Evolution, Death, Adam, Wright (RJS)

Evolution, Death, Adam, Wright (RJS) January 23, 2014

Back in July I put up a post Adam, Adam, Adam, Wright that discussed a range of views on the topic of Adam. In the post I quoted from an interview between Andrew Wilson and N.T. Wright where the question of Adam came up. Recently I happened on another interview, this one when Justin Brierley put listener questions to Wright on his (Justin’s) radio show Unbelievable. The link to the show: NT Wright on Paul, Hell, Satan, Creation, Adam, Eve & more – Unbelievable? – 01 November 2013. There are many great bits in this show (and indeed on many of the shows available through the audio feed – I’ve been listening to a selection on my commute the last few weeks).  Three specific points, however, are especially pertinent and worth a post each. The first is a question of evolution, which moves into a question of Adam.

At about 26:45 in the show Justin Brierley poses a couple of questions from readers about creation and fall, especially the relationship of evolution and Christian faith.  Perhaps thrust of the questions are best summarized by this: Why would a God whose loving character is revealed in Jesus create us through a process of suffering and death, which evolution evidently is?” What are we to make of it all?

Wright’s answer starts at about 28:00

(28:05-31:25) Obviously these are good and big and important questions and I am a fan of the BioLogos foundation. … Yeah, I think the critical thing is this, and this is just a little bit complicated, but we just have to hold onto our chairs and make sure that we can get through it.

The philosophical climate of the last two or three hundred years in the Western world has been basically Epicurean. And the Epicureans believed that if the gods existed they were a long way away, and so that the world is not a place where any god or gods intervene. The world does its own thing, moves on its own terms and that when we die we just disappear into nothingness and that’s the way it is. The original Epicureans in the ancient world said this in order to avoid the idea of an angry god who is going to come and get you, no it’s not like that, they’re a long way away, they don’t care. And so the world is just rumbling on. So actually the early evolutionists were the ancient Epicureans. If you look at Lucretius from the first century BC, he is basically a pre-Darwin Darwinian.

Now the problem is that the facts clearly, and I want to talk about facts, are on the side of saying that the way we got to be as we are was a long slow process.  Now, if you’re studying that long slow process, but you’ve already got an Epicurean worldview, you will think of that long slow process as something from which God is utterly absent. And so they took these facts: “ah this actually proves Epicureanism or deism, an absent God.” …

Over against that it seems to me, the Christian has to hang onto a biblical vision which is of a God who is both other than the world and strangely involved in the world. And the strange involvement of God in the world is precisely a loving involvement, which means that it isn’t simply a matter of God making a machine. It’s a matter of God’s generosity, of God letting be: Let there be light, let there be whales, let there be trees, humans, whatever. And when God let’s there be, there is a sense of God saying “Get on with it guys. I want you to be autonomous in that sense, not that you’re outside my world, not that you’re outside my love, but that I want you to be real creatures and not just puppets.” And so, all the sorts of questions we have rise out of that rather complicated but very important view of creation. The thing to hold on to is the generous love of God, that’s where it all comes down to.

Justin broke in at this point to frame the question a little differently, but before moving on, this segment is worth a comment or two.  I’ve tended to fog over whenever Tom Wright starts talking (or writing) about ancient philosophical schools and how they play out in our world today. It often seems something of a stretch (perhaps because I, like many others, don’t know all that much about these ancient schools).  His comments here though make sense, even with my limited background. I have read Lucretius The Nature of Things, although it’s been awhile. How could a chemist not be interested in the first atomic description of nature?

If one starts with the view that the action of God is separate from natural process, then naturally the long slow process of evolutionary and cosmic history is “something from which God is utterly absent.” If one is looks for that which is of God vs that which is not, then every new discovery pushes God further away and shrinks His significance. The Christian response should not be agreement with the notion that natural process, either slow or fast, indicates an absence of God, but that God and God’s purposes are in the natural processes.

And back to Justin’s reshaped question: … but evolution operates on the mechanism of death to drive it forward. Tom comes to this question of death directly, which leads him to Adam.

(31:37-33:49) But I think it’s a curious thing. In the animal world, death is as well known as it is in the human world and animals have ways of coping when one of their tribe dies. You know, unless you have road-kill you basically don’t see dead animals around. They know that there is a time to go and lie down they know, and I think elephants have graveyards and so on. And it’s very interesting that there’s a sense that the animal world, like the world of trees and plants -there’s an autumn, there’s a winter, there is a spring – and there’s a sense that yes, this is what we do, this is how it is.

What happens with Genesis 3, and I do think there is a historical correlate. OK, Genesis one, two, and three is wonderful picture language, but I do think there was a primal pair in a world of emerging hominids, that’s the way I read that. … But it seems to me that just as God called Abraham and Sarah out of a welter of wandering nations and said I’ve got a special purpose for you, the way that I see it is that God called one pair of hominids and said “OK, this place is a bit chaotic, you and I together, we’re going to have a project. We’re going to plant this garden and we’re going to go out from here and this is how it’s going to be.” So when Cain goes off he founds a city. Excuse me, who else is in the city? … And ancient Jewish readers knew this perfectly well, they knew that this was not the first ever humans or anything like them.

But it’s very interesting that Cain’s instinct is to plant, to found a city, because that’s deep in our DNA is to found community. That God wants this primal pair to look after the garden and make it a place of community. The problem right from the beginning is that we split apart the city and the garden and so it ends with the tower of Babel in Genesis 11, which is Babylon, and so to repair that God calls a nomad namely Abraham. Do you see how it works? And all of this comes together.

This rambles a bit – the nature of an interview response rather than a carefully worked essay – but there are key points. Wright appears to be saying that animal death, like plant death, is a part of the natural world. That this death would be part of the evolutionary process shouldn’t concern us. And it is important to recall that the death that drives evolution was no different in the deep past than it is today. Most animals went about their business and lived out their lives just as they do today.

The story of the Garden in Genesis two and three focuses on God calling his people out in the world. It is, according to Wright, figurative with a  historical correlate. God called one pair of hominids to form his people. And they failed to be faithful. God called Noah and his family, and we see failure again. Then God calls Abraham and Sarah to establish his people and we move into the narrative of the rest of the Old Testament leading up to the Gospel proclamation of the New Testament.

How would you answer the question about death in the animal world?

What do you think of Wright’s sketch of Adam and Eve?

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

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