Deconstructing the Story of the Fall – part VIII John S. Spong

“Think Different – Accept Uncertainty” Part VIII: Deconstructing the Story of the Fall

The way Christians have told the Christ story, beginning with Augustine in the fourth century and continuing through Anselm in the twelfth century, is to postulate an original and perfect creation from which human life has fallen.  This original perfection was first perverted and then lost by an act of human disobedience. At least that was the way the biblical story of the Garden of Eden was interpreted. Expelled from paradise because of this act of disobedience, the only human hope was that God would somehow come to rescue us from this fall; to save us from this original sin and to redeem us from our lostness.

Given these presuppositions it should come as no surprise that Jesus was portrayed as God’s special rescue operation.  His death on the cross represented the terrible price that God had to pay to accomplish our salvation.  So on the Protestant side of Christianity we learned to say such things as, “Jesus died for my sins,” and on the Catholic side of Christianity we began to refer to the Eucharist as “the Sacrifice of the Mass,” which meant that the Mass re-enacted liturgically that moment when Jesus died for our sins. My last column in this series ended with the question: “What is wrong with these familiar concepts?”  My answer was “Everything.”  Today I seek to put theological flesh on those bare bones.

It is interesting to note how negative Christian churches have been about the work of Charles Darwin.  Enormous religious energy has been spent in attempts to blunt the insights of Darwin over the last 153 years since the publication of The Origins of Species by Natural Selection in 1859.  This negativity has given rise to a more militant fundamentalism, brought John Scopes to trial in Tennessee and spawned attempts to promote as alternatives such discredited concepts as “creation science” and “Intelligent Design.” It has captured the attention of State legislatures and even of the 43rd President of the United States.  It has motivated politicians to force upon school districts the judicious editing of public school textbooks to allow alternatives to evolution to appear to be credible. One does not see this kind of emotional reaction unless there is a deep emotional threat.

The work of Charles Darwin has clearly disturbed the security that traditional religion seeks to provide.  What, we must ask, is the nature of that threat?  Well, in its earliest phase Darwin clearly challenged the literalization of the Bible and especially of the Bibles’ creation story, rocking the claims of the fundamentalists.  That, however, does not seem enough to generate the levels of emotional hostility toward evolution that has been expressed in churches over the last century.  Indeed, very early in the dispute, fundamentalists decided that each day in the creation story could have been a billion years or so and that was enough to save their literal Bibles, or so they thought.  It was an answer that did not meet any scientific criteria of competence, but it did lower the threat and calm the fears.  The real reason for this continuing visceral hostility must be deeper than that.  It is as we shall see!

The real and unrelenting hostility of traditional Christians to Darwin rises out of the fact that Darwin has annihilated the familiar way the Jesus story has been told through the years.  If Darwin is right, and the world of science is overwhelmingly convinced that he is and his insights have been confirmed by the discovery of DNA, then the way traditional Christians have told the Christ story explodes before our eyes.  Let me examine that idea for a moment.

The traditional telling of the story, adapted from a literal reading of the opening chapters of Genesis, begins with a picture of the perfection of creation, which was both good and complete.  One cannot claim perfection for creation unless it is a finished process.  A still evolving universe could make no claim to be finished or complete. Yet that was at the heart of Darwin’s insight.  Darwin said that there never was a perfect, finished creation, but that we have been evolving for a very long time.  Darwin himself did not realize just how long that had been he only knew that it was ongoing.  At this moment new galaxies are still being formed.

There was, therefore, no such thing as a state of perfection in which human life was formed.  Human beings as part of life have been evolving since life began about 3.8 billion years ago, when in the form of a single cell it began its journey.  During hundreds of millions of years it evolved first into multi-celled complexity; then into the division between plant and animal life with primitive forms of consciousness appearing on the animate side; then into the journey of living things out of the sea and on to dry land that occurred about 600 million years ago; then into the rise of reptile dominance epitomized by the dinosaurs; then into the climactic changes that took place about 65 million years ago rendering the dinosaurs extinct and allowing for the emergence of the dominant mammals; then into the development of higher forms of consciousness, and finally into the majestic step from consciousness into self-consciousness that finally produced the recognizable form we call human life.

Depending on how one defines human life, that last step occurred anywhere from four million to 250,000 years ago.  There is absolutely no biological evidence anywhere that with human life the permanent goal of evolution has been achieved. Homo sapiens assume that, but my guess is that the dinosaurs also assumed that 65 million years ago.  Instead evolution indicates that life is a work in progress, not a finished product.  Certainly it makes no sense to claim today that human life began in an original perfection.  Look now at what this now established conclusion might mean for the traditional telling of the Christ story.

If there was no original perfection, there could be no fall from that perfection into a state we have called original sin.  So the idea of original sin is at best nothing more than pre-Darwinian mythology and at worst nothing more than post-Darwinian nonsense.  It is obviously no longer a viable way to describe the flaw we observe in human life that we call evil.  To continue the carnage, if there was no fall from perfection into sin, there could be no need for a divine rescue so the idea of seeing Jesus as the savior of the sinful, the redeemer of the fallen or the rescuer of the lost becomes nothing other than inoperable word constructs and, as a direct consequence, to call Jesus savior, redeemer or rescuer becomes untranslatable.

If there was no fall, not even metaphorically, there could be no restoration from this fall, for no one and no thing can be restored to a status that persons or things have never before enjoyed.  So Darwin first challenges and then demolishes the frame of reference in which Christians for centuries have told the Jesus story and the tragedy is that we know of no other way to tell our story.  So, if Darwin is right, Christianity, as we have understood it, is wrong and its days are therefore numbered.  This is a theological system based on a now abandoned understanding of human anthropology and good theology can never be constructed on the basis of bad anthropology.

This means that no divine figure ever came from God into this world to be the savior of a fallen humanity!  Yet this theology has shaped our worship, our understanding of the Eucharist, our hymns, our prayers and our sermons, to say nothing of our creedal understandings of both God and Jesus for centuries.  When we understand the depth of the Darwinian challenge, perhaps we will then begin to understand why fundamentalists cling so passionately to their outdated concepts and even seek to impose them on everyone else as the only way for their point of view to survive.  It also helps us to understand why mainline churches are in a statistical freefall.  They know that the old literalism no longer works, but they do not know how to replace it, so they drift without a message and they are no longer able to bind people out of loyalty to their institutional forms. Separating oneself from religion is now relatively easy.

Does that mean that we are witnessing the end of Christianity?  I suspect it does, if by Christianity we mean the traditional way of telling the Christian story.  The question we need to ask, and it is a deeply radical question coming at us from many angles, is this: Is the traditional way of telling the Christ story the only way to tell that story?  Is the only way to talk about God the theistic way, that is, to define God as a supernatural being who dwells somewhere external to this world and who can and will invade the world to come to our aid or to answer our prayers?  Is the only way to speak of Christ something that involves us in seeing him as the incarnation of this theistic deity, as one who, in the words of Charles Wesley’s Christmas hymn, was a divine being simply “veiled in flesh?”

The fact is that only inside these dated categories, can we still talk about being “saved,” about salvation, about meaningful worship, about achieving forgiveness or even about life after death.  Once we pull the central piece from this carefully constructed puzzle, is there anything left?  Does not the whole religious system of the past 2000 or so years come apart, shattering like a piece of precious glass into a million shards, never to be reassembled again?  To be able to think differently about the Christian faith or to accept uncertainty in the presence of this kind of challenge does not mean merely nibbling around the edges of our religious system.

It does not mean simply doing a facelift on the corpse of traditional Christian thinking.  It calls us, rather, to a radical re-visioning of our faith story.  It requires that we find a new entry point.  It means that we become willing to give up everything we have ever known in order to move to a place where there are no road maps or road signs and we still have the responsibility of putting one foot in front of the other as we are forced to step into the cloud of unknowing.  Many are no longer willing to risk this journey. They are the new fundamentalists. The pain of this transition is too intense, but the alternative is little more than a life of deception and illusion.  Theological honesty requires that we admit that we have arrived at the status of the total bankruptcy of our traditional Christian symbols.  What do we do now?

We first must recognize that good theology can never be built on the basis of bad anthropology.  So we must begin by understanding what it means to be human.  We will pick up this thread and see where it leads us when this series resumes.

~John Shelby Spong


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