of Genesis, I wasn’t taught to believe in original sin.

    Isn’t original sin implied, even if you don’t call it that? Man’s birthright was to the paradise of Eden. In Eden we lived in bliss and ignorance and close to God. After we were cast out, we were in a fundamentally different place, stuck with the pain of child birth and death and worrying about sin — something Adam didn’t have to worry about till he screwed it up for the rest of us.

    Until we are all born in Eden and get our chance to eat the apple before getting tossed out, we ARE suffering because of our fathers.

    But thanks for the overview of Christianity. I grew up a confused mix of Lutheran and Catholic and went to evangelical summer camp — so all my theology is mixed up.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Isn’t original sin implied, even if you don’t call it that? Man’s birthright was to the paradise of Eden. In Eden we lived in bliss and ignorance and close to God. After we were cast out, we were in a fundamentally different place, stuck with the pain of child birth and death and worrying about sin.

    Inkadu, do you mean implied by other Christian beliefs, or implied by the text of Genesis? The Genesis story has no implication that eating the apple leads to death or sin. Death is not listed in the punishments that God metes out. In fact, it’s clear that they already had finite lives before eating from the tree, since death is not listed in the punishments, and God in fact expels them from the garden due to fear that they’ll eat from the tree of life, and acheive immortality.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    But this verse doesn’t say that sin was what was passed onto all men. It said that it was death that passed unto all men. Furthermore, Ezekiel 18:19-20 states we can only be held responsible for our own sins and not for the sins of others.

    The Bible is clearly inconsistent on this point, as many stories in the Old Testament center on Jews being punished for the sins of others (their kings, their former kings, their parents, etc. . .) That we can be responsible for the sins of our parents is explicitly stated in a number of places, including in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:5, Deut 5:9)

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Just as a point of interest, original sin as a doctrine doesn’t originate until the 4th century with Augustine. The Eastern Orthodox church, never a big fan of Augustine, has never in fact endorsed it. So yes, there are ways of being Christian without accepting traditional Western notions of original sin.

  • inkadu

    Mike – Thanks for pointing out the bit about the Eastern Orthodox Church. Still, what was the original pre-Augustinian justification for Jesus’ crucification? Under what system of rules did he need to be sacrificed? I grew up with the concept of original sin, so it is really fundamental to how I see the crucifixion. Without it, it doesn’t make sense. So how DOES it makes sense in the Orthodox system, or is it just not really discussed?

    Autumnal Harvest – Good catch on death. I guess Adam & Eve weren’t immortal. But those first Old Testament figures were extremely long-lived. So I guess I reverse engineered from 800-years and figured that Adam & Eve must have lived for pretty close to eternity. But we still have a shorter life span, and we still have to “earn” our way into Heaven, so we are still cursed by being born instead of created. There’s a doctrine of original sin nascent in such a predicament.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Mike – Thanks for pointing out the bit about the Eastern Orthodox Church. Still, what was the original pre-Augustinian justification for Jesus’ crucification? Under what system of rules did he need to be sacrificed? I grew up with the concept of original sin, so it is really fundamental to how I see the crucifixion. Without it, it doesn’t make sense. So how DOES it makes sense in the Orthodox system, or is it just not really discussed?

    The original “atonement theory” (i.e. theology of what Jesus’ death was all about) is commonly known as “Christus Victor”. You can read more about it at that wikipedia entry, but the basic idea is that Christ’s death and resurrection defeats the power of sin, death, and evil (personified by the devil) and thereby sets humanity free from bondage to them. This was the most common view in the early church, and has remained the dominant atonement theology of the Eastern Orthodox church ever since. It has also been gaining in popularity more recently among socially progressive Christians and even some evangelicals.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    . . .we still have to “earn” our way into Heaven, so we are still cursed by being born instead of created. There’s a doctrine of original sin nascent in such a predicament.

    inkadu – It’s silly to argue about it, since I’m not Christian, and so have no feelings on what Christians “should” think about original sin. But I think you’re reading your own beliefs about original sin back into the original story. I don’t see anything in the original story that indicates that what we have to do to get into Heaven was changed. (Actually, I don’t see anything about an afterlife in that story, or even in the Torah.) We’re punished for the sins of Adam and Eve by the toil of agriculture and the pain of childbirth, but that seems a pretty far cry from original sin.

    Thanks for that “Christus Victor” link, Mike, that was really interesting! Is there much discussion in these theories as to why an omnipotent god would need to anything complicated to redeem humanity, forgive original sin, etc. . .? (As opposed to just waving his hands and shouting “forgiven!”) Is there a theological term for the question I just asked that I should be googling?

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    Autumnal Harvest Says: Is there much discussion in these theories as to why an omnipotent god would need to anything complicated to redeem humanity, forgive original sin, etc. . .?

    Good question. I am very curious about that as well. I hope Mike can point us to some information about this.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Is there much discussion in these theories as to why an omnipotent god would need to anything complicated to redeem humanity, forgive original sin, etc. . .? (As opposed to just waving his hands and shouting “forgiven!”) Is there a theological term for the question I just asked that I should be googling?

    Well, the term you’re looking for is “atonement”, and there are three main theories: Christus Victor, Moral Exemplar, and Satisfaction (or Penal Substitution). There are also a lot of more recent feminist, liberationist, and postmodern theories that I’m less familiar with.

    However, keep in mind that “forgiveness” isn’t always considered the main issue of what Christ’s death was all about. In fact, that’s really only the case in the Satisfaction/Penal Substitution Theory of the atonement. Since this is the theory almost exclusively focused on by evangelicals, and used in almost all of their evangelistic pitches, it is the one most people tend to be familiar with. But for other theories, forgiveness of sins is often only one part of a much larger goal of liberating humanity from all which oppresses us. So, in my own view for instance, God does essentially just wave his hands and shout “forgiven” (in my view the crucifixion is not a condition for God’s forgiveness, but rather a demonstration of it.) But forgiveness is just the first step. God doesn’t just want to forgive us from our sins, she wants to liberate us from them entirely. And since that process has to involve not just God’s action, but our participation as well, it’s a little more “complicated”, as you say, than simply waving one’s hands.

    Hope that answers your question.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    Thanks Mike.

    It seems to me that there ARE some good ideas in Christianity but somewhere along the way those good ideas got hijacked in the process of placing them in a religious framework. I’m disposed to think that the good ideas can stand on their own in a humanistic framework.

    I like the Christian emphasis that one can shed the self-hatred and guilt that we are sometimes afflicted with and start anew…. (“Being forgiven for sin”). I like the Christian message not to completely script our lifes but leave some room for chance and inspiration. (“Let Jesus drive”). I can see the value of having metaphoric myths to communicate and relate to these valuable concepts. I just don’t believe that the myths actually happened. Every society has their myths. I think it is healthy, though, to recognize that they are myths.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Thanks, Mike. That makes sense. I looked at some wikipedia pages on atonement, and what you’re saying works for me for the Moral Exemplar theory (which seems close to your view). But I don’t see from the wikipage how Ransom/Victor Christus and Satisfaction deal with the omnipotence problem (or if proponents of these views even regard it as a problem). I’ll try following the links from the wikipedia page on Atonement when I have time (unless you have other suggestions). Cheers!

    Nice cartoon, Jeff.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    I think your “omnipotence problem” is a problem for Satisfaction theory (which is part of why I don’t buy that theory), but as that wiki article notes, Christus Victor is “not so much a rational systematic theory as it is a drama, a passion story of God triumphing over the Powers and liberating humanity from the bondage of sin.” The “omnipotence” problem doesn’t really arise because the conception of God in this view is less of an all-powerful and detached deity who could just fix every problem with a wave of his hand and no need of any participation on our part (a view of God that owes more to Greek philosophy than the Hebrew scriptures), and more of a participant in the cosmic and human drama alongside of us. God, in a sense, limits his own power and enters the story with us in order to liberate us. This is not just something God does in spite of us, but something that he does together with our cooperation (which is why the Moral Exemplar and Christus Victor theories fit well together, and why my own theory is mostly a combination of these two.)

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Hmmm. I’m having trouble matching up the “a drama, a passion story” description with the rest of the wiki description of the Random view. But I probably need to think about it a while. I may be seeing all these other theories through the lens of Satisfaction theory.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    When I entertain the notion of God, I find myself gravitating to one of two extremes:

    1. Either God is omnipotent but a real SOB (allowing needless suffering and providing eternal damnation)

    or

    2. very non-omnipotent where He only acts through the subconscious of human beings… God has a real trouble in even placing images on burnt pieces of toast… hardly the creator of the entire universe. It seems that this second position could be replaced by a good secular theory of the subconscious without needing to result to supernatural entities.

    I presume that there could be compromise positions where He was once omnipotent (Old testament days) but then kind of went into retirement (New Testament on) and only now works through the subconscious (Holy Spirit). But this temporal inconsistency looks too much like a human trait (or human invention).

    I could also see some kind of “God of the Gap” Deism where there is some kind of interconnection between all of nature but not any personal Saviors or afterlives.

    It is refreshing that there are notions of Christianity that differ than what I have heard in certain evangelical (fundamentalist leaning) Southern Baptist churches which I have attended. But I do have to say that those Baptists I know say that anyone who has different notions of Christianity (from them) will burn in Hell (except possibly by the grace of God)… they do acknowledge that one way out.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    You know Jeff, from what you’ve described of yourself in your last few comments, you’d probably actually be pretty content in a United Church of Christ, Unitarian-Universalist, or even some Anglican churches. I have friends here at seminary in all of those traditions, and some of their approaches to Christianity are not really all that different than your own.

    But if I remember correctly, you’re stuck going to a fundamentalist Baptist church because of your wife, right?

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Hmmm. I’m having trouble matching up the “a drama, a passion story” description with the rest of the wiki description of the Random view. But I probably need to think about it a while. I may be seeing all these other theories through the lens of Satisfaction theory.

    We talked a lot about these different theories in my Systematic Theology class last semester, and one distinction that was helpful to me was the difference between an “objective” theory and a “subjective” theory. In this context those terms have nothing to do with epistemology or perceptual bias, but rather focus on where the change occurs – i.e. does Christ’s death change something about us (subjective) or something external to us (objective). Satisfaction theory is purely objective, it changes God, not us. Moral Exemplar, on the other hand, is primarily subjective, it’s about changing us. Christus Victor on the other hand is both objective and subjective. It’s about changing the whole of creation (i.e. disarming and ultimately defeating the systemic “powers” that hold it in bondage) which is both external to us (objective) but also includes us (subjective).

    So the omnipotence problem occurs for Satisfaction theory, because that deals with something wholly relating to God, but doesn’t occur as much for the other two since those require our own participation alongside God’s action. Since most (non-Calvinist) Christians believe that God limits her omnipotence to allow for human freedom, these subjective theories don’t allow for the possibility of God just fixing everything on her own apart from us.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    But if I remember correctly, you’re stuck going to a fundamentalist Baptist church because of your wife, right?

    Kind-of. My wife goes about every other week to help teach in the Sunday-school class. I’ve been playing hooky for about the last 6 months because the sermons have started to repeat themselves. The pastor has only so much original material. We are regularly going to a weekly small group which has been pretty interesting to me to learn how the evangelical mind works. I pull my punches to be polite although I push things a bit… but not too much.

    My wife and I have talked about trying a more open-minded church, but she has friends at the Baptist church and hasn’t yet been able to pull herself away.

    The kids hate going and complain every Sunday morning. I’ve also been staying home Sunday morning as an example to the kids that church is ultimately optional.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    I dunno, Mike. You’re saying an atonement theory solves the omnipotence problem if it has a substantially subjective component, but it looks to me like atonement theory has an omnipotence problem if it has a substantitally objective component. To the degree that Christus Victor has an objective component, it looks just as problematic as Satisfaction theory. Something that’s primarily subjective, such as Christus Victor, makes sense to me as fitting into a “free will solves the problem of evil” framework (a framework which I don’t agree with, but hey, whatever). But any objective components bring up the question of why an omnipotent god needs to solve a component of a problem external to humans in a more unpleasant manner than necessary. For example, the wikipedia description of Christus Victor says

    . . .God, in order to redeem humanity, sent Christ as a “ransom” or “bait” so that the Devil, not knowing Christ couldn’t die permanently, would kill him, and thus lose all right to humanity following the Resurrection.

    It looks like this is saying that to make an objective change, God had to do something tricky, instead of just flying down to hell and punching the devil’s lights out. And such an unnecessary limitation on God’s powers seems non-omnipotent. On the other hand, if the point is that God needs to limit himself in this way, because it fits in better with the way he’s set things up for humans (and it seems like Aulen might take this route, it’s hard to tell for sure from the wikiarticle), then it seems to me like you’re solving the omnipotence problem by making the change a subjective one, akin to Moral Exemplar. (Which is why I make the qualification “to the degree” above.)

    Now I really want to find an evangelical and get him/her to explain how Satisfaction theory deals with omnipotence. . .

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    I get what you’re saying AH. I haven’t studied the history of it in depth, but I suspect that Christus Victor predates the development of a lot of the Greek-influenced ideas about omnipotence and the like. My friend Doug Pagitt actually just wrote a book about this stuff – the difference between the Greek “up and out” God (i.e. an “omni-” God who is detached from his creation) versus the Hebrew “down and in” God (i.e. a God who is intimately involved with her creation). If my suspicion is right, the God of Christus Victor – the God who participates in the drama and passion with us – seems to fit better with the Hebrew conception than with the Greek, which means I don’t think we should assume that omnipotence as we commonly think of it would have necessarily been assumed by the originators of this theory.

    The other thing that I’d say is that while Christus Victor is “objective” in that it deals with systemic evils external to us as individuals (as Aulen suggests, the “devil” in this theory should perhaps be seen not as a literal being, but as representative of systemic evils), these systems are still human realities. For instance, if we’re talking about systems of violence or economic exploitation or racism, sexism, etc. these are systemic evils that are bigger than any one person, and yet are not simply the kinds of things that could be changed without our participation either. So while they are “objective” they are still outside of God’s ability to fix with simply a wave of his hand.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Seems reasonable, Mike. So now I just need to figure out what the deal with Satisfaction Theory is. Gotta find that evangelical.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    BTW, Mike, if you’re still reading: I found yet another atonement theory, which perhaps makes the most sense of all. :)

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    AH,

    I’m in a evangelical bible-study “small group” and they definitely completely buy into the Satisfaction theory. As is often typical of that mindset, they accept blindly that certain unquestionable rules (or laws) were set-up by God that must simply be accepted. Thus as Ray Comfort said in the recent video clip presented on this site:

    “There was a legal transaction, we broke God’s law, Jesus paid our fine, that means God can dismiss our case on the day of judgment upon our repentance and faith in Christ”.

    That sums up what the evangelicals I know have told me. They don’t think about omnipotence… If they do, they just gloss it over that God has a master plan that we are unable to fully see or appreciate but He is is full control.


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