Being Drawn Toward the Future (RJS)

Daniel Harrell wraps up his book, Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, with a reflection and a perspective that I don’t think we consider seriously enough.

Christians have always believed all truth to be God’s truth, implying that science and faith, despite differences when it comes to explaining why, nevertheless should agree in regard to what. … Science matters whether we care about it or not. And because science matters, it warrants theological reflection. (p. 137)

Because science matters, it warrants theological reflection.

The point isn’t that science is an objective truth, that theology must conform or be lost in the dust of time. Rather the point is (1) that all truth is God’s truth and thus “as reliable witnesses of nature, we can only become more reliable witnesses to God.” And (2) for Christians at least, theology is the queen of the sciences … that is, it is the lens through which we interpret everything else. Because science matters it warrants theological reflection.  The biblical narrative is the source and ground of this theological reflection because it records God’s interaction and relationship with his creation.

The final two chapters of Nature’s Witness (Sunday Lunch and Peach Pie in the Sky) walk through some of these theological reflections which center on death (biological and human), new creation, and the nature of time.   The biggest issue is death. Science tells us that death is a necessary and natural part of the world. We can wonder a bit about the fate of mankind, but so far as plants, animals, and insects are concerned it seems an intentional and necessary part of creation.  It is not that God had to use death in creation – but that he did use death in creation. Somehow, then, it must be and have always been part of his plan.

Free will, free process, and the relational nature of God.A free-process creation results in a free-willed people.” (p. 105)  This doesn’t tie God’s hands, he doesn’t just sit back an unfolding story. He interacts in relationship with his creation.

Frankly, there are too many places in the Bible where God defies creaturely freedom to suggest that his hands are ever tied. However, in most of those places, God’s defiance of creaturely freedom is in response to human abuses of freedom, such as when disease, weather, or earthquakes are employed as agents of divine judgment (e.g., Exod 9:3; 1 Kgs 17:1; Isa 29:6). (p. 106)

Ultimately God’s will will be done … he is a competent creator. It is not unreasonable to understand God as limiting his omnipotence for the good of his creation.  The incarnation is but one such example – Jesus was not omniscient, omnipresent, or omnipotent between his birth and death. This was a voluntary self-limiting act.

The flourishing of creation requires renewal – and in our present world renewal requires death and the recycling of matter and genetic diversity (perhaps we should say information).

Life on this planet was never eternal. Aging and progress are not the result of the fall. The creatures were told to be fruitful and multiply, Adam and Eve were told to be fruitful and multiply. I’ve quoted Calvin before on this issue – but even Calvin did not think life on earth would have been eternal, rather Calvin thought that Adam and Eve would have moved to the next stage without the pain of disease, decay, and death.  Harrell sums up like this:

Even Jesus aged. If Adam’s life on earth had been a sin-free paradise, it still could not have been eternal. Physics as we understand it could not allow earth to go on indefinitely. If we understand physics rightly, then God never intended earth to go on indefinitely either (since God is the author of physics). Eternal life is not about living forever on this planet. It’s about a relationship with God that transcends this world into new creation. (p. 113)

What then is our hope?  Harrell suggests that rather than viewing creation as something good that went bad with a recovery plan to follow we should look at the Christian story and God’s creative design from Revelation backwards. God is pulling creation toward the age to come in accord with his perfect plan.

It’s as if redemption was the purpose from the beginning. It’s as if creation is being pulled, called toward that day when all things will become radically new in Christ. If perfection never was and is “not-yet,” the appearance of evil and suffering (including the suffering and struggle depicted by Darwinian science) is no longer inconceivable. That the serpent got into the garden may suggest that everything was not yet right with the world, even before everything went wrong. (p. 118)

Harrell also considers the idea that God is outside of time and unbound by time. Time is intrinsic to God’s good creation – but it is a part of the creation, it does not transcend creation. Evolution is a part of God’s creation – but it is not the means by which the completion of God’s good creation will occur.  The consummation in new creation will have continuity with creation as we know it, but will also step outside of and transcend the limitations of our present creation in ways we can not begin to see but dimly. New creation, no death, decay, or giving in marriage (i.e. procreation) points us to something outside of the physics we know in our creation.

Evolution has a forward-facing orientation, propelled by the bang of energy that blasts it into motion from the beginning. However, theology that pairs with evolution works better, not by likewise looking for its energy from the past but by fulfilling its promises with energy from a definite future. … The evil experienced does not mar perfection but rather is being swallowed up in the victory that God has already won since the foundation of the world (1 Cor 15:54; Rev 13:8). This is why hope in God cannot disappoint (Rom 5:5). (p. 126)

Once again relationship is the key. God is intrinsically relational and creation is an outpouring of that relationship. Harrell puts it like this:

In the end it is my relationship to God through Christ, sustained and applied by the Holy Spirit, that is the real guarantor of my continuity from this life into the next. The Trinity, which created as an outpouring of its self-giving generosity, draws all creation back into themselves as an ingathering of its generosity. The movement is one of relationship, freedom that leads to embrace to the ever-giving and ever-beckoning power of sacrificial love. God’s love gives and gives up for the sake of creation and redemption. (p. 126)

Redirected Focus. The way Harrell redirects the focus of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation is worth some serious consideration. Although it may force us to reshape some of our thinking – and the perspective we take on God’s creation, it is biblical. Being drawn toward the future rather than wandering along from the past, God’s plan takes shape. Teleology is, perhaps, only apparent with hindsight from our limited temporal view. The fall was real – there was a real breaking of relationship with the God of all creation. Jesus came to redeem mankind, but he did not come to correct a plan gone awry. He is “the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.” (Rev 13:8)

What do you think?

Does the idea of viewing creation from Revelation backwards make sense?

Does the Bible tell us that creation was perfect? Or was it just “good.” Is there a difference?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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  • J.L. Schafer

    I like this a lot. From the way I hear the gospel preached in certain circles, people seem to think that the Garden of Eden was the ultimate paradise and we are moving toward a restoration of it. But that is not the picture presented by the whole of Scripture, nor does it help us to make sense of the world we live in today. This presentation brings together in a holistic way a lot of what I’ve been thinking in disconnected bits and pieces.

    Thanks for a great article.

  • RJS

    J.L.,

    I was listening to the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus on my commute this morning … and thinking about how I would view it differently from the perspective of a people (and ultimately a world) being drawn forward into God’s future rather than a historical account told from the perspective of human time. I think it can make a huge difference in the nuance of how we understand God’s mission in his creation.

  • Rick

    RJS- “I would view it differently from the perspective of a people (and ultimately a world) being drawn forward into God’s future rather than a historical account told from the perspective of human time.”

    But does it have to be an either/or, rather than a both/and? Scripture does point to the future, but is constantly reminding the listener/reader of what happened in the past.

  • RJS

    Rick,

    I am not sure that this is an either/or or both/and issue, at least the way I am thinking about it. Rather the narrative that makes sense of what has happened (and I do think that the Christian story is rooted in history) is best understood from the perspective of God’s future.

    So I’ll put one example up for consideration. The end of Genesis is the story of Joseph. In this story Joseph tells his brothers that what they intended for evil God intended for good, to save them from the famine in the land. But why was there a famine in the first place? As far as we can see God didn’t send the famine to punish anyone, it just was. If we look at this from the perspective of God’s future was the intent to save from famine or to shape a people?

    While I think we have to look at the historical accounts in the Pentateuch through the literary conventions of their day (which means not what we consider historical reporting) I also think it is rooted in the historical forming of God’s people. This makes more sense to me as being drawn toward the future.

  • Rick

    RJS-

    “The fall was real – there was a real breaking of relationship with the God of all creation. Jesus came to redeem mankind, but he did not come to correct a plan gone awry.”

    So the new heavens and new Earth are not necessarily “new” (compared to the old), but rather just part of a further developed state of creation? The issue was not to “fix” creation, but to allow our inclusion in his plan for it (by restoring relationship)?

  • RJS

    Rick,

    A bit further up in the post I tried to get at some of this – and I think Harrell deals with it fairly well in the book. I only have an overview. (See about five paragraphs up from the bottom … beginning with “Harrell also considers…”)

    New heaven and new earth are new – something God does explicitly. It is not simply a further developed state of the present creation. But I think it does come out of his mission in this creation.

    So I would ask another question – was God surprised by the Fall?

    I think the answer has to be no, and I think that God could have created a world where the Fall was not possible … if that had been his good plan. Therefore the Fall had to be part of the plan for reasons we may never fully understand in this life. It may be that God’s good plan requires true freedom on the part of the creature, and this will inevitably lead to a fall requiring redemption.

  • Marshall

    If individuals can refuse salvation despite God’s desire, as I and many believe, then apparently Creation as a whole could likewise refuse salvation. God’s will to be done might be to do creation a little differently next time. Fiddle with the knobs a bit.

  • RJS

    Marshall,

    Well, I don’t agree with your perspective. It is something like the apparent do-over of the Noah narrative taken to an extreme. But I don’t think the point of the Noah narrative is a do-over … if we look backwards.

  • Marshall

    No I agree, the Noah narrative is more about the survival of the remnant. God threatened total destruction but in the event he was merciful (to the remnant), as always (so far). But I don’t see how you can have both free will and a guaranteed happy ending.

  • RJS

    Marshall,

    I am not convinced there is a happy ending for every individual – I think judgment is a real part of the picture.

    But on a larger scale – this is why I like Harrell’s chess example of the 8 year old and the grand master. The eight year old has true freedom of choice in his/her moves, but the outcome is not in doubt. Creation is far more complicated than Chess, but God is greater still.

  • Marshall

    I don’t think much of the chidren’s freedom; they have moves, but as you say it is futile for them to have intentions.

    I agree God could be capable of completely constraining or anticipating creation, but that doesn’t seem compatible with an evolutionary view. And not very relational.

  • RJS

    Marshall,

    Do you have children? If so, what does it mean to have a relationship with a young child?

    This isn’t a perfect analogy (none are) but I think it worth some thought.

    I had a real relationship with my children when they were young. They had intentions and will. But I knew more than them, could anticipate their moves, and tailored my responses to their moves. It was not a futile existence for them (I hope). It isn’t a matter of completely constraining or anticipating.

    Do you think a relational view of God’s interaction with the world must involve equality between created and creator?

  • Bev Mitchell

    To RJS May 3, 2013

    It sounds like these two chapters are a good restatement of what a number of relational theologies are saying in various ways. Relational theologies are offering very encouraging ways to help bring science and Christian faith on parallel tracks. They don’t have to converge because they are asking fundamentally different questions about purpose. Their proximate answers can be similar, even if they don’t agree on the ultimate significance of it all. Each could reach a point where they share the data and respect each others interpretation – with great benefits for all.

    To give a personal spin on what Harrell seems to be saying:
    Did everything go wrong from the beginning? Or is everything being guided toward the kind of existence we see modelled in the risen Lord, and, to a lesser, preliminary extent, in the possibility of living a Spirit-filled life? Toward the theosis that our EO brothers and sisters speak about. Is it possible that the universe is unfolding (emerging) under the direction of that same Spirit, but against serious spiritual opposition? Creation, or the divine making possible of the universe, could be seen as God at work against spiritual opposition. “Let there be light” may be a cosmic battle cry. Christian faith – based as it is on repentance and forgiveness made possible by Christ’s sacrifice, his resurrection and the giving of the Spirit – is what keeps this view from descending into dualism. We believe, through the Spirit-inspired reading of Spirit-inspired Scripture that God’s love will prevail, even as he gives the universe, including all life, the freedom to be and become. Therein lies the mystery revealed through faith.

  • Marshall

    Sorry for the delay here. I much appreciate your engagement.

    Yes I have two grown sons. In your analogy, the grandmaster is no doubt enjoying himself observing the child’s thought process more than the challenge of the game per se, but his real satisfaction, like the satisfaction of any good teacher or parent, comes when the grown child’s thought gets ahead of (or on a plane with) of the master’s and they can have a real game. Which doesn’t always happen. Likewise my sons. I don’t make choices for them any more, and I’m not always entirely happy with the choices they have made. They are doing OK, but fact is you never know.

    Certainly there are relationships that don’t involve equality, such as a master-slave relationship. I have a dog, whose life I pretty much dominate, but while nature made her my slave, I try to make her my friend: I try to appreciate her desires and give her what she wants, but of course life goes according to my schedule when I want it to. OTOH, I had another dog … we live on acreage in the country and the dog can run free most of the day … he roamed some and several times I had to bring him home from this or that neighbor. One time he left and stayed gone. Maybe he got killed, but he was a rescue dog and for various reasons had difficulty with life here, and I always liked to think he made a decision for his life. He was good at finding friends, and maybe he hooked up with one of the traveling people who come through here. I miss him, but live or die he took his free will in hand and I wish him well of it.

    The point is, I could have kept Cisco kenneled up, but I chose to give him freedom that necessarily included the freedom to leave. I think that was the righteous thing to do, but the point is that it was a choice for me: I couldn’t keep him restrained and allow him to choose his own life. Maybe the world is a kennel where God lovingly keeps us safe, but it doesn’t LOOK like it and I prefer to think that God won’t be entirely satisfied until we can and wish to speak with him on something like terms of moral equality. Which is not yet, clearly.

    Just my opinion on a secondary point and other opinions are clearly reasonable. One just does one’s best, inside the kennel or out of it.

  • John M.

    I’ve said for years that we are not going back to the Garden. We are moving forward to the New Creation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Marshall-Pease/1324310862 Marshall Pease

    I posted this earlier, but it seems to have been lost.

    Yes I have two grown sons. In your analogy, the grandmaster is no doubt enjoying himself observing the child’s thought process more than the challenge of the game per se, but his real satisfaction, like the satisfaction of any good teacher or parent, comes if and when the grown child’s thought gets ahead of (or on a plane with) of the master’s and they can have a real game. Likewise my sons. I don’t make choices for them any more, and I’m not always entirely happy with the choices they have made. They are doing OK, but fact is you never know. Some don’t.

    Certainly there are relationships that don’t involve equality, such as a master-slave relationship. I have a dog, whose life I pretty much dominate, but while nature made her my slave, I try to make her my friend: I try to appreciate her desires and give her what she wants, but of course her life goes according to my schedule when I want it to. OTOH, I had another dog … we live on acreage in the country and the dog can run free most of the day … he roamed some and several times I had to bring him home from this or that neighbor. One time he left and stayed gone. Maybe he got killed, but he was a rescue dog and for various reasons had difficulty with life here, and I always liked to think he made a decision for his life. He was good at finding friends, and maybe he hooked up with one of the traveling people who come through here. I miss him, but live or die he took his free will in hand and I wish him well of it.

    The point is, I could have kept Cisco kenneled up, but I chose to give him freedom that necessarily included the freedom to leave. I think that was the righteous thing to do, but the point is that it was a choice for me: I couldn’t keep him restrained and allow him to choose his own life. Maybe the world is a kennel where God lovingly keeps us safe, but it doesn’t LOOK like it and I prefer to think that God won’t be entirely satisfied until we can and wish to speak with him on something like terms of moral equality. Which is not yet, clearly.

    Just my opinion on a secondary point and other opinions are clearly reasonable. Inside or outside the kennel, one just does one’s best.

  • http://thetension.info/ Stephen Doxsee

    Very interesting post RJS. Thanks for sharing it. I tended to think of “redemption” more as “buying back, restoring” but I think it can also mean “setting free, rescuing”. The latter definition makes a lot of sense if God it was always his intent and hope to set creation free from its bondage to corruption and subjection to futility.
    I’m still trying to work through what “the curse” is (resulting from “the Fall”). My gut is that the Fall is more than just “a broken relationship with God”…as it speaks of physical hardship. Could it be that Adam and Eve where to live as long as they ate from the tree of life…but when removed from it…they would die…as designed?
    I’m in discussion with a couple of folks on my blog who believe that evolution and Genesis are NOT compatible–including the challenge of accepting death before the Fall. This has been helpful. Thx


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